New Orleans East

I spent almost all day in New Orleans East.

This is not a glamorous part of New Orleans. Do you remember when, after Katrina, there were some plans publicized to turn some residential areas into park land? Some of that talk was about this part of the city.

This morning we drove to a church out on Lake Forest Boulevard that is more or less surrounded by ruined houses. The Apostolic Outreach Center, led by Pastor Raymond R. Watson Jr., is still in the process of being rebuilt itself. This church is in a neighborhood where getting a FEMA Trailer Park on the back lot was considered an upgrade. Many of the houses we saw driving around were entirely abandoned.

But the church was hopping today. The likes of Elgin Baylor, Bo Kimble, Jonathan Bender, Moses Malone, Robert Pack, ML Carr, and others were there with team t-shirts on, distributing groceries to those who came by looking for them.

The groceries were donated by Fairway. You have never seen so many Terra Chips in your life.

A lot of what happened there was caught on camera, and we'll be showing you some of that. But a few things that you probably won't see:

  • Jonathan Bender, from nearby Picayune, is doing well even after his NBA career was cut short. He is making a full-time job out of Hurricane Katrina recovery in this area. Christmas present programs, helping a school refurbish their moldy library, reading stories to kids, running free basketball camps ... he's putting his time and his treasure to work for this region. Bender has been buying damaged properties, hiring contractors to fix them up, and then renting them out. It's amazing how uplifting it is to see houses getting fixed up on blocks where everything is abandoned. He invited us on a trip to see some of his nearby projects, but time was tight. We might get to see it anyway, however -- Bender recently hired a production company to make a pilot of a reality show about such things called Brand New Orleans.

  • Aaron James played for the New Orleans Jazz during their five years here. Elgin Baylor was his coach. Before practice, he says, they would play half-court. We're talking about hundreds, if not thousands of games through the years. During that time, James was never once on a team that beat Baylor. "I call him 'the great,'" says James, "because he is great at everything he does." (Insert joke here about Clipper personnel decisions through the years.)

  • Remember the great Bo Kimble? He has a full career for himself after basketball -- investing in real estate and all kinds of things. But he says he's good to go -- ready to return to the NBA. He's playing recreationally three times a week, and says his jumper is better than ever. He joked about talking to Elgin Baylor about a job with the Clippers, whom, he points out, "could use a little scoring. At least, I thought he was joking. Then later, I actually saw him talking to Elgin Baylor in a fairly serious fashion.

Swinging Hammers with NBA Players
Early this afternoon I was "embedded" with Chris Duhon as he went about helping to build houses in East New Orleas for Habitat for Humanity. (You have have seen NBA TV this morning broadcasting live from a wet and muddy homebuilding site. That's where we went.)

The first step was meeting up with the players in the Sheraton lobby. Then we got on a bus to the work site. As one of a handful of "embedded" journalists, I got to ride on the player bus, instead of the media bus.

Didn't seem like that big of a deal. I plopped down in the back, and then Duhon sat down across the aisle. Paul Pierce sat in front of him, Kobe Bryant in front of him, Doc Rivers was there, Amare Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Morris Peterson ... All the other journalists were in the front. But I was back there feeling small.

It occured to me that this was probably the kind of experience you could get a lot of money for at a charity auction. I was there probably close to an hour over the whole round-trip.

Topics of conversation covered included:

  • Debate about whether or not Gerald Green had a chance against Jamario Moon in the dunk contest. Green said that if he lost, it would be because he beat himself. Pierce said a lot of things, but one of them was that if Green could pass the ball between his legs twice on one jump, then Pierce would retire from basketball. Pierce also offered to jump off a second-floor balcony we passed by. I swear I have seen this dunk by somebody on YouTube. But Green sure wasn't suggesting he could do it.

  • To put it mildly, these players seemed to think the Lakers got the good end of the Pau Gasol deal. Gasol, it is interesting to note, never seemed to get such remarkable reviews when he played for Memphis. But now that he's a Laker, no one can stop singing his praises. Context is everything.

  • Kobe Bryant has a big ol' Darth Vader style brace protecting that pinkie.

  • Several players remembered playing against Jeff Hornacek, and remembered, with a certain admiration, that they hated playing against him. He is credited with having been a certain kind of old school tough and physical that isn't allowed anymore. He was also, they say, pretty darned sneaky, especially in how and when he'd slip to the hoop.

Then we got to the building site. It was raining pretty hard, so some of the superstars (cough, Amare, cough) found jobs inside. But Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Chris Duhon, Gerald Green, and Morris Peterson worked outside. Kobe Bryant did too, but he made the rounds, visiting various pretty much all of the workers all over the site. He assigned himself the task of getting the lumber in the proper place, as he really could not swing a hammer with that pinkie like it is. I'll say here, that Kobe was great in this role -- with a lot of people moving all over, he was really able to quickly figure out what had to be done and how he could be most helpful.

It was my first time on a Habitat for Humanity site, and it was amazingly cool. They have the wood all marked, the tools all in place, so pretty much anyone who can swing a hammer can quickly assemble an entire interior wall. With so much prep work already done, and many hands, it's incredibly satisfying to be able to construct big things like houses really quickly.

I worked with the players. It was a little weird -- most of the media just watched. And there was a lot of media there. But man, the NBA invited us to help rebuild New Orleans! Highlight of my trip! I wanted to pound some nails, and feel like I had at least done a little something. (So there are probably a lot of photos out there of famous NBA people and some random bald blogger. But whatever.)

It was also a chance to do something physical, which is always welcome on business trips. And I can pound some nails! I have done such things before, and I was ready, unlike some NBA players. Doc Rivers -- he can pound nails. I think Pierce was pretty good. I'm not vouching for anybody else, but we did get three or four interior walls constructed in something like 40 minutes.

Once I got a rhythm going, I was humming along. Didn't bend nails, didn't miss and hit my finger. Didn't split the wood. It was all good.

But then, towards the end of our short time on the job, I put a nail closer to a knot than I probably should have. It was a little bit of a cocky move. I pounded it pretty hard too, before the nail started to buckle. There were big framing nails, too wide to power through this knot. It was my first nailing error of the day. I turned the hammer around and started to yank it out.

Then here comes Gerald Green. "Need some help with that?" He said it with just the slightest suggestion that maybe this was a job for a professional.

I had found that the nail wasn't budging at all, and was only too happy to stand back and let Green crank on it -- especially as 2 x 4 it was pounded into wasn't affixed to anything, so good leverage was hard to come

The man they call G. Green yanked and pulled and grunted for some time. Eventually, the Habitat guy in charge of the project came over and saw that Green's bad nail was the holdup. "Want me to get that?"

Green was only too happy to join me on the sidelines. Kobe Bryant came over to watch, too, as had several TV cameras and photographers. The pro was about to go to work.

He had technique, and power. He used kind of a repeated jackrabbit type yank yank yank but the thing was not moving. "Man," he exclaimed to Gerald, "what'd you do to get that thing in there?"

Decision time. Gerald was getting credited with this work -- was it good work (hard hammering!) or bad work (dumb spot!)? I didn't know. I leaned towards good. And decided not to steal Gerald's thunder, especially when I knew those TV cameras had already had enough of me.

Yank yank yank the guy just kept tearing at it. He cranked and cranked on it, and wondered how the hell G. Green got that nail in there like that.

Then: the whole hammer busted right in half, straight through the handle, just below the head. Nail: still in place. Hammer: done.

I was proud I had been the one that got that nail in there like that. But I let Gerald soak in that pride. My pride. Like Gerald broke the hammer.

I handed the Habitat guy my hammer, which had a metal, instead of a wooden handle. He finished pulling out the nail in silence as the rain fell.

And then Kobe said to Green, of me: Whoa, man. That's cold. He didn't say a word.

Kobe couldn't believe I didn't 'fess up to the tough nail. G. Green got into the act too, ribbing me about that, playing mock victim.

Finally, I say it's cool: I'll take credit for it. But the Habitat guy is gone. And so are the TV cameras. It's too late. The world thinks that Gerald did that. I hereby formally admit: this evening New Orleans East is one hammer down, and it's all my fault.