When the NBA All-Star Game pulls up stakes and heads out of town Monday, it will leave behind a school transformed.
William Hart Elementary School in Gretna hasn’t had a playground in decades, apart from a wooden climbing structure and some slides that were removed years ago after they became rusty and unusable.
Other than that, it's been an asphalt basketball court, portable hoops — one that teacher Maria LaFleur purchased herself — and a yard that was mostly dirt.
“We haven’t had any kind of play equipment since the mid-'90s,” said LaFleur, who teaches English language arts to English as a Second Language students.
LaFleur, who has been teaching at William Hart for 27 years, had applied three times for grants from the nonprofit organization KaBOOM! to get funding for a real playground, finishing just short each time.
Her fourth try, however, was the charm. The application was accepted late last year, the parish school system picked up the $8,500 local match, and the day came to meet with the project’s funding partner.
“A gentleman came and did a walk-through. We just knew his name; we didn’t know what organization he belonged to,” LaFleur recalled. “But he was very interested in refurbishing our basketball court in addition to the regular KaBOOM! playground.”
“We just figured, 'OK, that’s great,' and he kept talking about the basketball court and could it be certain colors, and could the playground be certain colors, and when they dropped that bomb on us, that it was the NBA, we just thought, ‘It all makes sense now.’ ”
The students, she said, were over the moon.
“These are their heroes,” she said. “These are their idols. They’ve been very excited.”
That was seven weeks ago. On Friday, William Hart’s humble dirt play yard was teeming with students, teachers, volunteers and representatives from NBA Cares, KaBOOM! and other partners. Over the course of the day, they brought to life the 3,500-square-foot playground the children themselves had helped design in the preceding weeks.
And, of course, there were the players.
Bruce Smith, 11, painted a sign with Karl-Anthony Towns, a 7-foot center for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as a DJ played music and workers sporadically broke out their dance moves.
“When you actually do get to meet an NBA player, it’s pretty fun,” Bruce said.
“It’s awesome to get a chance to help these kids out and help make communities better,” Towns said. “That’s the great thing about basketball. We get to help out and do something special.”
The work was part of the NBA’s Day of Service, which included home renovation and other projects with local and national partners at several sites around the metro area in advance of the All-Star Game on Sunday.
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“The kids have been all abuzz,” said Rachel Malkusak, senior project manager with KaBOOM!, which has built or improved 16,700 playgrounds in 257 communities. “The teachers said they’ve already seen behavior changes. Kids are coming in early to sweep off the courts in the morning.”
For LaFleur, it was a day she’s waited to see for a long time.
“I boo-hooed like a baby this morning,” she said. “And some of the parents really are overcome with emotion. This is something they wanted when they were here as students. But now that they know their children will have this … it’s just been tears of joy. It’s incredible.”