SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The floodwaters’ power erased the carpet on the lower half of the stairs, leaving nothing but exposed wood and nails. Mildew covered what was left downstairs, and a pungent, decaying smell embedded in the nostrils.
This was the home of Kevin Hicks’ grandmother and, in a way, she was lucky. The water did not reach the second story.
A few minutes away in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Hicks’ childhood home was unsalvageable.
An icky mildew blanket covered the floors and walls. The television lay flipped over. So, too, was Hicks’ bed, tossed to the opposite side of the room.
A Spiderman painting in his room, started by his father before the waters rose, peeled back. The floors were spongy and ready to give way.
In the front yard, something struck Hicks like a thunderbolt to the heart: Bones.
Three years earlier, the family left for Houston to escape Hurricane Katrina. They expected to be back in a day or two, as they had when Hurricane Ivan skipped past New Orleans.
Angel, a little black pug and Kevin’s first pet, did not make the trip.
“That really got to me,” Hicks said. “When you’re 13, 14 years old and you see the dog on the ground, just bones, it really hurts.”
That pain became fuel, propelling him to Sacramento State and his dream of playing Division I college basketball.
The smaller programs among the 351 in Division I — the low-majors — typically don’t have the five-star-rated future pros found on the rosters of college basketball’s bluebloods.
Their players are still elite athletes who can shoot, dribble and jump better than almost anyone. What’s missing is an intangible — usually a lack of height, weight or both— that keeps them off the radar of programs like Duke, Kansas and North Carolina.
Hicks is a 5-foot-11, 168-pound junior who is not a true point guard, undersized for an off-guard.
What he can do is shoot, play with a badger-like tenacity and has, in the parlance of coaches, a pop to him.
Sacramento State coach Brian Katz noticed those traits immediately at a showcase tournament in Dallas this spring.
“He can really shoot it and we needed some help in that area,” Katz said. “He’s also a true underdog and I like that.”
Repetition honed Hicks’ shooting ability.
He spent the hours after school and weekends shooting on playgrounds and gyms all over town, using it to reach his DI dream, but also as a form of catharsis from the difficulties in life heaped upon him.
“All he did was a shoot, shoot, shoot,” his mother, Carla Hicks, said. “If he wasn’t in school, he was out shooting.”
Tenacity forged itself during the tough times, from becoming mature at an early age by necessity, losing everything and clawing to get it back.
“I’m a tough kid,” Hicks said. “You realize that everything you have right now could be gone in a matter of seconds and makes you thankful for what you have.”
Hicks and his sister, Vershan, had an idyllic life in New Orleans, enjoying their school, friends, the neighborhood, playing outside.
Hurricane Katrina sent them to Houston, packed with what they could fit into two cars the day before the storm made landfall. Too chaotic, too many evacuees, lines for schools too long.
Carla knew someone in Georgia. With her husband, Kevin Sr., deployed in Saudi Arabia, she decided to relocate the family.
It did not go over well.
“Me and my sister hated it. We didn’t want to be there at all,” said Kevin, 10 when they moved. “My mom and pops were like, you’ve just got to give it a chance, but we were so stubborn. We were young and it hurt. Our home was gone. We had nothing.”
Kennesaw is a suburb of Atlanta, but has a small-town feel. In other words, nothing like the Hicks had in New Orleans.
The first three months, six family members shared two beds in a hotel room. Kids at their new school shunned Kevin and Vershan, calling them refugees. They were miserable.
“All we had was each other,” Kevin said.
Time changed perceptions.
They made friends. They liked the school. Kevin played basketball.
They were comfortable. They were home.
Then they weren’t.
Kevin’s grandmother, Verona Atkins, moved back to New Orleans, where she spent her entire life. The rest of the family followed, uprooting again.
They returned to a New Orleans still damaged and trying to heal from Katrina.
“I was loving Georgia,” Kevin said. “It had become home and when we returned to New Orleans, we could just feel the hate. Hate everywhere. Pain.”
Hicks’ dream of playing Division I basketball hatched around the ninth grade, when parents and friends noticed he was not like other playground kids. He had ability. Earn-a-scholarship ability.
Hicks made DI hoops his goal, relentlessly working to become one of New Orleans’ best high school players.
College programs across Louisiana became interested in the sharp-shooting guard who played with an edge: Northwestern State, University of New Orleans, Southeastern, Nichols State.
Hicks didn’t have the ACT scores to get into those schools, so he went the JUCO route, playing at Western Texas College on the outskirts of Snyder, population 11,202.
“Sometimes if we got bored, we’d just go to Walmart,” he said.
Hicks helped lead the Westerners to the NJCAA Region 5 tournament for the third time since 1985 and became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
He waited for a Division I offer. None came, so Hicks went to the Dallas showcase with a purpose.
“I was going to come out of Dallas with something,” he said.
He did. The tournament was in late April and, on the first Monday in May, Katz called with his offer.
Kevin nearly broke down on the phone. Carla did when he called with the news, shouting and praying along the way: “Praise the Lord!”
Kevin Hicks would be a Division I basketball player.
“He kept telling me, ‘Mama I’m going to DI, Mama, I’m going to DI’ and he worked until he got it,” Carla Hicks said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Kevin has settled in at Sac State, loving the world of Division I basketball despite the adjustment from JUCO ball.
He’s played every game, averaging 6.2 points, a high of 13 against Notre Dame de Namur.
New Orleans will always be home, but playing Division I basketball is where he belongs.
“I’m at the place everyone knew I should be,” Hicks said. “It was just a long road to get here.”