Battling Back

BATON ROUGE, La. -- I thought Pensacola had been hammered after I got an aerial view of the Gulf Coast town a couple of weeks after Hurricane Ivan had ravaged the area. Truth is, it was.

But Pensacola's natural disaster pales in comparison to what the Mississippi Gulf Coast and southern Louisiana endured from the double blows of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last fall.

I was expecting to see glimpses of Mother Nature's wrath on the drive down I-59 to Baton Rouge on Friday, and oh, brother, what a scene.

The signs of devastation start just north of Hattiesburg, which was hammered badly as Katrina ripped through. The stands of snapped-off pines lining the interstate looked every bit as twisted and smashed as the forests on that stretch of I-10 between Mobile and Pensacola did after Ivan.

You keep going south and see more evidence of the power of a hurricane: twisted metal on road signs, blue tarps on roofs everywhere, piles of trees and debris, a shut-down Louisiana welcome center, wholesale stretches of woods blown apart.

And you realize as you pull into the outskirts of Baton Rouge that this, the capital city of this strange and singular state, might not just temporarily be the largest city in Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina might have changed the population dynamics of New Orleans and Baton Rouge irreversibly.

The resiliency and the fortitude of the people on this stretch of the Gulf Coast will continue to be the story for months, years, maybe decades.

Though it would be foolish to compare the human consequences of a Category 4 hurricane with the aftermath of a major athletic injury, there are parallels nonetheless.

Alabama basketball for the rest of this 2005-06 season was essentially written off the moment Chuck Davis' injury was confirmed as torn knee ligaments.

How, the fan base reasoned, could a team that had struggled to a 7-6 record with Davis, had lost four of its first nine home games, and had looked awfully sluggish on offense, rebound from a devastating injury to its best player?

A pity party could have ensued.

You could have heard Mark Gottfried and his team count off the setbacks it had endured since tying LSU for the SEC West crown last year.

For starters there was the in-season defections last year of Glen Miles and Al Weber, players who would have bolstered the off-guard slot.

Then Kennedy Winston elected to leave as an underclassmen, a move that seemed logical until he was not among the 60 picks in the NBA Draft. Winston likely would have been the preseason SEC player of the year with Brandon Bass gone from LSU.

Then combo guard Ray George failed to qualify, another blow to the perimeter picture.

With Davis out, Gottfried trots out eight scholarship players each game, and the Crimson Tide has found ways to win despite the roster hardships, despite having to use the three freshmen Richard Hendrix, Alonzo Gee and Brandon Hollinger much more than anticipated, and, frankly, despite playing ugly a lot of the time.

Alabama has had its basketball back against the wall. It trailed in the second half by seven at Auburn, by seven at Kentucky and by 13 against Arkansas. Its key players have had to work more minutes and yet the Tide has still outlasted its competition.

Gottfried has had some shining moments in his seven-plus seasons at the helm, most notably the celebrated home win over Florida that clinched the 2002 SEC crown, and the back-to-back NCAA Tournament wins over No. 1 Stanford and defending champion Syracuse in 2004. Yet you get the feeling this depleted team's work over the past few weeks will occupy a special place in Gottfried's mental video vault.

Who knows what will happen the rest of the way. Alabama lost at the house that Pete Maravich built, and it might melt under the duress of heavy minutes and not enough bodies as the SEC season hits the stretch drive.

It might keep amazing us. Ron Steele, now that his spas-o-matic back has returned to normal, is a phenomenal presence. Jermareo Davidson has clearly cranked it up a notch and deserves to be mentioned among the nation's best big men. Hendrix and Gee and Hollinger play unafraid and their on-the-job learning will be huge.

Evan Brock, Jean Felix and Justin Jonus all have their flaws, but they also have assets that have been tapped from time to time.

Maybe Gottfried's little group can put it together step by step and find that familiar path back to the NCAAs.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He contributes regularly to 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com


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