THE POINT GUARDnearly drowned in his own house.
The coach losthis home.
The shootingguard spent five weeks in a cramped hotel room with no power or water.
Their leaky gymhad no heat.
And they almostkilled each other.
So you tell me:How in the world did Ehret High win the Louisiana state basketballchampionship?
"When youthink about where we started," says Ehret's coach, Allen Collins, "it'snothing short of incredible."
Where theystarted was in Marrero, La., 10 minutes from New Orleans, on Aug. 28, 2005, theday Hurricane Katrina turned the whole area into a watery hell. "I wasafraid for my life," says Ehret guard Gary Davis, who was trapped for dayson the second floor of his house in New Orleans. "Choppers saw us and keptgoing past. I just kept thinking about hoops. It was the only thing that mademe happy."
Hoops? The gym atEhret High was a wreck. There would be no time for conditioning orweightlifting. But Collins wanted to try to play anyway. "I made acommitment 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 asAtlanta.
He found a coupleof 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 nomoney in Ehret's budget for athletics, Collins couldn't even buy his kidsaftergame pizza. They made do with Salvation Army meals and cold MREs donatedby 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 hadto withdraw from a Thanksgiving tournament. Couldn't afford a bus driver.
Remarkably,things got worse. Most players had no transportation. For a while, only seniorguard 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 unsettledfamilies.
Hundreds of phonecalls later, Collins finally quilted together a patchwork team--10 kids fromfive schools, including a cocky inner-city transfer named Brian Randolph whomnobody on the team liked. The feeling was mutual.
"He just hadan attitude all the time," says Ehret's star forward, Christian Wall, whostill lives in a trailer on his front lawn. The Ehret kids bickered almostdaily with Randolph and the non-Ehret kids. It was like West Side Story inReeboks.
They lost earlyand they lost often, then started 1-2 in the district. "We were at a pointof no return," Collins said. So before a must-win game, he threw them allinto a room and told them, Work it out, or the season is lost.
And lo andbehold, 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 justcouldn't bear losing hoops.
Randolph backeddown and became a passer and a screener and a rebounder. Transfer NicholasWashington, who'd been a star at Cohen High, swallowed hard and let Wall becomethe go-to guy. Everyone else chipped in as best he could. And they won 10 oftheir next 11.
"Othercoaches would ask me, 'How are you doing this?'" Collins recalled. "I'dsay, '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 youknow, Ehret was in the state 5A championship game, playing Woodlawn of BatonRouge, a school whose biggest distraction all year was cheerleader practice.And while Woodlawn and the other semifinalists were happily snuggled in theirhotel rooms near the Cajundome in Lafayette, Ehret commuted 2 1/2 hours eachway back to their couches. They couldn't afford rooms.
Yet somehow,against all logic, Ehret beat Woodlawn, the most powerful team in thestate--with the clinching dunk coming from none other than Brian Randolph. Itwas hard to decide who was crying harder, the players or their emotionallyspent parents. "A mismatched bunch of riffraff won it all," Collinsbeams. "It's like Hoosiers!"
Actually, it'sbigger than that. Ehret's Katrina Comeback has been a little patch of blue skyfor a ravaged city, a symbol of how things can be rebuilt when you don't carewho gets the credit.
"We showedNew Orleans that different parts of the city can come together and do somethinggreat," Randolph says. "I mean, I know Katrina might be horrible forsome people, but it was a blessing for us."
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The success of Ehret High has come to be a patch ofblue sky for a ravaged city, a symbol of how things can be rebuilt when youdon't care who gets the credit.
PETER READ MILLER