For some, the term “home” refers to where they were born and raised, or perhaps where they attended school. For others, home refers to that place where one truly experienced life’s special moments, where lifelong friendships were made and where one always felt comfortable no matter the circumstances. For me, the great City of New Orleans qualifies for the latter — and boy, was it wonderful to come home recently!
It was just over a year ago that I announced my decision to return to the sports world as CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, the official alumni organization for professional basketball. While excited about the career opportunity, the resulting need for my family and me to relocate from the city we had called home for a dozen years was exceptionally difficult. I had often said that our family had been truly graced because, while we moved to New Orleans in 2000 for a great job (with the Saints), something special happened along the way as we fell totally in love with a city and its incredible people.
Along the way, we shared in the highs and lows of all the Crescent City had to offer, including the Saints first-ever playoff win (who will ever forget “Hakim Dropped the Ball … There is a God After All”) to an improbable 2006 election night celebration to the horror of watching our beloved city go under water because of the negligence of those whose responsibility it was to ensure our safety. We raised five beautiful children — all whom still religiously wear Black and Gold each Sunday — and developed friendships that will last forever. Yes, New Orleans was, is, and always will be our beloved adopted home!
I have greatly enjoyed my new position with the NBRPA because I have the good fortune to work with some of the greatest professional athletes in the world and to fulfill the stated mission of helping these athletes transition from the hardwood to life after sports. For many, this is an extremely difficult transition, and it is rewarding to play a small role in helping someone get back on his feet and realize his dreams.
But over the past year, I also came to this realization: There is truly no place like New Orleans. Maybe it’s the beauty of St. Charles Avenue or the fact there are fun-filled festivals every weekend, or perhaps the chance to have authentic New Orleans dressed po-boys and beignets at virtually any time of day. Maybe it is the shared experiences we have all lived through, especially since that fateful day in late August 2005 when all of us wondered if we would ever be able to see the homes and friends we had left behind just days earlier.
But what I believe makes New Orleans the best place on this earth is the sincerity, passion and resiliency of its people. Nowhere else could a city, almost completely wiped out, be back on its feet seven years later with an unparalleled determination and zeal for greatness. This is all a testament to the spirit and strength of New Orleanians and to their unyielding zest to ensure that the city’s future is marked with greatness and prosperity.
As I saw firsthand, it is sometimes easy to get distracted and discouraged by the hardship of post-Katrina daily life. Yet I also learned that it only takes a short absence from this incredible place to realize what a magical and special venue New Orleans is!
It was truly an honor to be back home recently for our Legends World Sports Conference with the NBRPA. My family and I were thrilled to show nearly 300 guests — including more than 125 basketball legends — the charm and beauty of America’s most unique city. During the weekend, we helped rebuild a playground in the Lower 9th Ward alongside the NBA and National Basketball Players Association. Our organization put on a youth clinic in Central City, visited schools and hospitals throughout the area and announced a legacy college scholarship program honoring the memory of my father and benefitting New Orleans youth. Equally exciting, we will be back next year for more youth clinics as well as in 2014 when the NBA’s All-Star Weekend again returns to the city which hosted it so successfully just a few short years ago.
My wife Susan and our entire family extend our heartfelt thanks for giving us a chance to become New Orleanians, and for so warmly embracing us during our time in the city. It was my honor to serve you while on the City Council at a truly special time in New Orleans history, an experience for which I will be forever grateful.
There will hopefully come a day when we permanently return to New Orleans. But whenever we come back to visit, as we did last weekend with our new family in the basketball world, we are truly at home — and I can tell you that home has never felt so good!
— Arnie D. Fielkow is the CEO of the Chicago-based National Basketball Retired Players Association, and the former President of the New Orleans City Council and Executive VP of the New Orleans Saints.