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Back to school

Athletes have regained campus, spirit at Dillard U.

Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:08PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:08PM
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By Caitlin Moscatello, SI.com

Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.
--Charles Dickens

The Dillard University women's basketball players took off their shoes, snuck into the gym and turned on the lights. There was a moment of silence, and then laughter and screaming. As the fluorescent flicker from the ceiling lamps bounced off the newly waxed floors, skidded across the scoreboard and caught the bright orange rims holding up two perfectly white nets, a collective sigh of relief filled the room.

"It was a great release," said Kiki Barnes, coach of the Dillard Blue Devils and interim Athletic Director. "It was a 'We are back. This is our place.'"

The gym, much like the other 28 buildings on campus, had been submerged in nearly seven feet of water during Hurricane Katrina, courtesy of the overflowing London Canal that runs behind the library and several of the university's dorms. When the water was pumped out after the storm, the gym looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The wood floor had buckled, forming wave-like shapes. The basketball backboards had fallen off, and the bleachers were cracked in the places where they hadn't collapsed. But the reaction of Dillard's staff wasn't one of despair or defeat. It was determination to rebuild.

With the help of alumni donations, insurance money and aid from FEMA, the school was up and running by July 2006. In the interim, students and faculty were given the option to live in a nearby Hilton hotel. Classes were taught in hotel conference rooms. Basketball practices and workouts were held there as well.

"I lived in the Hilton for a semester with my husband and our two children," said Barnes. "It was hard, but we did it. And you know what? It made us closer as a family. And it made all of us at Dillard a family as well, because we were all in it together, trying to make this work."

But not all members of the team returned that spring semester. Brandy Vincent, now 20, had been at Dillard for just two weeks when Katrina hit. She evacuated to McNeese State and debated going home to her family in Ohio permanently, tired of moving and not knowing if the school she had applied to just a year before would ever reopen.

"I was wondering if God was sending me signs that maybe I should take a break from school, and I also thought about talking to some of the coaches that recruited me for basketball the year before," said Vincent. "But something didn't feel right about it. I wanted to go back to my school and play for my team."

Vincent wasn't the only one to return. In fact, most student-athletes came back, including the remainder of the women's basketball team. For Barnes, it was a sign of things to come. She knew what she was taking on when she signed on to stay at Dillard -- a campus that was being renovated, students scattered across the country, an athletic program with no training facilities, no stadium, no home base. But she also had the instinct that her team would return.

"Our kids could have gone anywhere in the country," she said. "They could have accepted scholarships. They could have stayed at the University of Georgia or Rice or any of the other schools they initially evacuated to. But they came back. They came back here."

Barnes's intuition might have seemed more like blind faith in the months following Katrina. "This university was left for dead," said communications director Karen Celestan. "It was so flooded that three buildings burned down because the fire trucks couldn't even get on the campus. The water was too high. So we had to let them burn."

Among those buildings was Vincent's dorm. On the day before Katrina hit, as classmates ran down the hall yelling that everyone needed to evacuate, Vincent heeded her father's advice and took a chunk of savings from her bank account, filled up her car with gas, and got out of New Orleans. As the campus she had come to know in such a short time faded in her rearview mirror, Vincent never imagined the road ahead, how long it would be, where it would lead her.

"I felt sort of out of my own body," she said. "I didn't think that I was going through it, but then I knew that I was. The media started calling us refugees and evacuees."

It was another out of body experience then, a year and a half later, back to the night when Vincent stretched out on the basketball court alongside her teammates, savoring the sanctuary of their home court.

And yet another, as the very same women who had once been called refugees put on their uniforms and faced rival Xavier the next day on that very same wood floor. They heard the crowd cheering from those very same stands, watched the score light up on that very same board, tossed up three-pointers into those very same nets.

"Walking onto that floor, I felt like somebody," said Vincent. "I felt like I was making history. We're coming back after all of this, and not a lot of people would do that."

Xavier won the game, overcoming a surprising charge from the Dillard in the first half. But it's been another year, and now the Blue Devils, returning to campus for the second time post-Katrina, have had even more time to rebuild. And they haven't just rebuilt their campus -- although the only structures left to be renovated are the President's House, two of the dorms and the original library. And they haven't just rebuilt their team -- although there are five promising recruits this year and Barnes is confident about the upcoming season.

They have done something much more remarkable; they have rebuilt their spirit. And they've done it in the only place possible.