|Tuesday, October 29
Updated: October 30, 11:11 AM ET
Price takes 'Desire' to whole new level
By Pete Thamel
Special to ESPN.com
The ponderous three-story structures once stretched 20 city blocks and were known officially as "Desire." But Price and his family called them "Home," at least until the wrecking ball came through in 1999 and left 97-acres of scattered debris.
Desire's residents have since scattered through New Orleans' 9th Ward, but they still cling to the stories of Desire's Heroes. Tales like those of Marshall Faulk, who became the NFL's best running back only after he avoided Desire's crack dealers, prostitutes and drive-bys. Price, too, has his niche in Desire's lore. In college basketball, he earned the reputation as one of the nation's toughest players after willing Oklahoma to the Final Four last March.
Back in his hometown, folks remember him for something different.
"Hollis," says St. Augustine High School coach Bernard Griffith, "is the last hero of Desire."
At a place known as the Murder Capital of the World, heroes aren't in abundance. A glimpse of Desire during Price's childhood shows an unemployment rate fluctuating between 50- and 75-percent, and substance abuse hovering around 40-percent.
"Those folks that made it out and succeeded, a lot of that had to do with family values and the fortitude to succeed." says Marlon Defillio, a police captain who's worked in New Orleans for 23 years. "It was definitely a challenge to live in that area."
But even more poignant than numbers like New Orleans' 421 murders in 1994 are the city's tales of what could have been.
Take "Shoney," a talented point guard who entered St. Augustine with Price. Shoney could ball like Price, but never conformed to the strict rules at the all-boys Catholic school. The uniform, homework and thick wooden paddle used to dole out corporal punishment just didn't take.
Shoney left during his freshman year and never resurfaced in the basketball world. Instead, when Shoney sees OU point guard Quannas White around New Orleans he jokes that he's a better baller than White and Price. But Shoney never gave himself the chance to find out.
"Hollis wanted something, he wanted to be successful." says Griffith. "Shoney didn't. Last I heard, they were trying to hunt him down and kill him in the streets."
Price grew up sleeping on his grandparents' couch while his mother struggled with drug problems and shuffled in and out of jail. Price's grandmother, Ann Dennis, worked two jobs -- at a day care center and cooking food at a bar. Price's grandfather, George Carraby, stayed on him about school and sports. Their work ethic and life lessons stuck.
"It was tough growing up there," says Price, "but I had my grandparents. They always made sure I did the right thing."
Price arrived at St. Augustine weighing about 125 pounds, so skinny that White likes to joke that he didn't have any fat on his bones to dull the paddle's wrath. At St. Augustine, they don't believe in demerits or detention. Instead, students and their parents sign wavers to allow corporal punishment. The hits came often at first. Price still shudders when he recalls the name of Patricia Parker, his freshman English teacher, who handled the paddle more deftly than a fraternity pledge master.
"She was one of the hardest hitting women that I know," says Price. "And I got paddled for a whole lot of things."
Chewing gum in class? Bend over son.
Play a sloppy first half? Brace yourself.
Dog ate your homework? Oh boy, watch out.
The same paddles that pounded the posteriors of former St. Augustine stars Avery Johnson, Kerry Kittles and Donald Royal eventually straightened out Price. The academic adjustment overwhelmed Price at first, as poor grades forced him off the 9th grade team during his freshman season. But Price's longing for basketball, combined with his aching backside, would prove the St. Augustine mantra that external discipline helps develop internal discipline.
"After that," says Griffith, "grades were never an issue."
On the basketball court, Griffith never had a problem with Price. He made the varsity his sophomore season and earned a starting job by the end of the year. He and classmate White, his high school point guard who will start alongside him at OU this season, led St. Augustine to the state title their senior season.
By ignoring sprained ankles and never leaving the floor, no batter how bad he hurt, Price endeared himself to Coach Griff.
"I don't think he's ever not finished first in any drill he's ever run," says Griffith, a 25-year vet who's coached 58 DI players.
Price saw a lot of Griffith's old-school values in OU head coach Kelvin Sampson and counts him as the primary reason he chose the Sooners over LSU, Texas and Xavier. Sampson, the notorious disciplinarian, and Price, the diligent worker, clicked immediately.
Sampson remembers their first individual meeting Price's freshman year. Price sat on the edge of his chair, his brown eyes trying to lock with Sampson's, like he couldn't wait to answer his questions. Price rattled off his goals of becoming a starter and leading OU to the Sweet 16. As he blurted this out, Sampson could only smile, as it looked as if "Hollis had a Bunsen Burner behind his shirt."
"Some kids come into this program as boys and leave as men," says Sampson. "Hollis Price came into this program as a man."
Since arriving at Oklahoma, Price has matured from a "fart in a skillet," as Sampson often called him his freshman year, to an on-court extension of the coach. He's also epitomized Sampson's trademark toughness and work ethic, as the coach demands his best players practice hardest.
Price has also played through countless injuries, none worse than a severe tear to his triceps caused by the teeth of an Indiana State player. Price returned in that game, a first-round NCAA Tournament loss in 2001, despite a tear so severe it required three surgeries to repair and still necessitates treatment four-to-five times a week.
Price overcame that injury and the first-round NCAA heartache by leading the Sooners to the Final Four last season. His 16.5 points a game paced the team and he stepped up biggest in the NCAAs, scorching Arizona for 26 and Missouri for 18 to propel the Sooners to Atlanta.
Despite reaching college basketball's pinnacle, a 1-for-11 shooting performance against Indiana in the semi-final loss still haunts Price.
But there's still a chance for Price to redeem himself in the grandest fashion if he marches the Sooners back to the Final Four. Price will have the entire host city pulling for him, because a trip to the Final Four this year means a trip home to New Orleans.
"That would probably be the greatest thing that could happen to the Final Four," says Griffith. "If Hollis Price comes here to play, anybody and everybody that lived at the Desire projects is going to be at that game."
With Desire resting in pieces just 15 miles north of downtown New Orleans, maybe its last hero can give his old neighbors one final tale to cling to.
Pete Thamel is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN Magazine. He's based in Bartlesville, Okla., where he's writing a book about NAIA basketball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.