Wednesday August 25th, 2010

Joe Pasternack's problem starts to become evident when he answers the main men's basketball office number at the University of New Orleans in mid-June. A typical Division I head coach has buffers against this sort of contact: secretaries, managers, graduate students, video coordinators, basketball operations staff, assistant coaches. His friend Josh Pastner, at Memphis, has 16 other staffers listed on the school's website. Pasternack is alarmingly uninsulated. I'm calling with a personnel question, because all of his players from 2009-10 have been released from their scholarships as the Privateers leave the Sun Belt Conference and begin their transition to Division III. There's no delicate way to ask it: Do you have anyone left?

"One kid, and one assistant coach," he says. "But they're both still being recruited away."

With a year left on his own contract, Pasternack needs to find an entirely new team, capable of competing as a D-I Independent, by the time classes start on Aug. 23 -- without being able to offer any scholarships. He'll repeat the same four words all summer, on the phone, in gyms in three states and on the way into a Target store to buy a BlackBerry charger to keep calling people about prospects; in his office at UNO, in his living room in Old Metairie, and at a new-age Cajun dinner before ordering a shrimp-and-alligator sausage cheesecake appetizer: "We've gotta get players."

He'll never say it in the leisurely cadence of native New Orleansians, although he is one; he'll say it with the hyper-intensity of a 33-year-old head coach who attended Indiana University in the mid-1990s for the sole purpose of student-managing under Bobby Knight, and considers that his formative basketball experience. "You came to work with your hard hat on every day there," Pasternack says.

This will be a hard-hat kind of recruiting period. Since 2000, only one other D-I school, Birmingham Southern, has lost its conference affiliation and begun a transition to D-III in the same year -- and it decided to suspend men's basketball for that season.

***

At the outset of the NCAA's 2007 summer evaluation period, the coaching community's upper crust was watching top recruits at Nike's LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio. Pasternack was there with his boss at Cal, Ben Braun, when they heard through the rumor mill that Buzz Williams had bailed on UNO after just one season for an assistant's job at Marquette. Pasternack, a runner-up for the UNO gig in '06, called athletic director Jim Miller and was asked, simply, "When can you start?"

Coming back to rebuild in the wake of Katrina -- which had ruined his childhood home just off the 17th Street Canal -- seemed like a noble idea at the time. In just their second game of that '07-08 season, Pasternack's Privateers upset No. 21 North Carolina State on the road, and went on to finish with 19 wins, their highest total in 11 years. "I thought we had turned the corner," he says, "but after that, there was just so much ..."

So much what? Uncertainty, for one, and upheaval. Enrollment had plummeted from around 17,000 students to 10,000 after the storm, and a lack of student fees and state support led to a multi-million-dollar shortfall in the athletic budget. In May 2009, a campus-wide vote to raise student athletic fees failed. On the same day, without warning to Pasternack, a letter went out to athletic departments nationwide advertising that his players were available due to the fact that UNO "is unsure of whether the Department of Athletics will continue at our institution." (He subsequently lost freshmen Jahmal Burroughs and Jacolby Pittman, as well as top juco recruit Greg Hill.) In November, chancellor Tim Ryan made the announcement that the Privateers would seek a transition to D-III, and Pasternack lost his final class of scholarship recruits. (The best one, three-star shooting guard Ronald McGhee, from Baton Rouge, called to cancel a press conference scheduled for the next day. He's now at North Texas.)

The transition process will take until 2015-16 to complete. it was such a controversial move that Miller resigned in the lead-up, and is writing a book about his battle to keep UNO athletics afloat, tentatively titled Where The Water Kept Rising. "Someone, someday," he says, "is going to regret moving to D-III."

When I join Pasternack on July 6, near the three-year anniversary of his hiring at UNO, he's a long way from the LeBron camp, at a showcase hosted by scout Kenn Littlefield in Jonesboro, Ga. It's in a four-court health club on a stretch of tired strip malls, about a 15-minute drive south of the Atlanta airport. The club shares a building with a business specializing in automobile window-tinting and custom rims, and cards advertising these services will be left under many of the attendees' window wipers.

In recruiting parlance, most of the players here are "availables" -- fresh high-school graduates or junior-college sophomores who've yet to receive a scholarship offer. They've paid $120 each for three days of scrimmaging in jerseys with "The Hoop Dream" printed on the front. It's a nice euphemism. This is where desperate players go to be seen by desperate coaches.

While watching a game in Jonesboro, he leafs through a packet of mostly unknown players' names and contact information that cost $100 at the door. "Normally, in July, you're just babysitting kids for next year," Pasternack says, explaining that elite teams have done the legwork to ID and engage with elite players long before their final summer on the circuit. "Coach K watching five-star guys at LeBron [camp] -- that's not recruiting. This is recruiting."

NCAA rules forbid Pasternack from talking about specific prospects, so I ask him what he's looking for, in general, in the packet.

"Right now," he says, "I'm looking for Louisiana area codes: 504, 225, 337."

Louisianans pay in-state tuition, which is half as much ($10,000) as the out-of-state fees. Unfortunately, the camp roster is light on those area codes.

Dorian Smith, a 6-foot-4 forward from Georgia who averaged 6.8 points at Pensacola State (Junior) College last season, is having the best game of any player on the court in front of Pasternack. After Smith hits two more threes in succession while a row of coaches -- coaches with scholarships -- look on, Pasternack winces and says to no one in particular, "We're screwed."

After the game, I find out from Smith that he attended an Advanced Skills Camp at UNO a week earlier, and the Privateers are actively recruiting him. "I'm just waiting for word from the coach," he says. "You're OK with paying your own way there?" I ask. "Oh, no." he says, apparently unaware of the extent of UNO's limitations. "I would need some kind of scholarship."

Pasternack's plan is to invite the best availables from Jonesboro, as well as those that his lone remaining assistant, William Lewit, scouted at events in Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Okla., and Reading, Pa., to another Advanced Skills Camp at UNO in early August. A list of needs on a hypothetical depth chart Pasternack is carrying include "Athletic 4/5," "shooters/scorers," and a point guard: essentially, everything.

Braun was the coach who gave Pasternack his first job, as a video coordinator, when he was 22 years old and fresh out of Indiana. "Joe has always been relentless," Braun says. "He was begging me so much for the job that I told him, 'If I hire you, will you stop calling me?'" Pasternack hasn't stopped being impatient. On the second day of the Jonesboro camp, once he has a list of around 15 targets, he calls Lewit. "Bill, we can't wait until August to do this skills camp," he says. "Kids will make decisions by then. We've gotta do it earlier. We've gotta get players."

***

The headline on the front page of The Times-Picayune on July 23, two days before UNO's rescheduled, second Advanced Skills Camp, reads: SHIPS LEAVE SPILL SITE AS STORM THREATENS. The catastrophic BP oil spill has dominated local and national news for three months, and now Tropical Storm Bonnie is on the way, forcing a delay in the drilling of a relief well. Problems are begetting problems. Pasternack calls and asks if I'm following the storm. "Parents and kids have been calling me non-stop," he says. He's worried that the camp could unravel. But by Friday night, Bonnie dissipates over Florida, and by Sunday, 40 players show up at UNO's Lakefront Arena.

"I'm sure a lot of you know our situation," Pasternack tells attendees during a mid-day info session. When he finishes explaining UNO's plight, he says, "What that means is, we have a lot of spots open."

Two former Alabama walk-on guards that stood out at the Jonesboro camp are here: Brandon Canady and Chris Dixon, who played high-school ball together in Montgomery. Canady made zero appearances for the Crimson Tide in '09-10, but he's brilliant in the camp, hitting 70 percent of his threes in four games. (He says that Lewit told him, "I don't like you -- I love you. I bet you wish girls said that to you.") Brandon Knight, a point guard who played with Smith at Pensacola State and averaged 4.6 points last season, looks worthy of being recruited, as do two other former juco point guards, Tyson Roach (from Southwest Mississippi Community College) and Bryce Kemp (from Fort Scott Community College).

The best player, without question, I recognize as one of LSU's starters from last season's NIT Season Tip-Off against Arizona State: Zach Kinsley, a former walk-on for the Tigers who earned a scholarship as a sophomore, played in all 31 games in '09-10, led all regulars in three-point percentage (39.5) ... and then was unceremoniously told he'd have to walk on again as a junior. He decided to leave instead.

Kinsley has a full scholarship offer from Southeastern Louisiana, but learned something intriguing four days ago. He could transfer to UNO and be eligible immediately -- and his 24-year-old brother, Ryan, a left-handed journeyman who's been at four schools, hasn't played in a game since 2005, might be able to play as well, if he can get a medical waiver for a final semester of eligibility. Says Zach, "I never thought that playing with my brother would be possible."

The Kinsleys were born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge; their father, Fred, went to UNO from 1980-81 and initially intended to play basketball, but put his athletic career on ice to get married. Being on the sidelines at the camp is a sort of homecoming for him. "I wouldn't have sent my kids here a few years ago," he says. "But the area and school are in better shape now. You come down here and it's almost like vacation, with the breeze coming off the lake."

Fred is intrigued by the presence of Brian Beshara, who's serving as a court coach. He was a double-digit scorer at LSU from 1998-2001 ("My sons loved to watch him," Fred says) and spent the past nine seasons playing professionally in Lebanon. Beshara had planned on traveling to New York this week to apprentice with a friend in the nightclub business. "But when I heard about this" -- that there might be a chance for him to volunteer on the depleted UNO staff -- "I canceled my flight," he says.

One of the other court coaches is the Privateers' lone returning player, Jaroslav Tyrna, a 6-10 senior center from the Czech Republic who was the first recruit Pasternack signed at UNO in 2007. "He wasn't the only coach calling me," Tyrna says of Pasternack. "He was just the one calling me and saying, 'You've gotta come.' He was emphasizing that I could be a part of something new happening in the city." Even from Prague, Tyrna had been aware of the devastation Katrina wreaked on New Orleans, and was intrigued by the prospect of rebuilding. He had never played before a crowd bigger than 500 in Europe, but in that '07 upset of N.C. State in Raleigh, he started and scored 12 points in front of 13,072 fans.

The Wolfpack, along with Rutgers and Tulane, have been trying to recruit him away for his senior season, but he's on the verge of completing a geography degree, has a girlfriend at UNO, and feels loyalty to the program, so he's pledged to stay until the end. "There's some sentiment every time I look around at the empty locker room," he says. "But life goes on. You have to move on."

Everyone else who played in the Privateers' past two tumultuous seasons (with final records of 11-19 and 8-22) has moved on -- literally. When Tyrna gives a tour of the Privateers' facilities to the campers, the remains of a team can be found in various lockers: a business card, smudged with fingerprints, from an assistant coach at Akron. (Small forward Quincy Diggs is suiting up for the Zips.) A laminated sheet of expectations for point guard Carl Blair, one of which reads, "Demand outlet!!!" (Blair will be playing for Oklahoma this season.) A handwritten letter addressed to Charles, with love, from his godmother. (Shooting guard Charles Carmouche, the Privateers' leading scorer in '08-09, is now at Memphis.)

It's quite strange, then, when Carmouche's godmother, Vanessa Papion, shows up to drop off the Cane's chicken fingers they've ordered for lunch, and then speaks to the campers' family members in UNO's game-film theater. I ask her the obvious question. Why are you here? Don't you hold a grudge? Papion says no; she was happy to volunteer. "This didn't just happen to the kids," she says. "It happened to Joe and his family and his plan for life, and his utmost concern was to make sure that everyone on his team and staff was taken care of at new schools [in the spring]. I thought, 'What a loyal man.' Because he could have beat everybody out the door."

***

As the camp closes, 29 days remain until the start of UNO's fall semester. Pasternack and Lewit convene privately that night to re-assess their '10-11 depth chart. Because of NCAA rules. they still can't opine to the media about prospects, but when the recruiting process is over, they'll recount a few moments from the meeting: Pasternack concluding that Canady could've played in the Sun Belt; Lewit saying, "I can't emphasize how important it is for us to get the Kinsleys"; Pasternack halting discussion to watch, with great reverence, an ESPNU segment of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- the most famous of Knight's acolytes -- conducting a Team USA practice in Las Vegas.

In the week that follows, Pasternack and Lewit woo their targets from the first two skills camps, then split up to travel to two more "availables" events on July 31, the final day of the summer evaluation period. Pasternack attends the George McClellan Invitational at a church near George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. At one point, play on the two courts is halted for 15 minutes when a mischievous child cuts the lights in the gym. Fewer than 10 coaches are present, and there may be only two or three D-I prospects. Pasternack will get one of the better ones, a Baytown, Texas, high-schooler named Andre Corley, to agree to attend another skills camp at UNO on Aug. 8. In Daytona Beach, Lewit's best find for the camp is Antonio Wertz, a 6-4 juco power forward who averaged 17.0 points last season at Denmark (S.C.) Tech. The UNO coaches are making progress, but when Pasternack speaks at an athletic department house on Aug. 4, he says -- truthfully -- that Tyrna is still the lone official member of the Privateers.

Before Pasternack can lock down a team, he has to lock down a staff. Lewit, a 41-year-old grinder who likes to say, "If you only work half a day, you're cheating yourself, and a day has 24 hours, so half is 12," has an offer to join a more stable situation at UT-Pan American, but accepts a promotion to associate head coach at UNO. There's no room in UNO's budget for further assistants, but Beshara opts to come on board in a voluntary role, as does Jesse Wukasch, a former D-III player at Belhaven who was recommended to Pasternack by Pastner.

Inevitably, some of UNO's conquests in its Summer of No Scholarships are unsuccessful. When I check in with Dorian Smith's father, he tells me that his son is taking the year off to get his academics in order. He apparently considered an offer from Savannah State, but wasn't interested in taking out the loans necessary to pay-for-play at UNO. Corley, the high-scorer at the Houston event, opts to attend North Lake College, a juco in Irving, Texas, with the intention of earning a D-I scholarship next season. In June and July, UNO's coaches had quietly reached out to some higher-profile transfers, such as ex-LSU point guard Bo Spencer and ex-USC power forward Leonard Washington, who both hail from Baton Rouge. But Spencer chooses Nebraska instead, and Washington settles on Wyoming.

The Privateers are forced to get creative with the key kids they're pursuing. Canady initially leans toward a D-II scholarship offer from Chowan University in Murfreesboro N.C., until he's presented with a way of paying in-state tuition at UNO: by majoring in Film Arts, which falls under an Academic Common Market agreement between Alabama and Louisiana. The cost and the distance -- just five hours away from his hometown of Montgomery, so his mother can drive to games -- are the right fit, and he commits to UNO on Aug. 9. (Another possible selling point: Canady could be eligible immediately at another D-I if he transfers out of UNO, so this could serve as a one-season audition. A recent Tweet of his reads, "I quietly want to get back in the SEC next year.")

Soon after, four of the junior-college recruits -- guards Knight, Roach and Kemp, and power forward Wertz -- all indicate they plan to attend UNO. Pasternack can't count them as Privateers, or even speak about them, though, until they're admitted and send in a tuition check. "When you need kids to pay," he says, "everything is uncertain." Even Pasternack's situation, for a few days, is unsure. On Aug. 16, he's announced as one of five finalists for the head-coaching job at University of Illinois-Chicago, which eventually hires Wisconsin assistant Howard Moore. Pasternack was also a finalist for the Columbia job this offseason. As strong as his loyalty to his hometown might be, the reality is that UNO can never be rebuilt into what it was in its heyday of 1993, when he was a kid watching Tim Floyd take the Privateers to the NCAA tournament.

Pasternack may be able to take solace in pulling off one coup this summer. On Aug. 10, Zach Kinsley calls and says he'll pass on full-ride offers in favor of playing with his brother, who's already been admitted to UNO. "The coaches really stayed on me," says Zach, who should be the team's offensive centerpiece at small forward. "They kept telling me that they needed me." He and Ryan, who's still waiting on his waiver from the NCAA, make plans to live together on their father's old campus, and do something he didn't get to 30 years ago: suit up for the Privateers.

"They took a roundabout way of getting here, but it was a no-brainer once they could play together," Fred says of his sons. "Zach doesn't have to be in the limelight. This can be just as gratifying. For them, UNO was the right place at the right time."

When class begins on Aug. 23, Pasternack passes along a headcount of new Privateers. "We started with one kid," he says, "and finished with 19." But he has yet to post a roster or schedule on the school's athletics website. Those will take time to finalize, so there is no time to relax. Few certainties exist anymore at UNO. He does, at least, have some players.

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