The Making Of A Champion!

On April 7th, 2017 I attended the 40th reunion of my high school graduation class. My alma mater, Metairie Park Country Day, is a special place. It is a learning environment  like no other I have ever seen, and the knowledge and mentoring I received while I was there impacted my life, and continues to do so to this day. Last month the Country Day Cajuns won their sixth Louisiana state championship in boys basketball. This was of significance to me because I played and started on our first ever state title team.

I listened to the most recent title game on my computer and after victory was assured I began to reflect. My thoughts however did not dwell on the team I had played on that won the historic first title. Instead they focused on the team I had played on the year before, the one that made it to the finals for the first time in school history and lost. I felt an inner sadness that a team that had done so much would have it’s accomplishments go unnoticed. As a society we focus on those that win, not those that come close. I felt my teammates from that team deserved better so I wrote a blog post about them and specifically focused on the seniors who never got to experience the satisfaction and euphoria that winning a championship brings.

Now I’m not a naive person. I blog for enjoyment and realize that my readers will be few if any. I never anticipated that anyone would read my post on the CD basketball team of 1976. When I showed up at my reunion discussing my blog was the last thing I thought I would be doing. It turns out I was wrong.

Our attendance was light in comparison to past reunions but a few of my teammates were there. To a man all had read my most recent blog post. The first person to greet me at the reunion was Tim Bright and right after saying hello he said ” I read your blog and it’s great writing but you and I need to have a sidebar conversation about that. I have a few things I’d like to share with you.” What I soon discovered is that while they all appreciated the sentiment and the intent behind my efforts it was made very clear to me that the 1977 team had a story worth telling as well. A few years ago I wrote a piece about our game with Newman, a school which at that time had a similar academic profile and storied basketball tradition. We lost that game and my blog post was an effort to exorcise the disappointment I felt about the outcome. Joey Agular,one of my teammates at the reunion said, and I am paraphrasing, “You wrote about us losing to Newman, and you wrote about a team that lost in the state championship game. How about writing something about us winning?”

As I was listening to the various comments about my blog post I came to understand what I believed was their perspective. I started all but two games in 1976. John Derenbecker was the other junior starter and Chris McMorris started one game in place of me that season. It was only natural that for my classmates 1977 was paramount. I was a role player in 1975 either coming off the bench first or second that year. While I knew I was part of that team I didn’t feel as connected or prominent in our wins and losses as I did when I became a starter. When you are on the first team there is more implied responsibility. Now maybe others feel differently, so perhaps my take on this is flawed, but for me being on the floor at the start of the game was what I had worked for. In 1977 eight out of the twelve players on that team were seniors and six of them started at least one game that year or were first off the bench.

Those words resonated with me. We did have a story. A great story. So I’m going to attempt to tell it now. First some disclaimers. Much of what I will be writing will be from memory and my perspective. I can’t guarantee that everything I write will be remembered by my teammates the same way. It will also be my longest blog, because to encapsulate an entire season in a few paragraphs would be impossible. So if you are still reading this consider yourself forewarned.

Of course the real story of the 1977 state championship team is the coach, players, and support staff. Before we begin this journey you need to meet them.

THE COACH

Richard Jarrett: Coach Jarrett was our head coach and only coach. We had no assistant coaches and no other people authorized to give us instruction. Coach Jarrett coached both the junior varsity and varsity teams. A teacher at Country Day, Peter Michell, had played college basketball at Georgetown and also had coached at a local high school called Sam Barthe. He wanted to be a part of our program. I saw him in the gym once showing someone a proper technique for shooting free throws. Apparently he forgot to clear that with Coach Jarrett. I never saw him at one of our practices after that. I don’t know what happened but I can connect the dots on that pretty easy.

Coach Jarrett was a marine. He was from Decatur, Illinois, attended college at Moorhead State in Minnesota, and later earned a masters from the University of Oklahoma. Praise from Coach Jarrett came sparingly and blistering verbal attacks were not uncommon if you made a mistake once too often or worse did not give your best effort. He believed in man to man defense and precision on offense. While our practice jerseys were adorned with the words Run Cajun Run we actually only ran off of turnovers we created on defense. Under those circumstances we would attack the basket if we had favorable numbers, but for the most part our offense was controlled and based on perfect execution. I use the word execution because there were times at practice and in games where I felt my own execution was imminent because of mistakes made, perceived or real. Coach Jarrett was also the Athletic Director of the school so there was the perception that basketball was the marquee sport at CD. His temper was legendary but his coaching acumen was high.

THE PLAYERS

John Derenbecker: Country Day has produced many outstanding basketball players over the past few decades but John was the first elite player in the program. He became a full time starter in 1975 as a sophomore and his debut was was an astounding 31 points against Ecole Classique at the Jesuit High School gymnasium. In 1976 John was a first team All District selection, player of the year in the district, and also was named first team All State. He was nothing short of magnificent in the 1976 title game, scoring 37 points in a losing effort. His offensive array was unparalleled. He could score from outside or in close to the basket. He had the best jump shot on the team along with an indefensible hook shot. John grew an inch between his junior and senior year to 6’8″. Unstoppable on offense, and imposing on defense with his size and wing span, he was our best player and our team captain. One interesting note was the size of his hands. They were so big he could catch a basketball with one of them.

Merrill (M.C.) Wautlet: I was the other returning starter. I had made second team All District in 1976. My role on the 1977 team was simple. My job was to get any rebounds John might miss, score when he was double teamed, and play hard defense. Over the summer I grew a half inch to 6′ 2 1/2″ and also added about ten more pounds to my frame. I very seldom took long jump shots. My domain was the painted key and if I strayed too far from there it wouldn’t be long before I was heading to the bench. I also decided to dedicate that season to the memory of my late father, who used to sign all his correspondence with his first two initials. That and my desire to be a shut down defender like E.C. Coleman of the New Orleans Jazz gave me the idea to be listed as M.C. Wautlet on our roster that year.

Chris McMorris: Chris was the team’s point guard. He was a gifted ball handler and passer and could score too. At 6′ even he was tall for a guard but was thick as well. He could absorb punishment on the way to the basket and finish plays. A former biddy all star Chris was cocky and confident. He was also the quarterback on the football team. In 1976 he was the team’s sixth man and he had the ability to be a human high light reel at times. Chris was more accustomed to a free wheeling style of basketball that is very much a part of today’s game but he restrained himself to ensure that the offense was run the way our coach wanted it. When Chris had the ball you had to be extremely alert as he could rocket a pass to you from almost any angle. He could also beat almost anybody off the dribble.

Billy Shepherd: Billy was the only junior to start regularly on the 1977 team and he may have been the best pure athlete out of all the starters. Billy was an excellent shooter and ball handler. At 6’2″ he could shoot over smaller players and was quick enough to go around bigger players. He was lithe but strong. Shepherd was an extraordinary water skier as well. While not a strong rebounder he did give us more height on the front line than any previous Country Day team and his ball handling effectively gave us a third guard on the floor.

Tim Bright: Tim was 6 feet tall and also thick in the body. He was an extraordinary outside shooter and was deceptively quick. He could attack the basket, run the point if needed, and was adept at finding open men on the floor with passes. Tim was unique in that he often played his best when the stakes were highest and was capable of making big plays when they were needed the most. He would prove that later in the season on the biggest stage we ever played on.

Joey Agular: Yet another 6 foot guard Joey was an important addition to the 1977 team. Agular was akin to a swiss army knife in that he could do a lot of things very well. He could shoot, dribble, and rebound. He was an excellent leaper which allowed him to play inside if needed. He was also a tenacious defender, a skill set that would come into play at a critical time later that season.

Trip Ludwig: Trip was six foot six inches tall. tall. A late bloomer his minutes climbed as the season wore on. A former swimmer he was spidery, with long arms and legs, but also deceptively strong. He was able to match up well with John in practice. He was a great rebounder and very solid offensively around the basket. When he and John were in the game at the same time it was virtually impossible for our opponent to get a clean shot inside.

Howell Crosby: Howell was a very competent guard. He had a good jump shot and was a capable ball handler. He was also very adept at taking charges. A charge occurs when you beat an opposing player to a spot on the floor, set your body, and basically let them run over you. I can tell you first hand there is nothing pleasant about that experience. It is however a great momentum changer. Be assured that a lot of us got sick of running over Howell in practice. In addition to basketball Howell also played football and ran track. When he graduated he held the school record in the mile.

Mark Haynes: At 5’9″ Mark was one of our smallest players but there may not have been a quicker guard with a basketball on our team. An explosive dribbler Mark was also a player who could get to the basket and create plays. He was our comic relief and a tremendous teammate. He could have started on a lot of other teams but he never complained about his lack of playing time. This patience would be rewarded later in the season when he made a shot that would go into the record books.

Charlie Steck: Charlie was a 5’10” guard with an outstanding jump shot. He was one of four juniors on that team and was buried on the depth chart. Charlie, like many players who have to wait for their opportunity, made us better by pushing the starters in practice.

Gene Newton: Gene was basketball player who played the game like a football player. He was a guard with a good shot and was also a decent ball handler. In that football was his primary sport he brought that intensity to the practice floor. He was physical and tough. He came by this naturally. His father was an All State quarterback at Byrd High School in Shreveport who later played football for Tulane.

Scott Miler: When recording history one of the obligations is to be as accurate as possible. Scott was a junior and our last man off the bench. There was nothing compelling about his game. At six feet tall he wasn’t talented enough to play guard very well and he wasn’t big enough to go inside. His jump shot was serviceable.He was also very quiet. What he did do was give his best at every practice and also when he got the opportunity to play. Scott did what he could with the gifts he had. Not everyone can say that.

THE MANAGERS

Charlie Van Horn, Howard Schloss, and Bruno Charest were our managers with Charlie being the head of the group. They lived and endured every moment of that season with us. All the things you take for granted were handled by these guys. Water on the bench, supplies, our shot of Pepsi at half time, making sure the bus was loaded and unloaded. They were the first in the gym and the last to leave. Always encouraging and loyal to the program and us.

THE STATISTICIANS

Robert Pratt was our scorer and a close friend to many on the team. Bibba Bullington and Katie Andry kept our statistics. Coach Jarrett used analytics in part to evaluate performance including a program called Offensive Efficiency Rating or O.E.R. for short. After every game we received a chart that had all the pertinent stats both collectively and individually. Points scored, shots attempted, free throws, etc., along with all the accompanying percentages. We also had our O.E.R stats, which reflected possessions and points scored from each of them. O.E.R. was a program used across the country and at the end of the year we ranked fifth nationally in that category.

PRACTICE BEGINS

In 1977 the Louisiana High School Athletic Association used several classifications to separate member schools by enrollment to ensure a level playing field. Those classifications were AAAA, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Class B and C schools did not play football so if you offered football you were automatically placed in Class A or above.This was compelling because by enrollment Country Day would have been in Class B but played in Class A because we did offer football. At smaller schools, because of limited enrollments,many athletes played multiple sports.

Because basketball had a strong culture at Country Day there were quite a few players who chose not to play football. This was a source of frustration for the football coaches. Basketball players tended to be bigger and faster than typical athletes and were blessed with good eye hand coordination. There was pressure on them to play not only from the football coaches but also from our football playing peers.

When preseason practice began we had a fair amount of players on hand. John Derenbecker, myself, Joey Agular, Billy Shepherd, Trip Ludwig, Charlie Steck, and Scott Miler were all players who focused on basketball. We also had junior varsity players who did not play football practicing with us. Missing from that group were Chris McMorris, Tim Bright, Howell Crosby, Mark Haynes, and Gene Newton. Basically we had half of our varsity team playing football but most importantly some of our best guards and ball handlers were on the gridiron as opposed to the hardwood.

Derenbecker had played quarterback on the junior varsity his freshman year but after that season he hung up his cleats. It was obvious very early that John had the ability to play major college basketball and that was the sport that required his focus. Billy Shepherd also played one year of JV before deciding to go basketball only. I on the other hand was probably more suited to football. I was aggressive, big, had a temper, and I could run and catch. I had injured my left shoulder playing tackle football without pads at Audubon Park a few years earlier and was prone to stingers, which was part of my reason for not playing. If my arm jerked a certain way or got jolted hard I would get a horrible tingling sensation down my arm that would make it useless for a few minutes. None the less at the start of my junior year, after prodding from my friends and the football coaches, I decided that I was going to play.

When Coach Jarrett got that news he stopped me by the front of the gym and told me if I played football I would not start in basketball that year. Now I had split time as the sixth man with Vance Reynoir the year before and had worked very hard in the off season to secure the open spot created with Kevin Piper’s graduation. In addition Vance had hurt his knee again so I felt like the spot was mine. I protested, citing Jimmy Kock and Robert Montgomery as examples of players who participated and started in both sports. Jarrett looked at me and said they were both better athletes than me and my only hope of starting was to focus entirely on basketball.

With no disrespect to Robert or Jimmy I felt that was a load of crap. The truth be told football was my favorite sport but I wanted to compete with the best athletes and in my mind in the mid to late seventies the best athletes in the New Orleans metro area were basketball players. I had played football and basketball at De La Salle as an 8th grader and after seeing Pierre Gaudin, Joe Comeaux, Jordy Hultberg , Lee Blankenstein , and Gary Lorio play I knew basketball was where I wanted to compete. I had also played against Newman’s David Pointer and Sean Tuohy while at DLS. These players were known not just Uptown where I lived , but across the city. I didn’t start playing basketball until the 6th grade. I went from being a bench warmer on my 8th grade team at DLS to being on the cusp of starting for my high school team as an 11th grader. So I swallowed my pride and went immediately to tell the football coaches that “I” had changed my mind about playing football.

That meeting with Head Coach Greg Carlson and Assistant Coach Jim King went poorly. Carlson pressed me to give Jarrett up but I knew better than to do that. King became furious and  began insulting me. He would harbor a grudge for a long time about that and in pick up basketball games where he was involved I would get a elbow to my face as a reminder of that from time to time. Being a little ornery I would respond by getting up quickly and guard him even harder. Eventually we became friendly again. More importantly to me I got my starting spot on the basketball team my junior year.

I mention all of the above because the year before Tim Bright did not play football. His going out for the team was a surprise and I imagine was not taken very well by Coach Jarrett. I’m don’t know if they ever discussed it but if they did knowing both of them I’m sure it was entertaining. Had Tim not played football the only potential basketball starter playing football would have been Chris.

In the mean time we began practicing. Our early schedule was tough. We were going to open the season on the road playing Archbishop Shaw and then travel to Newman before hosting St. Martin’s at home. Newman and St. Martin’s were huge rivals and Newman was favored to win the state championship in their classification, which was AA. Shaw , an AAAA school, would be our first ever opponent from the Catholic League. All of this would have been exciting save for one thing. Our football team was favored to make the playoffs and if they did we would have to start our season without many of our key players.

The football team’s performance was something we had no control over so we got to work. Coach Jarrett had set up a scrimmage for us at Tulane Gymnasium but would not tell us our opponent. Being teenagers we all assumed we would be scrimmaging the actual Tulane basketball team. As outrageous as that was we were full of bravado. We had animated discussions about slowing down Phil Hicks and Pierre Gaudin. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to be Arthur Bibb’s worse nightmare. When we eventually found out we would be scrimmaging De La Salle I must admit we were all a bit disappointed.

De La Salle was the AAAA state runner up the year before but their team had been decimated by graduation. Jordy Hultberg was now playing at LSU, Lee Blankenstein was playing for Georgia Tech, and Gary Lorio had made Tulane’s roster. They also had a new coach. Milton “Mook” Clavier who had replaced Duane Reboul, who was now coaching in college.

The DLS team was still very familiar to me. Their guards now were Jimmy Anderson and Johnny Schwartz, guys I had grown up with. They also had Armstead Boniface. Boniface was only 6’1″ but played like like he was 6’7″. They would be missing Bruce Senter at the scrimmage, their 6’5′ center who had transferred to DLS from Ben Franklin.

If not having our full roster was problem enough we were also implementing a new offense. In prior years we relied on the 1-4 offense against man to man defenses while employing the Swing against zones. The 1-4 used a series of on and off the ball screens to free up players for lay ups or short jump shots. The swing attacked zone defenses from the side, usually setting up jump shots from the corner or passes inside to one of two post players stationed on the low blocks near the basket. All zone defenses become 2-1-2 when you attack from the side so their was some genius to the simplicity of that offense. Likewise isolating two players using screens against a man to man defense was effective too. If the defender overplayed in anticipation of the pass you just went back door to the basket. You also spread the defenders out in a straight line, thus limiting their ability to help out.

This year however Coach Jarrett decided to install an offense called the Passing Game. It could be used against both a zone and a man to man and it basically was a read and react offense. The key was following a series of rules. The set was two men up top from the foul line extended, two men below in the short corners, and one man in the post. Dribbling was allowed only if a clear lane to the basket opened up. You always screened away from the ball and you always had to maintain the 2-1-2 configuration. You were allowed to replace the post and you had to pass the ball at least once to the post if three or more passes had occurred.

Now all of this sounds simple except that offense required a high level of cohesion. It was not unusual to see two players both try and screen for the same man, for the set itself to become imbalanced, and to forget to replace or pass into the post. In the scrimmage against De La Salle all of these issues surfaced.

We had a hard time getting the ball up the floor. Without McMorris, Bright, Haynes , or Crosby the point duties fell to Joey and Charlie, both of whom were shooting guards. As such we all had to help get the ball across the floor when DLS applied pressure as my boyhood pals Anderson and Schwartz were athletic and quick. John was John, scoring and rebounding and wreaking havoc. I struggled ay first. I had played inside for so long that being on the perimeter felt odd, even though I played there all the time in pick up games. Boniface added to my shame by erasing two of my shots in very dramatic fashion. Eventually I found my footing and played better. Shepherd looked good but we were  lackluster overall. Who won was probably a toss up as no score was kept but I know John pretty much had his way on offense and we did defend well. Like most CD teams because of the emphasis on defense that part of our game was far more polished. As time progressed, and the season opener drew nearer, we began to master the passing game and develop some chemistry with the players we had. Our front court was set and our back court was good but the reality was without all our players our first two games, especially against a Newman team with four returning starters and no football players, would be uphill battles.

FATE INTERVENES

Greg Carlson had built Country Day into a very good football team by the fall of 1976. Carlson had played football and ran track at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Like Jarrett he received his masters at the University of Oklahoma. Assistant coach Jim King played football at Kansas Wesleyan University and was so accomplished as a lineman that he received a free agent tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals. A knee injury throwing the discus ended his pursuit of a pro football career.

Chris McMorris at quarterback gave the Cajuns both a running and passing threat. McMorris, a district champion in the javelin, had a very strong arm and was very elusive in the open field. The team had talented wideouts in Mark Haynes and Tim Bright and an explosive running back with Erik Houtz. A broken arm in the middle of the year ended Houtz’s season but soccer all star Michael Dunn proved to be a more than adequate replacement at tailback.  Howell Crosby played fullback and proved he could do damage as well, gaining over 169 yards rushing on 19 carries, all in the first half, against Lutheran High in the fourth game of the season.The defense was anchored by linebacker Tommy Staub and defensive linemen Robert Pratt and Billy Sherar. It was arguably the most talented team top to bottom to suit up for Carlson since he was at Country Day. The offense could spread the field with its passing to compliment a strong ground attack. The team was equally strong on both sides of the ball and also played outstanding on special teams. Of course with a top flight soccer program to draw talent from this group of Cajuns had the luxury of two place kickers on it’s roster.

Country Day had defeated arch rival St. Martin’s for the first time in years and had prevailed in a spirited game against a talented First Assembly team, coming back from two touchdowns behind  late in the 4th quarter to win 24-20. The seventh game on the schedule featured a battle of undefeated teams. Unfortunately the Cajuns fell to a very good St. Charles Catholic squad. The Comets at that time were located in Destrehan and drew players from all over the talent rich river parishes of St. John, St. Charles, and St. James. One of those players was All State running back Hernandez Robottom, and on that day the CD defense had no answer for him. To compound matters the offense had no luck against the St. Charles defense, which resulted in a 17-0 final score.

Despite that loss The Cajuns still appeared to be a lock to finish second in the district and go to the playoffs. Only three games remained on the schedule. Unless New Orleans Academy, Ridgewood, or Crescent Baptist pulled an upset CD would be in the post season.

The Cajuns faced an inspired NOA team but shut them out 14-0. Next up was Ridgewood. CD had manhandled Ridgewood the past two years. While Ridgewood was improved it was highly unlikely they would beat us. Those of us that only played  basketball were emotionally compromised. We didn’t want to face Shaw and Newman at less than full strength, but there was no way we would root against our own school to lose in football. Selfishly however if we did lose it was not something I would mourn for long.

The Ridgewood game was played at Metairie Playground, just a few short blocks from our campus. The Golden Eagles showed up in shiny new uniforms and were very animated on the sidelines. On our first possession McMorris hit Bright on a long pass for a touchdown. Even though the extra point was missed, a highly unusual event given the quality of our kickers, it appeared the rout was on. Ridgewood had other ideas. They dug in and the game remained scoreless until well into the fourth quarter.

Behind left handed Quarterback David Pavlovich the Golden Eagles put together a do or die drive that resulted in a touchdown. After making the point after the Cajuns found themselves trailing 7-6 with very little time remaining. Unlike the First Assembly game there would be no comeback win. Ridgewood was now in the driver’s seat for the second play off spot. All they needed to do was beat a less than stellar Kehoe Shamrock team to earn their way in.

As expected Ridgewood beat Kehoe the following week. The Cajuns took out their collective frustration on Crescent City, annihilating the Pioneers 58-0 to finish the season at 8-2. As heart breaking as the end to the football season was it did have a silver lining. Our basketball team would get all our players in time for the season opener against Shaw. The bad news is that they had a week to get ready.

THE SEASON BEGINS

The sadness our teammates who played football felt about the end to their season was soon replaced with excitement over the beginning of our basketball campaign. While Shaw was first on our schedule the honest truth is that we were all looking ahead to playing Newman.This was not lost on our coach and he drove us hard in practice all week.

Shaw was on the verge of becoming a football powerhouse in the Catholic League behind All State quarterback John Fourcade but in basketball they were a lower tier program. None the less we were happy to play them. No other school in the Catholic League would schedule us and who could blame them? They had nothing to gain by beating us and everything to lose if we won. Shaw head coach Ronnie Aucoin, the former coach at St. John Prep, was probably the only reason Shaw agreed to play us, in that he had a relationship with our coach and knew we would be a good test for his team.

Shaw had a couple of big men, including one at about 6’5″. Their star was a cat quick guard named Dave Winchester. We went with a starting line up of Derenbecker, Shepherd, Agular, myself, and McMorris. With the exception of Chris the rest of us had the benefit of many weeks of practice. Chris was our primary point guard so he did not have the luxury of gradually working his way into the line up.

We controlled the game and Jarrett went to his bench liberally, making sure everyone got some time on the floor. Mark Haynes electrified the crowd with a twisting drive to the basket in which he converted and picked up a foul. As he laid writhing on the floor in my exuberance I ran to him, grabbed him by both wrists, and literally jerked him to his feet. Derenbecker, ever vigilant, admonished me, as Mark may well, have been injured in his fall. Fortunately he was fine.

I was pleased with my performance. I guarded their big man much of the game and held him in check , and we did well even when John was allowed a breather. I went six for six from the floor. We won 75-66 but even though we were never really challenged it was not a performance to write home about. Newman was sitting on a 7-0 record, had played all AAAA classification teams that were better than Shaw, and had won all of their games by double digits.

The lead up to the Newman game was nothing short of high drama. Scheduling them had been difficult and by making us play them early in the season at their gym that ensured we would meet the Greenies at our most vulnerable point, as they had no football players and we had several. The year before Newman was favored to win the state title but they were upset early in the playoffs. We on the other hand had come out of nowhere to finish second in the state in our classification. The hype was intense and the tiny hell hole known as Death Valley, where Newman played their games, was jammed to capacity when game night arrived.

In April of 2011 I wrote a blog post entitled Some Things You Never Get Over. In that blog I recapped the entire game against Newman. As such I’m not going to rehash it here again. Frankly I don’t have the stomach for it. In summary we jumped out to a 15 point lead, we led by nine points at the half, and still led by nine at the end of the third quarter. In the most gut wrenching way possible we ended up losing by five. The final score was 67-62. If you want to read about the game in its entirety you can find the article in my archives on this web site.

Coming off the devastating loss to Newman we now had to host St. Martins. We knew we had a much better team than them and it was also our home opener. Our football players were now in basketball shape and were picking up the nuances of our passing game offense. We had no trouble dispatching the Saints, winning easily 75-43. At lunch the day of the game John guaranteed a dunk. This was the first season dunking was allowed so everyone in attendance was on edge waiting for history to be made. In pure Derenbecker fashion he waited until late in the game to drive baseline and throw one down. The crowd exploded!

Our next stop was to travel across Lake Pontchartrain to compete in the Mandeville Tournament. In my earlier blog celebrating the accomplishments of the 1976 team I noted that a hurdle they had to overcome was winning a first round play off game. There was however another blight on our record. From my time at CD beginning in 1974 no Cajun team had ever won a tournament of any kind. The year before we lost twice in the Pearl River Tournament and the finals of the state tournament.

We got off to a good start. We beat Salmen, an AAA school, 70-58. The year before Salmen beat us by twenty-nine, our worst loss that season, but there was no 6’8″ Byron Williams to contend with this time as he was now playing college basketball at Xavier in New Orleans. They did have a skinny kid with stringy blond hair scoring a lot. His name was Alan Risher and he was a sophomore. Before he ended his high school career he would be all state in multiple sports and go on to play quarterback at LSU.

We then faced St. Martins again and won although it was an uninspired effort. Instead of winning by thirty two points this time the margin was only sixteen. After that it was Covington High, and we rebounded back to win that game 70-49.

Next up was the host Mandeville Skippers for the championship. The year before we had lost to Mandeville in the Pearl River Tournament 63-62. To a man we thought we would beat them and take home the trophy. It was not to be as Mandeville prevailed 69-65. Like Newman it was a game we could have , and in this case, should have won. It was a quiet bus ride back to Metairie. Our record now was 5-2.

We righted the ship with a victory at home against John Martyn 74-56. We then dispatched Belle Chasse 85-75 before heading back across the lake again for a rematch  with Salmen in the Pearl River Tournament. Salmen turned the tables on us, winning 68-59. This was a twenty one point turnaround from our victory over them earlier in the year, and would end up being our worst loss of the season. Ironically, in that same tournament the year before, Salmen handed us our largest loss of that season. In the consolation game we beat host Pearl River 72-35 as Billy Shepherd had a break out performance with twenty two points. Our record now was 8-3. The 1976 team only lost six games all year and one of those was in the state finals. They had only lost four games going into district play and two of those losses were by one and two points respectively. It could be argued that the 1977 team had a harder schedule but as far as we were concerned our record was nothing to be proud of.

We now were slated to play in the L.B. Landry Tournament. Landry had defeated De La Salle the year before in the AAAA state championship game but like DLS their roster had turned over. All City guard Andre King had graduated and 6’7″ James Ray was playing collegiately at Jacksonville. These Buccaneers were not slouches however. They had speed and size including a shot blocking phenom in the middle. We lost 54-49. Afterwards both teams met in a classroom to have punch and cookies. The coaches of both Country Day and Landry  felt it would be a good thing to have kids from the Fischer Housing Projects visit with kids who lived on Audubon Place, Exposition Blvd, and the oak lined streets of Metairie Club Gardens.

Our next game was against Leon Godchaux High, also known as Reserve. We won 63-57 but it was a game I watched mainly from the bench. During a jump ball I failed to tip the ball to our designated catcher, which would allow him to pass to a wing player going to the basket for  lay up. I actually won the tip, which given my lack of jumping ability was unusual, but I hit the ball over the head of my teammate. During a time out Jarrett asked me what went wrong. I responded by saying I hit the ball too hard. That didn’t suffice so he kept pressing me. Repeatedly I said I made a mistake but he wanted a reason. I finally said that I probably didn’t practice it enough as I wasn’t the man who usually jumped center for us. Enraged he took that to mean that we, as in the whole team, hadn’t practiced it enough and I was benched for the rest of the game.

I want to think that was psychology but with Jarrett you never knew. The year before after a 62-60 loss against Boothville-Venice Jarrett benched myself, Robert Montgomery, and Keith Holbrook. I had 13 points and 15 rebounds in that Boothville game so I was surprised that I was not going to start against one of our biggest rivals,as our next opponent was St. Martin’s. I believe Jarrett was just looking to make us edgier. Well it worked because we did end up routing the Saints. But on this occasion against Reserve  I believe he was frustrated with all of us and he knew I could take a punch. As I got on the bus he grabbed my arm and said ” I hope you learned something tonight.” Much later in the season, at a critical time, that lesson would bear fruit. I learned after the season that Coach had a reason for everything he did. Practice had nothing to do with the mistake on that jump ball. It was lack of focus.

We were now at 9-4 and needed to string some wins together. We did just that beating St. John Prep 76-39 and John Martyn 74-46. With a record of 11-4 we felt our troubles were behind us. Unfortunately that was not to be the case.

DOUBT CREEPS IN

The District 7A schedule would soon commence. We had three games left before starting district play. We would face Belle Chasse, a team we had already beaten earlier in the year before closing out with Boothville-Venice. Two of those games were at home. We still had a chance to get on a win streak and enter district play on a high note. In my mind we also had a shot at a thirty win season, something that had never been accomplished at Country Day.

We began with Belle Chasse at home and we raced out to an early lead. This time the Cardinals did not go away. Making matters worse the officiating was as bad as any game I had ever participated in. I was under our basket and had grabbed a loose ball with both hands. The Belle Chasse player then latched onto both of my wrists. I heard a whistle blow and assumed a foul had been called. To my shock the referee, standing out of bounds on the baseline right next to me, had called a jump ball. I slowly raised my arms, still holding the ball, and the Cardinal player still had my wrists in his grasp. I then turned to show the referee my situation in the hopes he would reverse the call. He just stared back at me blankly.

With the game going down to the final seconds the score was tied. We were working hard to get off a shot. With the clock ticking down I found myself foul line extended with a clean look at the basket. This was a favorite spot of mine so I decided to take the shot. As I was in the air and beginning to release the ball a Cardinal player leapt and collided with me. The impact altered my shot and it clanged off the rim. No whistle blew and Belle Chasse now had the ball. With the seconds ticking away their only hope was a desperation shot at best. Then the inexplicable happened.

Chris McMorris, thinking we were behind, fouled one of Belle Chasse’s guards with almost no time left on the clock. That guard went to the line with a one and one situation and sank both shots, each time celebrating with a little dance at the foul line. A desperation heave by us fell short and we ended ups losing 79-77. It was the most points we had given up all year and our first loss at home.

My heart broke for Chris. He had made what I term a hustle error. I also believed, and still believe, that no one play determines the outcome of  game. We never should have been in that position to begin with.

We now had to go across the Mississippi River and play Belle Chasse again. Instead of playing with resolve we mailed it in. The Cardinals  set up in a zone defense, and our outside shooting was not accurate enough to make them come out of it. They collapsed on John all night and we lost to them again 67-63. John  got his points but the rest of us were in a coma of sorts. We had digressed.

Belle Chasse was in the same district as Newman and the Greenies had beaten them badly both times they played. We on the other hand were now 1-2 against them. We now had to go home and play Boothville. We beat the Oilers easily 67-47. Our record improved to 12-6.

Earlier in the season a few of us decided to go old school with our basketball shoes and wear Converse All Stars. They were canvas and lightweight. On the toes of both of my shoes I wrote the words WIN on one and STATE on the other. This was designed to refocus me if I ever looked down in a period of distress. I looked down at my shoes now but no motivation was there. I now had doubts about our ability to go forward and accomplish our goal.

Later that week I was on the second floor of our new library visiting with Tim. He was sitting down in one of the study rooms and I was standing in the doorway. I expressed my concerns to him that I felt we may not be able to go the distance. In a calm voice he looked at me and said ” We are going to win state.” Those words and the conviction he said them with made me realize that no matter what our record was we were still a very good basketball team with the best player in the state on our roster. We had flashed our potential throughout the season so we all knew how well we were capable of playing. I left the library feeling better and was now back in a good state of mind. We needed to go into district play and handle our business.

THE DISTRICT

Whether you won twenty games or none when district play began you had a clean slate. If you finished first or second you made the playoffs. If you didn’t you went home. Last year we went from playing schools in the river parishes to competing against an array of private schools like ours. New Orleans Academy (NOA) had been a nemesis but the previous year after losing to them by seven at home we punished them by seventeen at their gym and by twenty five at a neutral site to determine the district champion. They were not the same NOA this year, returning only one starter from that team in 1977. Crescent City also was down from the year before. While we beat them easily last year both times we faced them they were decimated by graduation as well. Kehoe,Ridgewood, First Assembly, and St. Charles rounded out the rest of the district and none of them had the talent pool we had. In fact our bench could have started and we still would have been favored to run the table.

We entered district play with a record of 12-6. All of our opponents had been from higher classification schools and this was by design. Coach Jarrett knew to be prepared for the playoffs we had to play against tougher competition than what we would face in district play. That formula the previous year carried us to the the state title game. It didn’t hurt that our district opponents that year were more talented than the cast we would face in 1977.

There were kinks to be worked out. The previous year’s Cajuns entered district play with only four losses. Two of those had been by two points or less and all their games had been against similar caliber teams that we had faced this year. We already had matched the number of losses that team had for the entire year and would now go at least six weeks without facing a stern test. Our motivation to improve would have to come from within and our hardest tests would most likely come in practice against ourselves.

Shortly before district play commenced an article came out in one off the local papers. Two quotes from Jarrett succinctly summed up our issues. “Our execution has been off and we aren’t as sharp as we should be.” He went on to add, “Although we have shown moments of brilliance, at times we just don’t seem to be working together.”

The article continued with additional commentary that focused on our performance or lack thereof. “The Cajuns inconsistency was apparent in their 79-77 and 67-63 losses to Belle Chasse, although Derenbecker scored a total of 53 points in those two ballgames.”

Writer Richard Tucker didn’t stop there. “Where Country Day has run into problems during the preseason has been a cold outside shooting game, but the Cajuns have offset that pretty well with one of the tallest starting lineups in the league.”

Now the odd thing about all of this is that we had a very close knit team. Our locker room was free of acrimony. The eight seniors on the team in particular were extremely tight. We often did things as a group whether it was going to the movies, meeting at Camellia Grill after games for a hamburger, or attending a Sugar Bowl. Teams under performing often have internal issues at the root of the problem. The answer to our problem was somewhere else and we were determined to fix it.

Our first game was at home against our football rival St. Charles. We had no problem with them winning 65-42. We then traveled to play yet another football focused school, First Assembly.

First Assembly’s gym was a pit with all the seating above the floor. Their best basketball players were their two football stars, Eric Collins and Bill Borges. Collins was an outstanding quarterback who had transferred to First Assembly from Brother Martin, while Borges was a punishing running back and linebacker. Borges was also a pretty good scorer. We won 72-55 but Borges tallied well over thirty points for the Crusaders. That game was memorable in my mind because of three incidents. One was Borges point total, which would emerge as a motivation tool for us when we played them again. Another involved me. The third incident however tested our resolve but also reaffirmed our commitment to one another.

My incident was more comical than anything else but it made clear to me whose opinion our coach valued. At the start of every game, and on every jump ball thereafter, we ran something called the tip play. I would line up on the center circle facing John. On either side of me on the sides of the circle were two wing men. Behind John was a player for defensive balance in the offhand chance we would lose the tip. John would tip the ball to me and I would in turn pass it to one of the wings running to the basket. This would often end up in a lay up and we could then go into our 2-2-1 full court press. We also employed an edge that was a borderline flaunting of the rules. Rather than wait for the referee to release the ball the jumper would leave the floor when he saw the referee bend his knees, as the ball would leave his hand shortly after that. This allowed us to “steal” the tip.

Now we had ran this play for my entire time on the varsity so it always surprised me when we executed it in district play. Those schools we faced over and over had to know it was coming. But no one bothered to try and stop it until the First Assembly game.

I had a feeling they were onto us when two Crusaders basically lined up shoulder to shoulder with me. Both of our wings were unguarded. The smart thing to do would have been to tip it directly to one of the wings, or better yet tip it out in front of them so they could get the ball at full speed and let them attack the basket. But all of us knew it was not smart to improvise a play on Richard Jarrett’s team so I braced myself to go and try to beat both of these guys to the ball.

As soon as the tip went up both players crashed into me at the same time. I was able to get my hands on the ball but could not control it. A scrum ensued but the end result was that the tip play had been neutralized. Later in the game during either a time out or a change in quarters, I can’t recall which it was, I walked up to Coach Jarrett and suggested that on the next jump ball opportunity we go directly to one of the wings, as I was getting jammed. His response was merciless. According to Jarrett the problem was me, not the play design, and if I had done a better job the play would have worked. As soon as he finished laying into me John walked over. Apparently he had not heard the exchange but he basically told Jarrett the same thing I had. This time Jarrett just said “That’s fine” or something akin to that. I just looked at him with my hands at my sides palm up with a “What the hell?” look on my face. He just grimaced at me and turned away.

By now the game was winding down and Jarrett was emptying the bench. With less than a minute to go he signaled to Howell Crosby to enter the game. Then the unthinkable happened on a Richard Jarrett team. Howell said no.

Howell Crosby is as good teammate and friend as you could ask for. He used to stop by my house on Mardi Gras and visit with my mother and I. He even covered for me when I had too much to drink at a Mardi Gras parade, (as I seldom if ever drank when I was in high school), and put me in a spare bedroom at his house so I could sleep it off. I could hear him talking to my mother on the phone telling her I was taking a nap and would be home soon. He met me at Fat Harry’s so I could get my first legal beer when I turned 18 and he had delivered a graduation gift to my home. We were teammates on our school record mile relay team, and no one worked harder in practice than Howell, even though he was behind McMorris, Bright, and Agular on the depth chart. His defiance of our coach because of what he felt was disrespect was a telling moment for all of us. His tears on the bus ride home tore a hole in me.

Because of his defiant act  Howell was dismissed from the team. Being a superb athlete he was quickly recruited by classmates Michael Dunn and Charlie Eshleman to join the Cajun soccer team, an established powerhouse in the metro area having won the state championship the year before. After a few days of practice Howell had broken into the starting line up. Coach Jarrett, in a change of heart, offered Howell a chance to come back if all of us agreed. Howell accepted the terms and he went to each and every one of his teammates and asked if he could rejoin the team. To a man we said yes. Frankly the locker room or our team would not have been the same without him. In my opinion it saved our season. I’d also like to think it put some fire in our belly. I know it did mine. Howell’s soccer career spanned three days.

As we rolled through the rest of the first round of games we began to gel and play to our full capability. Crescent City, Ridgewood, NOA, and Kehoe all went down by double digits. Against NOA we employed a 1-3-1 zone that effectively shut down the only two scoring threats the Cadets had, Barry Gurievsky and David Myers, as they were unable to work the perimeter to get open. With Chris up top, John in the middle, Shepherd and I on the sides, and Bright or Agular down low our collective wing spans made getting a clean pass off extremely difficult.

The Kehoe game was interesting for a variety of reasons. One was that John despised Kehoe. Their best player was named Gary Soileau and he was a major trash talker, despite the fact the Shamrocks were a horrible team. He really irked John, which meant that rather than taking it easy he was going to score at will. When Kehoe got the ball they immediately spread the floor and held the ball. They felt their only hope was to go four corners and shorten the game. We stayed back in a zone for awhile but finally Jarrett waved us out of it and we manned up on them. It wasn’t long before we turned them over and soon we were up by double digits. Late in the game however a play occurred that could have ruined our season.

Derenbecker got loose by himself and was heading to the basket. As he rose to dunk the ball Tommy Kehoe, ( yes his family owned the school), shoved John hard from behind while he was in mid air. He crashed to the ground and all of us witnessing it gasped collectively.  Fortunately John was not hurt but it sent a collective chill down all our spines knowing how fragile our season could become without our best player.

THE DISTRICT-SECOND HALF

We were now 18-6 and had reeled off seven wins in a row going back to our victory against Boothville-Venice. To start the second half of district play we had to travel to Destrehan to play St. Charles.

The Comets were one game behind us with a district record of 5-1. They had upset NOA, the preseason choice to finish behind us in the district, and they were a confident bunch. A little too confident. They decided to poke the bear with a stick. It was a major miscalculation on their part.

We had beaten them over a month ago by twenty three points. In their mind they felt they could close the gap on us. Their gym was packed and throughout the facility were signs in their fan’s hands and posted on the wall. The signs all virtually said the same thing, 17-0, which was the final score of our football game earlier in the school year.

We would be without Howell for the game, as he was nursing an injury, as well as starter Billy Shepherd, who had come down with a virus. So Jarrett decided to go big, starting 6’6″ Trip Ludwig in Shepherd’s place. Our front line was now 6’2 1/2″, 6’6″, and 6’8″. Our guards, Bright, McMorris, and Agular were all 6’0″. The size disparity was obvious and all the signs the Comet faithful had spread throughout the gym had made an impact, but not the one they were hoping for. We were ready to beat the hell out of this team.

Tim Bright had become the permanent starter at the two guard spot and his outside shooting had given us the added dimension we had been missing in the preseason. Joey Agular was now our sixth man and his athleticism provided instant energy the moment he took the floor. John was at the peak of his powers now, and nobody we played had an answer for him. Chris McMorris was firmly entrenched as the quarterback of the basketball team and he could break pressure by himself if necessary. The alleged reliance on a tall line up was now balanced with superb guard play complimenting a once in a decade player. On this night St. Charles would feel the full force of both dominant guards and imposing size on the front line.

The final score was 80-50 but it could have been much worse. We pounded the Comets on the boards and pushed them to the sidelines on the perimeter.

This change had not gone unnoticed by Jarrett. In another newspaper interview prior to the St. Charles game he acknowledged in print what we as a team already knew. “We are playing intelligent basketball so far and we’re not making a lot of mistakes.” He then added  “The play of our guards and forwards, especially McMorris, Agular, and Shepherd is really coming along.”

He wasn’t finished. “We’ve shown very good team defense and I think we might be surprising some people with that. Of course everyone has to look out for Derenbecker and don’t realize what our other people can do before it’s too late.”

He closed by saying “We don’t have a lot of good individual statistics, that is we don’t have a lot of people scoring in double figures, but that’s because we have been executing well as a unit.”

My clearest memory of that game was that I was getting a fair amount of shots, mostly the baby jump hook I had developed to score when close to the basket. In my entire high school basketball career I never notched a twenty point game. I had my share of sixteen and eighteen point games but never the big Two O. Late in the game I was open under the basket. I knew I was close to the magic number and was hoping for a pass. John had the ball and rose up. He was either going to shoot or pass. I put my hands up and waved and a second later I watched the ball kiss off the glass and into the basket. I finished the game with eighteen points. I did get to watch my mother, who had been keeping score in the stands, rush up to John after the game and demand an explanation of why he didn’t pass me the ball. Those of you reading this who knew my mother can only imagine the timber of that conversation. I do recall John professing remorse and swearing that he did not see me. John finished the game with twenty five points followed by me with eighteen, and Tim with sixteen. In a show of respect after the game a Comet player walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and congratulated me and the team on the win. He then said he hoped we would win it all. I put my arm around his waist and said ” Don’t worry, we will!”

Our next game was at home against First Assembly and Jarrett decided to employ psychology on us again to ensure no let down occurred from our convincing win over St. Charles. Before practice we were sitting down as a team and Jarrett made the remark that if I had done a better job guarding Bill Borges in our previous game against them he would not have gotten over thirty points.

I took the bait. I promptly responded that I had not guarded Borges the entire game and when I had he did not score. Jarrett then said something to the effect of ” Ok you got him but once he gets ten points you are going to the bench.” A game that was never going to be in doubt was now of major significance to me. I had thrown down the gauntlet and I was determined to suffocate Bill Borges.

The night of the game I was at a fever pitch. I didn’t care if I scored or even got a rebound, all I wanted to do was play defense against Bill Borges. Once the game started I glued myself to him. I denied him the ball, fought over screens, and drilled a hole into his midsection with my eyes. My teammates were helping. They called out the screens and jumped out on them until I recovered, all the while harassing their assigned players as well. It wasn’t just me guarding hard, the whole team was clamping down.

At the end of the first quarter we were up 14-4 and Borges had a goose egg. In the second half Jarrett got playful with me. He put us in a 1-3-1 zone. Borges promptly hit a shot from the corner opposite of me. As we ran down the floor Jarrett held up a finger and said “That’s one.” I promptly yelled back “We’re in a zone!” On the next trip down Borges again went to the opposite corner from me and again he nailed a jumper. As before Jarrett looked up at me and yelled “That’s two.” I yelled back him, this time much louder. “We’re in a zone!!!”

As we ran down the floor I abandoned the zone and went and started guarding Borges again. When we got the ball back Coach called  time out and my night was done, but not for a bad reason. It was time to get our other guys some playing time.

Borges finished the game with exactly ten points, as did his teammate Eric Collins, but as a team we held them to an astounding twenty four points with the final score being 62-24. Derenbecker almost outscored First Assembly by himself with seventeen points with me next at eleven.The next day I did receive a pleasant surprise, but being me I screwed that up.

In the entrance to our gym hanging on the wall was a board. On it was engraved DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK, with a slot to insert a card with a players name on it. It was the highest honor you could receive from Coach Jarrett. This year no one had been given that designation but after the First Assembly game on the board in bold letters was WAUTLETT. The only problem was I spelled my name Wautlet. Rather than be happy I went to Coach and asked if he could correct the spelling of my name. Instead he just took the card down. So I went from being Defensive Player of the Week to Defensive Player of the Day. Another lesson learned. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

We were now in complete control and our dominance in the district was unquestioned. We defeated Crescent City 85-38, Ridgewood 69-30, NOA 58-42, and Kehoe 64-35. We finished district play unbeaten with a perfect 12-0 record and ran our overall mark to 24-6, the same record the 1976 team had finished with the year before. We were officially in the state playoffs. We now had the chance we worked for all year. We were ranked number one in the state in class A and were now in a position to compete for the title. All we had to do was finish the job. What we didn’t know is that we would face one more test of our character.

THE COUNTRY DAY MIRACLE

We had drawn a first round bye so we decided to go scout our potential opponent. A bunch of us piled into Charlie Van Horn’s father’s car and made the ninety minute trip to Thibodaux.

We walked in the gym and all eyes turned to this group of very tall young men climbing into the bleachers. We settled into our seats and watched quietly as the game started. It wasn’t long before we realized our next opponent would be the Plaisance Indians.

Plaisance had won the state title in 1975 and was led by three year starter and two time all state player Tom Green. At 6’0 Green was the tallest player on the Indian roster. Despite the fact that they had won the game easily to us they looked small and unimpressive. All of us left the gym confident that we would have no trouble getting past our first round opponent.

First round games had historically been difficult for past CD squads. The 1976 team was the first to accomplish the feat of winning one and it took a double overtime to get by Buras. I attributed this to the false sense of security we would get by playing in a weak district but in my mind we beat those district teams by margins appropriate with our talent level and coaching. A such we rode the bus to Catholic High’s gym in Baton Rouge with a calm reassurance that things would go smoothly for us. Hubris is a terrible thing. When the game started we realized we had run into a buzz saw.

The first quarter was back and forth and were down by two 14-12 when it ended. The Plaisance guards were faster than we anticipated and they had the tempo going at a break neck pace. The second quarter was worse. They outscored us 16-6 in that period and we were down at the half 30-12. I remember setting myself up for a charge only to watch my man float around me and score a lay up. We were all a bit shell shocked.

In the locker room no strategy was discussed. Jarrett demanded all of us to reach down inside and find the will to compete. We did have an ace up our sleeve and Jarret decided to use it. Joey Agular was going to guard Tom Green in the second half.

The third quarter was better but we were still outscored 15-14. It was now 45-32 going into the fourth quarter. We had been down by as much as twenty three points. Joey continued to harass Green but John ignited. We outscored the Indians 20-4 in that quarter. With the game getting closer I stripped Green of the ball. As we went down the floor Tim Bright made a twisting drive down the heart of the Plaisance defense to score. The momentum was now totally in our favor. Earlier in the quarter I shot my little jump hook that actually grazed Green’s fingers before going in. The ball was now bouncing our way.

Late in the game I got involved in a tie up which resulted in a jump ball. We could not afford to lose a single possession so I had to win that tip. As we lined up my mind raced back to my benching against Reserve and the botched jump ball. John circled behind me and in a firm voice said, “I’m right behind you. Just tip it straight back to me.” I knew this was a  psych job on my opponent in the center circle so I said “No problem.” At that point John  got compromised and moved to my right. This would be more difficult for me as I would have to twist in the air to direct the ball back to John. Again John said “I’m off your right shoulder now.” I responded by saying ” I got you.”

I then settled into my stance and focused on the refs knees. As they bent I pushed off the ground as hard as I could and met the ball, twisting in the air flicking it directly to John with a backwards movement. I don’t even think my opponent left the floor.

With time running down a lob to Derenbecker and his laying the ball into the basket resulted in our taking the lead for the first time. The game ended with a Plaisance shot banging off the rim into my hands. I immediately curled up into a ball and dropped to one knee, completely trying to cover the basketball up. I waited for the buzzer to sound. At the last second an Indian player reached in to try and force a jump ball but before he could get a grip the horn went off. We had won 52-49. As I ran into the mob of fans that had rushed to the floor I realized I was still holding the game ball. I turned around and ran back to the referee to give it to him.

I then raced back to the happy throng. Robert Pratt met me at mid court and hoisted me off my feet with a bear hug. Isaac McMorris, Chris’ dad, hugged me and praised me for winning the tip on that critical jump ball. I saw the Plaisance coach on the sidelines. He wore a look of shock. I went over to him, extended my hand, and he graciously shook it. I knew he was in pain. Players like Tom Green don’t come around that often in small communities and to lose in dramatic fashion like that is horrible. I empathized because that is what happened to us against Newman earlier in the season.

Derenbecker had been spectacular scoring thirty of our fifty two points. Tom Green had been equally impressive scoring twenty six points of his own. Our victory was made up of little details. A hustling defender, an acrobatic shot, a successful center jump. But in the end our big gun had shown his grit. There would be more to come.

The Country Day Miracle, as the Times Picayune called it, was a focal point for us. We knew now that we had to bring our best effort every night or we could lose. It was a valuable lesson and one we took to heart.

ELTON

As we prepared for Elton I received surprising news. The defending state champion Davidson Warriors had lost their play off game. Davidson had returned all of their starters from the year before, including 6’5″ center Dean Shields, 6’3″ strong forward Roy Bowman, and star guard Curtis Britton, who had blistered us for 30 points in the state title game a year earlier. I had hoped for a rematch with them to avenge our loss from last year in the 1976 state championship game. Again it was another example of how treacherous and unpredictable the play offs could be.

We didn’t know anything about the Elton Indians other than it appeared that Indians was a popular mascot name in southwest Louisiana. But after our near nightmare against Plaisance we were not going to fool around. We jumped all over them and at the end of the first quarter we were up 20-6. To Elton’s credit in the second quarter they fought back, outscoring us 16-12. At halftime we were up 36-18.

Halftime was uneventful. Even though we had lost the second quarter Jarrett knew we were all business. In the third quarter we asserted ourselves again outscoring Elton 20-7 en route to a 66-41 victory. John was John, putting up 24 points for us.

We were now going back to the Top Twenty Tournament for the second year in a row. We also learned that we would not be the only standard bearer for the New Orleans metro area. Joining us in Lake Charles would be Archbishop Rummel in AAAA, and the Isidore Newman Greenies in AA. That was a solid testament to the quality of high school basketball in the Crescent City. We were one game away from getting to the title game for the second year in a row and two games from making history. At 26-6 we had won fifteen consecutive games and were undefeated against Class A competition. Our next opponent was of no consequence. At this point in time we felt we could compete with anybody. We also felt we had not yet played our most complete game. We were ready too explode, and it happened in our next contest.

WATERPROOF YES. SHOCKPROOF NO!

The Top Twenty Tournament was a media circus. While there was no social media in 1977 there was still plenty of publicity and attention.  Television, radio, and print media descended on Lake Charles along with bus loads of fans. The Cajun faithful were out in full force as well. They came by car, bus, and even private plane.

This was our second trip to the big show so we were confident and not in awe of all the hoopla surrounding the event. I remembered last year being star struck by all the pageantry and attention. It also took some time to get used to shooting in a large arena. Your depth perception has to adjust and as result that first semi-final often went to the team that made that adjustment the best. We left Metairie on Tuesday and our game was that night at 7:30. Prior to that would be a light workout in the afternoon. Jarrett had been interviewed by the Times-Picayune’s Bill Bumgarner. In that article he made an observation about the 1977 team that separated us from the 1976 team in a profound way. When asked if the long bus ride and practice prior to the game was a potential problem his response was surprising but gratifying. “I don’t think this ordeal in one day will hurt us. This is a smarter team than the one I had last season.”

We settled into the Howard Johnson motel. Room assignments were handed out by John and we moved in and began preparing for the events and the game that would follow that evening, including a 2:00 P.M. shoot around. Last year our hotel stay included some hijinks. We were housed at a Ramada Inn and I got pushed out of my room in nothing but my underwear. Standing outside was Bright covered only in a towel. He began to point at me and roar with laughter. I immediately grabbed his towel from him. Much to my surprise instead of a bathing suit all I saw was Tim’s completely naked body. He ran to his room and began banging on the door pleading to be let in. I still recall his cry for help. “Crosbeee open the door! I’m nude! Crosbeee!! I’m nude!!!” I must say the chambermaid on our floor cleaning rooms was not too impressed with Bright’s physique. I also had the pleasure of Howell calling my room every morning and impersonating my mother. “Merrill this is your mother. I want to have breakfast with you!” This year however there was no horseplay. We were on a mission. Other than the evening we depleted the HoJo’s inventory of fried clams on All You Can Eat Clams night we were a pretty sedate group.

We didn’t know anything about the Waterproof Tigers but we were aware that they played in the same district as last year’s champion Davidson. Their best and tallest player was James McFarland, a 6’3″ forward who would go on to attend Alcorn A&M on a football scholarship. We also knew that like us they played man to man and would use a full court press the whole night.

Despite our rocky start we had congealed into a formidable basketball team. Over the course of the season we had scored over eighty points five times and seventy points twelve times. On defense we had held our opponents under fifty points seventeen times, under forty points six times, and under thirty points once.  We were now 26-6 on the year and had won fifteen games in a row. We were poised to erupt. Waterproof never had a chance.

As predicted Waterproof pressed us the whole game and that turned out to be the worst possible strategy. We had a superb point guard in McMorris and big men to hit in the middle via our press break, who in turn found our guards and forwards going to the basket. This created numerous quick scoring opportunities.

Our passing game worked to perfection. With Waterproof overplaying us we were able to go backdoor and get lay up after lay up. Most importantly everyone, and I mean everyone, was in the zone offensively. We were all shooting well. I remember drilling a jumper from the foul line extended and converting a running hook shot off the glass that elicited a roar from the crowd and a head shake with a wry smile from my head coach.

I wasn’t the only one with a hot hand. John was solid and finished with twenty two points. I ended up with sixteen and Billy Shepherd had ten. Joey Agular was four for four from the field including a mid court steal that came about when I left my man to go trap a player on the sideline. Joey sensed the pass about to be made and broke quickly. I could hear his hand slap the ball and saw a blond haired blur hurtling towards the basket after the steal. Trip Ludwig came off the bench and was also four for four. In fact eleven players scored for us that night. But one of us had a game for the ages.

It took Tim Bright about half the season to work his way permanently into our starting lineup. Coming into the tournament he was averaging four points per game. Playing on a guard rich team with an All State center meant that touches were few. I usually took no more that five to six shots a game and some of those were off of offensive rebounds. Tim was a dynamic shooter and a fierce competitor. He was overdue for a big game and in typical Bright fashion he waited for the biggest stage to have his moment.

All Tim did was go seven for seven from the floor and five for five from the foul line to finish with nineteen points. He was so hot I’m convinced he could have thrown the basketball backwards over his head and it would have went in. It was a spectacular offensive display. There was however one more big play to be had and it was made by our most unselfish teammate.

Late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand all of the starters were on the bench. With less than a minute to play word got to us that we were one basket away from breaking the tournament record for most points scored in a game. I immediately jumped to my feet and yelled “One more basket and we have the record!”  Coach Jarrett promptly turned around and glared at me. Jarrett never ran up the score on anybody. In fact we had an unwritten rule that we would never score 100 points on an opponent if the game was not in doubt. We were trouncing Waterproof and there was no way Jarret would condone scoring more than needed just to get a record.

Mark Haynes was on the floor. As I wrote earlier there was no better person on our team than Mark. He was a gifted player who had the misfortune of playing on a team full of not just good, but extremely good guards. Mark’s speed and quickness was invaluable during practice as he and others on our bench pushed the starters hard. Mark was our only guard who could simulate in practice the guard speed we would face in games, particularly in the playoffs. Despite playing in mop up situations he never complained and was always our most vocal cheerleader from the bench.

The clock was ticking down. With forty three seconds to go Haynes ended up with the ball in the deep corner. In fact he was right on the edge of the court, a good thirty feet from the basket. With no hesitation he rose up and fired away. The ball made a loud booming noise as it crashed in! With that shot Mark made history. Ironically he was not a great outside shooter but on that one he was money!

We had obliterated Waterproof 97-63! We had shot an astounding 61% from the floor! Bright, Agular, Ludwig, Howell Crosby, and Haynes were all 100% from the field and Howell converted both of his free throws. My percentage was 67% on six of nine shooting and that was surpassed by five other players! There were other records that night. Waterproof had fouled us twenty eight times and committed twenty eight turnovers!

The next day the Fourth Estate  had a lot of fun with their headlines. Country Day Soaks Waterproof. Country Day Finds Leak in Waterproof Defense. Cajuns Precision Drowns Waterproof. Waterproof Yes. Shockproof No! We had a lot of fun reading those articles and enjoying the moment. However we knew there was one more step to be taken. We had a date with destiny.

WHO WILL WE PLAY?

After we beat Waterproof we had to wait to see who our opponent would be in the title game. Sunshine was playing Grambling and both would be stern tests for us. Sunshine had 6’7″ Keith Terrell in the middle complimented by 6’4″ power forward Van Schultz. The Grambling Kittens, also known as Alma Brown Laboratory School, countered with 6’7″ center Clint Walker along with two 6’4″ forwards, Walter Bissic and James Bonner. Both teams were as big as we were and had good guard play too. This would be no cake walk.

Coach Jarrett was usually careful in his remarks to the press. He would be honest but generally would not say anything that could end up as material for an opponent’s locker room. However in an interview with Times-Picayune prep sportswriter John Joly he did just that.

Apparently responding to a question from Joly about who he thought we would be playing he did not hesitate. “We’ll be looking at this game and we figure Sunshine will win it. They are a tall ball club and we will play them close in hopes of getting the ball back and hoping to get a shot. We know very little about Grambling.”

When I read that I wasn’t sure about the correlation of playing close and getting the ball back and hoping to get a shot. In fact he used the word hope twice. What I did know is that if Grambling won they now had some additional motivation, particularly since most “pundits” were picking us to win regardless of who won between Sunshine and Grambling.

At 2:00 P.M. Thursday we all gathered in the Lake Charles Civic Center to watch Sunshine face off against Grambling. It didn’t take long before we realized our coach had been dead wrong with his prediction.

Clint Walker was a bespectacled wiry 6’7″ center with a feathery jump shot. He roamed around the perimeter of the key and knocked down jumper after jumper. Sunshine’s Terrell was not quick enough to guard Walker that far from the basket and when he did venture out Grambling punched the ball inside to their burly forwards Bissic and Bonner. Schultz could not guard both of Grambling’s big two so he was compromised as well. The Grambling guards were a swarming bunch, harassing their Sunshine counterparts.

All year my goal had been to earn the trust of Coach Jarrett to be assigned our opponents best player. While sitting in our locker room after practice one evening, in preparation for the start of the playoffs, Jarrett asked me if I was ready to guard Ray Baggett. Baggett was a 6’3″ All State guard who had scored over thirty points on us last year when we beat Oberlin to advance to the Top Twenty in 1976. Of course I enthusiastically said yes. I did not get my shot at Baggett but I saw another opportunity. I felt I was the one who needed to guard Clint Walker.

I noticed that Walker seldom drove to the basket and never posted up. I also saw that before he would shoot he would lower the ball to his right hip, drop his right leg back, and then go up into his shot. If I could deny him the ball and force him further out, and then close in on him after he caught the ball so he couldn’t drop it to his hip, I felt I could neutralize him. This would also allow John to stay near the basket and contend with Grambling’s two big forwards. If he did try to drive on me I felt I could body up on him and still keep him in check.

Jarrett must have been thinking the same thing. He was sitting in front of me two rows down. Late in the fourth quarter he turned his head around and asked me if I could guard their big man. It was unusual for him to ask our opinion on anything but I had already thought it through and said “I got him.” I had a tall order, no pun intended. Walker finished as the game’s high scorer with twenty three points.

We weren’t scheduled to play until Friday at 7:00. We had our last practice, which was essentially a walk through. The highlight was watching our three managers run Man Makers. Man Makers were what Jarrett called line drills. You ran full speed to the foul line and back, then to half court and back, then to the other foul line and back, and then to the end line and back, touching each line with your hands. It was a grueling drill, especially if we had to run a double, and they were even worse at the end of practice. Watching our loyal managers race up and down the gym floor provided some levity and we ended our last practice as a team on a high note.

That night a few of us went to the arena to watch some other games. Rummel had won earlier to make the finals in AAAA and would have to face 41-0 DeRidder in the game after ours. DeRidder featured All State player Mike Sanders, who had committed to UCLA.  Newman was also playing and was favored to advance to the state championship game for AA on Saturday. As I was watching the action on the floor I looked up and saw some familiar faces.

Walking down the steps next to our seats were some of the Grambling players, including Clint Walker. They sat a few rows down from us. Walker then began making shooting motions with his hand. I don’t know if that was just his normal routine or if he was trying to mess with our heads. What I did know was after watching John employ psychology during the critical jump ball I was involved in at the Plaisance game I felt it was time to use some of my own.

I got up, went down the stairs and sat one seat over from Walker. I began to make shooting motions with my hand. I then looked at him and said ” You better get your shots off tonight because tomorrow I’m guarding you.” I said it with a smile and he smiled back. I then got up and told the guys I was with to follow me to some other seats. Jarrett hated trash talk but I wanted to plant a seed in Walker’s head. Legendary Coach Bobby Knight, a man Jarrett admired and in many instances emulated, once said that every player thinks he is better than what he really is. In this case I knew Walker was better than me. I just didn’t want him too know it.

Later that night our youngest manager, Bruno Charest, was in my room. Bruno was French Canadian and a great kid. For some reason that I can’t recall he irked me and the end result was me trying to get him out of my room. I raised my left arm abruptly and got a stinger. The pain was awful and my arm was useless. I sat on the bed clutching it and thought I had just ruined the season. I typically recovered from these stingers quickly but this one hurt bad. I waited until I was alone in the room and called my mother. I wasn’t sure what could be done but I was miserable and had to tell someone.

A while later John showed up at my door with some Ben Gay or similar muscle relief cream. He said my mother gave it to him for my arm. I asked him if he was going to tell Jarrett. He said no and walked back to his room.

GAME DAY 

With a 7:00 P.M. tip off we had plenty of time to kill before our game. I could tell we were loose and ready. That time passed quickly and before long we were on our way to the Civic Center. My arm was back to normal and I was focused and ready to play.

The crowd was large. Mid week games, particularly between smaller schools, are generally played before a lot of empty seats. The year before in Alexandria it felt like the Rapides Parish Coliseum was at capacity every day, in part because the city was centrally located so fans could travel even mid week, plus the community as a whole embraced the tournament. That had not been the case in Lake Charles but tonight we had a packed house. I knew part of the reason was that Rummel was playing DeRidder after our game in the AAAA final. DeRidder was just up the road from Lake Charles, was 41-0, and as mentioned earlier had their six foot six marquee player Mike Sanders. That and the fact it was a Friday night all fueled the anticipation coursing through the arena. We would learn later that attendance was 6,147, just short of the arena’s capacity of 6,200.

In 1976 we had worn our white home uniforms for both of our games in the tournament. This year we wore our blue road uniforms. I’m not sure how all of that was decided, as I figured the higher seed would wear their home colors, but we were putting on our royal blue uniforms yet again. Interestingly each player had two numbers. At home, when wearing white, all our numbers were even. On the road, when wearing blue, they were odd. So instead of 34 I would be 35, John would be 41 instead of 40, and so on. There was something different about our uniforms this year. Some us had added a little different color scheme to our outfits.

Earlier in the season a few of us were sitting around the locker room trying to find something to rally around and unify the team. As written earlier we had gone through a down period. I came up with the idea of shaving our heads, as I thought it would make us look fierce and imposing. Gene Newton loved the idea. “I’ll do it!” he exclaimed! ” A bald basketball team! That would be cool!” However the others in the room were not as enthusiastic. Then Howell Crosby came up with a concept. We would add the color black to our uniforms by wearing black sweatbands and black shoelaces. This display of “Black Power” was in his mind what we needed to get us back on track. Howell was thinking more about the second team. He likened them to pirates and the wearing of black would represent a “No White Flags” mentality with the mission to beat the first team in practice, which in fact did happen occasionally. Everyone else thought that would be perfect for the first team as well so we went for it and before long we were off to Security Sporting Goods to get our accessories.

I don’t remember the first game we unveiled the new look but in the beginning the entire team bought in. Over time most of the guys went back to white shoelaces and no wristbands. A few of us stayed the course in some fashion or another and so it was still a part of our aura so to speak.

I dressed slower than usual. I knew this was the last time I would be putting on the red and blue and I wanted to savor the moment. The room was quiet. I’m not sure what Coach Jarrett told us but I know it was not a fiery speech. Jarrett wasn’t one for pep talks and he knew we didn’t need one.

We filed into the arena and took the floor for warmups. Grambling was in their red uniforms so I figured we must have chosen to wear blue again. I could appreciate that. Why mess with karma. After warm ups we went to our bench and stood for the national anthem and a prayer. Then it was time to announce the starting line ups.

At most games the visitors are introduced one by one and then the home team follows suit. At the Top Twenty in 1977  the teams were introduced simultaneously. Once your name was called you ran out to the center circle to either wait for your opponent or meet him if he was announced first. You then shook hands and went back to your respective benches.

Most players just jogged or lightly shuffled out to center court, which is what Clint Walker did when his name was called. I didn’t know if it was fate, luck, or providence that we got paired together but I saw a chance to make another statement to him. Once my name was called I sprinted to the center circle. As we grabbed hands I gave him my strongest grip and held it for about a half second longer than I had to. Then I smiled at him. This was my last chance to let him know that I was going do my level best to make his evening as unpleasant as possible.

A DATE WITH DESTINY

Unlike Waterproof we did not get off to a fast start. Grambling had scouted us thoroughly and had a plan. They opened in a zone and were focusing on John. Getting the ball to him was proving to be a challenge.

We were in our passing game. I had rotated to the short corner on the right side of the basket. Bright hit me and I squared up and nailed a twelve footer. We were finally on the board.

Next trip down I again went to the short corner on the right side. This time I saw an opening in the middle of the key so I flashed to it. Bright was on the the top of the circle and hit me again. I caught the ball, turned to face the basket and shot it. It took a short bounce on the back of the rim and then settled into the basket.

As the quarter wound down I was again in the short corner on the right side. Again I flashed, this time going straight across the key to the opposite low block. Bright found me yet again. I caught the ball and  turned and collided with a Kitten player. He fell to the ground. I waited a split second for a whistle, heard nothing, and pushed the ball off the backboard into the basket.  The quarter ended with us trailing 9-6. Along with having all our points I also had shut out Walker on defense. But if were going to win we needed to get John Derenbecker untracked.

In the second quarter John moved to the perimeter and I went inside. John finally scored around the seven minute mark of the second quarter and the game began to turn. Derenbecker ended up with fifteen points and we took the lead with ten seconds to go after John completed a three point play after being fouled and scoring while driving the baseline.

I was still battling Clint Walker and he still had not scored. I had two fouls late in the second quarter when I got my third colliding into Walker while he was in the act of shooting. I tried to block his shot, which was not a smart decision given his five inch height advantage and my lack of jumping ability. I had to go to the bench and watch him make one out of two from the charity stripe. I had added another basket in that quarter and now had eight points.

John’s three point play sent us to the locker room with a 27-26 lead as Grambling scored again before the end of the half. We had outscored them 21-17 in the second quarter. Again there was no dynamic speeches at half time. We were two evenly matched teams. Grambling had not won twenty two games by accident.

I spent the third quarter cheering my team from the bench. Trip Ludwig replaced me to start the second half  and he played very well. We switched from man to man to a zone and the back line of Billy Shepherd, John, and Trip made it difficult for the Kittens to get easy looks. We outscored Grambling 15-12 in that quarter and lead by four 42-38.

I went back in for the fourth and final quarter of my Country Day basketball life. The zone we had employed in the third quarter had proved effective against Walker as he still did not have a field goal. Grambling’s two big forwards however were scoring. James Bonner and Walter Bissic were stepping up for Grambling. They would finish the game with twenty two and seventeen points respectively.

The fourth quarter was intense. We had gone back to playing man to man again. Shortly into the quarter Walker squared up on me and drilled a jumper in my face. He then muttered something like “I’m back!” I replied with something akin to no way but my language was a tad more colorful. I think what I really said was Bull, but with a little more flair.

Grambling would not go away. We kept trading baskets and every possession was critical. On one missed shot I went up behind Walker, pulled the ball out of his hands from behind, and put it in back into the basket for my tenth point. Our lead had now grown to seven. Chris McMorris was also playing well, as he now had eleven points.

As the clock wound down Grambling scored and we were up by five. A turnover here would have shifted momentum to the Kittens. Jarrett knew they would be in a man to man full court press us and he had the antidote. We were going to ice them.

The icer is a simple play and an absolute dagger to the heart of the team pressing. Four of us line up across the floor even with the foul line closest to the basket we are inbounding from. Two of us would be stationed on the far sidelines and two more would be foul line extended. At the slap of the ball all four of us break towards the basket where the inbounder had the ball but one designated player would then reverses course and race to the opposite basket. A long pass is then thrown and if successful it results in an uncontested lay up.

John  was our inbounder and at 6’8″ could easily throw over anyone trying to guard him on the baseline. McMorris was the going to be the receiver. He was lined up foul line extended directly in front of John. This created a straight line and an easy pass for John if Grambling overplayed on defense and McMorris was able to get free.

The play worked perfectly. Chris broke into the open and John lasered the ball into his hands for an easy layup. Unfortunately Grambling responded with yet another score and again we were in a time out situation.

Jarrett decided to call the exact same play again except this time I was going to be the target. Now this would be more difficult to execute. John would be throwing the ball across the court instead of down the sideline, and if I got open I would be attacking the basket from the left, which was not my natural hand to shoot lay ups with. There was no turning back now so we took the floor and waited for the whistle and the subsequent slap of the ball. As it turns out scoring would be the last thing I had to worry about.

On the slap I lurched forward and then turned and blasted down the left sideline. I looked up and instead of the ball coming to me all I saw was it arcing straight up. I immediately doubled back and caught it near mid court. I knew the last man Jarrett wanted handling the ball in the middle of the floor was me but streaking up the right side of the court was John. I hit him with a pass and he went to the right side of the basket and knocked down a jumper just before the buzzer sounded. We had won 63-56!

Pandemonium ensued. Our fans stormed up to the roped areas keeping them from the floor as the rest of us were celebrating wildly. Once order was restored we shook hands with our valiant opponent and waited for the trophy presentation. As we lifted the big prize in the air we took in the cheers of our fellow students, teachers, parents, and former teammates who had come to support us.

John finished the game with twenty nine points and fourteen rebounds. He was thirteen of twenty two from the field. McMorris finished with thirteen points on six of eleven shooting, and I ended up with ten points on five of eight shooting along with six rebounds. Clint Walker finished the game with three points. He was one for thirteen from the field. We ended our season with a record of 28-6.

Once in the locker room the reality began to set in. There was still some raucous laughter and celebrating but for the eight seniors in the room there was also the reality that we would be pulling our uniforms off for the last time. Jarrett was surveying the room. He looked over at me and said “Merrill you played an outstanding game even though you had three fouls.” Years later I was talking with John and I asked him what would make Jarrett give me such a backhanded compliment after our last game and winning a championship? John’s response was illuminating. He said “Merrill even then he was still trying to make you better.”

I will admit I did earn some praise from him in the media two days after that game. On Sunday March 13, 1977 an article appeared in the Lake Charles American Press titled “It’s happy days for Country Day”. Midway through the article I was spotlighted for the very thing I had worked so hard to become adept at, my defense. The following is a direct transcript of excerpts from that article.

“At the start of the third quarter, Jarrett benched starter M.C.Wautlet in favor of Trip Ludwig, but it wasn’t because of any ineffective play by the 6’2” senior. “Ludwig went in because Wautlet likes to reach and we wanted to save him for the final quarter” Jarrett said.”

“Wautlet had three personal fouls on him but had smothered Grambling’s Clint Walker, who had 23 points in the Kittens semi-final victory over Sunshine. While holding Walker down, Wautlet scored eight first half-points. Wautlet returned at the start of the fourth quarter and continued his fine defensive work.”

“He did a good job on the player, (Walker), who had 23 points in the first game” Jarrett said.

The article closed by saying that Jarrett’s quote was a “mild understatement”. Of course the sports writer didn’t know that coming from our coach that was glowing praise. I will say it was the most ink I had ever gotten in an article and as such Randy Soileau, wherever you are, thank you!

AFTER GLOW

The New Orleans area had a lot to celebrate. Shortly after we beat Grambling the Rummel Raiders, behind Wade Blundell, Dean Carpenter, and Barry Barocco upset the 41-0 DeRidder Dragon to win the AAAA title. On Saturday the Newman Greenies won their championship as well.

The accolades began to roll in. Derenbecker was named MVP of the district and Jarrett was Coach of the Year. John, Chris, and myself were named first team all district, while Tim, Joey, and Billy were named honorable mention.

Our local paper in Jefferson Parish, The East Bank Guide, named John to the first team, me to the second team, and Chris honorable mention.

In the Top Twenty John was named to the all tournament team. Earning one vote was Tim Bright on the strength of his game against Waterproof.

John Derenbecker was named first team All State and Richard Jarrett was named Coach of the Year.

We never lost again after falling to Belle Chasse for the second time. We won seventeen games in a row and finished undefeated in Class A competition. We won three out four games against AAAA schools, six out of eight against AAA schools, and six out of nine against AA schools.

Our largest margin of victory was forty-seven points against Crescent City. Our largest margin of defeat was nine points against Salmen. All other losses were by five points or less.

Our highest single point game was 97 against Waterproof. Our lowest scoring game was 49 against Landry. The most points we gave up to any one team was 79 against Belle Chasse. The least amount of points we gave up in one game was 24 against First Assembly.

On the season we scored 2,377 points resulting in 70 point per game average. We gave up 1,727 points for a 51 point per game average, which meant our average margin of victory was by 19 points.

We lost only one game at home that year by two points to Belle Chasse.

We had competed in three invitational tournaments prior to the start of district play and failed to win any of them. Three of our six losses came in those tourneys. Two of the teams that beat us later in the year, Salmen and Belle Chasse, were schools we had beaten in our first meeting with them that season.

Newman, who we almost beat our second game of the year, went on to win all their games but one en route to their state championship. They split a home and home series with De La Salle. The schools were located literally down the street from each other and both games were decided by last second shots.

We only had four players under six feet tall on our roster with the shortest being 5’9″.

Along with a heroes welcome back at school we, along with Rummel and Newman, were honored by the New Orleans Jazz, our NBA team, with tickets and an announcement at their game against the New York Nets.

We had a personal celebration at Tim Bright’s house at a party thrown by his parents. It was April Fools Day. We had a free throw shooting contest in Tim’s driveway and we all received posters of ourselves created from game photos.

Graduation would be about a month or so away. We would soon all be going in different directions. While we reconvened a few times over the next few years to play in reunion games that night at Tim’s house was our last together as the 1977 Country Day Cajuns. We celebrated our commitment to one another and we celebrated making history.

Some months later we received a present from our coach. Coach Jarrett  had a caricature made of each player with their number and a recap of the season emblazoned on it. On all of them Jarrett wrote “Thank you very much for a wonderful season.” Mine had an additional sentence. “I miss you very much this season.” I missed him too. I still miss him. The last time I saw him was in 1995. We reunited as a team to play the current Country Day varsity. We all pitched in for his plan ticket so he could be on the bench with us. Always our coach I actually I received a compliment from him at half time of that game. He said “Those were some good power moves you had in the first half.” Even after eighteen years we still played well together. Howell Crosby hit a three pointer before the end of the half to give us our first lead and in the second half we pulled away to win 59-39 in front of a packed house of current Cajuns along with our family and friends.Although Jarrett and I did have some occasional phone calls 1995 would be the last time any of us saw our coach in person. He loved all of us and by demanding nothing less than our best we were able to make history in 1977.

AN UNSOLVED MYSTERY

A tradition at Country Day in the Jarrett era was that before every home game we would take the floor and warm up to Sweet Georgia Brown, the same song the Harlem Globetrotters used. Our team was a funky bunch. We liked to groove to Boz Scaggs, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and even the old Motown hits. A popular act in 1977 was the Brothers Johnson, a duo with a chart topper called I’ll Be Good To You. Mark Haynes claimed to be related to them, which none of us believed, but that song was popular on the team. A little too popular.

At one home game, instead of bursting into the gym to Sweet Georgia Brown, emanating from the little cassette player on the floor near our basket was the Brothers Johnson singing I’ll Be Good To You. How it got there was a mystery but we warmed up happily to a song more in line with our musical tastes than SGB. That happiness didn’t last long.

As soon as Jarrett entered the gym and heard the music his face reddened instantly. He walked over to the cassette player, ejected the tape, placed in on the floor and with one stomp of this foot disintegrated the Brothers Johnson. He then yelled at us to return to the locker room.

I have never been interrogated but I have a good feeling what it must be like because Jarrett wanted to know very badly who switched the tape and he was grilling us hard. I didn’t know and whoever did know wasn’t talking. At last Jarrett gave up and sent us back into the gym. We got back on the floor just in time to start the game.

Afterwards we conducted our own investigation but came up empty. Our initial thought was that it was Haynes, because of his professed familial ties to the Brothers J, but he denied it with the conviction of a man about to be sent to the electric chair. We then focused our attention to our locker room Clown Prince Timothy Bright, but he too professed his innocence. I doubt Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, or Dave Robicheaux could have solved the case. The next home game Sweet Georgia Brown was once again wafting through the rafters of the Grimm Gym. The Brothers Johnson would be heard only in the recesses of our memory.

EPILOGUE

They say the worst thing that can happen to a person is to peak in high school. Even though we ended our high school experience with a championship I’m happy to say that all of us went on to accomplish even more milestones. This group won a state title for a reason. The following is what I know about all but a few of the men and women who were a part of that team.

RICHARD JARRETT: Coach Jarrett went onto win another state title at Country Day in 1980. He later followed his old boss at Country Day, Emmett Wright, to Woodberry Forest School in Virginia before settling permanently in Beaufort, South Carolina with his wife Sue. He passed away in 2016.

JOHN DERENBECKER: John accepted a basketball scholarship to Centenary College where he played for two years before transferring to Vanderbilt University to play for the Commodores. He later earned a law degree from LSU and is now the In House Legal Counsel for North Oaks Medical Center. His middle son Matt also won a championship at Country Day before playing collegiately at LSU, Dayton, and the University of New Orleans. John resides in Hammond, LA.

MERRILL WAUTLET: I enrolled at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana and later got into coaching before moving back to New Orleans to start a banking career. I’m currently the Northwest Louisiana Market President for Cross Keys Bank, having moved back to Shreveport to be closer to my two special needs sons who reside at Holy Angels here in town.

CHRIS MCMORRIS: Chris attended McNeese State University and settled in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where we won our title. He is a Health Care Consultant and lives with his two youngest children.

BILLY SHEPHERD: Billy went on to earn All State honors his senior year at Country Day while leading the Cajuns to another district championship. He is a partner in the law firm of Shepherd, Prewett,& Miller in Houston,Texas.

TIM BRIGHT: Tim attended the University of Virginia and now, along with his older brother Edgar, runs Standard Mortgage Company in New Orleans. He is also a real estate developer in Cashiers, North Carolina situated in the Blue Ridge mountains.

JOEY AGULAR: Joey attended Tulane University. Now known as Joe Agular, he is a partner in the New Orleans based investment banking firm Johnson Rice & Co.

TRIP LUDWIG: Trip, like John and myself, also attended Centenary College. Trip is now  President of Ludwig Buildings, Inc. located in Metairie, Louisiana.  His son Eddie played on the same Country Day championship team as John’s son Matt and he too went on to play college basketball at LSU. Eddie, aside from working with his father, is also an assistant basketball coach with the Cajuns and is the only person in history to win a championship at Country Day as both a player and a coach. He is the leading scorer in the history of Country Day basketball.

HOWELL CROSBY: Howell attended Tulane University and also earned a law degree and MBA from there. He is the managing partner of the Chaffe, McCall Law firm in New Orleans and sits on the board of his family’s timber company. Howell married his high school sweetheart, Katie Andry, who was a statistician on the basketball team.

MARK HAYNES: Mark attended Southern Illinois University before joining the United States Air Force. He works for Grainger in Baton Rouge and lives quietly with his wife among numerous family members on land they own in the tiny rural community of Lobdell.

CHARLIE STECK: Charlie became a starter and a tri-captain with Billy Shepherd and Gene Newton on the 1978 Country Day basketball team. I’m not sure of where he is today.

GENE NEWTON: Like Charlie, Gene became a starter and captain on the 1978 Cajun basketball team. He married his high school sweetheart MissE Crosby, ( Howell’s sister), and now resides in Conway, Arkansas.

CHARLIE VAN HORN: Charlie attended Washington & Lee University and later went to work for the family business, the Oliver H. Van Horn Tool Company, in New Orleans. Charlie eventually rose to become President of the company. After selling his business Charlie retired but is still our manager, organizing reunions for our class the past twenty years.

HOWARD SCHLOSS: Howard Schloss attended Southern Methodist University. He resides in the Washington D.C. area where he has spent the last thirty years working in politics and communications.

ROBERT PRATT: Our official scorer, Robert attended Sewanee and Tulane. He earned a law degree and is also engaged in the construction business. He lives in New Orleans.

BIBBA BULLINGTON: One of our statisticians, Bibba was an All State volleyball player at Country Day who also won a state championship in her sport. She attended the University of Virginia and now lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

KATIE ANDRY: As mentioned earlier Katie Andry is now Katie Crosby. She attended Vanderbilt University. Aside from being Howell’s wife she is the Chairman of the Board of Fidelity Bank headquartered in New Orleans.

To Charlie Steck, Scott Miler, and Bruno Charest wherever your travels have taken you I wish you the best.

FINAL THOUGHT

Every year I return to New Orleans to ride in Mardi Gras. This past year a member of my Mardi Gras Krewe, who also happened to play on the 1980 Country Day championship team, asked me who I thought would win in a game between the two. I said we would have and I politely explained why. The truth is that I didn’t give him the real answer as to why we would have won. The real reason is none of us on the 1977 team would even think to ask that question. The only reason you would ask a question like that is if you weren’t sure about the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Spirit of 76!

Tonight I listened to my alma mater, Metairie Park Country Day School, claim it’s sixth state championship in boys basketball. The game was played in Lake Charles approximately forty years from the date the school won it’s first state championship, also in Lake Charles. The year was 1977 and I was a starter on that historic team.

Those six titles are accompanied by four state runner up trophies and several state semi-final appearances. Four of those titles, and three of those second place finishes, have come in this century. Head coach Mike McGuire,who just completed his 19th season at Country Day, has built a powerhouse at the storied campus in Old Metairie located just outside of the New Orleans city limits. Under McGuire’s leadership the Cajuns have won titles in 2009,2013,2014, and 2017 while finishing second in 2007, 2008, and 2010. Since 2007 the Cajuns have played for the big prize an astounding seven times and Coach McGuire has done it without compromising the schools academic standing. This is best illustrated  by the fact that this year’s best player for the Country Day Cajuns, Romin Williams, will be playing college basketball next year at Emory University, which is a premier scholastic institution in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like all great programs there has to be a beginning. Country Day made it’s first state tournament appearance in 1966. That team was soundly defeated in the semi finals 88-58 by the Florien Black Cats. In the early 1970’s a man from Decatur, Illinois was hired to coach boys basketball and be the school’s athletic director. A marine, Richard Jarrett was hard nosed and exacting. He emphasized man to man defense and precision on offense. His Cajuns ran. They ran a lot. And they began to win.

The Cajuns qualified for the playoffs annually under Coach Jarrett but could never make it past the first round. The 1975 team actually got in on a technicality when a school that finished higher in the district got disqualified from the playoffs. That Country Day team started a skinny 6’4″ sophomore center and three juniors. They were young and overmatched in that playoff game, being soundly routed by a very good team from  Port Sulphur.

Getting obliterated in a basketball game is usually not how a dynasty starts but for this group of Cajuns it provided impetus. With only one starter graduating the returning nucleus wanted more, and in 1976 they set out to get it.

That 6’4 sophomore added three inches by next season and soon became a force to be reckoned with. His name was John Derenbecker. By 1977 he would be the player of the year in the state of Louisiana. As a junior he was the team’s best player, earning all district and all state honors, but this article is not about John. This is the story of the 1976 senior class.

Anyone who has played sports knows that having a star is essential to victory. With that being said no man is an island unto himself. The seniors of 1976 were accomplished  athletes, many in more than one sport, and each of them contributed in a profound way to the success that team would enjoy. They each had a role and all of them stepped up in various ways, and at critical times, to lead the team.

On the bench were John Greenberg, Matt LeCorgne, Leonard Nicholson, and Vance Reynoir. Greenberg broke his leg playing football and never fully came back from that injury. A strapping 6’3″, he was also left handed. His good nature made him a locker room favorite. His physical strength made him a practice beast. Both John and I endured his brute strength everyday in various drills and scrimmages, and it made us better players. Even though he was sitting behind two juniors he never let his ego get in the way of the team’s success. That unselfishness was leadership at its finest.

LeCorgne was scrappy and tough. He was a solid ball handler and shooter but like Greenberg he was physical as well. He battled our guards and the other teams guards. Getting defended by LeCorgne was like running naked through a thicket of cactus. He was vocal and tenacious and in many ways he set the tone for a team that had no intentions of losing a first round playoff game ever again.

Nicholson was also a man of girth but his game was finesse and shooting. At 6’3″ he had the size to get off his jumper and he may well have been the best pure shooter on the team. A nationally ranked skeet shooting champion, Nick Guy, as he was known by his friends and teammates, could fill it up. Like Greenberg he found himself coming off the bench behind two juniors. If Nicholson had a flaw it was that he was foul prone. I watched him get five fouls in a quarter, which was probably a record. He also demonstrated absence of ego, never complaining about playing time, and always giving his best when called upon.

Reynoir may have been the most dynamic and electric player ever to don a Cajun uniform. In 1975 I initially was the team’s sixth man, but midway through the season it became apparent that when the team needed a spark it was Reynoir who had to be on the floor. Vance was our smallest player but also our most ferocious. He attacked the basket constantly, often contorting his body in rapid twists as he scored and drew fouls. Backing off of him was not an option because he was a good shooter as well. In 1975 he came off the bench against our arch rival St.Martins and put on a mind boggling display of offensive prowess. He led us to victory and was carried off the floor on the shoulders of his teammates. A knee injury limited him in 1976 but just having him on the bench was a boost. Vance’s confidence was contagious and it spread to the rest of us.

As stated earlier in 1976 Derenbecker and myself were the junior starters. I had replaced our  point guard from a year ago, Kevin Piper. Piper had been our leader in 1975. He was a tremendous defensive player. Rounding out the starting five were three remarkable seniors.Keith Holbrook, Jimmy Kock, and Robert Montgomery. All our first five but myself had started the year before and I had played significantly as the on again off again sixth man. While Derenbecker and I had two years left in our high school careers for our three seniors 1976 was all or nothing. At 6’2″ I gave us more size but without Piper we lacked a true point guard. As a result all three of our starting seniors assumed the leadership role Piper had the year before.

Holbrook was a complete player. At 5’10” he was a hard match up for smaller guards. He was an excellent ball handler, a good shooter, and a great defender. Where Keith was extraordinary was his ability to see the floor. He was our best passer and routinely set up all of us for baskets. He did this primarily playing off the ball. His game was so smooth that you never knew the effect he had on the outcome of the contest until you looked at the stat sheet. In one game he had close to twenty assists. He was never out of position and hardly ever turned the ball over. He was steady in his actions and in his words. I was a hyper aggressive player and there were numerous times when he would slide up next to me during a game and quietly refocus me.

With me entering the starting line up as a power forward  Kock moved to his more natural position of small forward. Jimmy was a solid player who could rebound and score but his real forte’ was defense. He literally could shut down the other team’s best player. He was a master at taking a charge, a situation where you beat an offensive player to a spot on the floor and basically let him run over you. It’s a painful way to cause  a turnover, and I say that from experience. Jimmy would get knocked down several times a  game and each time it not only created a turnover it resulted in a momentum shift. With Kock we knew we had someone who could take out the other team’s best player and at 5’10” he could guard players of any size. In our foyer was a plaque that said Defensive Player of the Week. It had a slot where a player’s name could be inserted. In 1976 the only player to earn that distinction was Jimmy.

Robert Montgomery rounded out the starting five. He was the best athlete we had. During the football season he switched from wide receiver to running back and became the first 1,000 yard rusher in school history. Montgomery became our primary ball handler and our gun slinger. Fearless and confident, once Robert crossed half court he felt like he was in scoring range. If he missed a few shots he kept firing until he got hot again. His glare was steely and he had a way of staring down who ever was trying to guard him. After a  basket he would go back down the floor in a manner that was almost dismissive of our opponents. To me Robert was the heartbeat of the team. His confidence bordered on arrogance and when he had the ball he was in charge.

We played several higher classification schools that year and won most of those games. In district play we had to exorcise a demon known as New Orleans Academy. NOA had beaten us three straight times in 1975. They too returned  a senior laden ball club. Our first meeting in 1976 was in our gym. Everyone thought we would win except NOA. They employed their methodical slow tempo to counter our desire to fast break. To our shock they beat us again.

As we dejectedly sat in our locker room no panic ensued. This was a wake up call. We knew  we were better than NOA. We had to recommit, and we did. We raced through the rest of our district schedule with one thought in mind. Get to NOA and settle the score.

NOA’s gym was always brutally hot. We felt they did that on purpose to fatigue us so their slow tempo would be more effective. Their head coach, Charlie Myers, was also the head of the New Orleans Basketball Officials, so our coach always requested Baton Rouge area referees when we played them, to avoid any favoritism perceived or real, from officials calling a game their boss was coaching in.

Our bus ride over was a quiet one. Our campuses were about two miles apart so it was a short ride but we were all business. We took the floor with one thought on our mind. We didn’t want to beat NOA we wanted to dismantle them. Four quarters later we left the floor with an 17 point victory. We had vanquished our demon and won a share of the district title. In a week we would have to play them again to see who would go into the playoffs as the district champion.

The extra game to decide the district championship was played at St. John Prep and the outcome was never in doubt. We cruised to a 25 point victory. We now had another hurdle to overcome, which was to avoid the first round knockout. We played Buras and our resolve was tested. Both teams went back and forth trading the lead. We ended up going into one overtime and then another. We prevailed and we were now a very confident basketball team.

Our next opponent was Oberlin. They had the one of the leading scorers in the state, a 6’3″ dynamo named Ray Baggett. Baggett lived up to his billing but we built a big lead and never looked back. By beating Oberlin we earned the right to go too the state tournament in Alexandria.

Known back then as the Top Twenty there was actually twenty four teams there, four from each classification. Our first opponent was Wisner. Again we won easily, but instead of playing in a gym we were now playing in front of a few thousand people in the Rapides Parish Coliseum. It was an electric atmosphere with media from all over the state covering the games. We now had gone further than any Country Day team in the history of the school. We were going to play for the state championship!

An old nemesis emerged. Port Sulphur, the team that had destroyed us the year before in the first round of the playoffs was at the tournament as well. We thought that this would bring us full circle. We beat NOA, we won our first round game and two others after that, and now we could play Port Sulphur for all the marbles and avenge our humiliating defeat we had suffered the previous year. Davidson High from a tiny delta town called St. Joseph, had other ideas. They beat Port Sulphur and would be our opponent.

There would be no storybook ending. Despite 37 points from Derenbecker, Davidson was the better team that night and we lost by ten. Our seniors would not get the big prize.

As we walked back to our bus I told Keith Holbrook that we would come back next year and get it done for him and all the seniors. Keith responded by saying win it all. That next year we had a 6’8″ John Derenbecker and team with seven seniors and three juniors. We again avoided a first round loss by coming back from 17 points down with a minute to go in the third quarter. When we finally beat Grambling to win the school’s first state title sitting in the stands cheering us on were many of those from the class of 76.

If you go to the Country Day gym you will see those state championship  trophies proudly displayed. The runner up trophies are also there but they don’t quite get as much attention. It is how society is. Time marches on, people grow older, and memories fade. Robert Montgomery died in a tragic car accident while he was in college and Leonard Nicholson has left us too. Coach Richard Jarrett passed away last year. Coach Jarrett would add another title to the trophy case in 1980.Shortly after that second title Jarrett would leave Country Day to reunite with Emmett Wright at Woodberry Forest in Virginia. It was Wright who hired Jarrett to coach the Cajuns when he was the Headmaster at Country Day. Even our old nemesis NOA is gone. The school closed several years ago.

In 1977 Country Day won it’s first state title in boys basketball but we did it on the shoulders of the class of 1976. For me our 1977 title is as much theirs as it is mine. You see all great stories have a beginning and for Country Day basketball the standard of excellence was established in 1976.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Search of My Father

There has been a surge in interest in genealogy. People are wanting to know where they came from. For Americans this is particularly intriguing as we more than most have a myriad of cultures, places, and ethnicities embedded in our DNA. My genealogy was three fourths completed years ago even before the internet was able to accommodate such research,  through intense effort by family members.

A distant relative from France traced my maternal grandmother’s lineage. It turns out that  a Louisiana governor whose name was Pierre Bourguignon-d’Herbigny is in fact one of my ancestors. He fled France during the time of the revolution and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1790 where he took a wife. He eventually moved to New Orleans in 1800. He became Governor of Louisiana in 1828. In 1829 he was killed in a horse and buggy accident in Gretna, Louisiana on the west bank of the Mississippi River from New Orleans.The author of the book written 1979 was Michel d’Herbigny of Lille France. There was a lot of work that went into this book as the sheer number of relatives produced from the line of Derbigny ( the Americanized spelling) is staggering. Well into the book there is section detailing where a woman named Louisiana LaBarre married a man named John Wagner. That union would produce two offspring, Peter John Wagner in 1884 and Anna Wagner in 1895.  Their father, John Wagner, died the same year of Anna’s birth and her mother would pass away four years later, which meant that Anna Wagner would grow up in an orphanage in New Orleans. Anna Wagner was my grandmother.

On January 19th, 1884 the SS Prinz George, which had left Sicily in 1883, arrived in New Orleans. Among the passengers was Nicolo Cuccia and and his wife Calogera. This had been a grueling voyage that came at a great cost as their eleven month old son Giuseppi had died while the ship had been anchored in New York harbor a month earlier. The Cuccia’s would go on to have eight more children in New Orleans. In March of 1897 their sixth child, Giacomo, was born. Giacomo, later to be called Jake, was my maternal grandfather. This information was gathered by a cousin, Mike Stapleton, who still resides in New Orleans. Jake Cuccia and Anna Wagner would eventually wed and have six children, including a daughter named Joyce in 1923. Joyce Cuccia was my mother.

In 1823 Belgian immigrants arrived in Rosiere,Wisconsin. Joseph and Barbara Wautelet began a family that generations later would result in the birth of a son to Fabian Wautlet ( an e having been dropped from the surname at this time) and his wife Rose Meyer Wautlet. The son, Merle, would be one of ten offspring born to Fabian and Rose, nine of which survived to adulthood. The year Merle was born was 1925. Merle Wautlet, later to be known as Merriel Wautlet, and then finally Merrill Wautlet, was my father. My cousin Kay Warning, a Catholic nun, compiled all of this in a book in 1997.

The problem with genealogy is that it gives you facts but lacks background. You can only surmise what your ancestors were like. Without a direct oral history to give you the nuance and details of their lives you are often left with questions. My father passed away suddenly when I was eleven. I never got to know him as an adult. I never got to seek his counsel or ask him questions about his life choices. The man I loved so much died without me having a chance to find out what kind of man he was down deep. So I went looking for him. What I discovered was that he was an enigma, but a highly regarded one.

My journey started by asking my family members in New Orleans what my dad was like. He had spent much of his adult life there and had been married to my mother for twenty years when he died in 1970. What I found were reoccurring themes. He was universally regarded as being intelligent. That he was someone that was considered wise and people sought his counsel when they had problems. That he was easy going, friendly, and tolerant.  I knew he liked sports, as we often watched football together. I knew he had been a Merchant Marine in World War II, and later a merchant seaman until he met my mother. I recall him being handy around the house and that he was able to make routine repairs. I knew he enjoyed a cold beer after work. Sometimes he would bake Chocolate Chip cookies, which I later learned is something all my Wisconsin relatives do. What was lacking was insight. Why did he leave his home in Wisconsin? What drove his desire to see the world as a young man? What were his beliefs on politics and religion? What I was getting was the surface of the man. He stayed married to a volatile and challenging woman until his death. What was his reason for such devotion to someone who could be so unstable and fiery one minute, and sweet and loving the next? I needed and wanted to know more.

I decided to query my relatives in Wisconsin. He had left home at the age of 17 so many of his younger siblings knew little about him as well. With the death of his older brother as a child my father only had four contemporaries for me to select from. His older sister Arleen, his sister Marian, and his brother and sister Karl and Carol, who were twins.

My late Aunt Arleen did did give me some of the insight I was yearning for. She said my dad was highly intelligent but had little interest in school and often skipped going to class. He had a strained relationship with my grandfather. This made sense to me. I often asked my father questions about his dad and his responses were vague. All I knew was that my grandfather was a carpenter who died suddenly at the age of 51 from a stroke. I’m fairly certain my dad never had a chance to reconcile with his father any differences that may have had, and that this must have bothered him.

Aunt Arleen told me my dad left home as a minor at the age of 17 to go join the Merchant Marines and that while my grandmother was reluctant to grant permission it was my grandfather who persuaded her to let my father leave. My late Uncle Karl confirmed for me that my father’s relationship with his dad was tempestuous. He said that after my dad left home from that point on contact was limited to letters he wrote my grandmother and an occasional brief visit home. I do recall relatives coming to visit us in New Orleans and we in turn traveling to Wisconsin to visit them. One of my most vivid memories is seeing my dad’s eyes well up with tears when we were saying good bye in the summer of 1970. We were heading to Germany in  a few weeks, as my dad had been transferred there for work. He would pass away four months later. It makes me wonder if he felt somewhere deep inside if his time was limited and that this would be the last time he would see his mother.

After all of that I felt I had hit the wall and was just going to have to accept the fact that there would be some things about my dad I would never know. Then a year ago I saw an ad for Ancestry.com. I knew it was run by the Mormon Church, and that they had the most extensive genealogical records on earth, in part based on a belief we all came from a common descendant. I decided to check out the free trial. I had one goal in mind, to see if there was anything in there about my dad that I didn’t already know. With no hope at all I rolled the dice and much to my joy I struck some gold.

On the website were links to some records from my father’s time at sea. I found four ship manifests. The first was dated 1944. It listed my dad as being 19 years old standing 5’11 and weighing 175 pounds. The ship he was on had left the Marshall Islands near the equator in the Pacific Ocean and arriving in Seattle that same year. Also in 1944 was a manifest that now listed my dad as being 6’0 and 180 pounds on a ship that left the island of Saipan and arrived in San Francisco.

in 1946 he was listed as being 20 years old, 5’11 and 185 pounds, and was on a ship that left Mobile, Alabama, went through the Panama Canal, and arrived Honolulu. In 1947 at the age of 22 he was on a ship that left Port Said, Egypt and it docked in New York.

My puzzle began to connect. It wasn’t that my father was a bad student, he was an unmotivated student. He craved knowledge but wanted it first hand. He didn’t want to read about the world he wanted to see it, experience it intimately, not from a text book. I can only imagine how many other sea voyages he had between the ages of 19 and 22 or the years after that. How many books he must have read during his time at sea when there was no satellite television. The people he met and the cultures he came in contact with.

I was on a roll now. I abandoned Ancestry and went on memory. I found the community in India he lived and worked in for almost two years in the early sixties. I found the plant in Wales he worked at just before his death when we were in Germany. I recalled bits and pieces of conversations now about places such as Shanghai and Rotterdam. My father was a man of the world and now through my computer I visited the places he had been and began to make sense of the man I loved and admired.

In all honesty there are still missing pieces and questions that will remain unanswered, particularly since almost all of his peers are deceased. I’m ok with that though. As an adult myself I realize some things are yours and yours alone. What I came away with is that following your dream isn’t always easy and there are consequences at times. My father’s desire to be true to himself, and having the courage to leave home and go into the great beyond leaves with me a great sense of pride and admiration for him.He packed a lot into his 45 years and and in the process touched a great many people. Everyone I had ever spoke with about him always had left me with the sense that they not only liked and respected him, but in many ways they revered him. Now I have a much better sense of where that presence and quiet command came from. I think my search is over…for now!

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Live to Ride…Ride to Live

Everyone has a favorite holiday. Whether it is Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July we all have a time of year we look forward to and count down the days. For me, being a son of New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras. It always has been my favorite time of year and always will be.

For those not familiar with Mardi Gras, or Carnival, it is a time period of revelry leading up to the Lenten season, which is sacred to Christians. Catholics make up a large portion of the population of New Orleans, so having a last hurrah before we make penance awaiting the coming of Easter is a big deal. No place throws a party like New Orleans, and while Mardi Gras is now celebrated in other cities, the New Orleans experience is like no other. Parades, masked balls, and other events make it a non-stop party for about a month.

As a child my parents took me to numerous parades but Mardi Gras Day, also known as Fat Tuesday, was the culmination. Schools and offices were closed and everyone wore costumes. During the 1960’s I was a comic book collector. My favorite was Batman. There was also a Batman television series. As such , every year for about five years I dressed up as the Caped Crusader in a costume sewn lovingly by my grandmother. It wasn’t of the standard of today’s modern costumes, but when I donned my cape and cowl as a five year old there was no doubt that for at least one day the city of New Orleans was safer under my watch. Hearing the cries of “Hey Batman” just reaffirmed what I already knew.

We would wake up early that morning and drive to my grandmothers house in an area now called the Lower Garden District. Once we arrived I would berate my mother until we left the house and made the four block walk to St. Charles Avenue to await Zulu, Rex, and the truck parades Crescent City and Elks. We would stand and yell “Throw me something mister!” until my voice gave out. Rain or shine we were there and afterwards we would trek back to my grandmother’s home, exhausted, to go over our haul for the day and visit with other family members. As evening approached we would head home and I always fell asleep in the back of the car. Getting up for school the next day was a challenge at best.

After my father suddenly passed away my life was in turmoil. My mother was now a widow with an eleven year old to raise. She ended up purchasing an apartment house in Uptown New Orleans a block and half off of St. Charles Avenue. The rent from the apartments, combined with social security, gave us income along with place to live. More importantly I was at center stage for all the parades. For years our home was a gathering place for Carnival. After college I moved back to New Orleans and lived in one of my mothers’s apartments. During the Mardi Gras season my friends would  move in with me for days at a time and it lead to some funny circumstances.

One afternoon I went to my apartment and found a stranger laying on my couch. I came up to him and asked who he was. He responded by saying ” Don’t mess with me man. I know the dude who knows the dude who owns this place!” I then said “I’m the dude.”

On another occasion I came into my apartment to use the bathroom and saw a very attractive girl standing by the bathroom door. I walked up to her and before I could say a word she uttered “There’s a line.” I just looked at her and said “It’s my bathroom.”

I was now old enough to actually know people who rode in parades and I was always envious. At that point in my life I didn’t have the resources to justify the cost of joining a Mardi Gras Krewe, so I just became content to spectate. When someone on a float recognized you that was always special, as you usually got pelted with beads, doubloons, cups and other items. When I was still in college My uncle and two cousins rode in Babylon. The year my uncle was King my cousins rode together on the same float. Upon seeing me one of them hit me square in the chest with a bag of doubloons. Upon impact, ( as an aside getting hit with a bag of doubloons hurts..a lot), the bag exploded and my feet and ankles were promptly engulfed by kids and other people. You learn at an early age never to pick doubloon off of the ground, unless you want to risk getting your hand stomped on, so I just backed away. My other cousin summoned me to the float, holding a big bag full of throws.

As I ran towards him he tossed the bag to me, which I caught. At the same time a guy literally jumped onto my back and reached over my shoulders and tried to wrest my bag from me. Locals know that it is courtesy to let someone being summoned to a float catch their prize. However Mardi Gras attracts tourists, and alcohol flows freely. This guy apparently was not local and was, shall we say, imbibed.

At first I just said something like, “Hey man that’s my cousin and he threw this bag to me.”, but it became apparent that this person was not going to be reasoned with. At that point I leaned forward and then thrust the bag back as hard as I could, hitting my antagonist squarely in the face. He fell off my back and landed on the street.

New Orleans police are among the best in the world at crowd control, primarily due to Mardi Gras. Skirmishes of any kind are dealt with swiftly, usually with cops on horseback wading those two thousand pound animals into the crowd. In this case before I could turn around two of New Orleans finest had me by each arm.

As they lead me to the sidewalk I calmly related what had happened. They both had seen it and were sympathetic. Our police always use force as a last resort. One of the policeman just said, “We were coming to get the guy off you. It would have better if you hadn’t knocked him out.” With  bit of a grin he then said ” Do you have any other relatives riding tonight?” When I said no they told me to go on my way and have a good time, but not to put any more tourists in the street.

One of the most treasured Mardi Gras throws was a spear. I related to a a friend of a friend who was in my apartment during Mardi Gras, ( remember I had a bathroom), that you had to know somebody on a float to have any chance of getting a spear. The next day I was watching a parade when I heard my name called. A rider was holding a spear and beckoning me to the float. As he handed it to me I realized it was the guy who had been in my apartment the day before. As the float rolled away he called out ” You know somebody!!”

As the years passed I did get to ride in two suburban based parades, and it was fun, but it was not the same as a New Orleans parade. After my mother passed I kept her apartment open and had many memorable Mardi Gras events there. Then I relocated to Shreveport, over three hundred miles away, so my wife and I could be closer to our two special needs sons that were in a care facility. While Shreveport celebrates Mardi Gras, for me it was not the same. I feared I would never be a part of it again. In addition I had been a basketball coach while living in Shreveport during college, and was now doing that again on a volunteer basis when I moved back. The basketball season ran right through Mardi Gras, so even attending a parade in New Orleans was impossible. As the years passed I became very homesick during Mardi Gras. I decided I wanted to join a Krewe, and I knew exactly which one.

Le Krewe d’Etat was formed in 1996 by a group of young New Orleans professionals. It has evolved into one of the finest, if not the finest parade in Mardi Gras. Known for it’s satirical themes and adherence to old line Carnival traditions, it is a must see for any Mardi Gras attendee. The Krewe parades in prime time on the Friday evening before Mardi Gras. It has a long route. staging uptown on Jefferson and Magazine streets, working it’s way down to Napoleon Avenue before turning onto St. Charles Avenue and heading downtown. It was my first and only choice, but wanting to join is not enough.

Admission to Le Krewe d’Etat is by invitation only and your name must be submitted by two existing members. The vetting process is stringent and prolonged. as many as four hundred names may be submitted with as few as twenty selected. I had to resign myself to the fact that even if I was sponsored it might be years before I got in.

I went to my closest friend, who was a member, and told him what I wanted to do. Without hesitation he said he would do his best for me, but to not get my hopes up. I really didn’t have a Plan B. If I was going to ride I wanted to be with the best. I just crossed my fingers.

After months I learned I had made it through the first round. Nothing was assured but I felt more hopeful. Then a few weeks later I got a phone call. I had been accepted for membership! I hung up the phone with a broad smile on my face. I was now a member of the best Krewe in Carnival. I was going to come home for Mardi Gras and ride right past the corner I had stood on for so many years waving to riders in other parades. The difference now was that those people would be waving and yelling at me!

I sent my dues in promptly and ordered my throws. My buddy began to instruct me on the protocol of the Krewe and the rules. The rules were vital for secrecy, tradition, and most importantly safety. While riding you had to be harnessed with your safety strap at all times, you could never remove your mask once the parade started, and no one but members were allowed on the float.

Our floats were fashioned in the old style of traditional Mardi Gras. Our theme was secret and not revealed until the day of the parade. As part of our swagger we did not have a king, but rather a Dictator, whose identity was a guarded secret. We also had a High Priest whose identity was also unknown. We used authentic flambeaux, which is oil ignited flames that lit the way for the floats and dates back to the 19th century. We had bands, and of course, the most clever, satirical, and irreverently themed floats in all of Mardi Gras.

I learned I would be riding on the same float as my friend. Also on my float were friends from my grammar, high school, and college days. At our luncheon the day of the parade I was initiated into the Krewe and saw many more old friends, including past work colleagues and clients. We ate like kings and were entertained with music and ceremony.

After lunch we left our downtown New Orleans hotel and ventured en masse into the French Quarter to gather in front of the Old Absinthe bar. I felt splendid in my suit and Krewe tie. I was also wearing a Krewe favor on my lapel and our Tri-Color specialty doubloon that had the theme of that years parade inscribed on it. It was held with a lanyard in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

Around three o’clock I went back to Krewe headquarters to get dressed for the ride. All the floats had racks with costumes on them labeled with the riders names. There were men in starched white coats there to help you dress while a band played in the background. Of course a bar was also set up to help riders get into the proper spirit of the occasion.

After I was dressed I exited the hotel and boarded a charter bus that was outside. The busses stretched all the way down the street. Once all the members were accounted for we headed for the staging area with a police escort.

Upon arriving we got off the bus and headed to our various floats. I found mine and entered through the rear, scaling a steep set of wooden stairs. Once on board I moved to my assigned position. My throws were already loaded and ready to be disbursed to the crowds that waited for us.

As we began to roll staying steady become a priority. The tractor pulling your float moves in a start and stop kind of rhythm that jerks you around. In addition the float space is intimate so you are standing on your bags of throws until well into the halfway point of the parade. It is not unusual to lose your balance, at which point you grab onto anything to keep from falling.

The crowds on Magazine are enthusiastic but not very deep. Once you make the turn onto Napoleon Avenue you can hear the noise level rise as the crowds get larger and more animated. The real rush happens at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon. Now all you hear is a deafening roar as people scream and point at you.

You feel like a rock star on a stage performing. People are yelling, holding signs, pointing. You see families with children on Mardi Gras ladders, a New Orleans invention that is essentially a box seat that small children can sit in to see the parade while a parent stands on the ladder behind them protecting them from getting hit with beads and other trinkets. When my son was born a Mardi Gras ladder was one of the first purchases I made. One fond memory was me bringing him to visit my mother a week after Mardi Gras had ended. He is profoundly autistic and wanted me to go get the ladder out. He is also non-verbal and try as I may I could not get him to understand that Mardi Gras was over. So I finally got the ladder and we went out to St. Charles Avenue and watched cars go by. I got a lot of strange looks and few reminders that Carnival was over, but he was having a good time and that was all that counted.

I’d like to be able to tell all my male readers that we throw to everybody but the fact is if you have a float full of men, girls, children, and the elderly tend to get the most attention. One of the defining moments for my wife came at a Mardi Gras after we had been married about a decade. She was not catching as many beads as she had in previous years. With a slight nod of my head I pointed to a ladder next to her, on which a friend of ours two college age daughters were standing. They were draped in beads. My wife just shook her head and went back to our apartment.

As you ride you begin to interact with the crowd, gesturing, pointing back, even talking to them. It is an amazing and exhilarating experience. You feel even more joy as you realize you are part of a celebration that is one of the most unique in the world. I was on the sidewalk side of the float but on the other side, which faced the neutral ground, ( median for the rest of you not from New Orleans), the crowds were as far as the eye could see, stretching all the way across the other side of St. Charles Avenue.

Eventually you wind your way into downtown and finally to the end. You come off the float tired and sore but still on a natural high. You make your way back to Krewe headquarters, turn in your costume, and venture back to your hotel room. Some hardy souls venture back into the night for more revelry but for me it’s a hot shower and the bed. Even after my second ride the ritual was the same. The late hours are now the domain of younger men.

Our Krewe motto is Vivite Ut Vehatis, Vehite Ut Vivatas. Translated it means Live to Ride, Ride to Live. For a New Orleans boy nothing sums it up better!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sports Journalists: How Low Can You Go!

When I was a teen I loved sports and wanted to write about them. I became Co-Sports Editor of my high school newspaper and was able to get a job as a stringer at my home town newspaper, the Times-Picayune. My job was to attend sporting events and gather statistics so a story could be written.Visiting the newspaper office, seeing my heroes at work trying to beat deadlines, it was exhilarating. Every time I showed my press pass the stadium gates would magically open for me. I was a professional.

When I went to college I became the sports editor of our newspaper and took a journalism class. I also worked as an assistant to our Sports Information Director. I sat on arena floors and in the press box. During that time my interests drifted to coaching but I never forgot the important tenets of journalism, Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I had an Associated Press style book that was my guide. When I wrote stories I stuck to the facts and conjecture was reserved for an occasional editorial. When I did author an editorial  I used reliable sources to to support my conclusions.

My most memorable editorial came when I wrote an article supporting my college’s basketball coaching staff. The year before the head coach had been abruptly fired. He was replaced by an assistant coach with less experience than the other coach on that staff. The following year a few players became disgruntled an were openly talking about transferring. Since I heard many of these player remarks first hand I felt I was in a strong position to write an opinion piece.

My editorial was essentially an admonishment of those players. I expressed that for the sake of seniors on the team, the student body,  the morale of the team and the school, that such remarks should be kept in the locker room. My take was that if you were unhappy leave, but leave with dignity. I never mentioned any players names, but the piece was controversial. One player called my editor accusing me of yellow journalism and damage to his reputation. My editor responded by saying that until he called she had no idea who I was writing about, and that if people were treating him differently, or saying things to him, it was because he must have actually been one of the players complaining. To make things worse for me the players in question were friends of mine. Never the less I exercised my right of free speech and did not quote these young men directly, since I was not given permission to do so. I protected my sources but was writing about actual things I had heard. In the end some of those players did transfer, but those that remained behind, along with many students, felt I had done a good service to our school with my editorial. More importantly I did not express an uninformed opinion. I had facts supporting me.

Over the years I have watched sports journalism evolve and change. Rather than inform the emphasis seems to be more on inciting emotion and strong feelings by using speculation rather than facts. In my opinion this is all news reporting now, but as a sports fan I find it particularly vexing. Howard Cosell, a lawyer by education, was the first to start this trend. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, like him assaulting us in print, on air, and through the web.

I played and coached high school sports. I also spent time with collegiate coaches at clinics I attended. What I took away from those experiences is that managing player performance from one level to the next is an extremely complex endeavor. College athletes were the best players at their  high schools. Elite college players were among the best in their region. Professional athletes were among the best in the country, and in some cases depending on the sport, the world. The expertise required to manage performance at the highest collegiate or professional levels is not something that can be understood from a distance. The untrained eye only sees what occurs in the game and the eventual outcome.

The media has mitigated this somewhat by hiring past players and coaches to offer commentary and insight. Because of their life experiences their observations in my opinion are worthwhile. Their delivery or style may or may not be to my liking, but their credibility is sound. Unfortunately there are numerous journalists who now prefer to exist exclusively in the world of conjecture and for the most part I feel they are unqualified to do so.

As I type this blog post I understand fully that in this day everyone has a platform. The goal is to get an audience, and the best way to get an audience is to create controversy. This approach has spawned a whole new breed of journalist. Rather than report facts they speculate on them. They offer their insights as to why teams play well or not, why coaches made their decisions or not, and why teams are winning or not. They make predictions that they are never held accountable for, unless they happen to somehow come true. You probably won’t see a sports journalist write about the things they missed or got wrong. My issue is that by and large in the print media these so called experts are ill equipped to write those views. They lack the experience and insight needed to give validity to their conjecture.

Now I am not without sin. I have gone on tirades on Facebook, Twitter, texts, you name it, about coaching decisions, player performance, play selection, etc. My only solace is that these rants are out of frustration because deep down I want those players, coaches, and teams to be successful. Just because I played and coached high school basketball doesn’t give me the right to judge anybody performing on a bigger stage. I’m just a fan, which is short for fanatic, which in part explains my behavior. Fans have done this forever, and players and coaches understand the pendulum of emotions they feel. I have argued on line with other fans. It’s what we do. We are not paid to do it, and in reality our views often have no credibility.

I expect a higher standard from a professional sports journalist but I’m not always going to get it. The smaller market print journalists I read are going to keep on writing about the dismal failures or glowing successes of the teams they are assigned to cover while still subjecting us to their so called insights. If a team is doing well you can trust them to tell you why they think that team is having success. If a team is faltering you can turn to this oracle and find out exactly what they are doing wrong. I have to believe that if you could ask any player or coach the one thing they would like to be rid of it would be the post game press conference. These men and women, who are at the height of their professions, have to endure the inane and sometimes asinine questions and remarks these so called experts have for them. I would think going through this exercise on a regular basis would be excruciatingly painful. I’m a banker now and I can only imagine what my life would be if the press came in and questioned me on loan decisions. As an aside we do undergo this with government audits, but those questions are based on their real knowledge and understanding of credit risk. But if I had to endure questions from the uninformed.. well let’s give it a try.

Banker: Any questions?

Sports Journalist: What would you attribute your decline in your lines of credit for the year end? Are your customers unhappy with the service your bank is providing.

Banker: Not at all. Many companies pay down their outstanding lines prior to year end.

Sports Journalist: How come a financial institution will fix a residential mortgage for thirty years but on a commercial building they will require a much quicker pay back. A building is a building.. right?

Banker: Not at all. Home mortgages are a totally different market and product. Commercial buildings have a whole different level of rate risk and their values can fluctuate much more dramatically.

Sports Journalist: It seems you bankers are requiring a lot more paperwork these days. I remember when a person could walk into a bank and just get a loan with a handshake. It seems like overkill to me.

Banker: Do you have a question?

Sports Journalist: Uh yeah, why all the paperwork?

Banker: Banking is a highly regulated business. We are mandated to disclose and provide information to the client to insure their protection. All those documents are required by law.

You get the picture. Instead of forming relationships and reporting facts sports journalists are just critics now, bestowing harsh assessments or glowing accolades based on their own intuitive rationale. Good sports journalists obtain reputable sources to support their allegations, but now if a writer thinks something he can just write it and mask it as fact rather than what it is, an uniformed opinion. Maybe some day the tables can turn and the players and coaches can get these print journalists in a room and ask them why they wrote certain things, or made certain remarks. That would be a press conference worth hearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Inside Joke!

Humor is a wonderful gift. Being able to laugh and laugh often is essential to one’s well being. Laughter comes in all forms. Comedians, movies, books, are all ways to experience and appreciate humor. There is one form of humor that is particularly special, and that is the inside joke. It is a moment or occurrence that takes place among a select few, and those instances not only serve as a vehicle for laughter but as a source for great stories, and a common thread that binds those people for life.

I was on a trip to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in Detroit. We were at the hotel bar when one of my friends, named Bill, ordered a Corona. Rather than let him enjoy his beer I felt the need to educate him. In my role as a banker I had financed some breweries in the past and wanted to share my vast knowledge. I proceeded to explain that beer is best when it is served as fresh as possible, is not exposed to light, and was not subject to changes in temperature. I pointed out that Corona came in a clear bottle, was imported and shipped warm, thus making it older in terms of shelf life, and that it ranked low in consumption it it’s home country of Mexico. I finished by saying that it’s popularity was directly due to shrewd marketing. Even the lime wedge used in the ads was misleading in my opinion. Because of harsh water people south of our border would use citrus to disinfect the edge of the can or lip of the bottle.

Bill took it all in. When the waiter came back around to take orders my pal looked  up and without batting an eyelash said firmly “I’ll have a Corona.” Of course the whole table howled and from that point on Corona became a rallying cry.

Recently I accepted a job at a new bank that was a great opportunity for me. As part of the orientation process I went to the community where the bank was founded and visited with our Chief Executive Officer, a man I knew fairly well. Upon entering his home he greeted me warmly and asked if I would like a beer. Stating the affirmative I followed him to the kitchen where he opened his refrigerator and said in a joyful voice “How about a Corona?” Of course my friends on the inside got a huge laugh out of that one. The fact that my CEO’s name is Bill also made it even funnier.

On another Final Four Trip, this one in Indianapolis, we were having dinner at an iconic steak house in town called St. Elmo’s. Myself and my close friend Jay agreed to pick up the check. Our same friend Bill, (Mr. Corona), selected the wine. The wine he selected, Silver Oak, was not cheap. When Jay and I saw the final bill I got a little faint but we laughed about it too. Bill tried in vain to pay but we insisted on covering the tab. A few months later Jay invited me to dinner with some friends of his. He was the host but gave me the wine list. With as straight a face as I could muster I looked at him and said “How do you feel about Silver Oak?” To his credit he ordered it! Of course only he and I got that joke, and he got the bill! By the way if you like wine you should try Silver Oak as it is extremely good!

A few years ago my friend  Gary and I were having a beer at a New Orleans bar called The Mayfair. The Mayfair is very cozy and he and I were seated next to the pool table. A rather shaggy looking guy playing pool kept glancing at us and smiling. Finally he spoke. He said it gave him great pleasure to see a father and son out drinking together. Now my buddy is only three years older than me but he was already sporting a full head of gray hair. I almost spit my beer up laughing while Gary slumped in his chair. Composing himself my pal responded by saying “I would have been less offended if he had said I looked like a steaming pile of pig S&#@!” Of course from then on he was Dad to me and I was Son to him.

Once a month a group of us get together to play poker. The games are low stakes and range from Bourre’, a Cajun card game, to more traditional games like seven card no peek, seven card stud, and variations of those games with wild cards. Generally everyone takes turns shuffling the cards, except me. A neck surgery I had a few years ago left me with some dexterity issues in my left hand. After watching me shuffle cards just once I was relieved of that duty and renamed the Claw. Only our group gets it when someone raises their hand in clutched fashion. The bright side is I don’t have to shuffle cards now.

Of course if you must know I am holding back some of my best stories. After all what is the value of an inside joke if you blog about it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We Are Not Alone!

I have a very close friend who believes in UFO’s. While he has strong opinions on most everything I find this belief compelling because he has the courage to aver this publicly. I think all of us believe that given the size of the universe there has to be life out there somewhere. But my friend is absolutely certain of it and one night he tried to prove it.

Once a month I play small stakes poker with a group of friends. The ante is twenty bucks and a large raise is a dollar. We eat, drink, listen to music, watch television, and play cards. We meet in a fabricated “Club House” behind a business one of our group owns. It’s a typical boys night out. But not this night.

My friend who is convinced that we are not alone stepped outside to get some fresh air. He had folded his hand so the rest of us were still playing. Suddenly he reappeared, calm but with a glint in his eyes. “I just saw a slow moving object in the sky with red and blue flashing lights.” he said in a matter of fact tone. Then he went back outside.

We all turned to each other. Cards could wait. This was our chance to make first contact. We got up and ventured outside. As we went into the open air our friend was looking up  into the night sky staring at….the night sky. No red lights. No blue lights. No aircraft. Nothing.

He explained that in the time it had taken him to come tell us about the sighting the UFO had disappeared. It was too slow moving to have been a conventional aircraft but must have accelerated away.

Now my friend is a trained geologist and our whole group is well educated. We have a lawyer, CPA, banker, car dealer, petroleum land man, and a corporate sales executive. So it was only natural that observations would be made. But one question burned brightly. Why would a UFO visit a Shreveport Louisiana Auto Mall?

Me: “We are real close to Barksdale Air Force Base. They would have had to pick it up on radar. Where are the intercept jets?”

Our Friend: “They are probably coming right now!”

Landman: “There are no more jets at Barksdale. They were moved. They just have the big bombers.”

Our Friend: ‘They have jets! I have seen them come in on approach.”

CPA: “Maybe they are just refueling or there for repairs.”

Our Friend: ” Then that means they have jets!”

Lawyer: ” I don’t know why a UFO would come to the Shreveport Auto Mall? Maybe they want to steal a Toyota Prius and learn about our Hybrid technology?”

Me: ” Maybe we are being invaded! Like in the movie Red Dawn!”

Lawyer: ” I rented the Red Dawn remake on NetFlix. It was awful!”

Me: “The remake?” It never even made it to theaters! How bad was it?”

Lawyer: ” The new Red Dawn made the old Red Dawn look like Schindler’s List!”

In the mean time no UFO reappeared. We all went back inside but my friend remained undaunted, and honestly I think that is admirable. I’m not sure what he saw out there but in the face of unbridled sarcasm he stood tall and never wavered. He says he wants to go with them when they come back. That would be quite an adventure. My friend could teach them to play poker. But I would urge against watching the Red Dawn remake on the in flight movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

WHO DAT! ALL TIME!

On November 1st, 1966 New Orleans, Louisiana received an expansion franchise in the National Football League. It was All Saints Day so our new team was called, naturally, the Saints. I was seven years old, and a love affair was born.

Those first twenty years was a trek through the wilderness. Losing seasons and national ridicule was our onus. We couldn’t even make the playoffs yet alone win a playoff game. But after Tom Benson, a native New Orleanian who made his fortune in the automobile business in San Antonio, bought the team all of that changed.

Since Benson became the owner with a few minor exceptions, the years under Mike Ditka and right after Katrina, the Saints have been a solid and often elite franchise. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009 all the pain of those early years was erased.

Now in 2014 I find myself reflecting on all those Saints teams and the men who wore the Black and Gold. So I decided to come up with my all time team. It may spark some debate, but that is fine with me.

SPECIALISTS

Punter: Thomas Morestead

The Saints have actually had some decent punters. Lord knows many of them got to practice their craft more than the fans would have preferred. Tom McNeill was a league leader for the early Saints teams. But Morestead is the whole package. He can punt for distance. He can directionally kick and pin a team deep, and he also kicks off and holds on field goals. Foremost he is a football player. If he has to make a tackle to prevent a return for a touchdown he has no problem putting a hat on you.

Kicker: Morten Andersen

While I may have a soft spot for Tom Dempsey, who up until this year held the NFL record for longest field goal at sixty-three yards, the obvious choice is the Great Dane. A Hall of Fame nominee he is the all time leading scorer for the Saints and won numerous games for the Black and Gold on last second clutch kicks. Maybe the biggest faux pas of the Jim Mora era was allowing him to be picked up on waivers by the Atlanta Falcons. He ended up becoming their all time leading scorer as well.

Kick /Punt Returner: Michael Lewis

Local product Tyrone Hughes was an electrifying return man for New Orleans, and John Gilliam returned the first ever kick off in New Orleans Saints history for a touchdown, but the nod goes to the Beer Man.

Special Teams: Steve Gleason

These guys are special, and none more so than Gleason. The blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons on September 25th, 2006 ensured that the Saints first game in the Superdome after Katrina would be a classic. But even without that play Gleason was a game changer on coverage teams. He is now battling Lou Gehrigs disease but with his No White Flags charity he remains an iconic figure for the Saints and the city. Curtis DeLoatch was good but Gleason was the fire in the belly guy every team should have.

DEFENSE

Safety: Sammy Knight and Gene Atkins

Dave Whitsell, Tommy Myers and Frank Wattelet ( yeah maybe the name had something to do with it), warranted being in the conversation but in the end Knight and Atkins were my guys. Undersized and not fleet of foot somehow Sammy Knight always found a way to get to the football. Atkins was a ferocious headhunter on those stifling Saints defenses in the late eighties and early nineties, hence his nickname Gene, the Hit Machine, Atkins.

Cornerback: Gene Howard and Dave Waymer

This was a hard one because in my opinion we have never had an all pro shut down corner. Some may argue for Eric Allen or Mike McKenzie but they did their best work early in their careers for other teams. Tracy Porter was given consideration as well, but Dave Waymer played solidly for years and ended his career as the all time leader in interceptions for the Saints. Howard was a standout on those early Saints teams. He played on woeful defenses but was a steady and solid football player. He knew that he would be making a lot of tackles against running backs and would have to cover longer because of a weak pass rush, but he always gave his best and never complained.

Linebacker: Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson, Sam Mills, and Rickey Jackson

Because Saints teams have played both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses I selected four players and I am thankful for that because I don’t know how you leave any of these guys off. They were the Dome Patrol. They anchored the league leading defenses of the Jim Mora era and were voted the finest set of linebackers in the history of the NFL. Swilling was a relentless pass rusher. Johnson could run and hit with ferocious intensity. Mills, aka the Field Mouse, was the leader and most cerebral of the four. Standing only 5’9′ he was never out of position, a superb tackler, and seemed immune to fatigue. Jackson was our iconic player. A defensive end at Pitt, he played in the shadow of Hugh Green. When he joined the Saints he became an instant star and second only to Lawrence Taylor as a linebacker in the NFL. They were first linebackers to ever make the Pro Bowl as a unit.

Tackle: LaRoi Glover and Bob Pollard

Glover was a superb and unstoppable pass rusher. Lightning fast he dominated everyone in his way. He was the best defender on Jim Haslett teams that were schizophrenic, explosive one game, submissive the next. Pollard is another homage to those early Saints teams. He was a stalwart on defenses that had few supporting cast members of his calibre.  Derland Moore and Norman “The Big Wiggle” Hand were also solid players but for my money Glover and Pollard were better.

End: Jumpy Geathers and Frank Warren

Joe Johnson and Renaldo Turnbull were solid and both capable of spectacular plays, but Geathers and Warren were monsters. Geathers was big, strong, and fast. He was also durable. Warren was an explosive player who could line up inside or outside, run around you or run over you. Both played the run well too.

OFFENSE

Tackle: Willie Roaf and Stan Brock

Roaf is the easiest pick I have. A perennial All Pro and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame he is not only the best tackle the Saints ever had, he may be one of the best  players ever for the Saints period. In a game on the road against Atlanta the Saints ran almost every run play to his side and on pass plays he handled his opponent like a rag doll. He had great strength combined with the balance of a ballerina. Brock was a solid player with a mean streak. On one televised replay I saw him extend his left arm against a pass rusher while pounding his opponent in his midsection will a balled up fist. Stan didn’t screw around.

Guard: Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans

There have actually been several players at this position who were notable. Jake Kupp, Conrad Dobler, Emmanuel Zanders, and Brad Edelman were all very accomplished. But the road to the Super Bowl went though All Pros Nicks and Evans. in 2009 the Saints ran the ball superbly and kept Drew Brees on his feet. Without Nicks and Evans we don’t bring home the big prize. Ben Grubbs, Nicks replacement, made All Pro this year so this ranking could change in time. Evans made All Pro again as well.

Center: LeCharles Bentley

This is another position where the Saints had some good players. Jonathan Goodwin, Jerry Fontenot, Jay Hilgenberg, and Jeff Faine were all excellent players. But for sheer dominance it was Bentley. He could blow you up or keep you out. He didn’t stay with the team very long and losing him to free agency was a major blow. The emergence of Goodwin into an All Pro player was not foreseen but fortunate for the Saints as they made their Super Bowl run in 2009.

Tight End: Jimmy Graham

Graham is not an all around tight end, as his blocking is suspect, but he is so good at what he does receiving that he goes to the top of the list. Henry Childs, Dave Parks, and Hoby Brenner were also stalwarts, with Childs and Parks also having the ability to go deep. But Graham is an All Pro and a phenomenon. With only a year of college football before he entered the NFL, if he stays healthy he will rewrite the record books. He was the top vote getter at his position for the Pro Bowl this year.

Wide Receiver: Joe Horn and Wes Chandler

Marques Colston is the all time leader in almost every receiving category for the Saints. Most of the records he broke belonged to Eric Martin. But none of them had the big play capacity of Horn and Chandler. In 1980 with Archie Manning at quarterback, the thunder and lightning combo of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath at running back, Henry Childs at tight end and Chandler and Ike Harris at the receivers made the Saints offense one of  the most feared in the NFL. It was the first Saints team to have a non-losing season at 8-8 and many of those players made the Pro Bowl that year. Chandler was fast and acrobatic. He could outrun you and out jump you. He made spectacular catches look routine. Horn was a major free agent pick up from Kansas City. Arrogant, unpredictable, and controversial he was still a big time receiver who was unstoppable at times. With the strong armed Aaron Brooks at quarterback Horn stretched defenses like no other player in a Saints uniform.

Fullback: Hokie Gajan

Buford Jordan was outstanding for the Saints but Hokie was unusual in that he could break off big runs from scrimmage along with the ability to get those tough short yardage gains. His career was  cut short by injury but when he was healthy he was a total package. He could block and catch passes out of the backfield. His burst up the middle against the Dallas Cowboys resulting in a long run for touchdown is one of the most memorable plays I have ever seen from a running back wearing Black and Gold.

Running Back: Deuce McAllister and George Rogers

This is where it got tough. Dalton Hilliard was an all purpose back who could do everything and broke numerous team records. Reuben Mayes was an explosive runner with great speed and change of direction. Had he stayed healthy he might have made the list. Chuck Muncie may have been the most gifted running back to play ever with his combination of speed and power, that gift wasted by drug abuse. Even the early Saints had a one two punch of Andy Livingston and Tony Baker. Ricky Williams flashed signs of brilliance, but drugs were his bane as well. Pierre Thomas is also a football player who can do multiple things for an offense. But for sheer ability to run the football McAllister and Rogers stand alone. McAllister was fast and strong, but it was his resolve that made him special. Against the Falcons I saw him drive through several players en route to the end zone, some clinging to him on his back, using sheer force of will to score. He played hurt. He played with dignity. He was team player and he got yards when there was no hole to run through. Rogers led the league in rushing his rookie year under coach Bum Phillips when every team the Saints played knew who was getting the ball. Also a combination of speed and power he was hardly ever brought down by one man.

Quarterback: Drew Brees

If Archie Manning was playing for the Saints today I have no doubt that he would be ranked among the best to ever play the game. He is still my favorite player and always will be. Having said that Brees still gets the nod, and not just for his incredible statistics. After Katrina the city of New Orleans was a question mark. Many thought the team would move, and that was a real possibility until NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in and eliminated that option. But without Brees the Saints may have floundered for years. He only had one viable option in free agency but he not only agreed to come play for the Saints he committed to the city. Like Archie he bought a home in the city limits and became a true New Orlenian. He lead the Saints to the NFC championship game in his first season and a Super Bowl victory in 2009.

Head Coach: Sean Payton

You have to give a lot of credit to Jim Mora for leading the franchise to its first winning season and first ever playoff appearance. I also think some acknowledgement should go to Jim Haslett for coaching the team to a division title and first ever playoff victory. But there is no doubt that Payton is the best coach the team has ever had. Two NFC championship appearances and a Super Bowl title say it all. Another milestone was reached when the Saints finally got their first playoff win on the road. The best may be yet to come.

So there you have it. The best of the Saints. An intimidating defense combined with a blitzkrieg offense with a mastermind coach. Did I leave anyone out?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Case You Didn’t Know…..

Over five decades I have noticed a few things and drawn conclusions from those observations. With the new year upon us I thought it was time to share some of these with my readers.

1) THE ELDERLY LOVE YARD AND ESTATE SALES: This is a total befuddlement to me. I continue to buy consumables, ( gas, clothing, food), and I upgrade my technology. But the stuff at these sales, (furniture, art work, knick knacks), I have all of that I need and more. I tend to believe people that are ten years older than me or more would have all the stuff like that they need. But apparently they don’t. And when they leave this earth that stuff will be sold at yet another yard or estate sale. And the cycle continues.

2) ATTENDING A SPORTING EVENT DOES NOT MAKE YOU A FAN: When I was growing up if you went to a football, basketball, or baseball game you were going so you could actually watch the contest. You knew who the teams were, who the best players were, and all the statistical data on each team. If you went to someone else’s house to watch a game you got a TV tray, and on that was a sandwich, chips, and a drink. You were there to watch the game. The people who didn’t like or understand the sport stayed home and read a book. Now you have parties at people’s houses and tailgates at the games. If you are part of the elite you can attend the game in a suite. Many of these “fans” vaguely know about the teams competing, the rules, the players. For them it’s just a big meet and greet and a chance to dress up in that team’s colors. God forbid the weather is anything other than 72 degrees and sunny! My family in Wisconsin go to Green Bay Packer football games in snow and below zero weather. They endure the same challenges their team does. But the party goer has gone home rather than get a little wet, and his or her seat is now empty.

3) LOVE MEANS HAVING TO SAY YOU ARE SORRY….A LOT: Like most people I am familiar with the tear jerker Love Story, where Ali MacGraw’s character, shivering in the cold, tells her husband that famous line about love and apologizing. Well it was a tender and heartfelt thing to say but if you want your marriage to last you better ignore it. I have said I’m sorry more times than I can imagine and I will continue to apologize as often as I need to. When you stop saying you are sorry that is when the trouble really starts. Most arguments are over stupid things anyway. Apologizing lets you move on, and get a hot meal..or more!

4) AS LONG AS WE ARE TALKING ABOUT TEARS..MEN DO CRY AT MOVIES: I have cried at movies, but when guys cry it’s for different reasons. I cried when Dennis Hopper as Shooter Flatch told the Hickory Huskers in the movie Hoosiers to not get caught watching the paint dry. I cried when Carl Brashear, played by Cuba Gooding  Jr. in Men of Honor, was trying to walk across a slick court room floor in a spun copper diving suit on one good leg towards Rober DeNiro as Master Chief Billy Sunday. As Gooding struggled Sunday barks “Cookie I want my twelve steps!” At that point I am out of my chair and on my feet with tears streaming, willing Brashear to report to his Master Chief! We don’t cry at sappy love stories. We cry when men or women take on severe challenges, and win. Shooter was an alcoholic rising to the occasion when his son’s team needed him. Brashear was an African-American diver who was discriminated against and wanted to come back to active duty with an artificial limb. Helping him was the very man that wanted to run him out of the Navy. Rudy when he sacks the quarterback in Notre Dame’s last home game and is carried off the field! Gale Sayers when he gives his Comeback Player of the Year award to Brian Piccolo! Niagara Falls!! All of those movies were based on real life stories, which made them even more compelling. Yes we weep, but they are manly tears.

5) WHEN YOU TRY TO PASS THE SLOW MOVING YAHOO IN THE LEFT LANE HE WILL SPEED UP: The left lane is for cars and trucks to pass other cars and trucks. If a vehicle gets in the left lane and drives slowly it really screws things up. But try and go around this oblivious motorist from the right lane and invariably that is when he will hit the gas! He doesn’t want to drive fast but he doesn’t want you to pass him either. Don’t confuse this guy with moron who rides your bumper when you are trying to pass the slow driver!

6) I KNOW I’M OLD BECAUSE I KNOW EVERYTHING: Yes I officially know everything. I have the experience and mental acuity to solve all problems. If you don’t agree with me then you are wrong. Oddly there are people older than me who think they know everything. But they are wrong. Now I don’t disagree with my wife, but between you and me she’s wrong too. If everyone just did what I told them to do everything would be so much easier.

7) DON’T TOUCH MY GRILL: Men have been cooking meat over a fire for eons. Outside, in the elements, just men, meat, fire, and secret sauces. Yet some people think they can pop the lid or pick up the tongs. Anybody who touches another man’s grill is asking for trouble!

8) EVERYONE’S NEIGHBORHOOD, TOWN, CITY, STATE IS THE BEST: I’m convinced nobody lives in a crumby place. If they live there it’s better than where you live. Statistics, crime data, unemployment, school ratings, taxes, none of that matters. If you live there it’s better than where everyone else lives…until you move. Then that place is better!

9) EVERY TOM CRUISE MOVIE IS THE SAME: If you watch any movie with Tom Cruise he will be cocky, he will get the girl, he will be running with his back ram rod straight and his arms pumping, he will have a scene where he gets mad and end it with a contorted face and a fist pump, and there will be at least one fight sequence where he can flip and have his hair fly in the breeze. He will also face adversity and have to reflect on his life. I liked him better when he was just a supporting cast member in The Outsiders but even in that movie he does a hand stand on a fence.

10) EVERY PHOTO OF A GROUP OF TEENAGE OR COLLEGE AGE GIRLS IS THE SAME: They have their outside knee bent, a hand on their outside hip, and their head bent to the side. Is this a rule now for photographs? Was there a meeting and instructions handed out?

I have  a lot more but ten observations is plenty. If you don’t agree with some of these go back and read number 6! Happy New Year!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yes I’m Thankful

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and like most holidays I tend to get lost in all the activities that have very little to do with the real reason for the celebration. But there are good reasons many of us should give thanks. I had something happen to me recently that really drove that point home.

First I would like to reminisce on something that happened a long time ago. My father was a pot room foreman for Kaiser Aluminum. Kaiser had facilities to mine ore and create aluminum located all over the world. My dad was often assigned to these various plants for tours of duty to train the local workforce to run the facility. Many of these plants were start ups. He and my mother went to West Virginia around 1955 and in 1959 I arrived. I was born across the Ohio river in a small town called Gallipolis. In 1961 we returned home to New Orleans. Shortly after coming home my father was slated to be sent to India for eighteen months. Because of this the whole family received innoculations to provide immunity to the broad array of diseases that were rampant in that country. Those shots made me very ill. So ill that the physicians administering those vaccinations wanted my parents to sign a waiver releasing them from blame should I succumb to side effects brought on by the vaccines. They refused, and my father had to leave without us.

I was age two when he left. When my father was due to return I was not yet four years old. I remember that we went to the airport at night and we were actually outside on the tarmac when my dad’s plane landed. It was cold and I was in a heavy coat with a hat on.

In the distance I saw a tall figure step down the stairs from the parked aircraft. He had on a long trench coat that was black. He seemed far away but I knew exactly who that man was. Without warning I bolted from my mother and began running towards the silhouette in the distance.

I heard my mother’s cries for me to stop but I just kept running. Apparently, because of dramatic weight loss, she did not recognize the man I was hurtling towards. But I was never in doubt. That man was my father.

As I closed the gap between us I could see his features come into focus. He stopped walking and took a knee as I leapt into his arms. I grabbed him as hard as I could and sunk my face into his shoulder. And together we rose up as one.

Last weekend I was invited to attend a football game in Baton Rouge. Due to a crazy array of events I ended up not getting to see the game in person and was irritable when I got up that Sunday to go home. My wife and I attend Catholic Mass every Sunday with our two autistic sons, but with me being three hours away I knew the odds of getting to their facility in time were not good. My only desire was to get there as quickly as possible. Had I been able to actually attend the game I would have been content getting to their school late, but to miss the game and not attend Mass with my family left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

I arrived at their school at ten o’clock in the morning. Just as I was getting near the sidewalk leading up to the chapel, the doors opened up. The first one out was my oldest son. He is twenty-three now and about six feet tall.

He looked up and saw me in the distance. Instantly he began to run in my direction. His gait was so familiar. His legs moving up and down like he was running in between tires on the ground and his arms raised upwards with his hands even with his head.

He hit me at full gallop, wrapping his arms tightly around me. His voice making the squeal that he utters when profoundly happy. He stopped, looked at me with a broad smile, and then hugged me tightly again. He then whispered Daddio, which is how he says daddy. It is one of a handful of words he can actually say aloud.

My mind immediately flashed back to that night in New Orleans when I expressed my love for my father the only way I knew how. My son was now giving me that same unconditional love I felt for my dad. I hugged him back, so grateful for him and what he had given me.

In 1970 I lost my dad. I was eleven. Over the years I lamented that I had been deprived the opportunity to have had meaningful conversations with my father as most young men do. When my two sons were born with severe mental disabilities, I lamented yet again, feeling cursed that I would never have father and son talks with either of my boys. But on Sunday I realized that what I have with my sons, and what I had with my father, was much more than any chat we could have had. I had a chance to show my dad how much I truly loved him and I was shown by my boy how much he truly loves me, in a way that spoke volumes.

And for that I am thankful.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment