For the past three years, Bryce Washington’s closest connection to Mardi Gras was playing the season’s traditional music in his room and venturing out for the occasional stop at a Lafayette-based parade.
That’s one downer about playing major college basketball in south Louisiana, with the sport’s late-season crunch time normally falling in the midst of Mardi Gras. And for a New Orleans native who grew up immersed in the revelry and with heavy family involvement, it has been tough.
“It’s the job,” said Washington, a St. Augustine graduate whose rebounding and leadership have helped UL-Lafayette compile one of the nation’s best records and latch onto first place in the Sun Belt Conference standings. “You have to make sacrifices. When I signed to play basketball, I knew it as going to be full time, but I’m playing the game I love.”
But this week, for once, basketball’s not going to stand in the way of a moment of a lifetime for the Washington family.
Bryce’s parents, Brent Washington Sr. and Troye Washington, reign as King and Queen Zulu, overseeing the activities of the internationally known Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Zulu is Mardi Gras’ premier and most prestigious African-American krewe and is known and revered everywhere Mardi Gras is celebrated.
The elder Washington has spent 27 years in service with Zulu, and this year earned the organization’s highest honor in reigning over the myriad of activities leading up to Tuesday’s 8 a.m. parade. And there will be a 6-foot-6, 250-pound Zulu Prince riding along, adding Mardi Gras royalty to his four years of regal performances for his Ragin’ Cajuns squad.
“It’s time for them to have their shining moment,” Bryce said of his parents. “I didn’t get the chance to be at the ball since we were on the Georgia (road trip), but the opportunity to be there for the parade, the chance to just come back on Mardi Gras Day and experience the moment with them, that’s all I ever wanted.”
Bryce and his older brother, Brent, Jr., will accompany their parents as princes in Tuesday’s trek around the packed New Orleans streets, marking the first time since Bryce joined the Cajuns program that he’s had the chance to get back to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras Day.
Basketball has been in the way the past three years, but the youngest of the Washington clan isn’t complaining. His UL-Lafayette teams have gone 83-45, and this year’s 21-4 team has been the Sun Belt’s dominant force all season.
The Cajuns hold a two-game lead in the league standings after a 102-91 win at Georgia Southern on Saturday, and Washington celebrated his last game before the parade with 18 points and 13 rebounds. That was his 10th double-double of the season and 35th of his career, ranking him in the top 10 nationally.
The former St. Augustine standout is one of four players nationally to average a double-double over the past two seasons with his current 10.6 scoring and 10.7 rebounding marks. He leads the Sun Belt in rebounding by a wide margin and ranks 14th nationally, after ranking sixth in the country as a junior last year.
He’ll likely finish his career as the second-leading rebounder in Cajun history and third on the all-time Sun Belt list.
“We have a sign in our locker room that says you can shoot too much, you can dribble too much and you can pass too much, but you can never rebound too much,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “Every coach loves a guy that can go and fetch it.”
The Cajuns have six regular-season games left and are in the middle of the always-crucial late-season stretch. It’s not a time that most coaches would want their leader trekking home for Mardi Gras revelry. But Marlin knew how important this time is for Washington and his family even before the elder Washington began “reminding” him about Zulu’s approach and the historical significance of the event.
Thanks to that, and the bond that coach and player have built for four years, Washington’s hitting the road immediately after Monday’s shortened workout, and he’s pretty much getting a pass on Tuesday’s drills as the Cajuns prepare for Thursday’s Sun Belt game against Texas State.
“I’ve coached a few special young men in my career, and Bryce Washington is one of them,” Marlin said. “He’s the total package student-athlete. He was the Student-Athlete of the Year out of 400 here, and that’s just a part of the respect he commands.
“Last week I went on campus to the Union with some of the guys, and students were following him around like the Pied Piper. This wasn’t teammates or fraternity members; it was just students. They appreciate who he is, and he appreciates them. He has a tremendous way about him, a tremendous leader, and he’s got a very bright future whatever he plans to do after he’s finished here.”
Those immediate plans call for Monday night Zulu activities with his family, and a 3 a.m. wake-up call for the gathering at the corner of Jackson and Claiborne.
“When I was young, Zulu was Mardi Gras,” Bryce said. “We had all the posters and paintings all over the house. That involvement is very important to my family, and every little gap we’ve had we’ve tried to experience Mardi Gras that way. But this year, this is going to be special.”