NEW ORLEANS — For many former Xavier athletes, the tearing down of The Barn, where the school’s basketball teams played their games, is a sad occasion.
To Donald “Slick” Watts, who went on to a career as an NBA point guard from 1973-79, it takes on an even more personal meaning.
“That’s where I became ‘Slick,’” said Watts, who shaved his head because of a medical condition but also was known for his moves on the court. “It’s like a piece of me is gone.”
For Darrilyn Broussard, a former women’s player who is the associate head coach for the women’s team and has been a volleyball assistant coach at Xavier, The Barn has meaning that predates her.
“When I first went into The Barn, I noticed a picture on the wall in one of the rooms, and I said, ‘That guy looks familiar,’” Broussard said.
She found out that is was her father, Herman Prevost, who was a football and basketball Xavier standout in the 1950s.
“My parents are both deceased now, and my mom used to go to his games and cheer for him at The Barn,” Broussard said. “She later came to my games and watched me play. So it’s emotional.”
With a new $25 million convocation hall that how houses athletics having taken its place in the fall, demolition started Tuesday on The Barn. It was built in 1937 for athletics and, perhaps more important, as a place where the university held its annual convocation and, until relatively recently, commencement exercises.
The Barn had a meager appearance, which is how it got its unofficial name. It was rich in history, and was an important asset to the African-American community during the time of segregation in the South.
“There were many balls, dances and social functions held there,” Xavier president Norman Francis said in an earlier interview.
Francis was particularly enamored of The Barn’s floor, on which roller-skating, which was immensely popular among the youth of his day, regularly took place. Even through Hurricane Katrina, it did not buckle, although Xavier borrowed a court from Jackson State that was in storage to lay over the Barn’s floor.
It’s also where Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract, in 1950, played his college ball. The renown New York Rens played there in 1938. And Pope John Paul II visited in 1987, which is when The Barn received a front facade so it could blend in with the campuses other buildings.
There also were concerts and other functions held there, but The Barn was primarily known for basketball. A gymnasium that seated just 1,300, the atmosphere usually was electric.
Xavier, which had just 900 students into the late 1970s, competed in NAIA District 30 with bigger schools such as Grambling and Southern before joining the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.
“Xavier always had good basketball teams, so there was a lot of support from students, alumni and the community at games,” said Dale Valdery, who played for the Gold Rush from 1971-75 and later coached the women’s team for seven years and the men’s team for 13 years.
“And I think there was a lot of pride in that we were not a big school, yet we were able to compete, and also a lot of pride in Xavier’s academic reputation,” he said.
Former center Bruce Seals, who went on to play for the ABA Utah Stars and then the NBA Seattle SuperSonics, said the proximity of the seats to the court made for an intimacy with the fans.
“We had good teams, and the crowd was right on top of you,” he said.
That often made it intimidating for opponents. One such game took place in during the 1973-74 season, when the Rush played host to a strong Grambling team.
“They had a team loaded with talent, but we felt we had been cheated when we lost an earlier game to them up at Grambling,” coach Bob Hopkins said. “I told my players that we were going to press them as soon as they came out of the dressing room.
“We started pressing, and the crowd really got into it. It was 60-16 at halftime.”
Valdery and Broussard said The Barn was one of the city’s more popular venues during the summer. That was long before Pope John Paul II’s visit brought air conditioning to The Barn.
“There were not many college facilities that would allow free play, pickup games,” Valdery said. “So college players from all over, players from the (ABA) New Orleans Buccaneers, they would come to Xavier. And it was hot in there. They knew they’d lose weight and get in shape.”
Broussard said: “There was no air conditioning, just one big fan behind tone of the goals, and we left the doors open. That was it. You’d wring your T-shirt out after every game. You had to bring two T-shirts. But it kept you in shape and made you better for the season.”
Francis said there was a lot of sentiment to keep The Barn, but enrollment now is 3,500. Former player Dwain Hall, a standout at Brusly High who played at Xavier in the mid- to late-70s, said it should have been kept as a United States Historical Landmark, given its history.
Broussard said The Barn also is held dear to former Xavier students who didn’t play sports because it was an epicenter where Greek shows and the like took place.
But in compliance with FEMA for the building of the new arena, The Barn had to come down, said Marion Bracy, Xavier vice president of facility planning and management.
“We would have had to come up to code with the (American Disability Act), and because of flooding concerns, (The Barn) would have had to be raised,” Bracy said. “And for us to comply with ADA codes, a new facility could not fit in this space.”
Seals, who met his wife at Xavier, chalked it up to progress. Watts, who along with Seals was honored in the fall during the Dillard game, said the new facility “is fabulous.” Most Xavierites, as much as they hate it, know it’s time to move on.
Bracy, a Dillard grad, said he’ll miss it because of the heated rivalry games that took place there. In perhaps a twist of irony, it’s his job to oversee the demolition. Told that Bracy is a Dillard grad, Hall was incredulous.
“What?!,” he said.
Referring to the T-shirts Dillard students wore to the rivalry game, Hall said “I guess they finally get to Crush the Rush.”