Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series of posts about my time in New Orleans with my good friend Chris Miller. Brother Miller has made an astounding comeback. He’s at home going through outpatient rehab. Thanks for your prayers. Please continue to pray for a full recovery.
Brother Miller’s and my experience coaching a 16 and younger boys basketball team at the Dryades YMCA in the winter of ’84 fortified a special bond that has endured for 30 years. Understanding what led up to that moment will help you appreciate its significance.
I arrived in New Orleans in August of ’83, as a second year Jesuit Volunteer to work at Ozanam Inn, a soup kitchen and men’s shelter, not anticipating I would also coach basketball.
Another Jesuit Volunteer George Andrews took Chris’ place at St. John’s Community Center with the understanding George would coach boys’ basketball as Chris had during his JVC year. Most of the kids came from the Melpomene housing projects. Near the Superdome, these projects were in the city’s center and on its edges.
George told the center’s director Sister Kathy he could coach basketball when he knew little about it, and he cajoled me into coaching for him. The kids who played for Chris weren’t coming out to play for George however. So he picked me up one fall Saturday morning in the St. John’s van to find his team in the projects. While I sat in van, George was the barker. I should have tried to stop George’s theatrics, which made me want to disappear through a secret exit in the van.
Nonetheless, enough older boys wanted to play, and we formed a 16 and younger team. I coached alone until Chris returned to St. John’s in January ‘84, and became co-coach. After our season ended, we accepted an invitation from a short, heavyset darker skinned African American man to play in his tournament at the Y.
The Dryades has often played a pivotal role in New Orleans history. Opened in 1905, it was the only Y in the city accessible to African Americans, and became a center of African American life. During the civil rights movement, the Dryades was the center of the boycott that compelled some shopkeepers in the famous Dyrades shopping district to hire African Americans.
They frequented this prosperous district and purchased their “Easter clothes” in it. Although the predominant customers, African Americans needed the boycotts to find jobs in stores where they spent their money. Numerous merchants however refused to integrate. Facilitated by the advent of I-10, which cut through this once thriving community’s heart, white business owners took their businesses to the suburbs.
The Y now houses a state-of-the-art aquatic wellness and fitness center, but when the game was played, the gym was old, and the floor sagged and creaked, and brick walls were hard against court boundaries. The court was also a little longer than a half court, compressing a full court game. The tournament organizer refereed the game we played against Lyons Center, which a young lighter skinned African American man coached.
Lyons held a three-point lead with less than three minutes to go when the ref whistled a Lyons’ player for stepping over the end line. That was absurd. The wall was the line. Each time a player threw in the ball from under a basket he stepped over the line. The Lyons coach, understandably irate, went on the court to challenge the call. We didn’t know what to do, and stunned, bewildered and bemused, the only two white guys there, we watched as these men stood chest to chest and jabbed fingers and shouted at each other.
In a world lacking positive male role models, these men abdicated their responsibility to be king of an inconsequential moment. Then again, we weren’t privy to the likely tensions between them – youth and middle aged, light skin and dark skin, personality conflicts- that drove them to fight for each inch of turf.
The ref quickly gave the coach two techs. Then the ref said, “That’s it. Game to St. John’s.” Now we really didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have any standing in this world. After a while, the tension somehow dissipated, and the game resumed where it left off, and we lost. We piled into the van, not entirely sure what happened.
Of the many only-in-New-Orleans moments we experienced this may have been the most singular. It revealed how much we had to learn about ourselves, our city’s culture, and the communities in which we lived and worked. We also knew how lucky we were to have a friend who understood in ways others couldn’t what it was it like to live through these only-in-New-Orleans moments. And, no matter what happened, we could depend upon each other to make sense of what happened. We still do.