NEW ORLEANS -- Ever seen a basketball graveyard?
In a city where rims used to be 10 feet tall but stood taller, I now see rimless backboards that resemble headstones and airless basketballs that may have floated there from houses three or four blocks away. I knew coming in that seeing this would not be easy, but I figured that basketball, especially an NBA All-Star Weekend, could eclipse the thoughts that were entering and not existing in my head.
Yes, basketball. Of all things that would make one forget what was really going on in New Orleans or make us all look past the effect Katrina had on this place, basketball, at least for 72 hours, could bring that sun on the darkness that has harassed this city. Tim Duncan hitting threes to win shooting stars competitions, Dwight Howard winning dunk contests, LeBron predicting MVPs all made for the perfect setting for the perfect basketball experience.
But driving around New Orleans I saw the courts the NBA All-Stars didn't see, the courts none of them had ever played on (except maybe Chris Duhon, who is from Louisiana). Places where the game of basketball was held on ground so high that it could remain dry even after a levee break; courts that when I lived here played host -- in our minds -- to many an all-star weekend, many an all-star game.
I canvassed this city for five years during my undergraduate years at Xavier University. In gyms, on concrete, under rusted aluminum domes. It didn't matter. Me and my boys battling who we thought was the best New Orleans had to offer. Snatching a few W's and taking many L's. The basketball life I lived here was one I held close. Games against known stars and unknown prodigies. Avery Johnson, Alvin Dukes. Courts where we'd go watch Karl Malone (whenever he came to the city) battle Big Lou Williams. Gyms where Perry McDonald would score 30-35 a game before John Thompson brought him to Georgetown, where the legend of Greedy Daniels took on a life of its own before he put on a UNLV uniform, where D.J. Augustin left a larger legacy than the one he'll leave at the University of Texas.
But now may of those courts and gyms are gone. Left for dead by that damage of a natural disaster assisted by government and political apathy. On these courts throughout New Orleans -- even if the baskets are still standing -- the life has been sucked right out of them. From court to court, gym to gym, you can feel it. So when I drove by my alma mater and saw the gym we balled in wasn't destroyed, a feeling of relief went through me. But what I've discovered this weekend is that The Barn was more the exception to New Orleans' reality.
In Gert Town, the place we played the most because it was within walking distance of the school and where we always found legit competition, the court was non-existent. No one has played on the court since Katrina. The awning that covered the court we used to call the Dome (after the Carrier Dome at Syracuse), is still there but the land on which it sits has been unofficially condemned. The thoughts of games played on that court ran through me. But the second I opened my eyes, those thoughts, just like the courts, were gone.
We used to ball on the courts behind the church on Annette and N. Miro streets and the ones on Second and S. Tonti; we used to get our butts kicked at the Cooper and Desire housing projects; we played at the St. Bernard Projects and courts in the Lower 9th. All basketball graveyards now. All stretched out by water and wind, two elements that have never been kind to the game under any circumstances.
Yet, the gyms at McDonogh 35 and Brother Martin High Schools were still intact. These were the places where my boys Darren Howard and Tommy Priestly "learned" me that "Chicago and New York weren't the only places where hoop is synonymous to breathing." The same with the gyms on the Loyola University and Tulane University campuses, where my roommate Haywood Liggett and I would run two-on-two scams against students at both schools for tickets to see Keith Lee and Andre Turner whenever the University of Memphis came to town. The courts in Lawrence Square were still good, still had life left in them. But it was a specific court in Metairie that I needed to see, one where we felt we always played under the watchful eye of Pete Maravich because he was living in Metairie at the time.
Across the street from Archbishop Rummel High School was a small one-rim court where often-talked about battles took place. It was a court inside an apartment complex where many of the students from our school moved because rent was cheap. Games took place on this court. Games where friendships were lost, games that sometimes lasted until 2 a.m.. Everything in the apartment complex looked untouched -- apparently Katrina hadn't reached this far. But when I drove around to where the infamous little half-court used to be, it was no longer there. Maybe not because of the tragedy that impacted the other courts, but maybe because of something worse: The people that gave the court life for so many years had left.
What's funny is that not many people look at New Orleans as a basketball mecca or a place where the game means something outside of the surprising Hornets or what's happening this weekend. Not true. From the furthest corner of New Orleans East to the building closest to the water on UNO's campus I was reminded, just by driving around and reminiscing, of what basketball means to the city and how that culture was affected by what happened two years ago. Yes, the All-Star Game is necessary for New Orleans to give it another reason to smile. But once we all pack up and leave, what's left? Nothing. Except those courts. Those left standing and those that have been laid to rest.
When I walked into the second-floor gymnasium at McDonogh 35 I was reminded of what this is supposed to be all about. The words "Pride," "Responsibility" and "Strength" are painted on the gym walls just above the bleachers. I kept those words with me as I drove around the city.
If those three words can be the audacity of hope for every kid that walks into this gym to play basketball, then they should be good enough to be the audacity of hoop for a city that needs the culture of basketball back into its life.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.