UNO basketball treats Hurricane Isaac as a bonding experience

When University of New Orleans basketball coach Mark Slessinger informed his players they needed to evacuate the city Monday before Hurricane Isaac hit land the next night, he did it with trademark optimism.

"I told them we live in the greatest city in America," Slessinger recalled late Wednesday night. "You can't have paradise 52 weeks out of the year. You have to have a little bit of inconvenience."

Thankfully for a UNO athletic department still trying to find firm footing seven years after Katrina, Hurricane Isaac indeed turned out to be more of a minor hassle than a crippling setback.

UNO's Lakefront Arena, so battered after Katrina that it closed for nearly three years, weathered Isaac with no water damage. The athletic department building that houses the student-athlete computer lab also seems fine. In fact, aside from a wind-ravaged scoreboard at the school's baseball field and a few downed fences at the baseball field and tennis center, none of UNO's athletic facilities appear to be any worse for wear.

"We were really blessed we didn't have any major problems," Slessinger said. "We had some wind damage, but everything was dry. That was the biggest thing."

The lack of damage was a huge relief for UNO athletic officials because the school has yet to fully recover from the financial strain Katrina caused.

A crippling drop in enrollment, massive state budget cuts and insufficient fundraising efforts plunged UNO athletics into a $5 million debt after the storm, prompting the school's former chancellor to recommend moving from Division I to a lower level. Only after a change in leadership last December did UNO reverse course and opt to return to Division I instead.

Isaac was a less powerful storm than Katrina, so UNO officials were cautiously optimistic heading into the week that damage to their facilities would be minimal. As a precaution, however, students were evacuated on Monday afternoon to Millsap College in Jackson, Miss.

Slessinger remained behind at his home near UNO's lakefront campus to assist campus police and keep an eye on the athletic department facilities, but he sees some positives in the experience for his players.

They'll bond from spending the past few days together in Jackson. They were able to lift weights, condition and play pickup games as they normally would. And when they return to New Orleans, Slessinger hopes they'll be able to participate in some service projects to assist those whose businesses or homes were damaged.

"In the end, it will really be a positive for our team," Slessinger said. "I'm anxious for them to get back to campus as soon as they can and I'm anxious to be able to help some people who need it. I'm trying to use it as a teaching point so we can get something out of it on both sides."

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