I’ve carried on a lifelong love affair with New Orleans, and at least part of it has to do with Ledell Eackles.
It’s also been inspired by a love of jazz and an affinity with cocktail culture and proximity to the Mississippi, but the barrel-chested baller from the University of New Orleans played a role that can’t be discounted.
As I documented with some degree of therapeutic detail at the season’s outset, the Street and Smith Basketball Annuals were my constant companions as a kid. And at the same time I was digging into Tom Sawyer and my uncle’s old Al Hirt records, they introduced me to Ledell Eackles: a guard with a name I couldn’t pronounce, who’d transferred from a 37-0 juco team to a D1 school whose nickname I had to look up in Webster’s. The UNO Privateers played teams called Lamar and Pan American. They had a loquacious coach named Benny Dees; they’d been exiled from the Sun Belt in 1980 and reached the ’87 NCAA tournament as an independent; they looked cool, especially in their ahead-of-their-time home grays. I was an instant fan.
In 1993, I won a set of round-trip Amtrak tickets. I’m pretty sure I’m the only 14-year-old whose dream itinerary was on the City of New Orleans.
By then, the Privateers, who’d only started basketball in 1969, had been through their program’s first defining moments. And in 1987-’88, the year after knocking off Brigham Young for the school’s first tournament win, they joined with six other schools and formed the American South Conference. Four years later, the conference would merge with UNO’s original D1 home, the Sun Belt, leaving the ASC as an agate-type footnote in the story of our game.