New Orleans, La. (GCAConf.com) – In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Elston King and his wife, Imogene, found themselves in the attic of their home; waters rising and in need of a rescue. Help did arrive, but they were only taking women, so King waded through the water with his wife on his back, getting her to safety.
Eventually, Elston King was lifted by helicopter off of the roof of his home and taken to Baton Rouge and reunited with his wife and with his other family; Southern University at New Orleans.
The recovery for both the Kings and SUNO started in those days and weeks while both were displaced in Baton Rouge. Elston and his wife in an apartment and SUNO temporarily housed by Southern University’s flagship campus on the bluff. By 2005, Elston King had dedicated more than three decades to his beloved Knights and he wasn’t about to let a storm wash all of that away. He thought about that time as his tenure at the University comes to a close. After 41 years as a student, coach and athletic director, Elston King is retiring.
“We stayed there [in Baton Rouge] for nine months but we knew we would come back”, recalls King. “Out of everything I’ve done at SUNO, I think rebuilding the program after Katrina, from nothing, into a winning program…a program that can be respected, that’s has to be right up there with anything I’ve done in my career.”
It wasn’t the first time that Elston King, who has been involved with Southern University at New Orleans since 1974, was asked to build something from nothing. After graduating from SUNO as a history major in 1981 he was tasked with restarting the women’s basketball program at the university.
“Morris Bates found me coaching semi-pro ball and he asked for my help in bringing a women’s basketball program back to SUNO”, he added. “There wasn’t any money in it (just $200 per month), but it was something I wanted to do.”
“Things really changed when the great Harold Hunter came to SUNO in the mid-80’s”, said King.
Hunter, who was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract, came to SUNO after successful stints at New Orleans’ other two HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Xavier and Dillard.
“Coach Hunter was taught by John McClendon (legendary coach enshrined in both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame), who was taught the game by James Naismith. I was able to work under him as a women’s basketball assistant until he retired in 1989. It’s funny, but I see Phil Jackson and other coaches talking about “the Triangle”, and that was the offense we were running in 1985. Coach Hunter just knew the game.”
Hunter’s retirement brought uncertainty for King’s future, but a meeting with the new men’s basketball coach Earl Hill would quickly bring everything into focus.
King said of his first impression of Hill, “I just knew we had a great first meeting and he asked me to join him as an assistant for the men’s team and I was by his side for 15 years. It was Coach Hill that taught me about creating pressure on defense and about how to make the most out of your practices. He didn’t believe in wasting time.”
“I learned so much from both of those men”, King added. “Outside of my own mother and father, there haven’t been any greater influences on my life, not only as a coach but as a man.”
“The program needed something and I think Coach Hill thought I could have an impact. We weren’t very good that first year, but we turned it around pretty quick. In 1999 we went 23-5 and won our first GCAC championship. That team was something special.”
Led by GCAC Player of the Year Andrea Watson (25.9 points per game), the 1999-2000 Lady Knights averaged 92.8 points per game while allowing their opponents to score fewer than 68. They were ranked 21st in the nation and made the school’s first trip to the NAIA tournament.
While he was taking the women’s program to new heights, the men’s program kept rolling. From 1998 until 2006, the Knights won three regular season GCAC crowns and four tournament titles, advancing to the NAIA’s “Sweet Sixteen” twice.
“I got to work with players like Toshay Harvey and Leon Mitchell and Karriem Reed. There was so much talent. It was a great time and we won a lot of ballgames”, said King.
Then Katrina happened. Hill decided not to return to the program and King was thrust into the role of Athletic Director. The first question he faced was whether there would be a program to direct.
“There was no doubt in my mind that we would rebuild. I’ve given my life to SUNO. I think the reason that I can leave now is because the program is on solid ground. Our teams are competitive. The gym is finally being restored. We’re in good shape.”
Others will fill his jobs, with track and field coach Yhann Plummer assuming the role of athletic director and assistant Roshaun Ambrose taking over as women’s basketball coach, but neither can be expected to replace Elston King.
As head coach, Elston King compiled a record of 250-154 and won two GCAC regular season (1999-2000, 2014-15) and tournament championships (2013, 2015). His win total is 94 more than SUNO’s other four coaches combined and is only two behind his mentor Earl Hill for the most by any coach in school history. All told he has been a part of 566 SUNO victory celebrations.
He may have saved his best for last. The 2014-15 Lady Knights finished 23-5 and were the first team in school history to win both the GCAC regular season and tournament championships. They finished the year 16-1 against GCAC foes and won the school’s first ever NAIA tournament game with a resounding 84-56 victory over Vanguard University.
“I’ve seen it all. The national championships (seven in track and field), the conference championships (20 total), the All-Americans. I hope that my legacy is that I maintained the respectability of the program that was started by Artis Davenport and that in the end I raised our level of competition.”
“The funny thing is, the game hasn’t changed. The kids haven’t changed. I mean, they are better athletically, but at the end of the day you still gotta put the ball in the hole. You still gotta defend. What it comes down to is do you have players that have talent and that are willing to work. I been fortunate with both of those.”
Asked what he is most proud of during his tenure the answer is easy for Elston King, “I most proud of the fact that since I’ve been head coach more than 90 percent of my [women’s basketball] players have been able to graduate. This doesn’t mean anything if we’re not educating people. Across our programs we’ve stressed the importance of academics and being student-athletes. Especially in the last few years we’ve had a number of athletes graduate with the highest overall grade point average in their class or in their department. Graduation day is my favorite day each year.”
“There’s no magic trick to success. I think we’ve done good things because I treat these young people like human beings. They know I’ll go through a wall for them. I treat them with respect and all I ask in return is the same.”
Though he plans to be around the program, offering advice to the new athletic director as well as Coach Ambrose, he knows things won’t be the same.
“I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss practice. I going to miss going up against Bo (Browder, head women’s basketball coach at Xavier University). He’s special because his teams are just like him. Very competitive, very tough. They play hard all the time. He demands that from them but there’s no arrogance there. We have a great relationship because our philosophies are so similar.”
“I was 17 years old when I first got to SUNO. SUNO means everything to me. SUNO gave me a chance. I know that’s what this place means to a lot of people. So I always tried to remember that. I may be leaving a job, but I’m not leaving SUNO. This is home.”