Getting to read the weekly, backpage essay, "Life of Reilly," by Rick Reilly, justifies the cost of my subscription to Sports Illustrated.
Not long ago I got to hear Reilly in person at the SMU Athletic Forum here in Dallas. Talk about a hoot! But also a fellow with a soul and with some moral depth.
The latest issue of the magazine carries an essay by Reilly titled, "The Comeback of All Comebacks."
It reports on the experiences of the high school basketball team that won the Louisiana state championship this year.
It is a Katrina story.
But, it is much more.
It is a protocol for renewing any group, any geography and any urban area.
It is all about people and sacrifice and self-denial. It is a primer on social capital.
It is a story of hope, hard work, faith and action.
Never forget action.
I think you will enjoy it, even if you know nothing about hoops! ________________________________
The Comeback of All Comebacks by Rick Reilly Sports Illustrated April 3, 2006 Volume 104, Number 14
The point guard nearly drowned in his own house.
The coach lost his home.
The shooting guard spent five weeks in a cramped hotel room with no power or water.
Their leaky gym had no heat.
And they almost killed each other.
So you tell me: How in the world did Ehret High win the Louisiana state basketball championship?
"When you think about where we started," says Ehret's coach, Allen Collins, "it's nothing short of incredible."
Where they started was in Marrero, La., 10 minutes from New Orleans, on Aug. 28, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina turned the whole area into a watery hell. "I was afraid for my life," says Ehret guard Gary Davis, who was trapped for days on the second floor of his house in New Orleans. "Choppers saw us and kept going past. I just kept thinking about hoops. It was the only thing that made me happy."
Hoops? The gym at Ehret High was a wreck. There would be no time for conditioning or weightlifting. But Collins wanted to try to play anyway. "I made a commitment to coach 'em, and I was gonna coach 'em," he says. Problem was, only four of 'em were left. The rest of his team was scattered as far away as Atlanta.
He found a couple of transfers and got the roster to six, but nearly every game was on the road. The team didn't have a single home game until January. And since there was no money in Ehret's budget for athletics, Collins couldn't even buy his kids aftergame pizza. They made do with Salvation Army meals and cold MREs donated by military personnel stationed at the school. "It's not like I could take 'em to McDonald's. All the McDonald's were closed," he says. Ehret even had to withdraw from a Thanksgiving tournament. Couldn't afford a bus driver.
Remarkably, things got worse. Most players had no transportation. For a while, only senior guard Randy Verdin had a reliable car, and if he couldn't round everybody up, there'd be no practice. Players were living from one friend's couch to another. Transfers came in but would have to leave again with their unsettled families. Hundreds of phone calls later, Collins finally quilted together a patchwork team -- 10 kids from five schools, including a cocky inner-city transfer named Brian Randolph whom nobody on the team liked. The feeling was mutual.
"He just had an attitude all the time," says Ehret's star forward, Christian Wall, who still lives in a trailer on his front lawn. The Ehret kids bickered almost daily with Randolph and the non-Ehret kids. It was like West Side Story in Reeboks. They lost early and they lost often, then started 1-2 in the district. "We were at a point of no return," Collins said. So before a must-win game, he threw them all into a room and told them, Work it out, or the season is lost.
And lo and behold, they did. Almost to a man, the players say it hit them, in that room, that they could lose clothes and homes and trophies to Katrina, but they just couldn't bear losing hoops.
Randolph backed down and became a passer and a screener and a rebounder. Transfer Nicholas Washington, who'd been a star at Cohen High, swallowed hard and let Wall become the go-to guy. Everyone else chipped in as best he could. And they won 10 of their next 11.
"Other coaches would ask me, 'How are you doing this?'" Collins recalled. "I'd say, 'It's not me, it's them.' All I did was try not to let them get too low. No yelling. They've had enough negative stuff."
Next thing you know, Ehret was in the state 5A championship game, playing Woodlawn of Baton Rouge, a school whose biggest distraction all year was cheerleader practice. And while Woodlawn and the other semifinalists were happily snuggled in their hotel rooms near the Cajundome in Lafayette, Ehret commuted 21Ú2 hours each way back to their couches. They couldn't afford rooms.
Yet somehow, against all logic, Ehret beat Woodlawn, the most powerful team in the state -- with the clinching dunk coming from none other than Brian Randolph. It was hard to decide who was crying harder, the players or their emotionally spent parents. "A mismatched bunch of riffraff won it all," Collins beams. "It's like Hoosiers!"
Actually, it's bigger than that. Ehret's Katrina Comeback has been a little patch of blue sky for a ravaged city, a symbol of how things can be rebuilt when you don't care who gets the credit.
"We showed New Orleans that different parts of the city can come together and do something great," Randolph says. "I mean, I know Katrina might be horrible for some people, but it was a blessing for us."
Larry's new book, now available from Amazon.com! Also, now in Kindle format! To place your order visit Amazon.com today! Also, available at Barnes and Noble bookstores and on the web. Click on the image above to order!
Larry James' Urban Daily
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