When Penn coach Jerome "Pooh" Allen went for his home visit to recruit Brooks, he never said a word. He just listened spellbound as Brooks' mother, Bridget New, told their story.
New is a born storyteller and, after a 45-minute recounting Monday evening, you felt as if you were right there on this improbable journey with the mother who was going to find a way to keep her family together.
"We didn't really know whether our house was damaged," New said. "We were thinking since we were near the levee and the land was high in that area and we never had flooding . . . "
That Friday, they got the word that their house was flooded to the rooftop. A tornado had touched down across the street.
"A family member lived around corner," Brooks remembered. "He was on the roof, breaking windows to get in an upstairs apartment, but the thick glass was not breaking. He had to swim to the interstate."
Interstate 10 was a mile or so away. The relative joined the people walking the interstate to the Superdome.
A few weeks' stay with relatives became a permanent move to the Atlanta area, but not before a trip that required several good Samaritans, with a house they were willing to share and mechanical friends they knew after a packed car that was going to take the family there refused to start.
A 1-day visit to a church changed the path of a young middle-school student, a knee injury led to a last-minute change of college plans, and, finally last summer, that seventh-grader who left his hometown never knowing he would not be going back, arrived at the University of Pennsylvania to get a world-class education and play basketball.
"I was just in awe of her strength and will to keep things together," Allen said of New.
Bridget New's four children, two boys and two girls, attended four schools each during the 2005-06 school year. That was a minor obstacle during a time filled with major miracles.
New had been a part-time instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans for 4 years. Not long before Katrina, she had been hired as a full-timer and signed a contract the week before the hurricane. She was scheduled to start Aug. 29.
"When the storm hit, we didn't know anything," New said. "We didn't know what our house looked like. We didn't know if we had jobs."
Right after Katrina, New read on the Internet how Loyola was committed to pay the full salary through December of all their full-time staff.
"My mouth dropped open," she said.
She had been a full-time employee for a week. She had not even started working. They paid her half of her salary from January to May when her contract was up.
"I basically got 75 percent of my pay for the whole year for doing nothing," New said.
Life's gods had turned her way. She had a way to support her family. She could spend her time starting a new life in a new place.
"It was just amazing," New said.
New's mother lived next door, so she left New Orleans with them. On Sept. 1, she was hospitalized. Her brother had relocated to Marietta, Ga., so they decided to follow. Her brother called to tell them he had found a family in Marietta willing to take them in.
New wasn't really comfortable, thinking she would be imposing, but she quickly realized "I needed to say yes."
New took her mother, too sick to make the drive, and one of her daughters to Baton Rouge to catch a flight to Atlanta. Five others (now including one of New's good friends from high school) were going to drive two cars to Georgia. They stopped at a grocery store to shop for the trip. One of the cars, loaded with supplies and whatever clothes they had accumulated, refused to start. It was near the end of the workday. No mechanics were available. They tried to rent a car. There were none. Tried to check into a hotel. No rooms.
They were ready to leave the one car and try to squeeze into a two-door Honda Accord. New had been told to call the house where they would be staying if she "needed anything." She called. Turned out this was a family with a woman who worked for Toyota and a man who worked for Lexus. They just happened to know some mechanics in Baton Rouge. Providentially, the car got fixed and they were off to Georgia.
They drove through the night and were greeted by a loving family originally from Iowa who said they could stay as long as they wanted. They got the basement of the house, with a television, a refrigerator, an Xbox, a PlayStation, a gift card to Publix for $500, and a chance.
"During the process, you're really not thinking about [the difficulty], you're just coping," New said. "You have to find housing. You have to find clothing. You have to find food. I had to find doctors for my mom. We found strength in that we were not alone. There were so many people going through it with us."
Six weeks after arriving in Georgia, they found an apartment. Now, they have a house.
Through 12-year-old eyes, it "wasn't as crazy as people made it," Brooks said. "I don't know why, but I'm always looking for the upside. Something happened, it's supposed to happen, what's next? I acquired those skills through all that."
Looking back now, he sees how unrelated events became a "plan" that led him to Penn.
If Katrina does not happen, Brooks does not move to Atlanta, where basketball is big. He does not end up at a middle school connected to a YMCA, where he went every day to play basketball, often with adults. He does not meet his eventual high school coach, Sharman White, during his 1-day visit to a church. He does not end up at high school powerhouse Miller Grove, winner of three consecutive AAAA state championships while Brooks was on the team and a fourth after he left. He does not play AAU ball with so many well-known college players that when he would watch games with his Penn teammates, they would not be saying, "Henry knows somebody from every team."
It was in the opening minutes of the quarterfinal tournament game of his senior year when Brooks tore his ACL. Most of the major scholarship schools that had been recruiting him backed off. Penn was still very interested. And not just in a basketball player.
"I never counted them out," Brooks said. "Pooh was still there. I recognized where he came from . . . It's definitely an awesome experience, socially, academics, history and basketball. I felt like this was the place I was supposed to be.
"[Allen] was one of the most genuine, real coaches. He wasn't telling me stories. I could decipher the [nonsense], 'Like you come here and be the man.' "
Allen obviously wanted Brooks as a player. But he really believed Brooks would benefit from Penn and Penn would benefit from someone so young with so much real-world experience.
Allen saw a bit of himself in Brooks. He really wasn't supposed to end up at Penn. He just did. And look what he became, one of the best players in school history, someone who took full advantage of all that Penn offered and now, back as its head coach.
"I was so fascinated by his mother's ability to be so strong and determined to keep pushing forward when there were no signs of hope," Allen said. "She was willing to do whatever she had to do for her children."
That was enough for the coach. He wanted to be part of that.
Before Brooks' senior year of high school, Allen had asked him whether Penn was wasting its time. Brooks said they were not. Still, Allen did not think the Quakers would get him. Then, he got hurt.
Brooks, still recovering from the ACL, had his moments during his freshman season. But it was clear he had no explosion. His brace is now gone. His mobility is returning.
Penn overachieved last season behind Zack Rosen and one of the great individual seasons in Big 5 history. This season, a very young team will be looking to sophomore Henry Brooks, who has a coach who will make extreme demands and expect results. The basketball will matter. The rest of it will matter more.
Brooks grew up in Atlanta. Those were the formative years of his life. He has "a lot of memories in Atlanta. I like the city."
That tattoo on his arm, however, says "New Orleans." There is an imprint of the skyline with the Superdome, a fleur de lis, memories of the storm, including a helicopter and the words "we overcame." He got it done at the beginning of his freshman year at Penn. "New Orleans is home," Brooks said.
Brooks and his family eventually went back to his New Orleans home a few months after leaving, just to see what was there.
"When we went, we found that there was black and gray all up the walls," New said. "There was a water line that was about 4 feet high. Our refrigerator was flipped over. You could never imagine it."
Furnishings were in the wrong rooms. Nothing looked remotely the same.
"The whole neighborhood was wiped out," Brooks said.
Right after Katrina, New and her husband separated for a second time. He eventually returned to New Orleans and rebuilt that house on Shubert Street.
The daughters graduated from Georgia State in Atlanta and Agnes Scott in College Decatur, Ga. One of the sons began college playing football in Tennessee and is now at another school in New Mexico. Henry, the youngest, is about to begin his second year at Penn.
Seven Augusts after Katrina, New lives in a house with a basement, just in case there is a family that might ever need to use it. She has not forgotten the journey.
Contact Dick Jerardi at email@example.com.