Assist, Avery

Diminutive Mavs coach gives New Orleans evacuees a huge lift

Who dat?

Back in 1987 it was the catchy Cajun battle cry of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But last week outside Reunion Arena it was just one of the hundreds of questions from the thousands of evacuees.

Is my family alive? How do I get food? Where am I going to live?

Who dat man huggin' everybody?

"How is he making people smile?" asked 15-year-old New Orleans native Darniqua James, grasping for any answers in the wake of a Hurricane Katrina disaster that turned Reunion into her temporary shelter and, likely, Dallas into her permanent home. "Is he somebody?"

Yeah, Avery Johnson is somebody.

Somebody who survived a childhood in a New Orleans housing project. Somebody who lasted 16 years in the NBA despite standing only 5-foot-11. Somebody who suffered sleepless nights distraught about family members displaced by the hurricane.

Somebody who coached the Dallas Mavericks into the playoffs. Somebody perfect for leading strangers back into society.

"He's wonderful," said Reunion tenant Dorothy Barney. "Avery's one of us. He knows what it means to be from New Orleans. To have him here...it lets us know we're not alone."

Watching Johnson deliver hugs and help to people still coaxing themselves to breathe was a refreshing reminder that, hell yes, sports matter. After 9/11, the World Series at Yankee Stadium helped New York dust itself off. And now, flooded by the most epic natural disaster in American history, something as simple as a Saints victory or as shallow as a handshake from a hero is providing victims with psychological life rafts, keeping hope afloat.

You hear photo-op politicians decry sports as "obscenely inconsequential," and it makes you madder than Al Hrabosky. When FEMA is itself a disaster and when the federal government points fingers instead of providing aid, sports score. The Rangers are giving free tickets to Katrina victims. The Stars donated $25,000 to DISD. Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe pledged $2,500 for each touchdown pass this season.

And then there's Avery.

The Little General with the charismatic grin, dancing eyes and evangelist's drawl lit up evacuees who for days went without electricity. Like Oprah--only smaller and more sincere--he went inside a shelter and lifted Reunion's spirits.

"It's not like anything you see on TV," the normally giddy Johnson said glumly. "It's much, much worse. I'm just trying to provide some light to a very dark situation."

Outside, he shook hands, signed autographs, hugged strangers--and bit his tongue.

Avery, are you angered by the lack of expedited help sent to the people of New Orleans?

"Yes. But I don't want to go that route, because you may have to start bleeping me," he said. "It's very frustrating when you have resources, but you're in a powerless state. Your name doesn't matter. Your hook-ups, your connections. You can't do anything. Can't help your family or friends. It was very discouraging. Let's leave it at that."

Johnson isn't a victim himself, but he certainly felt Katrina's far-reaching wrath. Two of his sisters and a brother were unable to evacuate and became trapped when the levee broke. While they clung to life in attics and on rooftops, Avery, too, spent restless nights. Worrying. Wailing.

"You sit and watch TV and see the water...you hear nothing from no one," he said.

After four days, Johnson's siblings were rescued from rooftops via helicopter. Later they were flown to Fort Chaffee in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then dispersed to a small church camp where they received food, shelter and, finally, the use of a telephone.

"You can't imagine the emotions," Johnson said. "They had just spent almost a week on a roof, and I had worried that I'd never see them again."

With his family safe and now living with relatives in Corpus Christi, Johnson turned to helping the rest of his extended kinfolk--New Orleans.

"For most of my life, it's all I ever knew," says Johnson, an ordained pastor at severely damaged Antioch Baptist Church. "What's happening just breaks your heart. You pray, and you try to do what you can to help."

Bottom line: Avery relates to the refugees. Because he knows about setbacks, roadblocks and irrationally long odds.

Born into the Lafitte Housing Project a mile from the French Quarter in 1965, Johnson grew up in an environment where crime and drugs were rampant, fathers were a luxury and messages sometimes came with a sting. Peering over the dash of his dad's Mercury Marquis as a 10-year-old, Avery proudly blurted out, "When I grow up I want to be just like you." The resulting tough love--and bloody lip from his father's hand--was a stern statement: No, son, you'll be better than me.

As it turns out, Avery is a bowl of Bourbon Street gumbo--initially unappealing, ultimately extraordinary.

At 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, Johnson led St. Augustine High School to a state championship. But his exploits did little to attract recruiters, and his college path meandered from tiny schools in New Mexico and Oklahoma to Baton Rouge's Southern University. There he led the NCAA in assists as a senior and met his future wife, Cassandra, but again, he failed to impress the next level.

Rejected as too small, Johnson went undrafted by the NBA in '88. He started his pro career in the United States Basketball League and eventually signed with the Seattle SuperSonics, only to change teams six times in his first six NBA seasons. In 1990 he was cut on Christmas Eve--by the San Antonio Spurs, the same team he would lead to a championship in 1999 by hitting the title-clinching baseline jumper in New York.

In an underdog career that made a late stop in Dallas, Avery elevated his performance with passion and persistence in a league dominated by 7-footers. Goofballs like Dennis Rodman listened to his guidance, and NBA general managers coveted his coaching acumen.

You get the feeling Johnson will be shepherding two teams this season--the Mavericks and the Evacuees.

"These people survived for a reason," said Avery, who coached a team of NBA stars in a benefit game last weekend in Houston. "They've got a chance to recover and become an asset. But they're still going to need help. After the cameras are gone. After the charity drives have stopped. When it's 18 months from now."

And who is it that will still be dishing out the assists? Avery Johnson.

Dat's who.

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