By MARY FOSTER
The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. – At a time when people are still cleaning up from hurricanes and travel trailers serve as luxury housing, the talk has turned from rebuilding to rebounding.
Thanks to LSU basketball, where the men’s and women’s teams are both in the Final Four.
“I just wanted to tell the team that what they’re doing is really uplifting Louisiana,” said Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who met with the men’s team Monday. “We’ve been through a lot of really difficult and dark days. We all need some relief, and the spirit that they project has given us a real lift.”
For southern Louisiana the climb back from the hurricane destruction remains a long one. New Orleans has only half its pre-Katrina population. Giant stretches of the city remain filled with empty, wrecked houses.
In southwest Louisiana, where Rita ripped through a month after Katrina, the cleanup continues slowly, with much of the population still scattered and rebuilding still questionable in many areas.
Baton Rouge, about 70 miles northwest of New Orleans, did not get hit as much as spots farther south. The storms, however, still affected the city and LSU.
The Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where the teams play, was turned into a triage for the sickest of the evacuees from the New Orleans area.
“From my office I could see the helicopters landing on the track and taking off all day,” women’s coach Pokey Chatman said. “You knew every time it was someone who was really sick.”
Chatman had close to a dozen people living with her following Katrina. So did her mother. So did many of her players. So did many of coach John Brady’s players.
“We still have two people living in my parent’s house,” guard Garrett Temple said.
Only six other schools have sent their men’s and women’s teams to the Final Four at the same time, and none from the Southeastern Conference.
“I think that’s the tremendous part of the value of athletics,” Blanco said. “In this day and time, we don’t take anything for granted. Anything that feels or looks like normal is cherished and we hang on to it, because we know how easy it can slip away from us.”
Both teams found plenty of support on the road this season from Louisiana residents scattered across the nation by the hurricanes.
“It was amazing,” Temple said. “People everywhere would see us wearing our colors and come up telling us how much they missed home. Everyone wanted to talk, to wish us well.”
Both teams are happy to supply a shot of inspiration for the storm-weary state. They say they have drawn plenty from what they saw.
Glen “Big Baby” Davis and teammates spent time helping the sick people housed at LSU and later assisted in with rebuilding.
“It gave me a sense of purpose,” Davis said. “What I’m basically here for on this earth is to impact little kids and other people through the game of basketball with my personality. It just made me realize how important projecting a positive image to people who are down and out can be and to give them a sense of hope.”