SLAM 135: In his hometown of New Orleans, Bo McCalebb is a local legend. Now he’s going international.
Bo McCalebb secured his legend in New Orleans a long time ago. Tomorrow — as he leads Partizan in the Euroleague Final Four — Bo will put the world on notice. His next play could very well be on the other side of the pond.– Ed.
by Aggrey Sam
On a scorching summer day at McDonogh Playground in the Algiers section of New Orleans, Bo McCalebb plays a half-spirited game of one-on-one with his little brother under the tin-roof covered asphalt. His mother, cousin, younger sister and a pack of preteen youngsters (who initially mob him on sight) are there to attend a summer camp. Back where it all started, the king and his court.
When people talk about local legends, it should be a conversation the entire community—at least those old enough to remember and young enough not to forget—can chime in on. It also helps if the subject has a colorful nickname, personal anecdotes so remarkable they had to be true and a couple dozen witnesses who each put their own personal spin on it. Bo McCalebb is a legend.
As a resident of the Big Easy for most of ’08 and ’09, this writer witnessed the city’s infatuation with him. Yeah, Greg Monroe was the up-and-coming kid, native DJ Augustin was putting in work on national TV at Texas and CP3 fever was at its peak amongst Hornets fans. But the streets—where local legends always make their name—couldn’t stop talking about “Bo Lester.”
New Orleans is a place where overachievers like Robert Pack and Avery Johnson take the not-so-scenic route to the pros, and so-called prep sleepers like Kerry Kittles and Danny Granger are anonymous—even in their hometown—until they wake up the nation after they move on. With apologies to the aforementioned Augustin and Monroe, anomalies as recent nationally regarded phenoms from New Orleans, media overexposure of hoop stars rarely happens in the NO. Thus, the exploits of McCalebb—a local high school superstar, playground legend and homegrown college hero rolled into one—are even more celebrated.
A native of New Orleans’ Westbank—or “across the river” (the Mississippi, that is), as locals refer to it—Lester McCalebb, Jr. (hence the nickname) made his name at an early age.
“The very first time I saw him play—I’d heard about him even earlier—we were playing in these project leagues,” reminisces New Orleans native James Parlow, who faced off against Bo through their high school careers before they teamed up in college. “We were both 10, but he was playing against 17-year-olds. He wasn’t just out there, either—he was starting, scoring on these dudes, putting on a show.”
“He was on varsity as an eighth grader,” recalls Greg “Pointer” Bryant, “and he was already a great athlete.” (Bo’s alma mater, O. Perry Walker High School, went from grades 7-12 before Hurricane Katrina and the middle-school students were allowed to play for the high school’s teams). Bryant runs leagues on the Westbank and has seen the best players for last 20 years.
“When he got on the floor, he would do stuff other players just couldn’t do,” recalls Bryant. “He just had natural ability—left hand, right hand, going to the hole.”
Walker High was typically football-mad (among McCalebb’s classmates were three future NFL draftees) and was never known as a basketball power. Didn’t make a difference to Bo. Twenty ppg as a ninth-grader, 32 as a senior—including an almost-mythical 78-point performance on his last regular-season home game, on Valentine’s Day (according to Bo; talk around the city places his total anywhere from 80 to 90 that evening), with enough memorable moments in between to have Weezy write a song about him.
While Bo was known across the city for his accomplishments, national recognition would be hard to come by. The Big Easy marches to its own band and football, the main sport in town, was and still is king. As with second-line parades and brass-band music, the insular culture of the community extends to the hardwood, too; appreciate it if you want, but don’t expect the typical big-city hype machine treatment.
“New Orleans doesn’t have the advantages other places do (in basketball),” notes McCalebb. Keep in mind, Bo is talking about what it was like balling in the Big Easy before Hurricane Katrina. “No matter how good you are, you don’t get the attention, and nobody really told me to play other places to get my name out there.”
“A lot of people don’t look at New Orleans as a basketball city,” adds Shaun Dumas, an NAIA All-American at local Xavier University who wasn’t recruited by any DI schools despite starring at St. Augustine (alma mater of the aforementioned Johnson and Kittles, as well as ex-Oklahoma star Hollis Price), the city’s premier basketball power. “People looked at New Orleans as a football city. And then after [Katrina] happened, even less attention was on New Orleans for basketball.”
“Since my freshman year, I got recruited by LSU,” Bo says. “But they backed off when they got Tack Minor (a more-heralded scoring point guard from Houston in the class ahead of him). I had Ole Miss, Wisconsin, USC,” he continues. “But Oklahoma State said they would sign me, so I verbally committed there and didn’t take any more visits.
“But on signing day, nothing came.”
Maybe it was his unconventional scoring style, based on attacking the rim with his quickness, power and athleticism. It’s possible his gaudy numbers were viewed as a byproduct of subpar comp. Some of it could be attributed to the lack of AAU ball Bo, a renowned homebody, played. Except for the summer preceding his senior year, when he joined the Jackson (MS) Panthers, the best place to catch his act was in a local summer league or maybe at a tournament no further than Mississippi. While a few programs in the area do travel to the bigger national summer events, for the most part, New Orleans travel teams don’t venture far.
“The only place I really heard about him was in the city,” confirms Parlow, who played more AAU ball than Bo and was recruited accordingly, although he also decided to stay home for college. “He was under the radar nationally.”
Still, the fact that such a prolific scorer couldn’t even get recruited by any SEC programs was a stunner. So he went where he was most appreciated. After being shunned by the elites, Bo decided to do what so many local heroes do in the NO—stay home and continue to build his legacy. “I didn’t know UNO even existed when I was growing up,” he says. “But Coach (Monte) Towe wanted me and it was home.”
In the Tim Floyd era, the University of New Orleans made a mark for itself, producing several successful seasons and a pro, long-time NBA journeyman center Ervin Johnson—but that was back in the day. Keeping the Bo Lester Show local didn’t necessarily result in massive crowds, but at least his decision allowed area residents to follow his exploits for UNO’s oft-forgotten hoops program. Bo put in work for the Privateers from day one, averaging a team-leading 13 ppg, taking the squad to the Sun Belt conference tourney chip game and winning the league’s Freshman of the Year award for the ’03-04 season. More remarkable was how he did it off raw ability.
“When we played together in college, I found out that he never really worked out before that,” says his teammate Parlow. “He just played in the park all day.”
As a sophomore, McCalebb got the green light and he delivered, putting up 22.6 points an outing, to go with 4.3 boards, 3.7 dimes and 1.8 steals, earning him the first of his three first-team all-conference honors. Towe was replaced by Buzz Williams, but before Bo’s junior year even started, Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown.
“When Katrina hit, UNO (the entire athletic department) moved to Tyler, TX,” recalls Bo. “To be honest, I slept through the storm.” The rest of the UNO athletics department were fortunate enough to have assistance immediately, relocating to Tyler Junior College’s campus, and thus, directly avoiding many of the horrors associated with the storm’s aftermath. “My mom’s house was good,” Bo says, “but she still moved.”
With the circumstances surrounding Katrina, the NCAA permitted athletes at New Orleans-area colleges to transfer without penalty. Even though several bigger colleges took notice of Bo after his standout sophomore season and controversially (UNO coaches described it as “tampering”) put the full-court press on him to transfer to their higher-profile programs—ironically giving him the recruiting attention he deserved from the outset—he stayed at UNO.
“People kept saying I might have to sit out if I transferred, plus my mom was sick,” explains Bo. “And I know damn near everybody here.”
Bo suffered a wrist injury three games into the Privateers’ messy ’05-06 season, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season with a medical redshirt. UNO wasn’t alone in their misery.
Tulane, the city’s other DI school, closed their campus for the fall semester, while the hoops squad relocated to Texas A&M’s campus. “As a first-yeard head coach, I was looking forward to the season,” remembers Tulane head man Dave Dickerson, who went through the Green Wave’s first eight games of the season while based in Texas before returning for the team’s first true home game after Christmas. “After Katrina, all those hopes and possibilities were no longer there.”
It was even tougher for a non-DI team: Xavier’s program was suspended for the season.
“We had no gym, anything. A lot of cats left,” recalls Dumas. “We had to play outside. A lot of parks were turned into mobile homes, so you couldn’t play because there were trailers.” With so many families displaced, the majority of programs—let alone high school teams—weren’t up and running.
“A few Catholic schools played in Jefferson Parish (the suburbs of New Orleans), but the only Orleans Parish schools I remember playing were McMain and McDonogh 35—in the same gym, just those two schools,” says Reggie Frilot, a long-time high school coach in the area. “Here, you don’t have a lot of places to play—even less now than before Katrina. There were fewer schools open, a lot of kids still haven’t returned.”
Still, like the city at large has tried to do, Bo stuck it out, and the following season he averaged a career-high 25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg and 2.0 spg to win the Sun Belt’s MVP award.
Williams, his coach for that one season, lights up when asked about McCalebb. “He was the best player I ever coached—hands down. I told Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, Wes Matthews, all the guys at Marquette that all the time,” said Williams. “I was harder on Bo than any other player. We had absolutely no depth when I took the job, so I knew for us to be successful, Bo had to be the reason behind it. He had to do more than just score and he answered the bell every time, competed every single possession. In Louisiana, when you say Bo, they know who you’re talking about. You’ve gotta be pretty special to just be known by one name all over a whole state.”
As a senior, Bo played for yet another coach, Joe Pasternack, and had another dominant year, averaging a conference-leading 23.2 ppg and 2.4 spg, along with 4.5 rpg and 3.1 apg, while raising his once-mediocre free-throw percentage to 77.2 percent, shooting 40.5 percent from behind the arc (amazing when you consider most critics knock his outside J) and 50.6 percent from the floor, incredible for a 6-0 gunner. Although he finished second to Western Kentucky’s Courtney Lee for Sun Belt POY honors, he won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and shattered the league’s all-time scoring record, wrapping up his career with an astounding 2,679 points. Following his senior year, Bo played in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament but wasn’t picked to participate in NBA Pre-Draft Camp—nor was he selected in the ’08 NBA Draft. And while he was picked up by Sacramento’s summer league team, Bo has yet to play in an NBA game.
That’s where the story ends, right? Another hometown hero ends up back home—dream over. Not exactly. Last season, Bo was in Turkey, playing point guard in the Mersin BSB backcourt with ex-Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton. He averaged 17.4 ppg (10th in the league), 4.8 apg (eighth in the league) and a league-leading 2.7 spg, all while shooting 59 percent from the field and garnering second team all-league honors as a rookie. This season, McCalebb is playing for KK Partizan Belgrade in Serbia.
The adjustment to playing and living overseas couldn’t have been easy, especially for somebody who had never lived outside of New Orleans (an altogether different environment than anywhere else in this country, and that’s coming from someone who knows). But then again, look at his college career—and his determination.
“We played under three different staffs, so he had to be versatile—he even had to play some 4,” says Parlow. “He just has the drive to win no matter the situation. He’s one of the best players to ever play ball in New Orleans.”
“He’s a kid who needs to be challenged; he plays harder against better players,” points out Frilot, who coached Bo during his senior year as an UNO assistant. “When you talk about all the great players from New Orleans, none of them stayed home,” he continues. “Obviously it would have been nicer if it was on a bigger stage, but he stayed home and played and had a great career.”
“Bo’s in the top five—no doubt. He raised the bar,” adds Bryant, whose brother Dwayne, who played collegiately at Georgetown, might also be in that conversation. “I think staying here was the worst decision he ever made, but it did make (watching) his career better…All you hear is, ‘Bo Lester.’ When Bo’s home and plays in my league, everybody comes to see him. He’s a good kid and a role model. He might go out for a drink or something, but all he really does besides that is play ball.”
There is no homegrown hero on the horizon in New Orleans. While the Crescent City is slowly returning to normalcy, with the exodus of student-athletes in general in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, legit high school stars are few and far between. There won’t be another Bo Lester anytime soon.
“I was always out here by myself; I watched the little things the older guards did and practiced them,” Bo, back at McDonogh, remembers. “Down here, we don’t have too many big guys, so the guards—we gotta be scrappy. My dad used to bring me out here to play against grown men, so I was never scared on the court after playing here.”
“I’m not the cocky type; I don’t talk on the court,” he continues. “I just go in there like I have something to prove.”
Maybe in Europe or next summer, when he’ll take another shot at making the League—but not in New Orleans. The legend is alive and well at home.