Pelicans coach Robert Pack brings mentoring program H.O.P.E. to New Orleans
Along with rapper Master P, he helps boys see a world beyond their neighborhoods
The middle-aged man with the clean-shaven head brought four adolescent boys to volunteer at one of the city’s tornado aid centers over the weekend. Barely acknowledging the Louisiana heat, they carried cases of bottled water, food and cleaning supplies to the cars of people who had lost either their electricity, their material possessions, their homes – or, sadly, all three – 10 days ago.
“Bless you, son,” a young woman told two of the boys before she drove away with her two infant children.
Trey Hand grabbed another case of bottled water, while Jalen Warren stopped for a moment to watch YouTube footage from 1994 on someone’s iPhone. The youngster recognized the face in that old crayon-colored Denver Nuggets uniform, levitating near the rim.
“Coach, that you?” he asked.
Robert Pack nodded proudly at the young man, one of a group of boys he and renowned rapper Master P are pushing toward a view of the world beyond the poorest areas of New Orleans.
NBA All-Star Weekend and Big Easy bacchanalia joined gaudy with glitterati the past four days, a stimulus overload of sound, scent, and clogged arteries of both cars and consumption.
The biggest stories, of course, were the ongoing breakup saga of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s bromance and the blockbuster Sunday night trade of DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Still, Pack, Master P and the kids were a better one.
Straight-up noon on Feb. 18, the sun is warming the asphalt in a church parking lot in East New Orleans, the NBA’s annual dunk contest just a few hours away downtown. Yet the greatest leaper the Bayou has known is grounded here, 10 miles and some 23 years away from the crescendo of the crowd.
The high-top box fade Pack rocked in 1994 is gone. So is the vertical leap that catapulted his 6-foot-2 frame skyward on the night he cuffed the basketball against his right forearm and threw it down with such malice that he nearly became the world’s greatest dunker.
Only something called the “East Bay Funk Dunk,” when Isaiah Rider passed the ball between his legs in midair before hammering the ball through for the title, topped Pack’s score in the 1994 dunk contest.
“What matters is, here in New Orleans everybody thought I won,” Pack says now, laughing.
He parlayed his 13-year playing career into coaching, returning to his hometown in the summer of 2015 as an assistant coach for the Pelicans. Among other duties, he helped develop Anthony Davis into Sunday night’s All-Star Game MVP.
Pack also reconnected with Percy Miller – aka Master P – his former AAU teammate from the 1980s, a man who also had designs on helping to nurture and guide young men in New Orleans.
The two launched Team H.O.P.E. Nola in November 2016 with one mission: take 20 at-risk boys between the ages of 12 and 15 from four local schools and impress upon them that there’s a larger world waiting for them out there.
“It’s not about where you’re at, it’s about where you’re going to go,” Miller told the kids during the program’s first week. “Don’t be afraid to say no to negative things. That’s why we’re here right now. We weren’t afraid. We had a lot of people who we thought were on our team who are probably dead or in prison. But we decided to do the right thing. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing.”
The boys in the program were identified by counselors, social workers, teachers and coaches at their schools. Pack and Miller fund the program, with some help from local companies that donate their services. The staff is all volunteers. Team H.O.P.E. NOLA is also one of several programs under the Robert Pack Foundation, which was created 20 years ago. Its annual budget of $150,000 isn’t grand, but Tracy Pack-White, the executive director and Pack’s older sister, and Toni Charles, the administrative assistant, plan activities with the help of board members.
They lean toward experiences in which the young men can connect with their roots. In December 2016, for instance, many of the Team H.O.P.E. boys piled on a bus bound for Selma, Alabama, more than two hours away.
“I felt like part of my history was right there in front of me,” said Ahmad Waterhouse Jr., 14, who along with more than a half-dozen of the kids attends Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the Lower 9th Ward. “It made me realize I could do more for others.”
Last week, they went to a French Quarter theater for a private screening of The First To Do It, a new documentary financed by Carmelo Anthony and Kawhi Leonard about Earl Lloyd, the first black player to break pro basketball’s color barrier.
Miller spends much of his time in Los Angeles, where he has a home and a flourishing music career. But the boys and Pack meet at least twice a month, sometimes to talk and support each other, sometimes for a social occasion. Other times they participate in a day of service, anything, Pack said, “to keep them busy and make them feel part of something larger.”
Pack, who grew up in the Lower 9th Ward himself, knows too well how much that means to a young teen.
The neighborhood, predominantly black and impoverished, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Most of the kids from Team H.O.P.E. NOLA were only a few years old then, so all they really know of Katrina are stories from family and Spike Lee’s searing documentary, When the Levees Broke.
But when another natural disaster hit two weeks ago, the precariousness of where they live was driven home anew.
On Feb. 18, Pack brought Ahmad, Collin Smith, Warren and Trey to join Citi Church’s I-Care volunteers help some of the tornado’s victims. Trey is Pack’s surrogate nephew, the son of former Saints defensive tackle Norman Hand, who died of heart disease at age 37 in 2010, when Trey was just 6.
“They’re all good kids – they just need that little push and to be told they can,” Pack said.
“Team H.O.P.E. for me is about helping someone that doesn’t have what you have,” Trey, 13, said.
In the church lot off Interstate 10, the boys packed the mud-caked vehicles of dozens of East New Orleans residents, whose houses were severely damaged or destroyed by the Feb. 8 tornado. The EF-3 twister, with winds up to 165 mph, injured 33 people and decimated many more homes and lives.
Though Team H.O.P.E. NOLA is designed to be a three- to four-year program, Pack said they plan to track every young man who goes through it to ensure he remains on a path of purpose and progress.
Asked why he’s focusing on 12- to 15-year-olds, he replied, “The age I’m helping these young men is the age where opportunities present themselves for you to go in different directions.”
Lord, Pack knows how easy it is to kill time – and what you might never become – growing up in the Lower 9th.
He was 15 years old, he remembers, swapping punches with another kid in the neighborhood, on the corner of Law and Charbonnet streets. Then that kid ran into the house and grabbed his grandfather’s revolver.
From two feet away, Pack eyed the barrel of that gun, barely breathing, waiting in terror for the bullet to enter his skull.
Until a man who happened to be cleaning his immaculate yard on the corner began yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Don’t shoot that kid!!! Don’t shoot that kid!!!”
The man’s grandfather joined in from the porch, yelling at the young man not to pull the trigger. After several moments, the kid put the gun down and Robert ran away – alive.
“All I could do was look right down the barrel, not knowing what was gonna happen,” he recalled. “Every time I think about it, it just brings me back to that moment.”
Families intervened on both sides to ensure there would be no retaliation. Pack said he didn’t exactly understand the terms “emotional intelligence” and “conflict resolution” then, but that he began to slowly learn over time that there were better ways to resolve problems than with violence.
“Things like that weighed heavy on my mind to get out of the situation and do things the right way, to give myself a chance to be successful,” he said.
“That was a moment when my life could have been over. So when I work with these kids and I see them at that age and I know the things out here in the streets that can make them go in the wrong direction.”
He doesn’t remember the man’s name, and the well-kept yard and house are gone, destroyed by Katrina.
“I just remember he was the kind of man whose gate you didn’t jump to go get your ball. He loved that yard. You politely went to his door and asked nicely for your ball back. I have no idea if he’s alive or where he is. Katrina displaced so many people. But if I ever see him again, I’m just going to hug him so tight,” he said.
Pack paused for a few seconds to gather himself, the symmetry not lost on him. That man saved him, just as he’s trying to save these kids.
More cars pull up at Citi Church, including a man named Albert Thomas and his girlfriend in a weathered pickup. The roof was torn off his home, which led to it being condemned. He thanked the boys and other volunteers for helping him.
The acronym for H.O.P.E. is Helping Our Players Excel, but that hardly does the foundation justice.
What it’s really about is a 15-year-old kid in the late 1980s who was given a second chance, now ensuring that he lets every adolescent boy he and Miller work with know there is so much more out there for them — if they can just leap and grab it the way Pack did.