Driving past homeless families huddled under tents to protect them from the rain, past boarded-up schools and homes that have long since been abandoned and past broken down trailers with graffiti scrawled on them, New Orleans' not-so-distant past still clearly lives on in its present predicament.
Sitting in the back of a bus of NBA all-stars on their way to help refurbish a local school, David West puts his head down after gazing out of his window at "Tent City," a pocket of more than 200 homeless New Orleans residents that live in tents under the I-10 overpass on the corner of Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue West has spent countless hours in the area, but it's a sight he can never get used to.
"This is something we see on a regular basis," says West, as the once-boisterous bus becomes silent as the players look at the surreal images outside the rain-soaked window. "We may have gone 15 minutes away from the hotel, but there are situations like that all over the city. There are people still living in tents under freeways."
There is a hint of anger and embarrassment mixed in with the frustration in West's voice as the bus drives past "Tent City" and abandoned homes that have left hundreds of families in New Orleans homeless since Hurricane Katrina struck the area nearly three years ago.
"I can't believe something like that can exist in this country," says West. "As powerful as this nation is and as much resources and influence as we have, you can't believe that you have something like that right in the heart of one of the most popular cities for everyone to see. I talked to Chris [Paul] this morning because I drove through 'Tent City' last night, and it was the first time I had seen it in a week since we were on the road. I was with my wife, and it got to us; and I said we have to do something. We need to fix this. I just can't let this go on. It's something that leaves an uneasy feeling with me. I don't know what, but we need to figure out what we can do to help."
West, making his first All-Star appearance since being taken by New Orleans in the first round of the 2003 draft, has done his part, volunteering his time at local schools, libraries and hospitals once a week during the season and more regularly during the off-season. Despite his best efforts, however, there is a sense of helplessness each time he donates his time. No matter how much he does, he always sees more families in need of homes, more people in need of food and more children in need of schools just a few miles away.
"Back around the holiday, we gave out complete Thanksgiving meals; not just birds, but yams, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, you name it, and it wasn't enough," says West. "I remember when we finished, me and a few guys on the team who were helping out looked at each other and were like, 'We could go four blocks away and give out 400 more meals and that still wouldn't be enough.' There's always more that you can do. It's hard because you want to help everyone. It's a grind for these people every single day, every single hour. Every day is about survival."
As rain pours down on Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, a local grade school damaged by flooding during Katrina, West helps construct a basketball court in the playground; drilling a pole for the hoop into the black cement pavement as kids in parkas gather around him to watch. The 27-year-old takes on almost a fatherly role as he tells one kid to put on a parka before he catches a cold and teases another one for wearing shorts outside. For West, dealing with the children of New Orleans has been the most difficult and rewarding part of his volunteer efforts since Katrina.
"A lot of kids in this area are forgotten. People don't realize that," says West. "It's one thing when adults have to go through certain things, but these kids are going to have to deal with the lingering effects of Katrina and the aftermath and living in the situation that they're in for a long time. These kids have their entire lives ahead of them and they've already had to deal with things that some of us will never have to deal with in our adult lives."
While most kids are wide-eyed when they meet an athlete, simply wanting their autograph or a picture, the kids at Capdau, many of whom have had to relocate and still don't have a permanent home, are looking for more when they meet a player like West. They're looking for hope. Someone to tell them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel they're currently in.
"There are some kids that you meet that don't have hope or the hope that things will get better," says West. "One kid asked, 'Do you think if you went through something like Katrina at my age that you would have been able to get to where you are today?' Obviously I have to answer yes, but that's a tough question to think about -- especially for a 12-year-old. A lot of kids in this area don't think that certain things are possible with the environment they live in and the feelings that they have about themselves."
The Hornets, through the first half of the NBA season, have tried to give the people of New Orleans hope and something to be proud of, as their 36-15 record currently stands as the best in the Western Conference. Yet despite their record and having a pair of all-star players in Paul and West, the Hornets have the second-lowest average attendance in the NBA. While most players would be imploring fans to come out and support the team, West and his teammates have had to struggle with making such demands on their financially strapped fan-base.
"We knew we were going to deal with certain difficulties in terms of attendance when we came back," says West. "We were all wondering when we came back whether it was enough time for people here to set aside a number of dollars to support the team, because this is a business at the end of the day. We were all questioning if it was ethically right or even morally right to tell people to come out and pay 48 bucks for a ticket when it might not be in the best interest of them and their family financially. But we understand we are here for a certain purpose, and that is to give the people of New Orleans something to feel good about."
After helping install a brand new basketball court at the school, West got back on the bus to return to the team hotel with many of his fellow all-stars that helped volunteer at the school during the NBA's All-Star Day of Service including Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Yao Ming, who said he was, "shocked and sad" when he saw how much help the city still needed. It was a feeling West hoped the players wouldn't forget about after this weekend.
"We're fortunate enough to go back to our homes and our hotels, but this is the reality that people live with on a daily basis here and I hope everyone remembers that," says West. "In other cities, you have an opportunity to escape and just go back to your little community, but here you are always one block from an area that reminds you of where you are and that's there's a need. There's never an opportunity for you to forget that here. My hope is that people see that, and once they leave they don't forget."