Thursday, May 26, 2022

Memphis, Penny Hardaway give New Orleans’ basketball team a home after Hurricane Ida forces Privateers to flee

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Well in advance, they knew it was coming, another terrible storm barreling toward Louisiana, projected to make landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

This one was named Hurricane Ida.

Everybody understood it 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 was only projected to be a Category 2.

A Category 2 hurricane isn’t great, obviously. But they’ve had Category 2s before in New Orleans. And those, for the most part, aren’t too scary. They rarely require locals to evacuate.

“So we’re just thinking, ‘We’ll be OK. We’ll ride this out,”” explained University of New Orleans athletic director Tim Duncan. “But local knowledge has taught us, when it gets to 3 or above, you leave. So when it got to a 4 late Friday, our plan of keeping folks together kinda went by the wayside.”

This was Friday, Aug. 27.

Hurricane Ida was still two days from making landfall, still roughly 48 hours from bringing overwhelming rain and sustained winds of 150 mph to Louisiana — where 30 people would eventually die because of issues the storm created. So there was still time to evacuate. And the UNO men’s basketball team did exactly that.

Some players traveled hours away to their hometowns. Others traveled to the homes of teammates. Coach Mark Slessinger took a few players with him Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he used to coach at Northwestern State. So when Hurricane Ida finally made landfall on that Sunday, everybody connected to UNO’s program was far away and safe. But they quickly realized returning to campus would not be a viable option because the power was completely knocked out and maybe weeks away from being restored.

“So on that Monday, I’m meeting with my executive team and saying, ‘OK, what are we gonna do with folks?”” Duncan recalled. “And Sless said, jokingly, ‘It would be nice to go to Memphis.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. Let me call Penny.””

Penny, of course, is Penny Hardaway — the Memphis coach who starred for the Tigers in the early 90s while playing alongside Duncan, the UNO athletic director. They have a personal relationship that spans two decades. So the call was quick and easy. And not long after Duncan and Hardaway spoke, Slessinger and his players were relocating to Memphis, where they’ve spent much of the past two weeks practicing inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, a 62,000-square-foot facility built for the Tigers.


There was more than one team in Memphis’ practice facility the last few weeks. Gary Parrish/CBS Sports

“It was an easy connection for us,” Slessinger said. “Just logistically, it works out great with this facility. It’s a world-class place. They got plenty of space. And then our towns are so similar. I mean, our cities are so similar just from the feel and comfort. Our guys feel like they’re in New Orleans. They feel like they’re at home here.”

UNO senior Troy Green agreed.

“I love Memphis,” he said. “It’s like New Orleans’ sister city. It’s along the river. It’s a port city as well. It has a lot of history with music — just like New Orleans. I just love the culture.”

While talking with Green, it was striking how matter-of-factly he discussed his current situation. Literally the first words out of his mouth, when I asked about being displaced, were: “This isn’t my first time dealing with hurricanes. I dealt with Katrina. I dealt with Isaac. Gustav. So being displaced is nothing new to me.”

Unfortunately, that’s life growing up in the greater New Orleans area like Green did. Every year, around this time, you know this is 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 UNO assistant Jody Bailey. “If you live in the Midwest, there are tornadoes. And we’re going to get some hurricanes. It’s just part of it.”

That attitude is among the reasons UNO’s staff and players haven’t really spent a second complaining or feeling sorry for themselves. It is what it is. So instead of lamenting their reality, they’ve just tried to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation by enjoying their temporary home. They’ve had nice meals, gone bowling, gone to the movies and visited the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. That’s outside the gym. Inside the gym, they’ve worked and worked and worked and enjoyed the occasions when Hardaway or Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, a first-year Memphis assistant, happen to pop into the facility to say hello and offer encouragement.

“I love Larry Brown because Allen Iverson is my favorite player,” Green said. “That’s the reason why I wear No. 3. So having a basketball mind like Larry Brown, in this environment, it means a lot.”

“It’s been neat for everybody,” Slessinger added.

Earlier this week, Slessinger was informed that power has been restored on campus and that UNO’s facility has been cleared for the team to return. So, with in-person classes scheduled to start Monday, the Privateers will board a bus at some point Friday and make their way back home. When they arrive, they’ll encounter a city that is once again recovering from disruptive and devastating natural disaster.

It’s a constant in New Orleans.

But, make no mistake, there’s nowhere these coaches and players would rather be. They’re willing to take whatever bad comes with living in New Orleans as long as they also get to enjoy the good. And the good is what they’re choosing to focus on as they prepare for the upcoming season while enduring obstacles nearly every other program avoids based on nothing more than location.

“Being able to wear the city of New Orleans across my chest means a lot,” Green said. “I’m just thankful I get to play for this city — and I honestly can’t wait to get back in our gym. Even though I love being in Memphis, I’m just ready to get back in our gym.”

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