By Sean Deveney, SportingNews
Until a decade ago, the history of hurricanes in New Orleans had been one of near-misses and good fortune, strokes of luck preserving a water-surrounded city that rests almost entirely below sea level. Hurricane Betsy brought 10-foot storm surges in 1965, flooding most of the city, killing 76 people and causing more than $1 billion in damages. But in the four decades after, many a hurricane — Camille, Juan, Andrew, Georges — ravaged the region but not the Crescent City.
So it was somewhat strange when, 10 years ago this week, Kelly Oubre Sr. had a notion that something was going to be different about the new storm threatening New Orleans, his hometown. New Orleans’ fortune with dodging hurricanes had metastasized into a complacency within the city, many locals rolling their eyes at suggestions of evacuation and politicians shrugging off dealing with faulty levees until some other day. When he saw reports about Hurricane Katrina, though, Oubre perked up. This, he thought, was not something to take lightly.
But Oubre had just moved into a new house with his son, Kelly Oubre Jr., who was 9 years old. No matter. Pack your stuff up, he told his son. Pack everything. We have to get out of here, the father told his son.
Kelly Jr. did not quite know what was going on. His parents were separated, but he was still close with his mother and with his two half-siblings who lived with her. Now, his dad was telling him he was leaving because there was a hurricane coming.
Where? How long? Hurricane? What’s a hurricane?
The two packed, settled into the car and nudged through traffic before finally getting to a stretch of open road, heading west on Interstate 10. Kelly Jr. did not — could not, really — understand what was happening, could not understand that his father was leaving behind not just the prospect of a devastating storm, but also his job, his home, his friends, his family.
But if Kelly Sr. was scared, he did not betray that fear to his son. Kelly Jr. fell asleep in the car. “I woke up and we were in Houston in the morning,” Kelly Jr. recalled.
Once there, as the Oubres looked for a bite to eat and a hotel room in which to stay, it seemed that every television was tuned to live reports coming from the city they’d just left. All eyes were on New Orleans. “We watched the news the next morning and it was crazy,” Oubre said. “There was flooding. There were bodies in the water.”
After a sometimes rocky freshman year at Kansas, Oubre was the 15th pick in this year’s NBA draft, taken by the Wizards after they were able to work out a deal with the Hawks. Oubre was high on the board of several lottery teams, including the Hornets at No. 9 and Heat at No. 10, but when he slipped into the teens, there was a clamor from teams to move up and grab him.
Boston likely would have taken him at No. 16, a source said, and once the Celtics failed to get Charlotte’s pick, they tried to move up for Oubre. Several other teams had interest, and a source told Sporting News that the Rockets (with the 18th pick) were trying to move up, too. But it wasn’t until Oubre’s agent, Nima Namakian, got a text message from Wizards vice president Tommy Sheppard on draft night, telling him that the Hawks had agreed to a deal, that Oubre finally knew how his situation would pan out.
That night, in a conference call, Oubre came off as cocky, telling reporters, “A lot of guys that went in front of me, I know I’m better than.” In fact, he’s consistently said he belongs among the top tier of his draft class. In Chicago for the pre-draft combine in May, Oubre said, “I feel like I am the best player in this draft. I mean, don’t take that too far. There are a lot of great players. But I just feel that I am one of the best rookies.”
The roots of that self-confidence can be found in that trip from New Orleans to Houston that Oubre and his father took a decade ago, and what happened in the months and years after. Both Oubre and his dad had to learn to become survivors. And so there was a series of dilapidated hotel rooms in Houston. There were long stretches of unemployment for Kelly Sr., mixed with stretches working two jobs in order to support his son. There was the difficulty of finding a school for Kelly Jr. But through it all, there was something that the son learned from the father.
“We were living in hotels,” Kelly Jr. said. “We moved here and there and over and over. We would spend a night in the car sometimes. My dad didn’t have a job. We were moving around, it was not an easy time for us. Chaos, it was chaos.
“Now that I am older, I can look back and it is like, wow, we handled it well. You don’t understand what is happening when it is happening, when you are a kid. But now that I can look back, I am always surprised that my dad kept us going and kept me positive through all that. My dad showed me how strong he was in that situation. That’s why I am where I am today. I saw what a true soldier looks like.”
If Oubre carries himself like a guy who just knows he is going to make it, he said, it’s because he’s already made it through so much. “I faced a lot of adversity already,” he said, smiling. “I can get through a lot of things. Remember, we were homeless, basically, for a few months.”
Oubre still had his struggles during his season at Kansas. He arrived in Lawrence as the successor to Andrew Wiggins, coming on a wave of hype from Nevada’s Findlay Prep, expected to be among the first few players drafted. But Oubre found Jayhawks coach Bill Self was not overly impressed with his high-school résumé. He wanted more out of Oubre, especially on the defensive end, where Oubre’s lateral quickness and long arms should have made him an imposing stopper. Instead, he was a half-hearted defender, saw limited minutes in his first nine games and suffered the scorn of NBA scouts and personnel evaluators.
It was difficult to see players he’d known well and played with — such as Emmanuel Mudiay, Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson — solidify themselves at Top 10 draft picks while he languished. In hindsight, though, Oubre sees how right Self was.
“When I was sitting on the bench, it was my own doing,” he said. “It was not because someone was slighting me or had hatred toward me. It was not because my coach was being unfair. It was me. As I continued to watch the guys I came up with, the other top recruits, I watched them have success and I thought, ‘No more of this for me.’ I tried to turn it up a notch, I sat with coach and wanted to know what he needed from me. It got better from there.”
Oubre averaged 3.4 points on 34.8 percent shooting in his first nine games at Kansas. He averaged 11.2 points on 45.3 percent shooting thereafter. Since leaving Kansas, Oubre has been making tweaks to his game, trying to improve himself physically and working on the details of his shot. He is cerebral about his stroke—talk to him about the art of shooting, and he will marvel at the drop-angle achieved by Steph Curry, the need to get the ball lined up perfectly in his left eye, the importance of steadying his hips. He has, he said, lowered his shooting pocket. “I was a good shooter before,” Oubre said, “but I think I can be a great shooter if I keep working on the changes I have made.”
He’s also serious about putting in the work needed to make those changes. When his agency, BDA Sports, set up workout plans in Santa Barbara for rookie clients this spring, Oubre was the first to report.
Namakian said that the more you get to know Oubre, the more obvious it becomes where his approach comes from. “It’s his dad,” Namakian said. “Kelly is very fortunate, his father sacrificed everything for his kid but at the same time, he has encouraged him to grow up and be his own man. His dad has this perfect balance of being hands-on with his son, but also allowing him the space to be independent. He gets a lot of that confidence that you see straight from his dad.”
What’s left behind
It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina flooded the streets of New Orleans. Nearly 1,000 city residents died in connection with the storm, and the financial damage of $135 billion is staggering. It’s estimated that as many as 250,000 people from the Gulf region packed up and moved to Houston, and in that regard, the story of the Oubres is far from unique. For many who left the city, Houston became a welcoming and gracious host, a city to be proudly called their own, even on an adopted basis. But for most, New Orleans remains home.
“I lived in Houston longer,” Oubre said, “but I will always call New Orleans mine. It is my home, it is my heart. My grandma, my mother are in New Orleans, my brother, my sister. Pretty much everyone I love and care about. My dad and I went to Houston, we were basically alone, we did not have any people there. So New Orleans, that’s still home to me. That city raised me.”
In the absence of that city, Oubre turned to his dad. It wasn’t easy — nothing is easy when you’re a 9-year-old pulled away from everything familiar to you in life. Oubre had to put a lot of faith into his father, but maybe the most telling aspect of his journey is that, at the time, it all seemed so normal. His dad’s greatest success in the wake of Katrina might have been preventing his son from understanding the difficulty of their situation. It is only now, as he becomes a man himself, that Oubre realizes how extraordinary that time was.
“At 9 years old, I really didn’t even think about it, I didn’t think about not ever going back to my home city,” Kelly Jr. said. “You have friends, you have your people, you know? I thought I was going to go back from the day we left. Finally, when my dad told me we weren’t going to go back, I was shocked. But I was 9. It is hard to process that. My dad knew I was upset, but he said to me, ‘Please stick with me on this, son, I have your best interests at heart.’ When your dad says that, it means a lot. He made me feel comfortable. He was trying very hard. I knew that. I was going to stick with my dad no matter what.”
That transition will make his next transition a little easier. In about 10 weeks, Oubre will take the court for his first NBA game. He might struggle to get minutes on the wing behind veterans Alan Anderson and Gary Neal and budding youngsters Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, who were each No. 3 draft picks in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He understands that.
But he will take it in stride, he said, wait his turn. “I know my opportunity is going to come,” Oubre said. “If it does not happen right away, that is all right. I was Top 5 when I stepped on campus at Kansas. Then I went through what I went through. I dropped pretty bad, a lot of people lost faith in me. I never lost faith in myself. I was just playing the game of basketball, it gives me motivation. A lot of people say I am going to be a bust, I should have stayed another year in college and I hear all of that. But it’s all motivation for me. I will get my chance.”
In retrospect, he’s grateful to have this NBA opportunity at all. It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, but more than ever, he understands how the storm changed his life. It tore apart his family and separated him from his friends. But he recognizes the ways it helped him, too.
“It allowed me to be where I am at today,” Oubre said. “I would not be who I am without the things me and my father had to do.”