UNO players happy to be in Tyler
TYLER, Texas -- "If we were going to die, I just wanted to get it over with, but I was trying to save my son."
Wayne Williams fell silent, his words hanging heavily over the muted sounds of volleyball practice emanating from the small, tidy gym in this modest town in East Texas. Six weeks after he, his girlfriend and toddler son spent a hellish week in submerged New Orleans, Willliams, a transfer to the University of New Orleans, is trying to come to grips with how he got here and how long he'll be staying.
That all could depend on the resolution to the next potential storm for UNO -- one that could pit the basketball team against the school's administration, which hopes to bring the team back on campus in late December.
Most of the UNO players were more fortunate than Williams and teammate and fellow JC transfer Jeremie Davis. They got out of New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina. They didn't spend three days in an apartment with the floor underwater and then three more sweltering on a highway, waiting for a way out.
That doesn't mean, though, that any are in a hurry to get back there. Not now, after they have settled in at the University of Texas-Tyler, about two hours east of Dallas, near the Louisiana border. No matter what the school's administrators are saying.
"What do I think is realistic?" New Orleans senior Nathaniel Parker asked. "From what I see on TV, I think we'll be here the whole year. I'd love to go home if there's something to do at home. [But] I don't think we have a place to stay or anything."
"I'd like to go back, but I don't think we could go back now, since we've got no fans and no place to stay," said sophomore Bo McCalebb, a New Orleans native who averaged over 22 points per game last season and allegedly was the target of poachers from other universities in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
Despite the players' reticence, the school's plan, according to UNO athletic director Jim Miller, who was in Tyler last Tuesday to check on the Privateers, is to get the team back on campus. The goal is to be playing at home, either at Lakefront Arena or at the school's old gym, in time for a New Year's Eve game against city rival Tulane, another displaced team. The Green Wave are guests at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, this semester.
From then on, according to Miller, the Privateers are planning on playing their Sun Belt Conference games at home. Conference officials said UNO gave them a Nov. 15 deadline to let them know where its conference home games would be played, but Miller said that decision already has been made and communicated to the conference.
"We will be back on campus in the spring," Miller said as he watched practice at the UT-Tyler Patriot Center. "The administration is going forward with a spring semester schedule. The city is open outside of the lower ninth ward. There will be drinkable water, and electricity is now on.
"We expect to be self-sustaining by January. The Saints aren't there. The Hornets aren't there. The fans need a diversion, and to be a rallying point, you have to be there."
Miller, who relocated to Baton Rouge, La., after 9 feet of water caused significant damage to his Lakeview home, said Lakefront Arena has a hole in the roof, but "it should be fit and ready, and if not, then we would go to the gym on campus." Miller said he hadn't seen the arena since the storm, but an assistant athletic director has viewed the site.
This assessment differs markedly, though, from the comments of players and the coaching staff. A week ago, UNO assistant coach Mark Downey went back to campus to assess the damage and retrieve personal belongings from his office and head coach Monte Towe's office -- notably Towe's 1974 NC State championship memorabilia, including his jersey and a game ball.
Downey said once he crossed over to Orleans Parish, "It was like a nuclear bomb went off. It was dusty, dirty and there were parts of the road where you couldn't see the concrete because there was so much sand that had been pushed onto the roads. You could see water levels on the houses."
Downey, who suffers from a mild form of asthma, said he felt some tightness in his throat when he was on campus. He walked into the locker room at the arena and was stunned by what he found.
"There wasn't water damage, but it had been so moist from being so hot that there was mold everywhere," Downey said. "There was a ball rack and the balls looked like tennis balls because there was so much mold on them. Someone had left a pair of sneakers on the floor and they were completely green and black. We shined a light on the carpet and it was just mold."
Downey, wandering through the offices in shorts and sneakers as people in protective suits walked by him, did manage to retrieve Towe's possessions as well as his laptop, "but I couldn't get the smell out of my car for a week."
Downey said the court's wood flooring wasn't laid down on the concrete base of the arena floor, but there was standing water on the concrete. And there wasn't just one hole in the roof.
"There were holes everywhere," Downey said. "It looked like you were looking at the stars. The seats were cloth and they were all moldy and all have to be replaced."
The debate goes well beyond whether the Privateers have a legitimate place to play. There is equal concern over whether they'll even have a place to live.
Miller said Privateer Place, where the student-athletes reside, had a lot of water damage, especially on the roof. According to the UNO Web site, students looking to retrieve belongings from Bienville Hall or Lafitte Village would have 15 minutes to do so today. The Web site specified that these were "disaster areas" and that students must wear appropriate clothing, such as "face masks, gloves, long pants and skid-resistant shoes." The Web site said no sandals are allowed and those who aren't properly dressed might not be admitted.
Miller also said he understood that 8-10 coaches, including Towe, whose home was lost in the flood, would need housing.
"Maybe we'll put them in married dorms," Miller said.
FEMA trailers are also a possibility. Miller said that visiting teams that have expressed concerns over how to get hotel rooms have been provided with a list of hotels that will have vacancies.
None of this sounds particularly appealing to the players, especially Williams and Davis.
"I think we'll be here on Dec. 31," Davis said of UT-Tyler. "The closest time we could go back is the summer. Me, just being there, and seeing stuff, I don't see anyone going back, I don't see civilization in New Orleans until the summer at the earliest. I don't see how they can get all that work done in that little amount of time. There's too much damage, too much damage.
"I think people will be very hesitant and there will be a lot of complaining, but in the end, we'll have to deal with it. If it's really up and running, then I'll go back, but I don't want them to rush it. When I get back to New Orleans, I want it to be a beautiful scene. I don't want to go back where the university is just all right, because I don't want to go back to New Orleans and see the same things to bring back the memories."
Downey implored all of the players to get out of New Orleans in the days before the storm. He headed to Houston two days before Katrina hit. But Davis and Williams stayed behind, largely because they missed an evacuation bus the day before the storm arrived.
Williams said his girlfriend, Sheena Hanks, and infant son, Wayne Jr., came into New Orleans on a Greyhound bus that Sunday morning, and by the time he got back to campus, the evacuation bus was gone. Davis said he was offered one seat, but didn't want to leave the other three behind. So Davis, who was just starting to get to know Williams since both were transfers, decided to stick it out with him.
"I wanted to stay in case he needed extra help," Davis said. "I knew we needed to buckle down together."
Let Williams and Davis describe the next few days:
Williams: "We were in a four-bedroom apartment when the hurricane hit. We watched as Lake Pontchartrain came over the levee. We saw it all from our first-floor window. We saw the water come on the carpet and rose up to the kitchen table. We were just stuck there. We had no place to go."
Davis: "We panicked. There were a million thoughts running through our mind. We were anticipating, anticipating that the water level would remain constant and stop rising. We just stayed in our beds."
Williams: "We were there Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The water started to go down eventually. We had candles, food, water. When we got out, me and Jeremie were walking around campus and saw they were bringing in a lot of people. We found out that they were bringing people to I-10. So me, my baby and my girl packed up and got on the helicopter, where they took us to I-10."
Davis: "They got away a day earlier than me. I had to stay the night. I was alone [Wednesday] night. No electricity. No water. No food. I got out with the Coast Guard when a boat came by. They took me to I-10. If they weren't moving people to the University of New Orleans as a middle ground, then I'm not sure how we would have gotten out."
Williams: "We were there for three nights. Three nights man. I can't describe it. It was terrible I've seen people dying people just falling down from the heat. A lady with a 10-day-old baby she didn't have anything for the baby. We didn't have anything for my baby. After a while, the army brought food and water, baby food and diapers. On the highway, me and Jeremie made a raft out of the boxes to sleep on the road."
Davis: "You had people taking other people's little cots the older people were sleeping on if they got up to get some water. It was every man for himself. You heard babies crying and the smells. It smelled like urine and sulfur. There weren't no bathrooms. There were gnats and mosquitoes. Whatever they were showing on TV, it was 10 times worse."
Williams: "When the buses got there, there were so many people that they rushed them. There were only two or three buses the first day, but I had the baby so I didn't rush them. We finally got out on Saturday. We had been there Wednesday [night], Thursday and Friday. I thought we'd be there forever. I've never been through something like this. If we were going to die, I just wanted to get it over with, but I was trying to save my son."
Williams said he, his son and his girlfriend got on a bus to Houston on Saturday, five days after the storm hit. He then flew back to his hometown of Orlando and his girlfriend and baby went back to their home in Georgia. Davis got on a bus headed to Dallas, but got off in Natchitoches, La., where a friend who attends Northwestern State picked him up and took him back to his home in Arcadia, La.
"I think about it all the time and I'm thankful that I'm alive and my son is alive," said Williams, who didn't hesitate when he heard from Towe about relocating to Tyler. "I can't find a way to describe what I went through. I saw five people just fall out from heat exhaustion. They just fell out. It was crazy, crazy, real crazy. I'm alright with going back as long as it's safe to live there."
When Davis went back home to Arcadia, his family was so upset about his ordeal that they didn't want him to rejoin the team. Davis said schools such as UNLV and Oklahoma State were recruiting him to leave when he didn't rejoin the Privateers on time. He finally did arrive in Tyler two weeks ago, just in time for the start of practice.
"I was really shook up about the situation and my family was scared for me," Davis said.
"I kept calling campus police, New Orleans police to go to 514 Privateer Place to get those guys out of there," Downey said of his attempts to get Williams and Davis out of town before the storm hit. "I told them if you have to arrest them then do it to get them out of there. If that storm would have hit us direct, the water would have been 10-15 feet high because our dorms are backed up to the levee. If they were still there, they would have been dead."
The horrifying week in New Orleans seems almost surreal at times for Williams and Davis. Now they are here in Tyler, inside the cozy, 3-year-old Patriot Center that has a gym above the court, a pool outside and a plethora of students who have welcomed these displaced basketball players with open arms -- even though the Privateers really weren't able to work out when they arrived.
"At the beginning, half the guys didn't have sneakers," Downey said. "Jacob Manning was playing in flip flops."
Gear came in droves. Downey said the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics sent clothes, practice gear and sweats. College teams such as Villanova, West Virginia, Holy Cross, Columbia, Connecticut, St. John's and NC State sent gear as well. The apparel the Red Storm sent still had the school logo on it.
"Our two New York guys [Parker and Earnest Daney] loved practicing in St. John's stuff," Downey said.
Adidas sent sneakers, socks, bags and clothes. Video equipment came, too.
The players also received some financial relief. They were put in apartments and got FEMA money, food stamp money (which Downey said was a three-month stipend of $150 a month), their scholarship checks and, for some, Pell Grant money. They also got a meal card on campus.
The players started with a full credit load on the UT-Tyler campus, but those got reduced to six credit hours once UNO's online campus was up and running.
"We're part of the campus and the teachers treat us like we're regular students and I'm definitely not used to that," Parker said. "They don't care if you're athletes here. That's the first thing coach Towe told us that it's not the same as UNO. Here, it's like 'You play basketball? So?'"
If this UNO team is to be a success on the court, Parker will be a large part of it. Because of wrist and shin injuries, he played in only four games for the 13-17 Privateers last season. But the 6-foot-8 Parker is a beast on the offensive glass and during practice last Tuesday he flushed a missed shot, prompting Towe to say, "How'd that taste big fella? You take a bite out of that?"
Adding Parker and shooters Williams and Davis to go with McCalebb gives the Privateers hope to contend in the Sun Belt this season. That potential weighs on Towe and his staff. They know they've got a shot and don't want to disrupt the season again.
"There are a lot of things that haven't been solved yet," said Towe, who was in the French Quarter last Monday for a funeral but didn't make it to campus. "My job, our job, is to play basketball wherever they tell us to play. We don't have any input in it. But if it's unsafe or there are problems, then obviously I as a head coach will stand up and say, 'Look, Chancellor [Tim Ryan] or Jim [Miller], come on.' I'll always take into consideration the needs of my team and we have to be absolutely sure that it's safe for our team, which they say it's going to be."
The concerns from the staff are genuine. They just want to be settled.
"How much are we really going to help [in New Orleans]?" Downey asked. "Who is going to see us play? Where are we going to play? I don't know. I don't know. I wish they would tell us tomorrow what we're going to do."
"If you take us in there," Towe said, "and put us out there and there's nothing there and you have to drive a long way to get to anything, I don't know, I don't know what it would be like living on an island."
UNO will play three nonconference games in Tyler against Southeastern Oklahoma State, Bellhaven and Louisiana Tech. The Privateers will play the first of the two Tulane games at the Green Wave's adopted home at Texas A&M's Reed Arena. UNO would like to have something that resembles that type of "home court" advantage.
"We're in Tyler and I think we could fill this place -- put 2,000 people here since there is no other Division I basketball," Downey said. "I think it could be a pretty good home court for the year. But we'll just have to see what happens."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.