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In an empty locker room at the University of New Orleans sit reminders of coach Joe Pasternack's team: A handwritten letter addressed to Charles Carmouche, with love, from his godmother. (The Privateers' shooting guard and leading scorer last season, has moved on to Memphis.) A laminated sheet of expectations for point guard Carl Blair. (Blair will be playing for Oklahoma this season.) A business card, smudged with fingerprints, from an assistant coach at Akron. (Small forward Quincy Diggs is suiting up for the Zips.)
Only one locker retains last year's occupant: that of 6'10" center Jaroslav Tyrna, a senior from the Czech Republic who was the first recruit Pasternack signed in 2007, when he still had visions of putting UNO "back on the map," he says. The Privateers upset No. 21 North Carolina State on the road in their second game of 2007--08 and finished with 19 wins, their highest total in 11 years. "I thought we had turned the corner," Pasternack says, "but after that, there was just so much...." So much what? Change, for one, not to mention uncertainty and upheaval. A native of Metairie, La., Pasternack had gone back home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after all, and turned the team around even as enrollment plummeted from 17,000 students to 11,800. But his work was washed away by a storm of red ink: not enough student fees, not enough state support, a $1.3 million shortfall in the athletic budget. In November 2009 news broke that chancellor Tim Ryan intended to move the program from Division I to Division III, a transition that will take until 2015--16. Players, released to transfer, fled the program; the Privateers dropped out of the Sun Belt Conference. Before school started this month all Pasternack had to do was this: recruit an entire team to compete as a D-I Independent—without being able to offer a single scholarship.
It's an unprecedented challenge. Since 2000 only one D-I school, Birmingham Southern, has lost its conference affiliation and begun a transition to D-III in the same year—and it decided to suspend men's basketball for that season. For UNO, the prospect of blowout after blowout looms. So it's no wonder that in gyms, on the phone, over a shrimp-and-alligator appetizer, the hyperintense, 33-year-old Pasternack, a former student manager under Bob Knight at Indiana, can be found uttering the same words, over and over: We've gotta get players.
At the beginning of the NCAA's July recruiting period three years ago, just before he took the UNO job, Pasternack was with his boss at Cal, Ben Braun, at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron. James's camp was where high-major coaches went to see elite prospects. On July 6, 2010, Pasternack is at a showcase in a four-court health club on a stretch of tired strip malls in Jonesboro, Ga. Most of the players here are "availables" in recruiting parlance—fresh high school graduates or junior college sophomores who've yet to receive scholarship offers. They've paid $120 each for two days of scrimmaging in jerseys with THE HOOP DREAM on the front. This is where desperate players go to be seen by desperate coaches.
Pasternack leafs through a packet of players' names and contact information for which he paid $100 at the door. He keeps a close eye on area codes: Louisianans pay in-state tuition, which is less than a third ($4,800) of the out-of-state fees. "Normally, in July you're just babysitting kids for next year," Pasternack says. "Coach K watching five-star guys—that's not recruiting. This is recruiting."
His plan is to invite the best availables from this camp—as well as those whom assistant William Lewit scouted at events in Baton Rouge, Tulsa and Reading, Pa.—to UNO in early August. By the second day of the camp he has a decent list of about 15 invitees, but he's panicked that he won't lock any of them up. He calls Lewit. "Bill, we can't wait until August to do our skills camp," he says. "Kids will make decisions by then."
Pasternack moves his camp up to July 25—only to have another storm move in. The catastrophic BP oil spill has dominated headlines for three months, and now Tropical Storm Bonnie is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. "Parents and kids are calling me nonstop," he says two days before the camp. But that night Bonnie dissipates over Florida, and on Sunday 40 players arrive at UNO's Lakefront Arena. After explaining the school's plight to them, Pasternack says, "What that means is, we have a lot of spots open."
Brandon Canady, who made zero appearances as an Alabama walk-on guard in 2009--10, is brilliant in camp, hitting 70% of his threes in four games. (He says that Lewit told him, "I don't like you—I love you. I bet you wish girls said that to you.") But the best player, without question, is one of LSU's starters from last season: 6'5" wing forward Zach Kinsley, who decided to transfer last spring. He has full scholarship offers from Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State, but he's interested in UNO because he'd be eligible immediately—and his 24-year-old brother, Ryan, who's been at four schools and hasn't appeared in a game since 2005, might be able to play as well, if he can get a medical waiver for a final semester of eligibility. Says Zach, "I never thought that playing with my brother would be possible."
The Kinsleys were born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge; their father, Fred, went to UNO in 1980 to play basketball but put his athletic career on ice to get married. Being on the sidelines now is a sort of homecoming for him. "I wouldn't have sent my kids here a few years ago," Fred says. "But the area and school are in better shape now."
The rest of the summer is a scramble, as Pasternack and Lewit travel to Houston and Daytona Beach, respectively, on July 31. They hold another camp on Aug. 8, and get creative with the kids they're already pursuing. Canady initially leans toward a D-II scholarship offer from Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C., until he's presented with a way of paying in-state tuition at UNO: by majoring in film arts, which falls under an Academic Common Market agreement between Alabama and Louisiana. The cost and the distance—just five hours from his hometown of Montgomery, so his mother can drive to games—are the right fit, and he commits to UNO on Aug. 9.