As he watches his high-flying, rim-rocking set of seniors practice NBA All-Star game-level alley-oops to ignite a small amount of intrigue in a 39-point first-round playoff blowout that could have been far worse, Jason Bertrand remembers where his team used to be.
The coach, in his seventh year of head coaching experience, took over the Warriors program in its infancy – a team without history, respect or a gym to call its home. Bertrand was hired in the summer of 2013, just after Sophie B. Wright had completed its first varsity LHSAA season, not long after the charter school expanded into a high school. But the historic school building at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Prytania Street was badly in need of renovations, including a brand-new gym.
So for his first three years, with school days being held in a temporary site without a gym, Bertrand and his players roamed the courts of New Orleans to practice and play.
“We would practice in parks, in borrowed spots. We would come out of our pockets and say ‘Coach, can we use the gym for this amount of hours?’” he said. “And a lot of schools were generous.”
But that transient life for a basketball team isn’t easy — not on its head coach, its players or their parents, needing to keep track of an evolving practice and game schedule. In the day-and-age of the NCAA’s transfer portal and the version of speed-dating that takes place on the AAU circuit, it’s a wonder Bertrand still has six seniors that started with him as freshmen.
Especially after those winter practices, having to wear overcoats in the layup lines in a foreign gym without heat, lugging several-gallon jugs of water in and out everywhere they went.
“Some situations, like a marriage — it’s just not working,” he said. "We were in a hole-in-the-wall school with no gym, and they could have all left. And what can I say to a family that wants to do that?”
Waiting through that hardship as freshmen, breaking in a brand-new gym as sophomores and earning the Class 3A No. 3 seed as juniors in Bertrand’s fifth season may have seemed, to those on the outside, a bit ahead of schedule. But the coach knew from watching his players work they earned their semifinal bid last year.
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And it’s exactly why their shockingly slow start against eventual runner-up Peabody, surrounded by the high-reaching bleachers and large crowd at the Burton Coliseum, was so astounding to Bertrand. The team that averaged more than 90 points per game through the quarterfinals mustered six in the first period against the Warhorses and shot 10-of-24 from the free-throw line for the game.
After trailing 19-6 after the first quarter, they clawed back within four multiple times late in the first half but never got closer than nine in the second half, losing 70-54.
“It wasn’t a talent disparity. It was a ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look, and I took that hard,” Bertrand said. “Man, that’s something we could work on. So we made it our theme to try and play everybody.”
Surviving the gauntlet
This summer, while he had his assistants keeping his players tuned up, Bertrand hunkered down and crunched the numbers. A coach that cares more about the character built through challenging games than win-loss records scoured the internet, ran through his phone’s contact list built through more than a decade of coaching locally and put together the toughest schedule he could craft.
He knew he had something special in his deep senior class that included Rhode Island signee Gregory Hammond, Southern signee Damiree Burns and one of the area’s top unsigned seniors Charlie Russell, something he saw glimpses of in their junior season, a class that doesn’t come around often.
“Only iron sharpens iron,” he said. “I can do like a lot of other schools put together, what I call the ‘gimmee schedule’ with 30 wins, and you think this team is very good and open up their schedule. They played ‘Sisters of the Blind’ and the ‘School of Short People.’ ”
Instead, his team earned its 29-3 regular-season the hard way. First came out-of-state games, where the Warriors went 1-1 against a top-10 team from Tennessee (Whitehaven) and a top-three team from Arkansas (North Little Rock). Then, they breezed through their tournament, knocking off one of the best local teams from a year ago, Riverside, along with 2018 Division V runner-up Crescent City.
A week later, they beat the Class 4A runners-up (Woodlawn-Shreveport), the Class 5A champions and runner-up (Walker and Landry-Walker) before falling to Class 3A champion Madison Prep, the tournament hosts, in the final.
Bertrand’s team then downed the Division II runners-up (University High), Riverside and Class 4A champion (Carencro) in the St. Thomas More tournament, just days before the loaded Allstate Sugar Bowl National Prep Classic field. There, they beat a top-three team from Alabama (Lee), the defending Division I champs (Scotlandville) and avenged their Madison Prep loss, along with a single-digit loss to Division III champion Dunham.
Add in a win over Peabody, and the Warriors went 5-2 over LHSAA champions from a year ago and 7-0 against runners-up.
A year after New Orleans-area teams took home three boys state basketball titles, Crescent City squads returned from the Burton Coliseum in La…
Bertrand could put his team on the court with the best of the best, but it was his players who met the challenges head-on, bringing on more of them.
“We put ourselves in a good spot where we could have lost a few games and would have been OK,” Bertrand said. “But you start having that feeling where you’re like ‘Oh, wait a minute. The light is on.’
“Some of those games, we got punched in the mouth early, and for a weaker team, that’s a wrap. But not only did they fight back, but they won games by double figures.”
“We played teams that other teams wished they could play,” Burns said. “He’s put us in situations that people wouldn’t maybe think of. Back-to-back tough games. He’s just prepared us for any type of moment, and I think that’s why we’re here now.”
Bertrand also ran his team through that gauntlet because he knew the reality of his district schedule that would command his team’s undivided attention the last couple weeks of the season — games that his team won by an average of 51.8 points, some of which he started sitting starters in the first half.
While not enveloped in a fierce district league title race, Sophie B. Wright waltzed into the postseason the quietest No. 1 overall seed you’ve ever seen.
'We've won nothing'
In this social media-driven generation, Bertrand knew one place he’d have no problem reaching his players was on their phones. So encouraged by one of his players, he set up a Twitter account three years ago.
Give ‘@coachjbertrand’ a visit, and you’ll see a mix of motivational musings from Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the occasional bragging and promotion of his players like a doting dad as well as open-ended challenges appearing to be for no one in particular. But his players know where the words are directed.
“Any time they start feeling themselves, I’ll go post something, make them all mad at me,” he laughs. “It’s tough. They’re kids, but what I love about this group is every big game they’ve played this year, they came out like they were hunting, because we’ve won nothing.”
A résumé like the Warriors have put together traditionally would have generated more buzz in such a sports-driven city, but the pro sports developments over the past month — a certain soon-departing superstar forward for the Pelicans and an absent yellow flag in the NFC Championship game — have hogged the headlines.
But the Saints, in particular, gave Bertrand a great teaching moment. New Orleans football fans — Sophie B. Wright’s coach included — angrily filtered out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or cursed at their TV back on Jan. 20, bewildered with the notion that their team wouldn’t be playing for a Super Bowl title in Atlanta.
For a senior-laden squad that includes Burns, Russell and Hammond, along with Jordan Jackson, Jerome Anthony, Dandrick Green and Rashaun Vance, it would be easy to feel like they paid their dues. Most of them put up shots in the frigid foreign gym, pledge allegiance to a school that wasn’t fit to hold students and joined a team as freshmen that didn’t make the playoffs when they were in eighth grade.
But the Class 3A No. 1 seed and their 39-point first-round win over No. 32 Mamou last week don’t mean anything. Not to No. 16 Westlake — Tuesday’s second-round foe – and certainly not to No. 2 Peabody, likely patiently waiting for a meeting in the title game at the Burton Coliseum to avenge their 67-51 loss to Sophie B. Wright nearly two months ago.
“The Saints deserved a chance, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “It allows me to have something to refer to every time and ask them ‘Y’all think the Saints were the best team? Do you think they deserved that game? They don’t have it though. They didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. That could be us.’ ”