Wizards’ Kelly Oubre Jr., uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, remembers his New Orleans

City of memories

Wizards player Kelly Oubre, displaced by Hurricane Katrina at age 9, revisits New Orleans virtually.

Published on August 31, 2017

Kelly Oubre Jr.’s story begins in New Orleans, though it's now a city lost in his memories. Oubre is a 21-year-old Washington Wizards forward, but days before he was set to begin fourth grade in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. The levees broke. The gymnasium in which he learned to play basketball was abandoned. His school flooded.

Nearly 30 of the teachers at Edward Hynes Elementary had lost their homes, so Oubre, at just 9 years old, left behind his house in New Orleans East and escaped with his father for higher ground, eventually making a new life in Houston.

This week, his adopted city is recovering from its own life-altering storm after Hurricane Harvey pummeled South Texas, causing the biggest rainfall ever in the continental United States and displacing thousands of residents.

“I’m used to falling and getting back up and when I get back up — I’m going to get back up stronger.”

—Kelly Oubre

Katrina impacted Oubre's life significantly. Twelve years later, Oubre doesn’t remember the address of his childhood home, and he can’t recall the names or faces of his former teachers. Even if he could remember Hynes Elementary, it no longer exists as it once was. But one remnant of the school remains, triggering memories for the basketball player.

While reviewing photos from sites around New Orleans where he grew up in March, Oubre saw the porcelain tiles of Humpty Dumpty — the only physical artifact from his elementary school that survived the storm. The memories came rushing back. “I used to look at these like every day,” Oubre said. “That’s what I remember from my school the most, just these tiles.

“No matter what’s going on, I’m going to continue to thrive because I’m used to adversity,” Oubre said, tying the nursery rhyme to his life’s story. “I’m used to falling and getting back up and when I get back up — I’m going to get back up stronger.”

As millions of lives are similarly affected in the aftermath of Harvey, this is a tour of Kelly Oubre’s New Orleans, as only he remembers it.

HYNES Charter School (formerly Edward Hynes Elementary School), Lakeview

Teachers remember a young Oubre as you might imagine: tall and skinny. One administrator describes Oubre as “all boy,” meaning “this kid never ran out of juice.” Before Oubre became known for high-rising, one-handed dunks, he had a reputation for his back flops.

Being “all boy,” Oubre spent recess trying to impress girls and, using his childhood taekwondo training, he would do flips but land directly on his back, pretending to be hurt. The girls giggled. The principal, not so much.

“Yeah, I was there,” Oubre said about the principal’s office. “Quite a few times, actually.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Oubre spent little time on the blacktop courts. When he attended the school, Oubre recalled just two outdoor basketball goals — no nets, uneven rims, an unappealing option for kids. And so, this future first-round NBA draft pick played football.

Looking over the $24 million renovation for the first time, Oubre couldn’t recognize his childhood playground. If those beautiful basketball courts were around when he was a student, they might have saved him a few back flops and a couple trips to the principal’s office.

“I wish they had this when I was there,” Oubre said. “I probably would’ve started playing basketball.”

New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (formerly Milne Boys Home), Gentilly

Oubre started his basketball career with the Milne Boys Home teams. The group had no mascot, only a “big dude” — Coach Murphy Anderson.

“He was the first person to be strict on me on the basketball court,” Oubre said of his childhood coach.

The team drew its name from the campus. In the 1930s, the Milne Boys Home was built as a segregated home for wayward boys. Even the gymnasiums, in which Oubre practiced as a child, were segregated — one for the black boys, the other for the whites. According to an article in the New York Times, the home’s history went back even further: once called the “Colored Waif’s Home for Boys,” an 11-year-old Louis Armstrong was confined there for firing a pistol. During his incarceration, young Louis picked up the cornet.

Oubre played for three teams, and must have been successful. During the third grade, he wrote a story about Milne basketball, bragging about its undefeated run. While sometimes riding with his father to practice, Oubre would grow nervous — the “big dude” would make his players run if they started cutting up. But he fondly looks back on his Milne days.

“It was a great time,” Oubre said, reflecting on his first experience with team basketball. “You didn’t have to worry about much.”

Childhood home and levee near MacKenzie Street, New Orleans East

Oubre's bedroom was near the front of the single-family home, so every horn and headlight would spook him.

“I was a paranoid kid,” Oubre said.

But he comforted himself knowing that his dad was coming home soon. Kelly Oubre Sr. worked long shifts at UPS, but returned home just before Kelly’s bedtime. When he heard his father’s SUV growl into the driveway, young Kelly would jolt out of bed. Just as the father walked through the doors, his son wrapped his arms and legs around him in a loving embrace.

The Oubres had a basketball goal out front, but when New Orleans heat kicked in, Kelly spent hours playing on the Slip ‘N Slide on the front lawn. Over the weekends, father and son would cross MacKenzie Street and climb up the hill to the levee. Together, they’d walk along the water and the son learned to skip rocks.

“It was super peaceful because I had nothing to worry about,” Oubre said.