It would be too easy to dismiss the 1991-92 Woodlawn boys basketball team as one of the best that never was.
Coach Kenny Almond’s Panthers were an elite team that played as a cohesive unit. They were fun to watch. And they weren’t the only local team that took an unbeaten record through the regular season.
But it ended abruptly when Istrouma ousted Woodlawn 85-73 in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, 33-0 turned into 33-1.
“I know some people look at that season and consider it to be a failure because we didn’t win it all,” Demond Lang said. “But I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve played that game over and over in my head.
“The season we had before that game you can’t take away. It was special. Looking back on it now, it led to so many good things for Woodlawn and for us.”
For cynics, the story of this Woodlawn team reads like a cautionary tale coaches use to scare their talented teams. “If you don’t play your best, this might be you.”
The toughest thing for me to realize is how this team, one of the best I’ve covered, found its way into obscurity. When I told colleagues I was working on a column about Woodlawn’s unbeaten team for the 1990s the response was, “I don’t remember that at all.”
I remember and so do the five starters, who met last Tuesday for an impromptu reunion at the home of Joyce Turner-Keller, the mother of the team’s point guard, Lakeo Keller. Almond was there too.
“I had Demond telling me things I didn’t know back then,” Keller said. “He was orphaned. He told me that when he came to Woodlawn and played with me and saw us it made him realize he could do things in his life.”
Lang, who owns a real estate/investment business, is one of the success stories. Keller is now based out of Nebraska and his business interests, including one that utilizes wind turbines to generate electricity, have prospered.
Robert Butler is a general manager for a local Home Depot. Anthony Aucoin works as a mechanic and Kevin Roberson is the executive chef for United Methodist Church, where he also runs a school lunch program.
Each player credits their successes to Almond and what they learned during the 33-1 season. Lang proudly notes that Woodlawn broke through the next season and finished as the 4A runner-up to rival McKinley.
Of all the stories, Lang’s is the most compelling. After his mother died, he spent time with three foster families and attended St. Augustine in New Orleans before being moved to Baton Rouge before his senior season.
Woodlawn won an LHSAA hardship appeal on his behalf, thanks in part to Almond reminding the executive committee that the circumstances were beyond Lang’s control, and that he was a good kid who deserved a chance to play his senior year.
“I’m indebted to coach Almond for everything he’s done for me,” Lang said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him or this team. I follow Woodlawn and go to a few games and wherever coach Almond is I followed him, too.
“(Almond) was always straight with us, and we knew he cared. Some of us lived pillar to post, and coach was there to give us rides home. We stayed at his house a few times.”
Almond was at first reluctant to attend the reunion, saying “You guys wouldn’t be able to talk about me.” But Almond was there, giving the players a chance to share memories and to say thank you.
The next day Almond sent Keller a text, asking him to forward it to others. The legendary coach, who had 892 wins when he resigned at Zachary last fall, was touched.
“Seeing all of you last night was a great feeling,” the text said. “From 1985 to 2003 (Almond’s years at Woodlawn) was a wonderful time made possible by some great kids who had great parents. It was no accident it happened because everyone put the team first and cared about each other. I am so lucky to have been a part of Woodlawn basketball.”
The moral to this story is an obvious one.
Sometimes great teams don’t win, but that doesn’t mean they are not great. It also doesn’t limit chances for the players to succeed in years to come.