New Orleans buried one of her favorite sons last week. Sports journalism icon Bernard "Buddy D" Diliberto Jr., 73, died of a heart attack on Jan. 7. Since then, his life and legacy have been the talk of New Orleans Saints fans everywhere. In fact, Diliberto's death made news as far away as Canada. On a clear winter night, the powerful signal of WWL 870 AM could reach 40 states and along the Canadian border, affording listeners the unique experience of hearing Buddy D give voice to the hopes and frustrations of Saints fans across America. After his death, the Canadian Press wire service ran a story eulogizing Diliberto as "a New Orleans sports commentator who originated the tradition of fans wearing bags on their heads to lament losing seasons."
A rare sportswriter whose career spanned more than half a century in radio, television and print (including a stint as a Gambit sports columnist), Diliberto pioneered new ways to illustrate the angst of Saints fans whose team has only won one playoff game in its 38-year history. Buddy begat the "bagheads" as a TV sports commentator in 1980 -- after delivering other on-air commentaries during the Saints 1-15 season in front of funeral homes and cemeteries.
Many other colorful stories will forever endear Buddy to New Orleans, a city that treasures true character. But of all the remembrances we have heard since his passing, none has touched on a subject he treated very seriously -- race relations. "If it hadn't been for sports, this town would still be thinking like it thought before the Civil War," Diliberto told writer Don Lee Keith in an interview for a Gambit cover story published on July 26, 1994.
Diliberto was a witness to history, and he learned from its changes. He already was a veteran Times-Picayune sportswriter in 1966 when the National Football League awarded its 16th NFL franchise to New Orleans, amid the tensions emanating from civil rights struggles. The Saints, he often said later, gave blacks and whites valuable common ground. It was one point (among many) he made again recently, while commenting on the ongoing negotiations between the Saints and the state.
In fact, Buddy D thought about matters of race and sports for most of his life. In the 1994 Gambit profile, he recalled growing up in segregated New Orleans and not understanding why blacks and whites were not allowed to compete in the boxing ring, or why Louisiana State Uuniversity's football team could not play teams with outstanding black athletes. "I asked why, but no matter who I put the question to, I never got an answer, not a real answer," he said. "Later, when I was grown up, there was still no real answer, but the question was being asked more and more, by more and more persons. And the results, while slow in coming, were at least in sight."
He also remembered how local businessman Dave Dixon landed the old American Football League's All-Star game for New Orleans as part of his crusade to attract a pro football team. But, on Jan. 11, 1965, black pro stars boycotted the game to protest racial inequities in the city. Those inequalities represented an old mind-set that has since been replaced, Buddy said. "Sports in this town have made a lot of people color-blind," he said. And, he intimated, some white fans found their first black heroes in the Superdome, playing for the Saints. "I'm convinced that people in general are likely to display more emotion over sports than anything else in life," he said. "When those emotions came to the forefront here in New Orleans, with a mixture of black and white athletes playing together, it turned out whites loved (black Pro Bowl linebacker) Rickey Jackson as much as a white center. I mean really loved him. He was their guy, and that emotion transcended color lines."
Russell L. Stockard, a pioneering African-American sportswriter in Louisiana during the 1950s and '60s, served with Diliberto on a Sugar Bowl awards committee. "Buddy was willing to talk about it (race), and that was something that was not common in the South back then, and I still don't think it is popular to talk about today," says Stockard, now an adjunct professor of geography at Southern University. "He was very honest and very forthright. I don't think Buddy had one hypocritical bone in his body." As we mourn the loss of Buddy D, we think a fitting tribute to his legacy would be a panel discussion on race and sports in New Orleans, featuring local sportswriters and Saints players, past and present. Some of his favorite Saints could be invited to participate, including Archie Manning, Danny Abramowicz and Rickey Jackson. WWL Radio could broadcast the forum in Buddy D's old time slot -- preferably on a clear winter night, so they can hear Buddy D's name one more time in Canada.