“I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’.” – Buckwheat Zydeco
I spent a few days in New Orleans recently for the Men’s College Basketball Final Four. My friend Chris had purchased two tickets when his name was selected in the annual lottery held for prospective buyers to the annual event. His friend that he just refers to as “Jones” was originally scheduled to attend with him, but Jones had to cancel shortly before the event so Chris called me and asked if I was interested.
Well it didn’t take much convincing. My wife told me I must go. It was New Orleans! You see, my father passed away in August of last year, but for a time in the early 60’s he was a larger-than-life figure in The Big Easy with a basketball in his hand. So I considered the kind gesture from Chris to fall somewhere between destiny and ordained.
“I’m walkin’ (driving) to New Orleans. I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.”
So Chris and myself made the 9+ hour drive to a city I hadn’t been in since 1987 with plans of basketball, gators, golf, and to explore a city where we would surely meet up with thousands of other college basketball fans alike, and ultimately a meeting with the spirit and memory of my father lay ahead as well.
As we arrived in the Crescent City shortly before dinner, we headed downtown in Chris’ car. One of the very first persons I saw from the vehicle was Coach Geoff Alexander. He is currently (the aforementioned) Brad Underwood’s assistant coach at the University of Illinois, but was also a two-year player that my father enjoyed coaching at Western Illinois University. He also spent two seasons as a graduate assistant on the WIU bench. He was crossing the street about four cars ahead of us so he didn’t see me, and I didn’t get out of the car to yell at him. Instead I texted him later on that evening, and told Chris who he was while we were sitting in the car at that stoplight on Poydras Street. And then I thought to myself how fitting that I saw him out of the thousands of people walking the streets just minutes after pulling into downtown New Orleans.
Chris and I attended the Final Four “Fanfest” the next morning. All of the sponsors put on their best sales game to attract the thousands who roamed the spacious New Orleans Convention Center that Saturday morning. Buick, Pizza Hut, Powerade – everywhere you turned was another basketball hoop or court and a game to play. There were also athletes and coaches in attendance. In fact, the two coaches I saw signing autographs that morning while we were there were Kentucky’s John Calipari and Texas’ Chris Beard. As a former college coach, my father had personal stories about each, and he reminded me of those stories as I walked by the long lines of fans waiting their turn to get an autograph or a picture with one of them. I watched for a few minutes and thought that someday when a better opportunity presents itself I will ask them both about those very stories from my father.
My father was a two-time All-American basketball player for the Tulane Green Wave in the early 60’s (still the only two-time All-American to play for the Green Wave). His name can still be found peppered throughout the Tulane record book. He is #10 on the all-time scoring chart (in three seasons with no three-point line) and still holds the record for a career scoring average at just over 22 ppg as well as the single-game scoring record of 45 points (20 fgs and 5 fts) vs. Southeastern Louisiana in 1961.
His passing was about eight months ago and his memory is still very fresh and relevant on a daily basis, but in New Orleans it seemed inordinately strong. He seemed to hover, to follow, and even lead me as I walked the campus where he once roamed, and through the streets of the French Quarter where he frequented as well.
On that trip in ’87, my father was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame. Created in 1971, plaques of 245 (through 2021) athletes and coaches hang on the wall of the club level located inside the Superdome where the Final Four games were played this year. I really don’t remember much of the induction ceremony from 1987. There are a few photos of us together from that night and that weekend, but I do recall at the dinner/induction ceremony then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown proceeded to talk with his neighbor at the table during nearly all of my father’s entire acceptance speech that night. He was seated at the head table just three or four chairs down from the podium where my father was speaking. It was rude and distracting, and I never cheered for a Dale Brown-led LSU team again.
As Chris and I walked along St. Peter’s Street following a New Orleans jazz funeral, I cast my eyes upon Pat O’Brien’s, a one-time speakeasy established by Mr. O’Brien during the prohibition days of the 1930’s. A proud and full-bloodied Irishman, I could feel my father’s footsteps next to me and his soft voice reminding me of his time during the early 60’s when he would enter the famous establishment upon which the local host would then loudly exclaim: “Ladies and gentlemen! Joining us in Pat O’Brien’s, our very own Tulane University Green Wave All-American, Jim Kerwin!” as a loud round of applause surely followed cascading into the next tune on the dueling pianos and into the next round of drinks for the patrons.
As we traversed the French Quarter amongst the throngs of college students drinking and swearing allegiance to one of the teams set to play at the Superdome later that day, I happened upon 500 Bourbon Street, the longtime home of Chris Owens’ Night Club. A solitary figure sat at the bar as I walked in and asked the bartender about any upcoming shows from the famous Owens, who had been a fixture in the French Quarter since 1956. He assured me Chris would be presiding on a float per usual at her 37th Annual Chris Owens’ Easter Day Parade just weeks away. I explained to him my Uncle Billy (my father’s brother and one-time Tulane track athlete now deceased) had befriended her and spent much time with her through the years, and how my father and mother had known and frequented Chris’ shows even taking me to one on that aforementioned trip in 1987.
Not overly impressed, the bartender was still kind enough to grab a business card and give it to me providing me with the contact information for her publicist and he thanked me for stopping in. I emailed her publicist later that night. I never received a reply (as of yet), but was surprised and saddened when I later found out that Chris passed away from a heart attack the same Tuesday we left New Orleans to head back home. Chris Owens, “The Queen of Bourbon Street,” and friend to many a Kerwin was 89.
How many times had he walked down Canal or Bourbon Street? How many times had he and his brother Billy walked through the hallowed doors of Chris Owens’ Night Club or sauntered into Pat O’Brien’s for a beer? How many plates of oysters had he consumed at Felix’s through the years? What about all of the famous musicians that had played for his ears and been seen through his eyes along the line of clubs in New Orleans? All of these questions peppered my brain for answers that it could not provide.
Tulane was also the “host school” for the Final Four this particular weekend so most of their staff and maintenance were appropriately busy I suppose. The old Tulane gym (renovated with name changes a few times since the 60’s and now known as Avron Fogelman Arena in Devlin Fieldhouse) was where my father scored all of those points so many years ago. Every door Chris and I tried was locked, and all of our phone calls went to voicemail save a lonely compliance officer who offered no help. But, as I peered through the glass front doors I could see a basketball goal and part of the basketball floor. I could see my father practicing… one dribble, two dribble, 15 foot pull-up jumper, swish. Hook shots in the lane… right-handed, then left-handed. Over and over and over again. I remembered the names – Dale Gott, Jack Ardon, Wayne Pearl, and Bob Davidson who had all played alongside my dad on some very average (if I’m being honest) Green Wave teams for Coach Cliff Wells. I still imagined the excitement of the crowd, the dads bringing their sons to the game, and the students packing in to see Jim Kerwin drop 41 on Ole Miss one night or 37 against an Adolph Rupp Kentucky team.
Everywhere I went his presence preceded me and his voice resonated within me. His footsteps kept pace with mine sometimes slowing down to follow me, at other times speeding up to race ahead of me eager to show me something else. It felt important that I was there. I could sense a purpose and a meaning for my time being there. It all felt a bit ordered and planned by something bigger than us all.
It felt like after 35 years of being away that I was there for a reason and for a time to do nothing more but to listen to his voice, and once again follow in my father’s footsteps.
“New Orleans is my home. New Orleans is where I’m going.”
I’d be remiss and the post would feel incomplete if I didn’t feature an appropriate song to end this post. My dad loved music, and I can still hear him singing the chorus to this song in his off-key Jersey accent. Written by Bobby Charles in 1960 and recorded originally by Fats Domino, here is a remake of Fats’ classic hit song. From his 1985 album, “Waiting For My Ya Ya,” this is legendary Louisiana native Stanley Dural Jr., better known as “Buckwheat Zydeco” with a 2011 live version of “Walking to New Orleans”…
Thanks for reading.
And, if you’re wondering about the gators – well, I didn’t really feel my father with Chris and I on the airboat down in the Bayou. All I really felt was an appreciation for nature and learned from Captain Lane that you “don gonna worry bout dem gators too much… its dem crocs that you gots to worry bout.” But here’s your complimentary gator pics for making it this far…