Tulane win 'step in right direction' for city

NEW ORLEANS -- As she stood on the Fogelman Arena floor, the Tulane Green Wave logo under her feet, Lisa Stockton couldn't find even the slightest of seconds for herself.

Friends, teachers, parents, strangers -- they all wanted hugs. They all wanted to say thank you. And they all wanted to welcome the Tulane women's basketball coach home.

Her players, zigzagging their way through the 829 fans in attendance Sunday, were having just as much trouble as their coach. Only they were the ones doing the hugging. They were the ones saying thank you.

It had been almost four months since this group had been home, four months since Hurricane Katrina sent them to Lubbock, Texas, to go to classes, play basketball and pretend life was normal.

Yet here they now were, 10 girls and their coach, bringing big-time athletics back to New Orleans. Without students on campus, without class in session, this group from Tulane, "carrying the torch," as university president Scott Cowen likes to say, sent a message to everyone from Boise to Boston with its 72-60 victory over Central Connecticut State.

"This lets everybody know, 'We're fine. We're OK,' " freshman guard Ashley Langford said. " 'Tulane University is going to be back. The city of New Orleans is going to be back.'

"It just gives people some hope."

And in these parts, that might be what they need most. For Sunday wasn't about Tom Benson, George Shinn or any other owner worrying about its bottom line. It was simply about playing a game, in its simplest form. It was about an orange ball and two glass backboards bringing together a team, a university and perhaps most importantly, a city.

"There are so many steps that need to be taken for the city to get back to where it was," junior guard and co-captain Jami Montagnino said. "But while that's taking place, we just want to try to give these people a sense of entertainment, a brief escape."

It was a weekend that the team had been counting down to on a dry erase board since they arrived in Lubbock. The weekend they'd get to eat jambalaya. The weekend they'd go back in their dorms and dig out what was left of their stuff. And the weekend that they'd take to the floor, look down and see not the black and red of the Red Raiders, but the blue and green of the Green Wave.

"It felt good for a change," Langford said.

So, too, did the presence of sports in New Orleans. For the better part of two hours Sunday, life -- at least within the confines of one tiny basketball arena -- seemed normal. Fans yelled at referees. Coaches yelled at players. And players pretended like they didn't hear any of it.

The smell was that of freshly made popcorn. The sound was that of shoes squeaking, a ball dribbling and college-aged girls shrieking.

Three hours before tip off, in front of the building next to the arena, there were even tailgaters, an estimated 40 or so die-hards, complete with a keg of ice cold Bud Light and a vat of boiling hot dogs. In between bites and brews, the Ray Hester Chapter of the Tulane Booster Club shared storm stories, caught up on how everyone was managing and told hurricane jokes about the recovery efforts.

"What does FEMA stand for?" asked tailgater Robbie Kent. "Failure to Effectively Manage Anything."

Yet just down the street, a quick reminder of reality. A hammer smashing into drywall. A chainsaw cutting down tree limbs. Two women, dressed in all-white, plastic hazmat suits, sweeping up the garbage from a street gutter. Not far from there, a never-ending stream of mini-billboards bringing attention to the city's non-stop rebuilding state.





The images from what happened to New Orleans those fateful days in late August and early September will never be erased. Families getting airlifted from their rooftops, children stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center, miles upon miles of flooding.

Even today, nearly four months later, driving through the ravaged Lakeview neighborhood is a jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching experience. House after house, on block after block, is destroyed, gutted, with that infamous giant X on the door, informing authorities if any dead bodies were found inside.

Even the drive to Tulane, along Claiborne Avenue, is littered with reminders. Block after block, gas stations, fast food restaurants, barber shops, grocery stores, drug stores -- they're all closed. They're all ruined. One of the team's main concerns? That their favorite hangout on Claiborne, the Camellia Grille, will someday reopen.

"We heard it had burned down, but it didn't," sophomore guard Nikki Luckhurst said. "It's there. It's just a question of when it's going to be back."

Despite the destruction, signs of hope are everywhere. Closer to the French Quarter, Emeril's and Café du Monde are open -- without a table to be had. Streetcars are running. Artists are selling paintings in Jackson Square. Bourbon Street is open -- and clean. On Saturday night, a man dressed like Santa pranced up and down the neon-lit street as if someone had squeezed a tube of Icy Hot in his shorts.

And Sunday, the city hosted its first sporting event, in front of the second-largest crowd to watch a women's basketball game at Fogelman in two years.

"Every time something restarts or opens up, it's a step in the right direction," Stockton said. "We can't use the word normal. Things won't be normal for a long time. But this is a step in the direction we want to be heading."

About two-thirds of the Tulane campus flooded after the storm. Estimates to rebuild have already exceeded $200 million. There are no students. No classes. School won't re-open for another month. And just last week, the school announced 230 faculty layoffs, including the suspension of eight sports teams, four of which were conference champions.

It all made a victory on Sunday that much sweeter.

"There was a lot of pressure on our team and I felt it myself," Stockton said. "Because a win would really have just capped it all off. It would have been the best tribute to our fans. So I'm proud of the way our team responded."

Which was by jumping out to a 9-0 lead that climbed to double digits in the second half. The highlight might have come when play was stopped. With 3:58 left and the team up by 10, Stockton called a timeout to instruct her girls for the stretch run. In the last row of the bleachers, a man stood up with a trumpet and played the Tulane fight song. Every single fan in attendance stood, clapped along and cheered.

There wasn't a goosebump-free forearm in the building, as the roller coaster of emotions everyone had been dealing with outside the arena were temporarily erased.

When the game ended, Stockton grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd.

"We're so happy to be home," she said with a smile. "I can't tell you how much it means to our team, our staff, our players, to be back here. We are here for you all year long and hopefully we will represent you well. Thank you."

From there, the hugs began. Stockton on the floor, unable to get more than a few words with a single person until someone else grabbed her and her players in the stands, thanking the fans for all their support.

"I don't know if I've ever hugged so many people, before a game, behind the bench and then after a game," Stockton said. "But there are so many faces, so many people you haven't seen in so long and you worry about them. You don't know what happened to them. You think about them. So it was just great to be home and see all those faces again."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.