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Lady Griz And UM Fans Open Hearts To Hurricane Victims

Photo courtesy of Mario Tama/Getty Images

For this, of course, there could be no precedent. A college basketball team forced to move 400 miles from its home campus after one of the nation’s most deadly and costly natural disasters. Going to classes in unfamiliar buildings filled with unfamiliar faces, practicing in any available time slot in any available gym in a city that wasn’t theirs. Living in off-campus apartments, the student-athlete lifestyle of classwork and practice familiar but now turned totally upside down. The New Orleans women’s basketball team arrived in Montana in December 2005 ready for a break from a routine that was in no way routine. The disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina, which killed over 1,800 people and produced more than $81 billion in damages to the Privateers’ home city, state and region, had forced the relocation of the UNO women’s basketball team to Tyler, Texas.

Since Labor Day they had endured and persevered, writing the textbook on a subject for which there were only blank pages. In December the team bused from Tyler to Dallas, flew to Spokane and bused to Missoula. The demands of school were put on hold during the Christmas break, and all the feelings they associated with Tyler, Texas, were not allowed in their travel bags.

The team was looking forward to some relief and a chance — for the first time that season — to feel like college students on a basketball road trip. What they weren’t expecting — but what they found, according to then women’s basketball coach Amy Champion — was “love. That’s the best way to describe it. We felt really loved.

“To this day, for any of those student-athletes who made that trip, it still brings tears to their eyes.”

Hurricane Katrina started as a tropical depression near the Bahamas in late August 2005. It would be six days before the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history powered its way northwest through the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the Gulf States, centering on southern Louisiana and New Orleans. Champion was entering her second season at UNO that year and at the time doing everything she could to promote the Privateers. That meant attending functions like charity bowling events, which is where Champion and her team were less than two days before Katrina made landfall.

Like everybody at the bowling alley, they had one eye on the pins and one on the television news reports.

“We were all watching the storm very, very closely. Everybody on campus had already been notified that we may have to evacuate,” Champion, now New Orleans’ director of athletics, recalled this week.

With Katrina gaining strength, the evacuation notice came at 5 p.m. Saturday. Champion and her staff had a window of time measurable in not days but only hours to get her players off campus and out of New Orleans and harm’s way to a spot of safety inland. “Most of our kids were from the Southeast region, so I immediately sent a number of them home in their own cars. We put some on buses and took three to the airport and put them on planes.

“And then I actually had three that went home with me to Jackson, Miss.,” she says.

Katrina made landfall Monday morning. Champion, her staff and her players did what everybody in the region who had taken precautions did. They hunkered down wherever they had landed and watched the horror play out on television.

The early warnings had been grave, but no one could have predicted the damage that ensued, particularly to the city of New Orleans. The trusted levee system failed, and 80 percent of the city flooded.

The Privateers, scattered across the region and without the ability to communicate, were left without a city to which they could safely return.

“No one ever imagined when we left that it would be weeks before we got back to the city. I didn’t return to my home until November,” Champion says.

“It was just true devastation and pretty overwhelming in general. The storm wiped out communication in the region, so we lost touch with our kids and the entire department for six or seven days.

“Basketball was the last thing on our minds at that point.”

But still, soon after Katrina had bullied her way north and finally run out of steam near the Great Lakes, the questions had to be asked by somebody. Would there even be athletics at New Orleans that year? Should there be? Could there be? And how?

Looking back four years to 9/11 and the healing that was speeded up by a return of sports to the national scene, the director of athletics and the UNO chancellor made the decision that the school’s seasons needed to go on.

Amid the region’s destruction, maybe something as simple as the sound of a ball bouncing on a hardwood floor could generate a feeling of normalcy and provide a small diversion from the monumental effort everyone was facing of returning the UNO campus and New Orleans to what they had been just days before.

Without a functioning campus to return to, the New Orleans men’s and women’s basketball teams were relocated to Tyler, where they were immediately enrolled in classes at UT-Tyler and set up in off-campus apartments.

The campus was welcoming, but the Privateers were still interlopers. They tried to move forward with their season as best they could.

“We practiced anywhere we could that fall,” Champion says. “Volleyball was in season and UT-Tyler had its basketball teams that needed to practice, so we were fourth and fifth down the line to get practice times.

“We practiced anywhere from 5 a.m. to 10 o’clock at night, and used every facility in town, even church gyms.”

The Privateers became a team without a home. A game against Nicholls State was played at UTT’s Herrington Patriot Center. That would be as close to a home game as New Orleans would enjoy leading up to its trip to Montana for the Holiday Classic.

After 10 games and nine losses, after a semester of trying to balance classes at UTT with some newly formed online classes at UNO, after doing the best it could under the circumstances for which it had no control and no guide, the team packed its bags and headed to Montana.

“It was a trip we were really looking forward to, even before Katrina. A number of our student-athletes had never been out of the South. We thought it was going to be a fantastic trip,” Champion says.

Because of Katrina and the relocation and all the challenges of the previous four months, the trip took on new meaning. It would only last a few days, but the trip would finally simplify their lives to 1) the team and 2) basketball, with a heavy emphasis on the former.

“It was a trip we thought could provide a little relief, a little fun and some bonding,” Champion says.

“Having gone through everything leading up to that, it was a trip we thought we could go on and take a deep breath and really enjoy.”

They arrived in Missoula feeling forgotten. They were a small band of staff and players that had been both hardened and worn out by the fall’s events. They arrived with an us-against-the-world mentality, and in Missoula they received something they were least expecting. They found a sense of family.

The history books will remember the 26th Lady Griz Holiday Classic as being Montana’s 23rd tournament championship. There was a semifinal victory over New Orleans and a championship game win over UNC Asheville. North Dakota State was also in the field.

Montana sophomore Dana Conway earned MVP honors. Freshman Mandy Morales was named to the all-tournament team. New Orleans went 0-2 at the tournament to drop to 1-11 for the season.

But history books are limited. They can’t record emotions, and their narrow focus on the black and white misses the beautiful memories that reside in the gray areas in between.

More than six years later, Champion, in a recent email to UM Director of Athletics Jim O’Day, can still recall in emotional and vivid detail her team’s trip to Missoula.

-Reflecting back on that time in my life, my student-athletes’ lives and my staff’s lives brings back some very moving moments, and being a participant in the tournament that year will be a memory we will never forget.

To this day I will never forget the warm welcome from you and your staff the moment we arrived on campus.

The day the tournament began, you pulled me aside at our shoot-around and said, “Tonight we are placing collection buckets at each entrance to our facility for our fans to donate money to your program.”

I fought hard to hold back the tears, knowing you were averaging over 4,000 fans per game. All I could do was hug you and thank you for this wonderful gesture and gift.

When the first game began, I watched in amazement as the fans piled in. Then halftime came and the announcement was made for our team to come to half court. The public address announcer told our story of loss and grief, of our challenges and struggles. I glanced around at my staff and players, and there was not a dry face among them, including my own.

When the announcer finished, your fans rose to their feet, and their support through their applause for our university, our department, our kids and our city was amazing.

That was the loudest applause any of us had ever heard, and to this day I still hear it. I will never forget it. What an incredible experience for us at that time in our lives.

I still get emotional retelling the story, and when you ask the players from that team today about their experience at the University of Montana, they too shed tears. It was a true display of love and support for us just being there and having survived.

We traveled that entire year, but for some reason that trip brought us closer together. And it was because of the support that Missoula showed for us. It will forever be in our minds and hearts. Go Griz!!!

—–

UNO would finish that season 3-25, and if she could go back and be the one to make the decision with the hindsight she now enjoys, Champion would not have played that season.

The challenges of relocating to a new city and a new school were difficult enough. Those were compounded by trying to force a basketball season into a tableau that could hardly support it.

But the Privateers persevered. The season had a dozen lows for each single high, but that’s what made the few highs so memorable.

“It was really difficult for our student-athletes to have any sense of normalcy whatsoever during that time,” Champion says. “There was not a normal day in their lives for seven or eight months.

“But there were some positives that came out of it. The tournament in Missoula was definitely one of them.”

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