Tulane women bring sports back to bayou

Nearly four months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city continues to slowly reopen.

Some hotels are back in business. The French Quarter is once again a destination. And the mayor is encouraging tourists to return.

Sunday will mark another milestone in New Orleans' recovery: big-time sports in the Crescent City.

The Saints turned into NFL nomads, the Hornets were displaced to Oklahoma City for the season and the Tulane football team played all its games on the road. So the privilege of bringing sports back to the bayou belongs to the Tulane women's basketball team. The Green Wave (3-1) host Central Connecticut State at Fogelman Arena on Sunday -- and fans will be admitted for free.

Assistant athletic director Donna Turner is anxious for the games to begin again.

"It will be another positive sign for the city," Turner said. "It shows people that things are coming back to New Orleans along with schools, hospitals and businesses. It's a time to start moving forward, and it will be much different than it was before."

Tulane coach Lisa Stockton says coaching the team for the last few months has been the most challenging thing she has ever done. Nothing in a coaching textbook could ever prepare her for it.

"We've managed to get through a difficult situation and come out of it OK," Stockton said. "The team is ready to get home and excited to see family and friends. We want to be on our home court again."

It will be far from a return to normalcy, but at least it will be a return home for the Green Wave. The women's basketball team has spent its fall semester 867 miles away in Lubbock, Texas. They've been attending classes at Texas Tech and practicing at the Lady Raider facilities.

"Most of the players went to Lubbock with very little after evacuating from New Orleans," Stockton said. "We've had so much non-basketball stuff to take care of. Fortunately, we've met some wonderful people at Texas Tech, and they will always be our friends for helping us out."

Texas Tech has had some tough times with its women's team this year as well. Heartbreaking losses and an injury to starter Chesley Dabbs have the Lady Raiders off to a slow start. But coach Marsha Sharp says having the Tulane team around has put things into perspective.

"We saw the Tulane coaches quite a bit and enjoyed our association with them," Sharp said. "We were impressed with how positive they all stayed. We understand how lucky we are here in Lubbock and how quickly things can change in your life. We have a ton of respect for what they have done and have used them as an example of how to handle adversity."

Handling adversity has become a way of life for Tulane sophomore Alendra Brown, who is from the hardest hit area of New Orleans. Brown and her family evacuated from their home in the Gentilly Woods section of the 9th Ward shortly before the hurricane hit.

They packed up whatever they could in their car and hit the road in the middle of the night. There isn't much left.

"My home was flooded and everything is gone," Brown said. "My parents are staying in New York, and nearly everything of mine was swept away. I'm a team captain and I have to be strong for the younger players. But it's been hard to stay focused when every little thing reminds you of home. I've cried a lot in the last few months."

Times are tough at Tulane. The school estimates Katrina inflicted more than $200 million dollars worth of damage. This month, president Scott Cowen announced cuts in the academic and athletic programs to help make up for the loss.

Tulane's football and basketball teams will be spared. But the opportunity to put on the Green Wave uniform will be lost for about 100 athletes in sports such as golf, tennis, soccer and swimming.

Athletic director Rick Dickson says all scholarships will still be honored for those student-athletes. The NCAA has ruled that Tulane transfers will not be required to sit out a season but rather will be instantly eligible to play next year.

Tulane is the largest private employer in the city of New Orleans. But layoffs are in the works for more than 200 faculty members, and the medical school is preparing for a significant cutback.

The basketball team will be staying at the medical school's apartments until classes resume in mid-January. Cleanup is underway at the James Wilson Center, which is the headquarters for all the coaches' offices and the athletic administrative offices.

Those offices were relatively unscathed on the Wilson Center's second and third floors. But the first floor was under several feet of water after the hurricane, wiping out the Tulane training room, equipment room, weight room and ticket office. The rebuilding has already begun.

Fogelman Arena, where the men's and women's basketball teams play, did not sustain major damage.

Still, Stockton knows her team isn't going back to the same New Orleans it left four months ago. Along with the floodwaters, real life and real problems broke through the levees in August. The game has become their refuge.

"This team is tremendously close because of this shared experience," Stockton said. "We have had so many distractions to deal with off the court. We have been in a different city, on a different campus and in different classes. The one thing we all recognized was the game. We came together every day in the gym. The basketball court was the only familiar thing in our lives."

Out of the tumult comes hope. New Orleans will never be the same. Tulane will never be the same. But the women's basketball players will have each other to see them through.

Baton Rouge native Jami Montagnino, another one of Tulane's captains, has seen firsthand how Katrina has brought people together. She spent several days after the hurricane taking care of evacuees at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU.

"My mom, my sister and me handed out supplies," said Montagnino, whose team plays at the PMAC on Dec. 20. "It was a humbling experience. It was crazy in Baton Rouge to see all those people with no place to go. I'm thankful that now at least our team has someplace to go, back to Fogelman Arena."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.