Other than welcoming the passengers on board and telling them the cruising altitude and the weather, the pilot of Northwest Orient's flight 311 from Washington to Pittsburgh said nothing at all until the plane began to circle its destination, and then he said nothingabout the steel mills that line the banks of the Monongahela River or the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny where the two meet to form the Ohio. No, what the pilot said was, "On yourright is Three Rivers Stadium, home of the undefeatable Steelers."

It is no longer The Smoky City, a city so polluted by the soot and the ash that spewed from the mills that a man wearing a white shirt to work at 8 in the morning would be wearing a gray shirt by noon. In fact, there is only one mill left within the city boundary and downtown's Golden Triangle is so clean and striking that at twilight the view of it from across the Monongahela on Mount Washington is enough to make a travelogue photographer weep with joy. Pittsburgh's post World War II "Renaissance," effected by Mayor David Lawrence and Richard Mellon, cleansed that title.

This is not to suggest that Pittsburgh doesn't have problems. It has slums and potholes the size of desks and insufficient mass transit. But it no longer has smoke the thickness of brick.

Really, it is no longer even The Steel City, Chicago is. You can make sure the case -- certainly most pop sociological sports features do -- that this is simply a tough-guy, shot-and-a-beer town, a shooter of bar whiskey and an Iron City chaser, that you don't have to open an overcoat too far to see a blue collar underneath. Like Chicago, hog butcher to the world, called by Carl Sandbury "city of the Big Shoulders," Pittsburgh was settled by fleshy men of broad backs and ethnic diversity. Slays, Poles, Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, Serbs, blacks, in naturally isolated pockets formed by rivers and hills, a topography not unlike that of San Francisco. Because of the natural isolation there wasn't the massive suburban flight that characterized Eastern cities in the '50s and '60s.

It is said that 75 percent of all Pittsburghers can trace their roots here back for three generations. People stay. Probably 50 percent of those people in Los Angeles Houston and Dallas cannot trace their roots there back one generation; some neighborhoods in Washington are so transient that people can hardly trace their roots back three months. All this gives Pittsburgh a sense of permanence and stability, so its vestigal image is easily perpetuated.

Fifteen years ago, the mill workers -- "the hunkies" -- represented 35 percent of the population. Now, with industrial diversification and the rise of Pittsburgh to status as the nation's third-largest corporate city, headquarters of such Fortune 500 corporations as Gulf Oil, U.S. Steel, Alcoa, Westinghouse Electric and Rockwell International, the hunkies count for only 15 percent.

At core it may be a hard-hat town, byr Jonas Salk discovered the cure for polio at the University of Pittsburgh, Andre Previn conducts the Pittsbugh Symphony Orchestra there is a Civic Light Opera and an inner-city mall, Station Square, that may become the East's answer to Ghirardelli Square. There are a few cobblestone streets downtown and a trolley, and just recently Frank Deford, writing in Sports Illustrated, called Pittsburgh "a heterosexual San Francisco."

But most of all what Pittsburgh is now, in the eyes of the nation and in its own psychic mirror, is The City of Champions. Not since 1969 with the Mets and Jets -- and never before that -- has a city produced a World Series and a Super Bowl champion in the same year. Pitts's Panthers won the national football championship in 1976 and went 11-1 this year Both Pitt and Duquesne have fine basketball squads, and last week, for the first time in their history, hockey's Pittsburgh Penguins went into first place in their division, briefly though it was, and over Montreal no less. Sports, the glue that supposedly holds this city together, has never been so invigorating as it is now.

So important is sports to the psyche of Pittsburghers that on the day after the Steelers beat Houston in the AFC championship game, The Pittsburgh Press devoted the entire top half of its front page to the story. Articles about the continuing crises in Iran and Afghanistan were played below the fold.

"Sports dominate the minds of this city so much, it's almost scary," said Jim O'Brien, a Press sports reporter who was born and raised here and returned last spring after spending 10 years in New York City. "All I can tell you is that in July I woke up one morning and turned on a radio sports call-in show, and before breakfast I heard people calling in asking about the Steelers. In July, Before breakfast. Where else do they do that?"

"On Monday mornings you can find a president of a Fortune 500 company, a regular salesman and a maintenance man in front of the U.S. Steel building talking football, and from the way they were talking there would be no way in the world to distinguish their stations in life." -- Andy Staursky, public relations U.S. Steel

Art Rooney, the 79-year-old owner of the Steelers and the only man in the world who talks exactly the same way with or without a cigar in his mouth, is sitting in his office at Three Rivers surrounded by pictures of some of his favorite people: Bobby Lane, Terry Bradshaw, Billy Conn, Byron White, Pope John Paul II.

If this is a sports town first, it is a football town foremost, and Art Rooney is Pittsburgh football. Everyone calls him Mr. Rooney. Everyone loves him. He has gone from running booze and making book in Northside to being Pittsburgh's uncanonized saint. He appears at more funerals and hospitals than any man in town without a clerical collar. He has never lived anywhere else. Never will.

"People ask me what's best about Pittsburgh," he says. "Number one it's the people. It's what we have that's best of all. You ask someone where some street is, he won't just tell you -- he'll take you there. I don't know, maybe we're not as busy as other people; I think it's because there are so many natives, and they're so friendly."

He is wearing very thick glasses, so thick that behind them, his eyes appear only as slits between folds as big as hunks of bread.

He leans forward.

"A dyed-in-the-wool Pittsburgher was always proud of this place. You never met a guy from Pittsburgh who hesitated to tell you so. Let me tell you something. I can tell a Pittsburgher by his handshake. By the warmth, I an do it most all the time, unless he's only been here six months. Any more and I can tell."

He is asked if Pittsburghers have been winning for so many years now that they are beginning to take it in stride. The question amuses him.

"Eight years ago we came into this park and they never stopped yelling all year long, win or lose. My feeling this year was that they weren't as enthusiastic. Not in the playoffs, mind you, but the regular season. Still, I admit I was surprised before the Miami game. They had a TV crew outside and they interviewed 10 to 12 people. The younger ones said, Aw, it's dull, they win all the time.' Not the older ones. The older ones saw us lose so long they hope we win forever."

"The way some of these guys talk about the City of Champions you'd think they were the ones out there winning all the games. I hear people tell me that they are getting so tired of the bragging -- they wish they'd go back to losing." -- John DeFazio Steelworkers Union

There are four of them sitting around a table in the 2001 disco in Bridgeville. Chuck Puskar, who sells insurance; Johnny Brown, who manages shopping centers; Ray Mansfield, who played center on the Steelers' first Super Bowl team, and Myron Cope, Pittsburgh's answer to Howard Cosell, a man incapable of making an "ow" sound so he pronounces "downtown" as "donton," the way a true Pittsburgher does. A true Pittsburgher pronounces "this" as "dis" and "Steelers" as "Stillrz." Maybe pronounce is a bad term. A true Pittsburgher doesn't pronounce words, be bites them. A true Pittsburgher doesn't move his mouth up and down, but side to side. Myron Cope's voice is a rockslide.

Cope does radio and TV here. He invented "The Terrible Towel," an ordinary yellow towel that Pittsburghers believe does magical terrible things to the opposition when waved at them. Every bar in town has a terrible towel. Every fan has one. The highest compliment a Pittsburgher can pay you is to call you terrible.

The Terrible Towel has made Cope a hero here, just as "Babushka Power" and "The Green Weenie" made Bob Prince, the former Pirates announcer, a hero before him. Once a hero, always a hero in Pittsburgh. Ask Dick Groat, who does color on Pitt basketball games; Paul Martha, the former Pitt All-America football player who is now general manager of the Penguins; Frank Gustine, the former Pirate who owns a big restaurant here.

Many Pittsburgh athletes stay here because they are so beloved here. Mansfield is one. When he first came here from the Eagles he expected to find, to quote James Parton, "Hell, with the lid off." He and his wife once drove across Pennsylvania, and when he saw the highway sign for Pittsburgh he looked around "for a big black cloud." Mansfield is here for keeps now. And this moment he is sitting around a table in a disco where they play Frankie Valli records with three other men talking about image and reality.

Cope: "People come here thinking they'll hate it, but they love it. Thing is, Pittsburghers have always been defensive about it. They have a complex. There's no need for it. To me it's a nifty place."

Brown: "Hell, in 1947 I got off a streetcar and I swear, I couldn't see my hand. But that's all gone now. Now nobody asks about that, they want to know about the Steelers and Pirates. I think they've put Pittsburgh on the map."

Puskar: "I hope so. I've always been skeptical. When I was a kid and Green Bay was winning I could name all the Packers. I wonder if our guys are household names in Green Bay? I guess I'm still a little defensive.I really want to take pride in Pittsburgh, it's my home. You know, when they put 'Skag' on TV, and it was set in Pittsburgh, I was so proud. Hell, a series about us hunkes. That's great."

Mansfield: "The town's got a new pride since the winners. I know it. I felt it before, but now all around me I see it. That picture in Sports Illustrated, with all those mill workers, all those beautiful ethnic faces, now that's Pittsburgh. I'll tell you what, this is still a town that represents America, where men are men and women are proud of it."

Puskar: "It was great. Steelworkers. But not dirty. That's us. We're all hunkies here. You talk football, baseball, broads and hunting. What else is there?"

Cope: "The only thing that gets me is that everyone says this is just a shot-and-a-beer town. We've got culture. Me, I drink martinis. But what they're saying is right. There's a real pride here."

"As far as building a civic mind, I think it's wearing off quite rapidly. Repeat the stimulus, dull the response . . . if you come to say that it's a myth that winning changes things, you've come at the right time. It didn't change the crime rate. It didn't produce any lasting sociological change." -- Jack Weisgerber, public relations Western Psychiatric Institute. "It's momentary. It doesn't make it any easier to pay off a 13 percent mortgage." -- Ron Hough, Pittsburgh banker

Richard Caliguiri, who used to set pins in a bowling alley, is the No. 1 salesman in Pittsburgh. Then again, if the mayor isn't the city's cheerleader, who is? In the lobby of the City-County Building there are black and gold signs proclaiming the City of Champions, and though there are none in Caliguiri's office, the spirit is there, especially when he talks about his master plan for the city, his Renaissance Two. Richard Caliguiri is not the kind of man to put Aladdin's lamp in a Cuisinart.

"I understand the shot and the beer," he says. "The mill worker is a tough man. He had to be. He came here as an immigrant and went right into the mill. In the winter he froze. In the summer he baked. If not in the mill, then in the mine, if not in the mine, then in the ditch. He had to clear his lungs from the dirt and dust, so he took a shot and a beer. What upsets me about the image is that those mill workers were unfairly made synonymous with dirt and ignorance, and that's the image we had -- crude. I'm not upset with Pittsburgh being a great industrial town. Just the stereotype."

Caliguiri is sitting down, and sitting down he seems almost swallowed by his chair. He is a small man, 5 feet 7 at the most, but these are not small words and this is no small vision.

"We've never been able to get people to visit Pittsburgh, but the City of Champions is giving us the favorable exposure we need. Last year I got 400 mayors to come here and they left as 400 ambassadors for Pittsburgh. The City of Champions is a common denominator; we're all caught up in this. It makes it easier for me to sell my program. We had the cake built, but the Steelers and Pirates are the icing on the cake."

And now the mayor is getting to the nugget.

And for this he stands up.

"What I am saying is that if the teams don't continue to win, and that sometimes happens, the city is still here. We want to be a City of Champions as a city, not just in sports."

"The last two Monday Night Football games, the blimp came. The blimp never used to come here." -- Bill Kessler, public relations U.S. Steel

Short takes: In Pittsburgh's airport they sell a gold and black looipop for 80 cents with the inscription, "Lick 'Em Steelers." Downtown in the bakeries they sell sheet cakes decorated with the Steelers' helmet insignia. Women in town were tiny gold and black knit caps pinned to their overcoats like corsages. In the office buildings in the Golden Triangle there are letters pasted onto the windows -- they spell out signs like "KICK THEIR BUM" and "Steelers go in style with a touch of CLASS." The building with the longer sign is the Pennsylvania State Office Building. In the mail Myron Cope routinely receives things made in gold and black and pictures of dogs and cats dressed up in gold and black hats. Last week he was mailed a gold and black jockstrap by a man who claimed to be dying of cancer. The man said only the Steelers and the jockstrap where keeping him alive.

"In the old days when we weren't good enough to win, the only thing we wanted to do was beat up the other team." -- Bob DePasquale, building inspector

"What our program really needs is a few good hunkes from up there." -- Johnny Majors, former Pitt coach now head coach at Tennessee

Paul Martha thinks he knows this town and knows he loves this town. He was born here, went to college here, made All-America here, played pro football here, got a law degree here, married the daughter of a former chairman of the board of U.S. Steel and now works as general manager of the Penguins, the pro team that is significantly absent from the billboard on Rte. 60 South advertising The City of Champions with a Steeler helmet and a Pirate cap.

He would like his team to be the third champion. But if that cannot happen right away he at least wants his team to look like the other two champions, and toward that end he is trying, as quickly as possible, to outfit the Penguins in the colors of champions, black and gold. "We're going to jump on the bandwagon," he says. "The opportunity is perfect for us."

Martha is a hero here still. He has styled hair and wears bankers' suits, and is equally at home in the local millgate bars and the corporate boardrooms. This is what being a hero in Pittsburgh can do for you.

He is eating cheese ravioli in clam sauce at The Pleasure Bar in Bloomfield, an Italian section, and he is talking about his hometown, a place he chose to live in over all others including California, a place a man who looks like Paul Martha could own.

"It wasn't for me," he is saying. "Too much radical change. I don't like radical change. Pittsburgh is a stable place. You go away for a while, you see the same faces when you come back. You can get hold of this city.

"Let me tell you something about Pittsburgh. You can go downtown, get rolling smashed drunk, stagger out of the bar and walk three or four blocks to your hotel without getting killed. It's the safest place I've ever been in. I know how Pittsburghers like to think of themselves as tough, and they're right, they are tough -- it took tough people to build this town, tough people to make all that steel during World War II. But these are nice people here, kind people. It's a blue-collar citizenry and sports is what they care about. You've got a 15 percent interest rate, you've got troubles in Iran, troubles in Afghanistan, layoffs in the mills, a lot of down things except for our sports teams. If we had losing teams here it could get very depressing.

Sports is the savior. Sports is it. If you don't talk sports here, you're a fag. I can't tell you what an elated feeling being the city of champions has given this town.

"It's a tough town.In Northside they built a park with a pond in it, and put ducks in the pond. A day later, no ducks. Folks caught them and cooked them." -- Rufus Jackson, cab driver

Pittsburgh is by no means a glamorous city. Fashions come late and stay long past their prime. Miniskirts never went out of style. Neither did argyle socks. People don't make a fuss over the width of their lapels because, after all, how many lapel widths does Sears carry? Gucci? Yeah, sure, runs a cannoli bakery in Bloomfield.

Homestead is by no means half as glamorous as Pittsburgh. Homestead is a workingman's town in a workingman's city. Home of the Homestead Grays, the team that Josh Gibson played for because Gibson's skin was black, and black men did not play in the major leagues then -- they weren't permitted. Homestead was also the site of the 1892 Carnegie Steel strike, and there is a monument dedicated to those workers who died in the violence that marked that strike. Homestead is a mill town, and since 1892 a union town.

The monument stands outside Chiodo's Tavern, on the main street in Homestead, two blocks up from the U.S. Steel mill. Chiodo's is clustered with sports memorabilia, a jersey that Ernie Stautner wore, a jersey that Ted Marchibroda wore, a kicking shoe worn by Lou Michaels, items of significance that made Chiodo's a cathedral to Pittsburgh athletics.

They talk sports here.

If someone says, "Well, my broker's E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says . . ." nobody turns around to listen.

Joe Chiodo is behind the bar. He buys drinks for strangers, he's that kind of guy. Most of his customers drink shooters and Iron, and Joe Chiodo runs a clean bar a friendly bar. No one is turned away, except that one day when Karl Malden came because he was shooting "Skag" down the block and it was before Chiodo's was open for business and the girl at the door didn't recognize him. If Malden were to come in tomorrow, Joe Chiodo would buy him a drink.

There are six or seven people at the bar, each wearing a face that generations ago came from Europe. Big men. Fleshy men. United by the mill and a love of sports. You ask about the image of Pittsburgh and they all but take a swing at you with their answer.

"What's wrong with Pittsburgh?"

Homestead is the Pittsburgh of the mind.

"I went to Hawaii last year," Chiodo says. "The bellhops found out. 'Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh Steelers?' They all wanted to know about the Steelers."

Across the bar George Janocsko is nodding. "Didn't the pictures on TV tell the story? That view from Mount Washington, how nice it is? We knew it. But the country didn't."

"Safest city in the world," Sid Klein says.

"Friendliest too," Jim Lesko says.

Ed ingle is drinking his beer and listening. He clears his throat. The others let him speak. "What it all means is that we're the best. We always knew it. Now everybody knows it. I'm from Pittsburgh and damn proud of it. He, when you're the best, you're the best. Sports in Pittsburgh is like people in Pittsburgh. When they get their backs up against the wall, they come out and do it."

Joe Chiodo buys him a round.

These men do not like Los Angeles. They do not like Houston. They say that places with big money produce big snobs. In fact, they don't like any city on Pittsburgh's schedule. But most of all they don't like Dallas. They do not like Dallas being thought of as America's Team. They did not take maximum joy watching Dallas get beat by Los Angeles. Maximum joy would have been watching Pittsburgh beat Dallas, 40-0.

They agree that sports is good in Pittsburgh now. Larry Churma thinks that the fans helped make it good by supporting the teams, by yelling and screaming. "Maybe if we had gone and screamed 15 years ago, they'd have been winners then," he says.

"You see," Sid Klein says, "people are in better spirits because of this. It helps overcome the bad things. Gas lines. Iranians. It doesn't bother us as much. Sports is our escape."

Joe Chiodo is a quiet man.

Through most of this he has been listening, trying to help out by soliciting more people at his bar to join in. Now he wants to join in.

It is short and sweet.

"In a way we don't want people here. We don't want a lot of people to come. It's so beautiful here, and we want it to stay that way."

He hits the bottom line.

"We're like Paris compared to Cleveland."

Someone buys Joe Chiodo a round, and they all drink to that.