The Huskies did SO much more in New Orleans than beat Tulane. They learned through native teammate Jernard Jarreau how the city survived and rebuilt in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Then they had a postgame, Cajun feast at James Carville’s home. “Definitely cool.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to sign-up and recieve Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
NEW ORLEANS – At first glance these two days and three nights for Husky basketball here in the land of Mardi Gras was a success. They got a win over Tulane and some more momentum heading into Sunday’s showdown against 10th-ranked Connecticut.
But that’s barely the half the story of these remarkable days for the Dawgs in New Orleans.
The visit was full of life enrichment, an experience that will remain with them long after the memories of a sloppy, 11-point victory in a tiny gym in front of maybe 500 people.
Monday night, the Huskies bused from their hotel three blocks off the French Quarter to the East New Orleans family home of Jernard Jarreau, their injured redshirt sophomore forward. Coach Lorenzo Romar scheduled UW’s first-ever game against Tulane specifically for him. Jarreau’s mother’s welcomed each player with a huge smile and hug.
Her name is Katrina. Yes, like the hurricane.
The devastating storm that killed 2,000 in 2005 forced Jarreau and his family to flee their homes. They left on Jernard’s birthday weekend, just as he was beginning seventh grade. Monday, inside a welcoming, two-story house with vaulted ceilings that had been under 12 feet of water eight years earlier, the Huskies had red beans and rice, homemade gumbo and the Jarreau family’s sweet potato bread.
“This is my first time here, and it’s definitely cool to hear Jernard talk about the hurricane, explaining what was flooded and them having to rebuild pretty much the whole city,” leading scorer C.J. Wilcox said Tuesday at quaint Devlin Fieldhouse minutes after his 15 points in the 73-62 win at Tulane.
So was this. Minutes later Tuesday night, Wilcox and the Huskies were walking through the huge front door of James Carville’s house.
They had another Cajun feast there inside the big, warm mansion of the outspoken Democratic strategist and political commentator. Carville, the man who got Bill Clinton elected president, seemed genuinely thrilled to welcome the Huskies into his home on a tree-lined in the stately Uptown section of New Orleans, down the street from Tulane and the Audubon Zoo.
“C’mon in y’all! Make yourselves at home!” Carville bellowed in his native Louisiana drawl, shaking each player’s hand as he walked in.
“He seemed so excited to have us,” freshman Nigel Williams-Goss said. “It was tremendous.”
Man, did Carville put out a spread for the Dawgs. Crawfish etouffee. Red beans and rice. Gumbo. Shrimp. White chocolate bread pudding. Enough food to feed five basketball teams. Counting the atmosphere and lively, engaging conversation, it was the best postgame meal these players will ever have.
Yes, I’m including those such as Wilcox that will end up in the NBA.
"Study hard. And meet as many people as you can who are not like you."
The company and hospitality were equally excellent. Carville’s never one to shy away from an opinion or point of view — especially, I can now state, while inside his own house. Wearing a Tulane cap — he is also a lecturer at the school, on top of his television commentary on politics, his book writing and his marriage to Mary Matalin — Carville sat in a big chair in his living room.
The connection that got the Huskies here: The 69-year-old Carville has known UW athletic director Scott Woodward since Woodward was six years old in Baton Rouge, La. Woodward’s his father was Carville’s dentist.
"I’d do anything for Scott," Carville said.
With Woodward sitting to his right, Romar on his left and players to his front on couches and chairs, Carville talked about his views on U.S. soldiers returning from war. On how Israeli society differs from ours, because of that country’s better synergy of its military with its society (thanks to mandatory military service). On what a great coach Romar is, and how fortunate the Huskies are to be to have him as a mentor — and to have a great school such as Washington from which to get a degree.
When Woodward mentioned to Carville by way of introduction that I graduated from West Point, I thought his liberal views would require my removal from the premises. Instead, Carville beamed. He immediately took me upstairs and through bedrooms to show me family pictures of his days as an enlisted man in the Marines.
I asked him what his military specialty was when he was a corporal.
"Gruntin’. And eatin’," he said in his native Cajun drawl. "It wasn’t like I had any rank or authority."
Back downstairs, as players chowed on the catered spread, Carville told them the story of a mother coming up to Clinton during a public event during his presidency. The mom told Clinton that her daughter wanted to someday become president. Carville relayed to the Huskies the two pieces of advice Clinton gave that mom.
"In life you have to sometimes force yourself out of your comfort zone," Carville told the Dawgs, while Romar nodded his head next to him. "Y’all are basketball players, and that’s good, you have to do it during the season. But go out! You are at a great school! Learn everything that you can, not just in the classroom but from all the other kids that go there and the experiences that you have and go forward.
"OK," Carville concluded by clapping his hands together and chuckling, "that’s enough lecturing."
Romar presented Carville with a UW polo shirt — “purple, like LSU,” the Louisiana State grad said, approvingly — plus a white Husky basketball T-shirt and players-style, oversized game shorts.
“For when you go to the gym and call, ‘I got next!’” a smiling Romar told his host.
As the Huskies left to get back to their downtown New Orleans hotel and a 7 a.m. trip Wednesday to the airport for the long trek home, point guard Andrew Andrews immediately took Carville up on his advice. The redshirt sophomore introduced himself to Carville, and asked if he could have a copy of his new book “Love and War” – about being married to Mary Matalin, a top Republican strategist -- that Carville had been discussing earlier. Carville went into his kitchen and pulled copy of the book out of a box. When Carville heartily handed Andrews the book, Andrews asked Carville to sign it, right there in his kitchen.
“Meet people who aren’t like yourself, right?” Andrews said to Carville.
Carville nailed the tricky part of my job for UW when he looked me in the eye in his living room and said, “How do you handle writing about losing?”
GETTING OUT JUST IN TIME
The remarkable night at Carville’s came minutes after Jarreau, Romar and the Huskies had said goodbye to the 42 family members Jernard had at Tuesday night’s game. They wore purple, made up the most concentrated throng in the mostly empty gym and screamed for their boy and his team -- even though he is out for the year following reconstructive knee surgery last month.
Cousins shot baskets with uncles and aunts at one end of the floor. His mother and his grandparents said their goodbyes at the other end.
They were one of the smart ones who took heed of authorities’ warnings, gathered Jarreau and his four siblings and fled New Orleans on Aug. 27, 2005, prior to Hurricane Katrina hitting and the Crescent City becoming Hell.
“We were fortunate enough to leave town two days before the storm hit,” Jarreau said.
They were also fortunate to have family to go to relatively nearby. While some along the Gulf Coast were displaced into temporary government housing as far away as Seattle, Jarreau and his family, including the four siblings and their grandparents, drove about 150 miles east to aunts, uncles and cousins in Mobile, Ala.
Jarreau’s house was in the eastern, Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the most heavily hit ward of the city. Broken levees left his house, near where Interstates 10 and 510 intersect, destroyed. The Six Flags New Orleans theme park just down the street was abandoned – forever. It’s now a site for urban trespassers. We passed it Monday night on our way to Jarreau’s house.
I asked him what he felt at the time, a 13-year old from the epicenter of the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and one of the five deadliest.
“I was a kid. It was just big on our neighborhood,” he said. “All my friends, we’d grown up together in that neighborhood, been to school together since we were knee high. Everybody just scattered around, spreading out after that happened.
“I was like, ‘Wow, am I ever going to see those guys again?’
“For the most part, I was just happy to have all my family members safe.”
Jarreau spent much of seventh grade going to school in Mobile, a stranger to all but the cousins with whom he lived. He was one of his first friends to come back to New Orleans, because his mother was called back by her work for NASA at the Michoud Assembly Facility in the same neighborhood as their home. The MAF, as its known down here, wasn’t as severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina as most everything around it because it was protected by one of the few levees that didn’t fail New Orleans.
What was left of his house, his neighborhood, his city when he came back?
“Pretty much nothing, really,” he said.
“We had 12 feet of water under our house. Twelve feet,” he repeated. “It was a two-story. Pretty much everything was damage.
“We took some pictures and things with us, but pretty much everything else was gone.”
So was his neighborhood.
“My city did a great job rebuilding. Everybody came together, communities came together, helping one another. Everything is pretty much back now.”
“Everything was boarded up and pretty much abandoned,” he said.
His mother, stepfather and grandparents rebuilt in place, while Jernard spent his eighth-grade year with his family living in an apartment complex in New Orleans. The result was the spacious, two-story home with vaulted ceilings and a garage converted into a front family room in which the Huskies feasted Monday.
“My city did a great job rebuilding,” Jarreau said, proudly. “Everybody came together, communities came together, helping one another. Everything, to me, is pretty much back now.”
“I TRUSTED HIM”
So how did Washington sign the second player it has ever had from Louisiana?
Eldridge Recasner was the first. The former NBA shooter is from the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, just across the Industrial Canal from Jarreau’s home.
Jarreau was a 6-2 guard entering high school. He was so good at that, he said he went as a freshman to the basketball powerhouse at DeSoto High School, in the south Dallas suburbs. But only a few weeks in he was morbidly homesick, so he returned to New Orleans and enrolled at McDonogh 35 Senior High School.
He rode a city bus 30 minutes one way into New Orleans, to McDonogh 35 Senior High School, five blocks from Louis Armstrong Park and four blocks from the French Quarter. He went there, past other high schools from his home, because of its basketball program.
That’s where Washington found him, specifically Huskies assistant coach Raphael Chillious. Chillious is a former business manager at Nike and its Elite Youth Basketball program, so his contacts in high-school basketball run deep across the country – including through New Orleans. He was told he should check out this now-6-3 (and growing) guard from McDonogh 35.
But in the opening minutes of the opening game of his junior season, Jarreau broke his wrist. He missed the entire campaign, but Chillious kept a mental note that UW should keep its eye on him.
By the time Jarreau’s wrist healed for his summer season for New Orleans’ Elite D1 Ambassadors AAU team, he had shot up almost five inches, to about 6-8. Chillious saw him at a tournament in Las Vegas. The only other school that was on Jarreau then was home-state LSU.
Then Virginia Commonwealth got interested. VCU had a young, energetic coach in Shaka Smart, and was on its way to the school’s first Final Four that following spring, in March 2011. Jarreau’s first official visit was there – and on a Saturday he committed to the Rams.
“During the recruiting process I was just so excited and anxious that I was getting all this attention from all these colleges. I wound up taking my visit to Virginia Commonwealth and it was my first college visit,” he said. “I ended up liking the program, coaching staff, and when I came back home I made my mind up that I wanted to go there.”
Romar got word of Jarreau’s VCU commitment on his and then-UW assistant Jim Shaw’s way to New Orleans to see the recruit. But when he called Jarreau’s grandfather to find out what was up and if need to continue the trip, Ernest was, well, earnest.
“Come visit,” he told Romar.
“During that time I really wasn’t giving other schools a chance,” Jernard says now. “There were giving me a chance, giving me an opportunity to prove it, so why was I not giving them a chance by making visits?”
Jarreau had watched Washington on television during that displaced, seventh-grade year, in 2005. That was the year the Huskies reached the Sweet 16 with Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Tre Simmons and Brandon Roy. Jarreau loved how quickly the Huskies played, how aggressive they were.
Two days after Jarreau thought VCU was the place for him, Romar and Shaw sat in the same front room where the Huskies feasted Monday night. Soon after he got there Romar asked about Katrina’s sweet potato bread.
To this day, Romar calls Jarreau’s grandfather Ernest “a rock.”
The admiration is mutual.
“I thought, ‘Anyone who knows about sweet potato bread knows something about the South,’” a still-impressed Ernest Jarreau said, standing in the entry hall of the rebuilt family home.
“I told him, ‘I want my grandson to be in program that has a family environment away from home.’ He told me, ‘Mr. Jarreau, trust me, if he comes out to Washington he will be taken care of.’
“And I trusted him.”
That is why, despite hometown Tulane and home-state LSU, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, plus VCU all offering him a scholarship, Jarreau became a Husky.
You probably sense by now how important family is to Jarreau. He is the oldest of five children. His brothers are Ernest (20), Aaron (13) and Ahmad (7). His sister Asia is 11. All live in the home the Huskies visited Monday. All, that is, except Ernest.
“He’s incarcerated,” Jernard said.
“I don’t talk about it much.”
Jernard says without desiring to elaborate that his brother was “hanging out with the wrong guys” in New Orleans. He talks to him “all the time,” Jernard says, and looks forward to the day in the coming new year that his brother is released.
THE ESSENCE OF ROMAR’S PROGRAM
Romar scheduled this game at New Orleans and this extended trip to New Orleans during the players’ first days of UW’s Christmas break specifically so Jarreau could reconnect with his family. Jarreau is why UW played Tulane for the first time ever, why Husky basketball was in Louisiana for the third time in the last 30 years.
If only Jarreau could have played Tuesday. In the first 90 seconds of UW’s opening game last month, the most improved player on the team, counted on to be a key in the high post and in rebounding, shredded his knee taking off for a layup after a steal against Seattle University.
Jarreau’s mother, stepfather Alfred and, his grandparents and his siblings were in their East New Orleans home tuning in for the telecast of that night’s game – they subscribe to the Dish satellite system so they can watch almost all of Jernard’s games. But the game leading into Seattle U-Washington ran long. Pac-12 Networks began showing the Huskies’ game the instant Jarreau made the steal before his fateful layup attempt.
“The first thing we saw, the very first thing, was his knee buckling,” said Grandpa Jarreau, whom Jernard calls “Papa.”
Jernard’s mother couldn’t watch. She left the living room and paced the front hallway, crying.
“I called his cell phone; I don’t know why I called it -- as if he would answer right then,” Katrina Jarreau said, laughing Monday. “But 20 minutes later, when he got back in the training room, after the doctors had seen him, he called me. We both were crying.”
Soon after that, Ernest’s cell phone rang. It was Romar calling.
“I came up to Seattle two days later,” Ernest, “The Rock,” said. “What I saw after the surgery, what I saw when I got up there, I saw how they took care of him. And they keep doing that, from the injury until now.”
Just as Romar had promised in their front room four years earlier.
That is recruiting – beyond signing day, through to graduation.
Yes, the Huskies’ three days in New Orleans were not exactly the normal college-kid fare.
And that is what Romar’s program is all about.
No matter how Sunday goes when these young, still-mending and developing Huskies host fast, dynamic UConn -- the highest-ranked non-conference home foe since Adam Morrison and No. 6 Gonzaga got out-gunned by Roy and UW on Dec. 4, 2005 at Alaska Airlines Arena – the Dawgs are more enriched today than they were Sunday.
"Remember that,” Carville told the Huskies before they left the home of one of the most influential figures in America over the last 20 years. It was Tuesday night, just before 11 p.m., after a postgame meal like no other.
“Just study hard. And meet as many as you can who aren’t like you.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.