Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Augustin is a leading man of March and a mama's boy
By Pat Forde
Shortly before bedtime, the phone rings in the Houston home of Darryl and Vanessa Augustin.
It's D.J. calling. Every night.
The conversations are usually brief and banal: How was class, how was practice, how do you feel, here's what's going on at home, etc. But this is the vital small talk that keeps a family glued together -- and you won't find many families wound tighter to each other than the Augustins, survivors of biblical flood and forced relocation.
"We know we're going to get that call," Darryl says. "He knows we're waiting for that call. I have a lot of respect for him for that."
How many college sophomores call their parents nightly? Not many more than the number of current college basketball players who are first-team All-Americans and academic All-Americans.
There's only one D.J. Augustin.
He handles the ball for the 30-6 Texas Longhorns, leading them in scoring (19.2 points per game) and assists (5.8).
He handles the books, packing a 3.64 grade point average while majoring in education.
He has his mama on speed dial.
"He does not miss a night," Vanessa says. "Calls us before every game, too."
What more could a coach want from his point guard or parents want from their youngest child and only son? Would it be too greedy to ask for a national championship, too?
Hold the phone. We're about to find out.
|D.J. Augustin was the Robin to Kevin Durant's Batman last season, but he's the undisputed leader of this season's team.|
The next step in Texas' pursuit of a title is a Sweet 16 game against Stanford Friday night in Houston (7:27 ET). That's a serendipitous location for the Augustin family. It has been their home since Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina chased them from New Orleans.
For a few days, they thought at the time.
For good, it appears now.
Broken levees and bad geographic luck all but submerged the Gentilly neighborhood, the Augustin home included. They lost virtually everything, as did many of their relatives. Today, 16 members of the Augustin clan live in the Houston area, still trying to adapt to their new existence after a lifetime in the Big Easy.
"You miss it," Vanessa says. "It's just so different. You go home and it's just a little disheartening to see the places we had so much fun, and how different it is now. This is where we lived, and that's all gone now. The French Quarter is back and the Central Business District is back, but the people are not back.
"We have family even now who stayed there but are not in their homes. Some are living with other family members, some are still in FEMA trailers. I don't know if New Orleans will ever be what New Orleans was."
New Orleans was a place where D.J. won two state titles at Brother Martin High School, a place where he eagerly anticipated going after a third his senior year. That senior year was wiped out by the storm.
D.J. wasn't with the rest of his family when it returned to New Orleans shortly after the flood waters subsided to assess the damage. They were crushed by the totality of their loss.
"It was still fresh," says Darryl, a veterinary technician. "It was unbelievable. The stench, from dead bodies and dead animals, you could smell it as soon as you hit the city.
"This was our home, the city we grew up in. To drive through the city and pull up in front of our house and see it like that, it was tough.
"We got right back in the car and drove five hours back to Houston. We spent 10 hours on the road that day, a couple hours in the city. We tried to figure out what we could do. There really was nothing."
D.J., who didn't see it firsthand, had a hard time accepting that. He'd enrolled at Hightower High School in suburban Houston but still believed it was just a temporary thing. It wasn't until he returned to New Orleans a couple of months later that he understood.
"He needed to see it," Darryl says. "Once he saw that, his demeanor changed. He knew we weren't going back. We had to move on. I think it made him grow up. Moving to a new city and a new school at that age, it was going to make you or break you."
It helped make easier Augustin's decision to choose Texas over LSU, a call he made in November 2005. It helped him choose a new number for his senior season: 00, which stood for starting over. That's what he was doing as point guard of the ironically named Hightower Hurricanes.
And it certainly helped having family members around. Both his sisters relocated, as well as grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins -- all pulled into the orbit of Vanessa Augustin, the familial sun. Even Earl Augustin joined the new life, if not by choice.
The old New Orleans was not worth leaving for Earl, not even under threat of meteorological annihilation. D.J.'s grandfather was 84 years old at the time, and the family could not talk him into evacuating.
When the hurricane hit and turned out to be the worst possible scenario, the Augustins called a friend who worked for the New Orleans Police Department and asked him to check on Earl. He was rescued off his roof, transported to the Superdome and ultimately to the Astrodome in Houston -- but the family didn't know that. It was impossible to establish contact with Earl.
Darryl and his brothers ultimately went to the Astrodome and spent three days and nights there, doing nothing but searching for their father. They checked incoming buses, checked bulletin boards for messages, posted their phone numbers.
Finally, on the day they were ready to leave and go back to their families, they checked an adjacent building behind the dome. They walked in, looked around, and there he was.
"From that point we had everyone together," Darryl says. "It was a good day."
Every day is a togetherness day with the Augustins. There is no other way.
I'm more mature. Last year I was kind of just out there, trying to learn the game. I thought I knew what I was doing, but sometimes I didn't. This year I've gotten better at knowing when to do things.
If you know the way D.J. Augustin grew up, you're not surprised he makes that nightly phone call to mom and dad. It's just a natural extension of the family-first life he's always known.
Every day he came home from school, Vanessa gave him a snack and then sat him down to do his homework -- before he was allowed to shoot hoops. An elementary school teacher, she monitored his studies like an IRS auditor.
"She always kept on top of me," D.J. says. "I always knew if I didn't do my work, I couldn't go outside. I learned to put schoolwork first."
Every parent-teacher conference, every PTA meeting, the Augustins were there. Both of them. And not just for D.J., but for his older sisters, Mia and Greer, as well. As a teacher, Vanessa knew the importance of parental involvement at school.
And there was plenty of parental involvement in basketball as well. Every time D.J. played a youth basketball game, from kindergarten through high school, Darryl was there -- even the far-flung summer tournaments. When D.J. was younger, Darryl was the coach and Vanessa was wielding the video camera in the stands.
"My job was to video the games," she says. "On the ride home we'd talk about the games. Then we'd get home and watch the games."
The kid had revealed himself to be a hotshot by age 6. That's when he attended the camp of then-Tulane coach Perry Clark and found himself moved up to play against the older boys. Clark told D.J.'s parents that he was an exceptional talent.
A year later, D.J. led a team to the 8-and-under Biddy Ball national championship in Thibodaux, La., and the Augustins looked on in amusement as adults asked D.J. for his autograph.
"It's going to be worth something someday," one man said to Vanessa.
D.J. was a classic basketball junkie. He'd leave ball marks on the ceiling of his bedroom, lying in bed and practicing his shooting form, then he'd fall asleep with the ball. He rarely went anywhere without one.
Outside their Gentilly home, Darryl routinely played his son in one-on-one, instructing him and beating him at the same time. Even after D.J. came home from practice, they'd play for another hour together at home.
Finally, his freshman year at Brother Martin, D.J. told his dad, "I'm no longer the pupil."
"He was right," Darryl says. "It got to the point where I couldn't guard him anymore."
Augustin's growth curve continued up sharply until he was a McDonald's All-American. Then he spent last year as Sundance to Kevin Durant's Butch Cassidy at Texas. Now, as a sophomore, it's his continued evolution as a player that has somehow made losing the national Player of the Year a mere flesh wound.
"I'm more mature," D.J. says. "Last year I was kind of just out there, trying to learn the game. I thought I knew what I was doing, but sometimes I didn't. This year I've gotten better at knowing when to do things."
Says teammate Justin Mason: "He has the ball in his hands a lot, and he always seems to make the right decisions."
Part of that came from picking the brain of former Texas point-guard great T.J. Ford over the summer. And part of it came from spending time at Steve Nash's point guard camp, an invitation-only affair for collegians that's like going to acting camp with De Niro.
Whether it was part of the camp curriculum or not, Augustin learned during the offseason how to speak up. He's a fairly stoic guy, but he's confident enough now to drop his guard and push his teammates when they need it. There were times in preseason pickup games when he'd declare that the games were not done. Even when everyone else was ready to leave, he'd make them play a little longer.
"He definitely leads the team a lot better," says Connor Atchley. "Having that one year of maturity really helped him."
Today he has grown into one of the leading men of March. And where once adults were asking for a child's autograph, now the 20-year-old young man must oblige the children who look up to him.
|D.J. Augustin had 16 assists and just four turnovers in Texas' first two NCAA tournament wins.|
The kids at Lula Belle Goodman Elementary School in the Houston suburb of Fresno know that Mrs. Augustin teaches fourth-grade language arts. They also know who her son is. She doesn't talk about it much at school, but word gets around.
So she receives a steady stream of things for D.J. to sign, and notes written to him.
"I'll read the notes to him when he calls," Vanessa says. "I always read them if they ask me to."
She always has the opportunity to read them because D.J. always calls. Like a too-good-to-be-true son would.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.