-- Five weeks ago, Dave Dickerson met with his Tulane men's basketball players for the first time since Hurricane Katrina rendered their New Orleans campus inoperable and displaced them to this new home at Texas A&M. With players searching for direction, the first-year coach spoke about a topic he had mostly avoided in his coaching career.
He told his team about the death of Len Bias.
Hardly a Tulane player knew of Bias, the former Maryland star who died from a cocaine overdose two days after the Boston Celtics made him the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft, much less that Dickerson was a freshman teammate of Bias's. They were unaware of what Dickerson told them about the incessant questions and scrutiny that mounted afterward, forever altering the courses of lives, including that of their coach.
In many ways, Dickerson believes, the experience of trauma in his youth makes him as prepared as anyone could be for dealing with a challenge that gains focus Friday with the official start of college basketball practice: how to unite a team of 13 young men after a natural disaster ravaged their homes, campus and city. When a reporter last week asked Dickerson if he is uniquely qualified for such a task, the 38-year-old sighed and looked away, before saying, "God, I hope I am."
To that end, he recalled his experiences in the aftermath of Bias's death, something he had never broached at length with players, even during his nine-year stint as a Maryland assistant.
"I felt I had to take our players -- just to save them, just to save this program -- to take our players step by step as far as what happened to me," Dickerson said. "The people who went through it as student-athletes those years -- like Tony Massenburg, Greg Nared and John Johnson and me -- that was on us for three years; there was no let-up. All of us got our degrees and are all doing what we want to do. And we're the type of people we've become because of having gone through that situation. . . . It was good for me to talk about it and for them to hear it."
Tulane senior Quincy Davis, the team's best player and someone who seriously considered transferring in the anxious days following the storm, said he was touched by Dickerson's personal testimony during the two-hour meeting.
"No offense to the previous coach," Davis said of Shawn Finney, "but we did not relate to him well. Why should we listen to him? He had it great all his life. When he told us to do something, we were like, 'How does he know how it is possible?' We know Coach Dickerson has been through things."
Last month, Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson visited each of the four campuses -- Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Louisiana Tech and Southern Methodist -- where his school's 327 athletes are enrolled. Tulane expects to reopen its campus Jan. 17, but in the interim, the Green Wave will wear road uniforms and is essentially "homeless," Dickson said.
During his visit to Texas A&M, where six Tulane teams are based, Dickson pointed out Dickerson to department staff members and coaches as someone to lean on. Dickson said Dickerson's resolve separated him from 80 applicants for the coaching job in the spring.
"I'll never forget one of the letters I received," Dickson said, "was from the former chancellor at Maryland, who said that during [the aftermath of Bias's death], it was not he as chancellor or an athletic director or anyone else, but it was an 18-year-old freshman who became kind of the pillar of calm during their storm and a national spokesperson not just for basketball but for the university.
"That resonated at that time, which had nothing to do for us with adversity, but now as we face it here, he is someone certainly equipped to deal with it."
Throughout his tenure at Maryland, Dickerson felt he had one of the nation's best jobs. He wanted to leave only for an equally special opportunity, which he felt Tulane offered by way of its academic reputation and athletic potential. In fact, he was so inspired after he took the job in April that he typed three pages worth of detailed goals, outlining everything from recruiting ambitions to a long-term forecast.
Those plans now lie in a safe in South Carolina, where Dickerson had stayed with family after the hurricane. He might retrieve it this spring, maybe not. After all, as his athletic director said, the "scorecard has changed." When a reporter asked Dickerson what would be a successful season, he paused 25 seconds before answering.
"That's a tough question," he said. "What we're trying to do now, ultimately, the reason we are put in these situations, is to put aside -- a little bit, just a little bit -- the team goals as far as wins and losses, and try to carry the torch for the university and use athletics as a marketing tool, use athletics to take people's minds off what they are going through. Essentially what we are using our season for is to keep hope going -- I guess keep hope alive -- for our school. And that is worth more than wins or losses right there."
A small "Tulane Men's Basketball" placard hangs above Room 117C, an old office deep within Kyle Field, the Texas A&M football stadium. Inside are two grease boards, a table and desk, a telephone and computer. "Blitz Brothers" is painted on one wall. The concrete walls are too thick for cell phones to work. A small stack of folded clothing rests in a corner, sent to Dickerson from old buddies at Maryland's state attorney's office.
Before Dickerson was given this office, the staff worked out of their apartments in College Station. They all live in Vineyard Court, a housing community they deemed better than adequate. "When it's time for laundry, we go get 75 cents from Coach Dickerson," joked assistant Andrew Novick, a former Maryland graduate assistant.
Everyone -- coaches, players, staff -- are thrilled that Texas A&M opened its doors to them. Players say students sometimes stop to provide directions on this large campus even before players pull out a map. Emotions, though, ebb and flow with the arrival of daily challenges. Davis, for one, said he often catches himself "in a bad mood" for no apparent reason.
There has been improvement since the first frazzled days when Tulane's athletes arrived last month. Then, the focus became bare necessities, not basketball. Coaches and staff scrambled to get meal plans, clothing and room and board, and set up counseling sessions. Players said Target and Wal-Mart provided gift cards.
Guard Chris Moore said his house in New Orleans is infested with mold, and only some clothes were recoverable. Davis evacuated only with the denim shorts he was wearing and a few T-shirts. He used to own 30 pairs of size 17 shoes; now he has two.
While the team has engaged in one group counseling session, basketball also has provided an emotional catharsis. "It's given us something as an escape," said David Gomez, of Baton Rouge, La., "some structure. . . . I'm just trying to be real optimistic right now."
Dickerson's only low moments come, he said, when he thinks of his wife, Laurette, and 4-year-old son, Dave III, both of whom he said "did not sign up for this." They have recently joined Dickerson in College Station but rarely get to see him, save for a Sunday night dinner.
They moved from Maryland into a New Orleans home July 19. When the storm neared, wife and son evacuated to Pensacola, Fla., and stayed in a Ramada Inn, where Dickerson met them after returning from the wedding of former Maryland player Steve Blake. From there, the family met Dickerson's family in South Carolina before he left for College Station.
"My son, in all those moves, says, 'I want to go home,' " Dickerson said. "You ask where, he says, 'New Orleans.' He asks to play with friends. You ask who, he talks about friends in Maryland. Then his teacher, he says his teacher in New Orleans."
During those days in Florida and South Carolina, Dickerson also wondered what team he would have left when everyone reconvened. Seeing it was possible that Tulane would not play a season, other schools contacted his players to see if they wanted to compete elsewhere.
Davis drove home with a teammate to Los Angeles, where he anxiously waited word on the season's status. His 18-year-old sister took numerous phone calls to the house from other head coaches interested in getting Davis to transfer.
The only way to communicate with anyone with a 504 area code was through text messaging on cell phones. Teammates text messaged asking if Davis was staying. He was torn. Finally, Dickerson text messaged players something like, "We will have a season."
That was the answer Davis needed, and wanted.
"I could not fathom being at another school, leaving these players behind and having that on my conscious," Davis said.
Dickson, meantime, announced that Tulane would not grant releases to athletes looking to transfer because of the hurricane. Dickson said this week, "We wanted to send a signal out there, not as much to our own student-athletes because we had very few requests from our group, but primarily to the outside world and to those schools and coaches who were seizing this as an opportunity to have a shopping spree, that this is not going to be business as usual."
No basketball player transferred, but Dickerson also has encountered another obstacle: recruiting when there is no campus. The staff toyed with the idea of bringing prospects on the Texas A&M campus for visits, but decided against it.
Last week, assistant Steve Prohm said, he and Dickerson drove 2,000 miles in a couple days, recruiting by road rather than plane because of an athletic budget that was strapped even before the hurricane. They drove through Beaumont, Tex., to Baton Rouge to LaPlace, La., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Atlanta.
Then back they came -- a lot of fast food and sunflower seeds, Dickerson said -- through Mississippi, only to arrive in College Station after 2 a.m. Dickerson still arrived at the gymnasium shortly after 6 a.m. for team workouts. "It builds character," he said. "Me, it's probably not my destiny to have things the way they used to be."
Dickerson, whose father worked almost 40 years at a logging company and was paid no more than $15,000 a year, was bred with the ethic of perseverance. He perhaps thought of transferring from Maryland 20 years ago but knew he could not quit on his family or team, a notion he has tried to impart to his players.
"To think out of the box and not look at the immediate gratification as far as the grass is greener on the other side," Dickerson said. "Get them to look at the ramifications as far as going through this and how they are going to turn out 10 years from now, 20 years from now. . . . I tell them every day this experience is going to help them become better husbands and better fathers, because I know what I went through when I was in college and where it has taken me.
"The experience is not only on the court or in the classroom, but it's what you go through -- the journey."