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The clamor of Carnival formed a filling backdrop last week for the University of New Orleans basketball team, a bizarre ensemble that has a high-flying hair-shaving act called the Dell Boys, a troupe of ex-rivals and a coach who would just as soon slop hogs. As a Mardi Gras krewe passed Lake Pontchartrain in oblivious revelry last Monday, the motley UNO crew was celebrating an 89-63 blowout of Southwestern Louisiana that would help make it the winningest team in school history. With a 25-3 record, a No. 14 ranking and their first NCAA bid a lock the Privateers have let the Crescent City know that les bons temps—and big-time roundball—have just begun to roll.
UNO is a 29-year-old state-run commuter school of 17,000 that lacks what Louisianians love most: tradition. Privateer basketball began as Division II in 1969 and was successful. But a graph of the Bucs' fortunes since they moved up to Division I in '76 would parallel a barfly's path down Bourbon Street. Things were looking up in 1973 when the state first talked about funding the 10,000-seat Lakefront Arena. Numerous political hassles, $38 million and 10 years later, the arena was finally finished.
The facility—a pyramid with a flattop—attracted Alabama assistant Benny Dees to UNO's vacant head coach job two years ago. "The blooming thing is beautiful." says Dees. 49. "The school didn't know what they had." But UNO knew what it was getting in the D-oriented Dees: a down-home boy (he gave up coaching for five years to raise hogs in his native Mt. Vernon. Ga.) who had already built one program from scratch ( Virginia Commonwealth) and who sported a self-deprecating wit ("the only way I can carry on an intelligent conversation with Dean Smith is if we talk about farmin' or fishin' ").
On one of his first far-flung recruiting missions for UNO, it hit Dees that he had left the Bucs' best prospects back in New Orleans. So he did a U-turn and began pitching to Tulane's finest, who were teamless after the school dropped hoops in April 1985 in the wake of a point-shaving scandal. In the end. Dees not only bagged four players from Tulane, but he also picked up six of its Metro Conference games, an assistant coach and the P.A. announcer. "The only thing I liked about Tulane was when I left, they gave me a $200 ink pen." says the P.A. man. Pat Matthews.
The prize catch was 6'8" tower of power Ronnie Grandison, who has averaged a steadying 16.9 points, 9.7 boards and 1.9 steals in two years with the Bucs. "After the scandal, basketball in this city was like a foul word, a bad language." Grandison, a senior from L.A., recalls. "Because I'm a tall black person, people would ask me if I went to Tulane, and I was kind of ashamed to admit I did." Then why did he stay in New Orleans'? "It's a great feeling to start on the ground level and build something." And now? "The city has basketball again."
After the ex-Green Waves rolled into the Lakefront last season. UNO went 16-12 without an outside complement to Grandison. Enter 6'5" Ledell Eackles (rhymes with freckles), who had been the '86 junior college player of the year at San Jacinto College, the national juco champ. A barrel-chested 220-pounder from Baton Rouge, he can muscle up three-pointers and float in acrobatic turnarounds. Eackles arrived at UNO tagged HANDLE WITH CARE: After academic difficulties during his senior year at Broadmoor High he dropped out of school with two months to go: he had disagreements with his coach at San Lick and left the team for two week-, "Everyone said I'd never make it. I'm too bullheaded," he savs "So I came back here to show them."
Eackles has averaged 22.7 points at UNO and his behavior has been, Well, almost model. Ledell and his partner in 'dell-dom, 6'6" instant-offense sub Wendell (Bird) Perkins, showed up for practice last month with the right halves of their heads shaved and the left halves clipped in an X. "It was just a design," says Perkins, an ex-juco from Jacksonville ( Texas) College. "You know—dare to be different." Dees dared them to be normal. The Dell Boys shaved down, and things have gone smoothly since.
Despite UNO's success this season, the team's ability and the program's viability are still uncertain. The Bucs are deep and talented, but also sloppy and volatile. "We'll play hard man-to-man." Dees says, "but sometimes our shot selection's the call of the wild." As a poor but fearsome independent. UNO has been stuck with a schedule that, like jambalaya, is a hodgepodge, (Next year, the school will join the new, six-team American South Athletic Conference.) And though the Bucs' average attendance of 4,358 was a record for college hoops in New Orleans, that's not half of what Lakefront can hold
"This is a big-event town," says assistant AD Will Peneguy. "People want a blowout—Mardi Gras, the Sugar Bowl, the Pope, the Final Four this year at the Superdome." A team in the host city hasn't made it to the NCAA's Big Show since UCLA in 1972. If it happened on the bayou, that would be a good time—and a tradition born overnight.