Chased by disaster, Oubres make it to NBA with unrelenting determination

Kelly Oubre Sr.'s drive to assist his son helped Kelly Oubre Jr. become the 15th overall pick in 2015. Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- In the middle of darkness, Kelly Oubre Sr., piled as much as he could into a Toyota Sequoia along with his wife and 9-year-old son, Kelly Jr.

It was 3 a.m. and Oubre was soon driving as fast and as far as he could into nowhere. He wasn't sure where he was going -- he just wanted to find a big city. His home, New Orleans, was under siege by Hurricane Katrina and it wasn't safe anymore. He thought Louisiana cities such as Baton Rouge and Lake Charles were too small. With his mind racing for clarity, he considered stopping in Beaumont, Texas.

Too small.

"It was a tough decision, but pretty much a no-brainer," Oubre recalled in a phone conversation about that drive in the wee hours of that 2005 morning. "I called around to my family and a couple of them were staying to ride it out. As a father, I had to make a decision in regards to my family. So we got on the road and we just left."

Oubre drove to Houston and checked into a motel.

It was nasty.

Dead roaches made their burial grounds on the motel floor. The rooms weren't cleaned every day. All three of the Oubres -- father, stepmom and son -- slept on the same bed. Soon more relatives made their way to the motel.

"We were living like peasants," Kelly Jr. said.

For Kelly Sr., 46, this was his chance to never go back to New Orleans. Where one saw despair and hopelessness, he saw the presence of an opportunity.

"In my mind, I thought we were going back home," the son said.

Today, Kelly Oubre Jr., 19, enters his rookie season as a professional basketball player for the Washington Wizards. He was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks No. 15 overall before he was traded to the nation's capital. For a kid who was just 9-years-old when his father took him in the middle of the night on crowded highways from the only home he knew to Texas, the journey was a humbling experience.

It's one he'll never forget.

"We had nothing," Kelly Jr. said. "City is torn, house messed up. It was sad."

The Oubres aren't alone.

The population in New Orleans dipped dramatically since that night on Aug. 29, 2005. In 2004, it was roughly 445,000. Now the 2014 estimates from the U.S. Census are 384,320.

Many residents left the city never to return because their homes and jobs vanished.

"The gym was our safe haven. We go in and train and I would train him and he had that dog in him. Nothing against Houston, but you got a lot of fat kids. Everybody got everything, big house, big cars. When a dog comes to town we're looking to take some s---. We're not coming with a big car or big house. We had a New Orleans mentality. We're still hustling." Kelly Oubre Sr.

In some cases, people lost everything, even relationships. Oubre's wife left him when he decided to remain in Houston, leaving father and son to figure things out.

"Some people have returned and some of them did not," said Dr. Charles Vincent, a professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge where he teaches about the Civil War and Reconstruction. "Some almost willed themselves to death, it was so dramatic. For them, you never know. The 1,800 people that died in the storm, we don't know how many may have died just because they lost everything and they couldn't wrap their minds around the trauma of it."

Vincent, 69, said he has talked to several students who find it hard to communicate what happened to them and their families. He tells a story of one student, a history major, whom he pushed to write a paper about the traumatic experience of Katrina. It was difficult at first to write it but "she eventually did," he said. Vincent said the report was one of the best things the student had done.

Kelly Sr. was determined not to let the effects of Katrina destroy him and his son.

He worked numerous jobs while living in Houston, leaving his young son at home as he clocked hours on the overnight shift at Sam's Club. And that wasn't the first job. At one point, the father worked three jobs, selling Yellow Pages ads, placard cards on shopping carts and insurance until finally settling on getting his teaching certification.

Oubre also finished the only class he needed at the University of Phoenix to complete his degree.

He kept fighting to put food on the table and eventually settled in Richmond, Texas, while his son worked on his basketball game.

The son played ball well in three seasons at Bush High School, averaging 22.7 points per game in his junior season. The father wanted better competition for his son, so after battling the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, who eventually played college in Kentucky, the Oubres moved again. This time a pending storm wasn't forcing a move, but a chance for the son to showcase himself against tougher competition on the basketball court was.

The Oubres moved to Henderson, Nevada, where Kelly Jr. averaged 23 points per game for Findlay Prep during his senior season.

Heavily recruited, he finally selected Kansas over Kentucky and Florida.

"The gym was our safe haven," the father said. "We go in and train and I would train him and he had that dog in him. Nothing against Houston, but you got a lot of fat kids. Everybody got everything, big house, big cars. When a dog comes to town we're looking to take some s---. We're not coming with a big car or big house. We had a New Orleans mentality. We're still hustling."

Oubre excelled at Kansas where he earned All-Big 12 honorable mention honors and was named to the Big 12 all-newcomer team last season.

He turned professional and was drafted.

His success story is like one of many for those who left New Orleans for Houston or various other cities. The father and son will never forget what happened to them.


"He's at the apartment by himself, you just don't realize how it affected him until we talked about it," the father said of the son. "A lot of self-medication is going on without the alcohol. A lot of self-counseling between me and him. No vices going on. At the time, we're solders, we know what we got to do and I want him to go to school and have fun.

"'Ride with me on this. It's going to work.' We did the daddy-son thing. The man thing. We're strong. We're bull-sh------ each other the whole time coming. I'm dying inside and he's dying inside, but all I know is we can't go back to that place we came from cause he wouldn't have had a chance."

The son visits family and friends in New Orleans, including an older sister and a younger brother.

But the son doesn't believe he has made it just because he's in the NBA. He won't allow himself to think that way.

"I think that sometimes, but then I go back to reality," Kelly Jr. said while riding through Washington one day last week. "I'm not there yet. I've been through all that stuff, but I'm not done yet. When I had the success when I was younger, it isn't satisfying to me. I want to be great at what I do.

"I have a story that not everybody can relate to. Everybody struggles and everybody goes through adversity. But what are you going to do when your home is taken from you? You change dramatically and you got to continue to make a way. Not everybody can say they did that.

"I'm just not satisfied, that's just me."