My Promise to NOLA

NFL Quarterback Drew Brees once said, “No matter where in the world you go, New Orleans is always a part of you.” For NBA veteran and Washington Wizards Assistant Coach Robert Pack, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), will always be home. When sitting down with Robert, I asked him “What does NOLA mean to you?” From his perspective, “NOLA will always be my city. It’s the people, the culture, the iconic cuisines, the energy, and the essence of the community that runs proudly through my veins. Throughout the hard times I faced growing up in NOLA in the Fischer Projects and the Lower 9th Ward, the city molded me into who I am today.” Thanks to his nonprofit, The Robert Pack Foundation, he’s able to remain connected to the city no matter where his professional career takes him geographically.

Robert’s story begins in the Fischer Projects of New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents, Robert Sr. and Wilma Pack, raised Robert and his three sisters Tracy, Sharon, and Kisha. The latter part of his childhood he grew up and went through the educational system in the Lower 9th Ward. Growing up his parents instilled the core values of faith, having a strong work ethic, and the importance of family. For Robert, it was that same discipline and respect that carried over into his passion for his education and athletics.

“NOLA will always be my city. It’s the people, the culture, the iconic cuisines, the energy and the essence of the community that runs proudly through my veins.”

At an early age, he vividly remembers his father introducing him to sports. Together they watched the Louisiana state Class AAAA Championship Game on TV where local high school phenomenon Benoit Benjamin led Carroll High School of Monroe, Louisiana, to victory. That season, Benoit was averaging 30 points per game, 18 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 blocked shots. Back in 1982, Louisiana native and Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed was recruiting Benoit to play for him at the University of Creighton. Robert remembers, “After Carroll High won the game, they flashed to Knicks Legend Willis Reed watching from the sidelines. From that point forward, that’s when the wheels started spinning in my head that this could be me one day and why not me? It made me believe from that day forward, receiving a higher education and playing collegiately was achievable for a local kid like me.”

From his childhood in NOLA to his collegiate career, there were many individuals that played a major role in being not only a coach but mentor to Robert. From the ages of 9–12, Robert had two special football coaches that looked after him like uncles. Robert shared, “During my days playing park ball [our version of pee-wee football] at Fox Playground, our coaches were our guardians, mentors, and teachers when our parents were not around. Our parents trusted them to look after us, keep us safe, and keep us out of trouble.” The two coaches Robert wanted to start his gratitude with are Manuel Jackson and the late Hungry Jones. Robert reflected, “It all started with Mr. Jones and Mr. Jackson. The blueprint of my athletic journey starts with my love for football and my respect for those two community heroes.”

On the basketball side of things, his junior high school coach Al Ott at Edna Karr Junior High (presently, a high school) was the next natural born leader that took Robert under his wing. In his first biddy basketball game at the age of 10 in that gym, Robert scored 29 of his teams 29 points in a 31–29 loss. Robert shared his gratitude, “Coach Ott was a masterful coach that infused discipline and challenged me to perform at my absolute best at such a young age. He played an integral role with grooming me for high school hoops.”

The retirement of #31: Jersey retirement ceremony for Robert Pack at Edna Karr in New Orleans.

 

As a sophomore at Alfred Lawless High School, Coach Washington Wells would entrust Robert to lead the team as the starting point guard for the varsity team. Robert reflected on how it all happened, “When I entered  Alfred Lawless High School, I somewhat came in under the radar for my talent in football and basketball. While my previous junior high football coach from Edna Karr shared my ability with the Lawless High football coach, nothing was mentioned at the time about my basketball ability.

“One afternoon during lunch time I was giving it to these guys trying to guard me in a pick-up basketball game. These are the types of competitive games you reflect on from physical education (PE) class or recess that made grade school and high school so much fun. In the middle of this intense pickup game, Coach Wells stopped the game, pulled me aside, and said ‘Who are you son?’ I told him in a very low voice ‘My name is Robert Pack,’ and he proceeded to direct me away from the pick-up game to invite me to his basketball practice.

“When basketball season started, I began practicing with the junior varsity (JV) team. One afternoon we scrimmaged against the varsity team and this was the first time I played against future NBA star Eldridge Recasner, who was a senior and ‘the man’ at Alfred Lawless. When I played with the JV team, I showed the coach my versatility as a player and dominated in practice. The very next practice, the coach pulled me over and said, ‘young fella, you coming over here,’ and promoted me as a sophomore to the varsity team. I never saw JV again. As a sophomore, the coach threw me into the fire and, in turn, I rose to the challenge and stepped up. In the backcourt, Eldridge was able to slide over into the shooting guard position and I played point guard. While Eldridge could have easily played point guard, it was a blessing in disguise because it freed him up to attack from the wing and opened up the floor for him to be the go-to scorer.”

To add another dimension to this story, I had the pleasure of catching up with NBA veteran Eldridge Recasner to get his perspective on Robert and their time together at Alfred Lawless High School. Eldridge reflected on his friendship with Robert, “What stood out to me about Robert was how tenacious he was as a player. I feel his football instincts gave him that extra intensity with pursuing the basketball, attacking the rim, and causing havoc defensively.

“During our childhood, I played at the Richard Lee Playground and when Robert came along we played together at the playground on Caffin Avenue. Growing up, he used to come over to my parent’s place for dinner and we’d shoot hoops in my backyard. From a big brother perspective, I know I may have inspired him to go to college when he saw me get a scholarship to the University of Washington and I tell him to this day, he inspired me when I turned on the TV in 1994 while playing overseas in Turkey and had to do a double take at the screen because there was Robert leaping in the air and dunking all over the Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

Throwback Photo: Alfred Lawless High School Basketball Team: #12 Robert Pack #14 Eldridge Recasner

“Things really came full circle for the two of us in the 94–95 season when I received my first 10-day contract with the Denver Nuggets to fill in for Robert, who was injured. Robert shared, ‘I still remember walking into the locker room and seeing the jersey with the last name Recasner on it hanging over the locker and just saying wow and smiling!’”

As Eldridge concluded, “I take my hat off to Robert, he had a hell of a career as a professional basketball player and he’s doing amazing things off the court with his foundation and continues to make an impact with athletes as an assistant coach in the NBA. To see where we both came from, the struggle was real growing up in our neighborhood but the perseverance to want to achieve more in life and prove the doubters wrong was baked into our DNA. In my opinion, Robert is truly making the Lower 9th Ward proud and an inspiration to the entire community.”

Robert’s collegiate career from 1987–89 at Tyler Junior College is where Head Coach Roy Thomas took him under his wing. Robert shared, “He played a major role in my development and preparing me to eventually make the leap to a major Division I program. His body of work speaks for itself. He coached several Division I programs prior to Tyler, he’s a tremendous leader and coach, and a Texas Sports Hall of Famer. I was like a sponge and was ready and willing to do whatever it took to elevate my game, make my teammates around me better, and make Coach Thomas proud. From my perspective, how a junior college athlete exits or transfers will be dictated by their initial mindset going into a junior college. I came in with a mission to improve my game, get better, and ensure there would be no doubts by any of the Division I schools I’d transfer to. The Tyler Junior College basketball program had a tradition of winning and I took pride in upholding that tradition during my stint there.”

From 1989–91, Robert would transfer to University of Southern California (USC) where he finished his collegiate career under Head Coach George Raveling. Robert gives major credit to Charlie Parker who recruited him aggressively to attend USC. From Robert’s first meeting with Coach Raveling, he recalls listening to him speak about life and asked Robert what he’d like to achieve both personally and professionally. The conversation alone was a pleasant surprise because it showed Robert that Coach Raveling cared more about Robert the person versus Robert the star athlete. Choosing the right college for a student-athlete is never easy. For Robert he shared the moment he knew USC was the choice, “I was impressed with the atmosphere and energy the campus had during my initial visit. I took the time to meet the professors and listened to them talk about the importance of education, which was of number one importance to my parents. When you know, you know, and after my initial visit, USC was the one.”

Robert reflects on his USC legacy, “Back when I was at USC, it was more known for their football program with greats like Mark Carrier and the late Junior Seau. There was a camaraderie with the athletes to support one another and attend one another’s games. The professors pushed you to excel at a high level, it’s a first-class institution and earning my degree in sociology is an achievement I’m very proud of. My parents were even more ecstatic to see me achieve that memorable milestone because it was a promise I made to them both.”

Robert reminisced about his legendary college coach at USC, George Raveling, “I’m forever grateful for Coach Raveling for making his players more well rounded beyond the game. We’d practice at 6 ᴀᴍ and he’d have articles clipped out at half court. There was news from around the world that he wanted us to read and have a macro level understanding of what’s going on around us. He was an excellent coach with the Xs and Os but an equally talented mentor that challenged us to see things from a bigger picture.”

Robert Pack’s professional career began in 1991, whereas an undrafted free agent, he joined the Portland Trailblazers and went on to have a successful 13-year career in the NBA. During his professional basketball career, there were two pivotal moments that would set the foundation around a life beyond the game. The first was the moment he knew it was time to walk away from the game. After Robert’s career in the NBA ended in 2004, he went overseas to experience the other side of the world. He played in Valencia, Spain in the ACB League, where he played against future Basketball Hall of Famer, Arvydas Sabonis. Sabonis would eventually recruit him to play in Lithuania where they won a few championships together. The following year, he was getting recruited by teams in Greece. As Robert recalls, “It just happened to be my son’s senior year of high school and, at the end of the day, it was about my family coming first. I wanted to personally be there to see my son walk across that stage and receive his diploma.”

The other milestone was in 1997 where he created his very own nonprofit, The Robert Pack Foundation. The foundation’s mission is “To provide structured educational and cultural programs that inspire disadvantaged youth to recognize their potential, pursue their dreams, and succeed in the game life.” When asked about what motivated him to create his own foundation, Robert replied, “This is something motivated by my childhood growing up in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Growing up, people all across the community had their share of struggles and hardships. Being blessed with achieving some level of success from my collegiate and professional career in the NBA, it was a social responsibility of mine to give back and make a difference. At the end of the day, I know exactly what it was like to grow up in that community and want to provide a level of encouragement and belief to the young men that make up my foundation and the community of NOLA.”

Behind every successful organization is a team of thought leaders, decision-makers, hands-on support and administration. The Robert Pack Foundation’s leadership team consist of Robert, the founder; his sister Tracy, the Executive Director; and their supporting administrative team of Toni Charles and Rhonda Johnson. On the content and digital media side, K. Rochelle Consulting has helped with the foundation’s digital presence with content creation and the development of the foundation’s website. On a wider scale, the executive and administrative team has kept tabs on past foundation children and the impact they are making as individuals and to society. When talking to Robert, he mentioned the name Isaac Ray as a prime example. Isaac was featured briefly in Robert’s Beyond the Paint feature on NBATV. Robert recalls, “I remember teachers describing him as a handful in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great kid, but his focus and energy weren’t in the classroom. The foundation put some extra attention on him and inspired him to believe in himself and see life in a different way. Present day, he’s a successful entrepreneur located in NOLA and doing positive things for the community. In the late 90s, he was on the talk show Ricki Lake and I showed up to surprise him on the show.”

Beyond the mentoring, tutoring, and field trips to local businesses and companies in NOLA, Robert, and the Foundation make an effort to expose the young men to a life beyond their city. In the summer of 2017, Robert took 20 of his Foundation mentees to Washington, DC, for an eye-opening shared experience. Robert reflected, “Here I am taking 20 mentees from the foundation from NOLA to DC. Some of them have never been on a plane before. Some of these young men are from different neighborhoods so we end up rooming people that didn’t know each other together. From a bonding experience, it helps to create these new friendships and makes the group closer from a brotherhood perspective.

There was true hands-on education that took place as the mentees sat on the bus Rosa Parks made history in. [Photo courtesy of the Robert Pack Foundation]
While making stops to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Washington Capitol, Howard University, and Georgetown University, the children were exposed to a culture and a world they had never seen before. If you visit the Foundation’s Instagram, you’ll see countless photos from their out-of-state trips. When I asked Robert if he often finds himself getting lost in the moment and just taking in the joy the mentee’s experience, Robert shared, “I remember sitting on the bus and hearing the mentees talking among themselves. I recall one of them saying, ‘I can see myself going to Howard’—and in my head I’m jumping for joy and saying, that’s exactly what this trip was all about! Making these young men realize, this can become a reality for them if they are willing to accept the challenge and make it happen as a student.”

In late July of 2018, Robert took a trip with his foundation mentees to Memphis, Tennessee. During their stay, they made stops at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Lemoyne-Owens College, The Harville Farm of Tennessee, and the University of Memphis. These field trips are truly an experience that serves multiple purposes from an educational standpoint with African American and civil rights history, exposure to higher education, and the agricultural visit to the Harville Farm of Tennessee that’s been around for over 125 years.

Robert and his mentees from the Robert Pack Foundation at the University of Memphis campus. [Photo courtesy of the Robert Pack Foundation]
The afternoon on the Harville Farm of Tennessee proved to not only be an opportunity for the children to see live farm animals and ride horses but to also get a totally different perspective of agriculture. The mentees learned about the reproduction of bulls and cows and saw first-hand where cotton comes from and the possible reality that some of the cotton in the clothes they were wearing may have come from the very farm they were visiting. The surprise guest was Robert’s long-time friend and supporter Kevin St. Amand, a military veteran and trained chef. As Robert shared, “The experience proved there are no limits when it comes to higher education, going to the military, learning a trade, or becoming successful entrepreneurs.”

 

A truly hands-on experience for the mentees of the Robert Pack Foundation. The young men received an educational tour of Harville Farm of Tennessee. [Photo courtesy of the Robert Pack Foundation]
Robert reflected, “We had an amazing tour guide at the National Civil Rights Museum. There was true hands-on education that took place as the mentees sat on the bus Rosa Parks made history in.

Our tour of the University of Memphis was fantastic. I can hear some of the same kids talking about the University of Memphis and making comparisons to last year’s trip to DC. It was a continuation of the DC trip where the kids were talking about the possibility of seeing themselves going to one of these universities one day. I want to continue to expose them to more college campuses and make the dream, a reality. I also like to expose them to trades, entrepreneurs, and individuals that took a less traditional path after high school. While higher education might not be for everyone, I stress to them the importance of chasing your dreams and doing what you love.”

For Robert, his continued legacy beyond the game revolves around the young men that represent his foundation in New Orleans. He has aspirations of growing the foundation with further funding and expansion for future field trips and experiences his mentees can take in before graduating from high school. When talking to him he shared, “I’d love to take it a step further and link up with other athletes running foundations in other cities we plan on visiting. It could create a great opportunity for collaboration and enriching events we can do together. These kids are my world and, at times, it’s like looking in the mirror because I see a lot of myself and the friends I grew up with, within each and every one of them. Even when I’m doing community work in a different city for the NBA, it makes me think of the young men back home that is a part of my foundation.”

“These kids are my world and at times, it’s like looking in the mirror because I see a lot of myself and the friends I grew up with, within each and every one of them.”

I’ve personally known Robert for 10-plus years and his story is remarkable because his passion for what he does in life, stems from his roots. Everything he touches, he puts no less than 100% of his heart into it. From his many stops along the way as an assistant coach in the NBA with New Orleans, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and now Washington, DC, he has been blessed with the opportunity to work with an endless list of talented professional athletes.

As he reflected on the wisdom he passed on, he also shared a funny story around technology being a blessing in disguise. Robert recalled, “This has happened on multiple teams I’ve coached, it’s one thing to share your background with current players where they know your body of work as a coach and player. It’s another if they are old enough to have seen you play. But the best is when these young guys do a Google or YouTube search for ‘Robert Pack + NBA’ and they stumble upon college footage, game footage highlights, or the All-Star Weekend Dunk contest from 1994. Then you hear the players on the team huddled around someone’s phone or giving me props for my high flying, athletic ability and even wonder how they would have matched up versus me in my prime. While the compliments are flattering, the truth of the matter is, my playing career is over but there is a whole lot I can offer the game as a coach and mentor. I’ll graciously tell the guys, ‘Yea, once upon a time, I’ve been known to get up a little bit and throw it down!’ What I don’t tell them is when I look back at that footage, at how high I got off the ground, it makes my knees hurt thinking about the landing.” (Robert laughed sharing that last statement.)

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