In 44 years as a sportswriter I’d never had this happen before.
When the four University of New Orleans basketball players finished their First Four press conference late Monday afternoon, they stepped off the raised stage and – paying no attention to the aide who told them to exit through a back curtain – they approached each of the handful of media types at their session, looked every person in the eye, shook hands firmly and said two words:
This wasn’t some kind of Hoopla hokum or pregame grandstanding.
These four Privateers – like the rest of their team and especially head coach Mark Slessinger – are truly thankful to be in Dayton, in the First Four and, most importantly, in the NCAA Tournament.
How could they not be?
A dozen years ago their once-trumpeted basketball program, their school on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain and much of their entire city was nearly wiped off the map by the winds and flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.
By the time a levee on the London Avenue Canal that borders the school was breached, much of the team already had been evacuated to Tyler, Texas. Two players though got trapped in New Orleans and ended up atop the Interstate 10 overpass with other frightened refugees as floodwaters rose and chaos reigned.
Lakefront Arena, where the team played, lost its roof and it would take three years to be repaired.
School enrollment dropped from 17,000 to under 8,500.
Soon after the storm, state legislature cut $15 million from the school’s budget. In November of 2009 university administrators announced the athletic teams would go from NCAA Division I programs to non-scholarship Division III. A year later the officials settled on Division II and two years after that, they recommitted to D-I. But by then the damage was done.
Former Wright State player Johann Mpondo was on the New Orleans team when that announcement was made. He said some players quit on the spot. Most others transferred at season’s end.
He came to WSU and over 100 other New Orleans athletes in several sports went elsewhere.
After Katrina, the school went through three basketball coaches and four athletic directors until good fortune finally blew in instead of out.
Slessinger, who had been an assistant at Northwestern State for 11 seasons, was hired as the new hoops coach in 2011.
“When I arrived that first year we were kind of nomadic … we didn’t have a conference home or affiliation,” he recalled Monday.”We were in flux in classification (too.) We had just three athletes that were committed to stay in the program and I didn’t have an assistant. We didn’t have a lot of things.”
Slessinger lost his first game as coach to New Mexico by 52 points and the next game to Rice by 34. By season’s end four Division II and two NAIA teams would beat the Privateers. Average attendance was 175.
But by then Slessinger had fallen in love with the community. It’s where he’d met his wife and where they would adopt two foster children they had taken in, son Holden and a daughter they named Nola Ann, a salute to the New Orleans acronym.
“I never wanted to be the guy that walked out just because it wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in our community that have lived very uncomfortable for a lot of years because they believe in a bigger picture of our city and what we’re doing. And I think sometimes when you’re uncomfortable a little bit you grow and you get a lot better. So I wasn’t going to cut and run.”
And he was right. The Privateers got much better and now the only things he’s cut down is the nets.
Picked in the preseason to finish ninth by the other coaches in the Southland Conference this season, the Privateers won the league’s regular season and conference tournament titles. Slessinger was named the Coach of the Year. Forward Erik Thomas is the Southland Player of the Year.
Tonight the 20-11 Privateers face Mount St. Mary’s in the first of two First Four games at UD Arena.
This is New Orleans’ first winning season in nine years, its first NCAA appearance in 21.
And the players wanted you to know they weren’t just saying “thank you” for themselves.
“It means a lot to our school and our city, as well,” Thomas said. “For our program to have this opportunity and for Dayton…to take us in for the First Four is an honor.”
Senior guard Christavious Gill agreed: “It means a lot to everybody that was involved in Hurricane Katrina, Some people may have cried, even alumni from our school.”
Fellow guard Nate Frye explained further: “New Orleans is still in the rebuilding process, as (is) our university. There’s lots of areas in New Orleans that hasn’t come back from Katrina. My father is from the Ninth Ward and he went to visit his neighborhood and it’s not even there.”
He compared this NCAA Tournament trip to the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl:
“We’re playing for things bigger than just a trophy. We’re playing for the regrowth of our school, our student attendance. We’re just trying to get people to rally behind us and give them something to hope for.”
Rebuilding the program
When Slessinger began rebuilding the program he took players from small out of the way towns and others who had been overshadowed by other players on their teams.
Gill said New Orleans was the only concrete Division I scholarship he had. Frye and Tevin Broyles said their situations were similar. Thomas came from a junior college.
“He believed in me and he believed we had a future for this program, to bring it back to where it was in the ‘80s and the ‘90s,” said Gill.
To help promote his vision, Slessinger rooted around in a nearby FEMA storage area that was left over from Katrina and found some of the old broken trophies and water logged banners from the days when the Privateers made four trips to the NCAA Tournament and, as a No. 7 seed in 1987, beat BYU.
To get students interested, he worked in the school cafeteria once a week so he could chat them up. He dressed in a red crawfish costume every May to take part in the school’s annual Crawfish Mambo.
Yet, there still were setbacks and heartbreak.
The NCAA – not taking into account that players had left school and many had lost everything — issued an academic sanction that limited scholarships and participation. And then there was the loss of Matt Derenbecker, the three-point ace who left the Dayton Flyers in 2013 and went back home to Louisiana, where it turned out he struggled with the same bipolar issues that plagued him here and had been misdiagnosed for so long.
He played just nine games for the Privateers, took a medical leave and committed suicide in August of 2014, a tragedy that shook both the Flyers and Privateers programs.
Slessinger got tearful talking about Derenbecker on Monday.
“Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t … chase me,” he said quietly. ”He had such a huge heart. He was as sweet as pie.”
Slessinger stays in contact with Derenbecker’s parents and said they sent him one of the first congratulatory messages after his team made the NCAA Tournament.
Fond memories of Dayton
Slessinger has coached in UD Arena once before.
He was a Northwestern State assistant when the team played Winthrop here in the very first play-in game in 2001.
“It was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had coaching and that was because of the city of Dayton and the approach the University of Dayton took toward this event,” he said. “They made it something special for our student athletes.
“So in preparing our team for this trip … that was a big piece of it, me telling them how great of an experience they were going to have in the city and in this storied arena. And it means a lot to me to be back here with this phenomenal group of student-athletes.”
It’s obvious this group of players has bought into what he is selling – both on the court and off.
“We do a lot of community service work,” Frye said. “It’s not for media attention …We do it because were still trying to help the city rebuild.”
Thomas smiled and nodded: “Whether it’s someone way out in the hood or way in the country…we’ve been everywhere. We’ve been places you never heard of in Louisiana, helping with floods, tornadoes, no matter what the situation was.
“So I’m actually proud to be a Privateer ‘cause I done helped so many families …and (gave) them that hope and that joy and that happiness back in their lives.”
And Slessinger said this trip to Dayton is accentuating that:
“There’s a lot of people that this means a lot to and it has nothing to do with basketball. But it means a lot to them that we’re back and we’re a champion … and people in the city feel like they’re champions again, too.”
So when you consider those helping hands back home and those extended hands here in Dayton, you realize all of us should being saying something to these guys: