MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Well in advance, they knew this was coming, another terrible storm heading for Louisiana, projected to make landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
This one was named Hurricane Ida.
Everyone understood that this was potentially devastating, if only because these things are almost always, these days, potentially devastating. But, at least initially, there was some good news. Yes, Hurricane Ida was going to hit New Orleans. But, at least initially, it wasn’t intended to be a Category 2.
A Category 2 hurricane is not great, of course. But they already had categories 2 in New Orleans. And these, for the most part, aren’t too scary. They rarely force residents to evacuate.
“So we just think, ‘Everything will be fine. We’re going to be fine, ”said University of New Orleans athletic director Tim Duncan. “But local knowledge has taught us that when it’s 3 or more, you go. So when it got to 4 late Friday, our plan to keep people together was kinda scrapped.”
It was Friday August 27th.
Hurricane Ida was still two days away from making landfall, still about 48 hours of crushing rain and sustained winds of 150 mph in Louisiana – where 30 people would eventually die from the problems created by the storm. So there was still time to evacuate. And the UN men’s basketball team did just that.
Some players have traveled for hours to their hometown. Others went to the homes of their teammates. Coach Mark Slessinger took a few players with him to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he worked at Northwestern State. So when Hurricane Ida finally made landfall that Sunday, everyone connected to the UN program was far and safe. But they quickly realized that returning to campus wouldn’t be a viable option as the power was completely cut off and maybe a few weeks away from being restored.
“So that Monday I meet with my management team and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do with the people?’” Recalls Duncan. “And Sless said, jokingly, ‘It would be nice to go to Memphis.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that looks good. Let me call Penny.’ ”
Penny, of course, is Penny Hardaway – the Memphis coach who played for the Tigers in the early ’90s while playing alongside Duncan, the UN sporting director. They have a personal relationship that spans two decades. The call was therefore quick and easy. And soon after Duncan and Hardaway spoke, Slessinger and his players moved to Memphis, where they have spent much of the last two weeks training inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, a 62,000 square foot facility built for the Tigers.
“It was an easy connection for us,” Slessinger said. “Just logistically, it works great with this facility. It’s a world class place. They have a lot of space. And then our cities are so similar. I mean, our cities are so similar just by the feel and the comfort. Our guys feel like they’re in New Orleans. They feel like they’re at home here. ”
Senior UN official Troy Green agreed.
“I love Memphis,” he said. “It’s like the sister city of New Orleans. It’s along the river. It’s also a port city. It has a lot of history with music, just like New Orleans. I love it. Culture.”
As he chatted with Green, it was striking how neutral he spoke of his current situation. Literally, the first words out of his mouth, when I asked about his move, were, “This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with hurricanes. I dealt with Katrina. I dealt with Isaac. Gustav. So being moved is nothing new to me. ”
Sadly, it’s life growing in the greater New Orleans area like Green did. Every year around this time you know it’s possible. You don’t pretend it won’t happen. You just hope it won’t be bad.
“If you live in California, there are earthquakes,” said UN aide Jody Bailey. “If you live in the Midwest, there are tornadoes. And we’re going to have hurricanes. That’s one of them.”
This attitude is one of the reasons why UN staff and players haven’t really spent a second complaining or feeling sorry for themselves. It’s like that. So instead of bemoaning their reality, they just tried to make the most of a less than ideal situation by taking advantage of their temporary home. They had great meals, went bowling, went to the movies and visited the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. It’s outside the gymnasium. Inside the gym, they worked and worked out and enjoyed the occasions when Hardaway or Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, a freshman assistant in Memphis, came into the facility to say hello and offer encouragement.
“I like Larry Brown because Allen Iverson is my favorite player,” Green said. “That’s why I wear # 3. So having a basketball spirit like Larry Brown in this environment means a lot.”
“It was great fun for everyone,” Slessinger added.
Earlier this week, Slessinger was informed that power had been restored to the campus and that UN facilities had been cleared for the team’s return. So, with in-person classes set to start on Monday, privateers will board a bus at some point on Friday and return home. Upon arrival, they will encounter a city that is once again recovering from a disruptive and devastating natural disaster.
It’s a constant in New Orleans.
But make no mistake, there’s nowhere these coaches and players would prefer to be. They are ready to accept whatever is wrong with living in New Orleans, provided they also enjoy the good. And the good is what they choose to focus on as they prepare for the season ahead while enduring the hurdles almost every other program avoids based on nothing more than location.
“Being able to wear the city of New Orleans on my chest means a lot,” Green said. “I’m just grateful to be able to play for this city – and honestly, I can’t wait to get back to our gym. Even though I love being in Memphis, I’m just ready to come back to our gym.”