Tragedy and chaos: Inside one coach’s extraordinary quest to save his season

A THIN LAYER of dust covers the wooden floor inside the Crescent City Christian School gym, 9 miles west of downtown New Orleans. The court hasn’t been touched in months.

No lights are on. A chair that looks like it belongs in a hotel conference room sits in the middle of the floor. It’s mid-May, almost two months to the day since the gym has last been used. A few pieces of trash litter the ground.

In the locker room, a bouquet of withered yellow roses and carnations sits atop a locker in the corner.

On the left side of the gym, on the top shelf of a small trophy case, sit four trophies — championship trophies from 2017 and 2020 and runner-up trophies from 2018 and 2019.

This is where you can find Shaun Dumas on most days. It’s where, in March, he tried to keep a group of 14 high school boys together in a world that was falling apart around them. It’s where he’s come now to tell his story. It’s where he’s been coming for weeks, to try to make sense of all that’s happened. This is his sanctuary.

IT WAS AN early afternoon on March 7, a bright, sunny Saturday, when Shaun Dumas’ world began to slide out from under him. The 34-year-old basketball coach of the Crescent City Pioneers for the past seven years, a rising star in the coaching ranks who had built this private New Orleans high school into a regional powerhouse, Dumas was on his way back to his apartment, just a 20-minute drive from the school he calls home, when his phone buzzed. In the coming week, his team would be competing in the semifinals of the Division IV Louisiana state basketball championship. His mind was on practices and schemes and matchups.

He looked down to see who was calling. It was his father, Claude.

“Shaun, where are you?”

Shaun told his dad he was just about to pull into the parking lot of his apartment building.

“Are you sitting down?”

Of course he was sitting down. He was still in his truck. Still, Claude waited until Shaun told him that he’d parked inside his complex to deliver the news to his son.

“Brianna passed.”

Shaun Dumas sat up in his blue Ford F-150, a numbness falling over his body. He hung up and stared out the window.

Brianna Hayes, 24, was Dumas’ second cousin, but the two were so close that Dumas often called her his sister. Tyiece Baptiste, Hayes’ mother, says the two were “inseparable.”

Just two days earlier, Hayes had boarded a five-day, four-night Carnival cruise from New Orleans to Mexico with her aunt, Wyvette Antoine Bates. Brianna, who’d been released from the hospital just four days earlier after a battle with pneumonia, had been using a mobility scooter.

After the ship had docked in Cozumel, Brianna and Wyvette had explored the tiny Mexican island and by lunchtime made their way back to the ship to hit the lido deck. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Antoine Bates says she walked over to a window and gazed out over the water. Brianna rode on her scooter to join her, ribbing her aunt for not being able to tell that the ship was moving. A few minutes later, Antoine Bates says, Brianna said she wanted to go back to the room to take a nap. She was feeling a little off, she said.

To do that, Brianna needed to back up her scooter and then turn to the left, toward their room. Instead, she accelerated straight. Confused, her aunt called out to her.

“Brianna, why you going that way?”

“I don’t know,” Brianna said.

The way Brianna said it — her tone, her inflection — Antoine Bates knew something had gone very wrong, very quickly. “I could tell her body was in distress.”

Antoine Bates ran to the nearest employee to call for help. In the seconds it took for that help to arrive, Brianna had begun fading in and out of consciousness, slumping over to the side of her scooter, into Antoine Bates’ arms.

Additional medics arrived. They put Brianna onto the ground and began performing CPR. After 45 minutes, one of the medics motioned to another. They’d done all they could do.

One day shy of her 25th birthday, Brianna Hayes was gone.

ON SUNDAY, NOT even 24 hours after Brianna’s death, Dumas headed to Crescent City’s gymnasium for practice. As if the death of Brianna were not enough to occupy his mind, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the U.S. By the end of the night, more than 500 cases would be confirmed. Twenty-two Americans would be dead.

It was two days after his top-seeded team’s quarterfinal victory. It was also the team’s first practice since Dumas had learned the devastating news about his cousin. On this day, the normally jovial Dumas, a point guard in his day who still runs 5-on-5 with his players, was quiet, more reserved. Assistant coaches were taking the lead.

“He wasn’t really talking as much,” says senior guard Byron Joshua, a four-time all-state selection. “You knew something was up.”

Following a quicker-than-normal run-through, the team headed into assistant coach Derek Alleman’s classroom for its usual post-practice film session. There, Dumas flipped on the television and threw on some game film. After 45 minutes of breaking down the upcoming opponent — and looking ahead to a potential state championship matchup — he paused.

He had to tell his kids one more thing. Tears welling up in his eyes, he choked on the words.

“When he told us,” says senior forward Glenn Rhone, “you could tell it hit him to the core.”

One by one, each of Dumas’ players walked to the front of the classroom and threw their arms around him.

“We’re focused on being family here,” Dumas says. “I told them, ‘You guys start off as teammates, but you become family.’ Some of these guys have known me half of their lives. I needed my coaching staff. I needed my kids. And they were there.”

The next day, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards would make an announcement that suggested future turmoil: “While today is the first time that we can confirm that we have a presumptive positive coronavirus case, Louisiana has been preparing for this moment for many weeks. The CDC still believes the risk to the general public is low, but we will work quickly and decisively to assess the risk to those around this patient.”

Still, for now, there was another task to be handled: Brianna’s body was still on the ship. It was the family’s responsibility to retrieve it.

DUMAS HAD TURNED the Crescent City Pioneers into a local powerhouse. In 2013, he’d inherited a team that had gone 3-21 the prior season. By 2017, his fourth season, Dumas had led Crescent City to its first state championship appearance and victory in school history. Since the 2013-14 season, he’d compiled a 147-88 record on the strength of a system that relied on a fast-paced transition offense and a highly aggressive on-ball defense. In the opening round, Crescent City had rolled through the No. 16 seed 80-33. In the quarterfinals, the team had beaten perennial local power Riverside 78-63.

Now, on Tuesday night, the Crescent City gymnasium began to fill for the Pioneers’ semifinal game against St. Mary’s. Inside the locker room, though, the players were focused on something else.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Dumas had surprised his players with fresh pairs of white-and-black Adidas Harden Stepbacks — a thank-you for their season-long work in earning the top seed in the 2020 postseason. Now, less than half an hour before tipoff, the players unveiled a gift of their own.

Rhone, who typically sits two lockers away from where Dumas gives his pregame talk, was standing in the back. He walked to the front and presented Dumas with a small bouquet of flowers, yellow roses and carnations set in a simple yellow vase. Before Dumas could respond, Rhone said there was another surprise.

Dumas looked toward the floor and to the front row of players. On every player’s left shoe — from the five seniors to the lone eighth-grader — was a message written in black Sharpie: “This4Brianna.”

“He told us the day before, ‘Don’t make this about me.’ But for us, it was for him,” Rhone says. “He put so many hours into us. We wanted to show him that we appreciate him. We wanted him to know that she was going to be with us.”

Dumas, scanning the room, turned away from his team.

“He didn’t cry,” Rhone says, “but, you know, he had to do that turn-around thing and take that deep breath.”

As the players began to file out of the locker room, Joshua stayed back, he and Dumas walking together toward their home court. The point guard had a message.

Coach, we got you.

From the opening tip, it seemed Joshua was right. Crescent City scored the game’s first eight points on its way to a 20-point halftime lead. But it was then that Dumas’ mind started to drift. He couldn’t help but think about who wasn’t there. His assistant coaches had anticipated this and had conspired to make sure there wasn’t a seat for Dumas to sit on during the game; they didn’t want his mind to wander even for a second. Still, throughout the game, Dumas says he found himself constantly looking up in the stands, six rows up, right on the aisle, on the opposite side of the Crescent City bench. That’s where Hayes would always sit, right next to his parents.

The Pioneers ultimately cruised to a 67-51 semifinal victory, securing a spot in the state championship that Saturday. The game would be played in their home gym.

Or so they thought.

ON THURSDAY, DUMAS was driving back from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association head office in Baton Rouge — having picked up the championship trophies and game ball — when he received a call that would upend an already tumultuous week.

Just the day before, Crescent City had been set to host sixth-seeded Calvary Baptist, and Dumas had spoken with Calvary’s coach and athletic director about the setup for the game, how many tickets the team would have, what time the shootaround would be. Everything had been on schedule.

Now, almost an hour into his drive back from Baton Rouge, on the Bonnet Carre Spillway Bridge, Dumas received a call from LHSAA executive director Eddie Bonine and assistant executive director Karen Hoyt. They had a simple, yet loaded, question: “How do you feel about moving the game to Baton Rouge?”

One day earlier, the World Health Organization had officially classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic. In the U.S., there were more than 1,200 cases and 38 deaths spread across 43 states and Washington, D.C.

By Wednesday night, the number of cases in Louisiana had grown to 13.

Unbeknownst to Dumas at the time, Calvary Baptist had released a statement earlier on Thursday. It read: “Transporting 150 students/fans on charter buses to a city where 10 confirmed cases exist, to co-mingle with an at-risk population in close proximity, seems at the least irresponsible and potentially liable. We have requested the LHSAA provide a COVID-19 action plan commensurate to their stated ‘non-select’ plan or postpone this event until the safety of our student athletes and fans can be guaranteed.”

Dumas knew it wasn’t his decision to make. He told Bonine and Hoyt that he’d rather keep the game at Crescent City but wanted the two to talk to Crescent City’s superintendent. So Dumas just continued down the interstate. Five days after he’d lost his cousin, the goal his team had worked for all year, hosting the championship game, was now in jeopardy. By the time Dumas made it back to the school, he suspected the decision had all but been made: The game would be moving to Baton Rouge.

He was right. Bonine would later say he ultimately decided they weren’t going to force a school from what was then a non-infected area to go into an infected area to play the game. “The only other option was to cancel,” Bonine says.

Later Thursday night, Dumas spoke with his kids. He tried to prepare them for the official word that he knew was coming the next day.

“They were deflated,” Dumas says. “They were mad.”

As he sat alone in his apartment, Dumas had reached his breaking point.

He had watched the news all day as professional league after professional league shut down. Twenty-four hours earlier, the NBA had suspended its season indefinitely. Now MLS was suspending its season for 30 days — followed, in the span of just over an hour, by the majority of college conferences canceling their conference tournaments. Shortly after that, Major League Baseball canceled spring training games and delayed the start of the regular season. The NHL put its season on hold. By day’s end, the NCAA had canceled all postseason tournaments for spring and winter sports, including March Madness.

Amid all that, Dumas had been trying to plan a funeral for his cousin, with the very real possibility that no one would be able to attend.

And he was now confronting conspiracy theories from his own team.

The texts and messages poured in, his phone lighting up like a Pop-A-Shot scoreboard.

Is this because of what’s going on with COVID-19 or is this because Calvary Baptist doesn’t want to play us in our own gym?

Why are they trying to take this moment away from us?

One parent openly suggested that Crescent City boycott the game, arguing the school should just keep its players at home instead of traveling to Baton Rouge. Another sent a text about how “pissed off” she was. Others called, voicing their anger.

Holding his phone as the digital onslaught intensified, Dumas could think of only one thing. He opened his photo album and scrolled.

He looked at pictures of him and Brianna. Of her and his daughter Haven.

Anything he could do to keep his mind off the game.

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AT 12:11 P.M. on Friday, Shaun Dumas picked up his phone and officially delivered the news he knew was coming. He opened up the team’s group message and fired off 12 words: Championship game has been moved to Lee High School in Baton Rouge.

Not an hour later, as the team began to take the court for practice, Dumas sensed something was off. His players were unusually quiet. Shots were being lazily hoisted. No one wanted to be there.

“You could tell we were all frustrated,” Rhone says. “Very annoyed.”

Dumas gathered his players and gave them a simple set of instructions: “Go home, pack a bag, be back at 5 o’clock.”

They were getting out of Metairie, Dumas told his team, getting out of the New Orleans area. They were going to Baton Rouge for the night.

By day’s end, Edwards, the governor, would shut down public schools for a month and ban gatherings of more than 250 people. The number of confirmed cases in Louisiana would nearly triple, to 36.

Now, as his players packed for the one-night trip about 70 miles west, and as the LHSAA was officially making the decision to play its state championship games without fans, Dumas and his assistant coaches were calling all around Baton Rouge to find a practice gym. State rules dictated that teams weren’t allowed to practice at Lee High, the setting for Saturday night’s state championship game.

Eventually, Alleman found a spot, Brusly High School, and the Pioneers pulled up there just after 8:30 on Friday night. It would be their final practice of the year as a team.

“We were going hard,” Rhone says. “We didn’t want to leave the gym. It had to be almost 11 when we did.”

Later that night, inside the OYO Hotel, a two-star budget hotel chain off the I-12 interstate in Baton Rouge, Dumas couldn’t sleep. It was a problem he’d been having the whole week. There were some nights he’d hardly slept at all.

So it was that at 3 in the morning, when a text message flashed across his screen, Dumas was wide awake to see it. It was from Byron Joshua. Joshua and Dumas had a special bond, one undersized point guard spending four years under the tutelage of another.

Coach, I got you.

Then Joshua, who also couldn’t sleep, texted his coach that he wanted to find somewhere to shoot. At 3 in the morning. Dumas texted back, telling his starting point guard he needed to get some rest.

ON EVERY LEVEL, but especially in high school, coaching is about more than X’s and O’s. Ask Dumas what distinguishes his teams and he’ll tell you it’s their unity. Their faith in the power of their collective strength. It’s a belief he distills. A mentality he forges.

In truth, that effort had started six months earlier, before the team’s first official practice of the season, when Dumas had assembled his players in a classroom and handed them a challenge. He had scribbled down every player’s name on a piece of paper. Then he tore that paper into shreds, scattering the pieces onto the hardwood floor.

Then he handed the team a roll of Scotch tape.

“I tell them throughout the season, a lot of stuff is going to happen,” Dumas says, describing the exercise. “A lot of people are trying to tear you apart. You’re going to have some people in this room that might quit. Now we’re going to show we’re all we got. … Who was outside running laps in the sand? Who was running the 22 suicides?

“So guess who is here today? It’s just us.”

Dumas had no idea, half a year later, how prescient he would be. At 6 p.m., Crescent City and Calvary Baptist tipped off the Division IV state championship game — inside an empty gym at Lee High in Baton Rouge.

Early in the first quarter, Crescent City struggled, falling behind by eight points. In a normal game, with fans in the stands, a steal or a dunk can ignite a crowd. Tonight, the relative silence was its own form of deafening.

By the second quarter, after Dumas had encouraged his point guard to settle the pace, the top-seeded Pioneers claimed a lead they wouldn’t relinquish — but only barely.

With 5:38 remaining in the game, Crescent City was up by a mere basket, with Calvary Baptist in possession. Joshua stole the ball on the right wing, then was fouled in transition going for a layup. He sank both free throws, stretching the lead to four — a prelude to a 15-6 run to secure Crescent City’s second state championship in four years.

Joshua, with 15 points, led the team in scoring. He also fulfilled his promise to his coach.

After the game, as his coaches surrounded him and as his players celebrated, Shaun Dumas was whisked away to the interview room for a news conference with the few media members who’d been allowed to attend. Joshua sat to his left.

Dumas fought back tears as he described his community coming together around him. Seven days after Brianna’s death, five days after the first COVID-19 case hit New Orleans and four days after the mayor began shutting down the city, the coach lowered his head, the burdens finally showing their weight.

“He knows we did it for her,” Rhone says now. “We knew we made him proud. There were times he could’ve been with her and he was with us. We wanted to show him that wasn’t for nothing. He knows we love him. But you have to keep showing someone that you love them over and over again.”

TWO DAYS BEFORE the funeral, Shaun Dumas and his family headed to the funeral home to view Brianna’s body. They walked into a small chapel, where her body was laid out in a casket.

As seven of his family members went first, Dumas sat alone and prayed, refusing to look up until it was his time.

When it was, he slowly approached the casket. He knelt beside Brianna. He told her he missed her. He told her he’d won another state championship.

By March 21, the date of Brianna’s funeral and a week after Dumas had won his second state title, the number of cases in Louisiana had reached almost 800. It was mere foreshadowing of what was to come. The day after the funeral, Edwards announced a stay-at-home order. Brianna’s funeral would be among the last large gatherings in New Orleans for months.

By the end of March, Louisiana would contain two of the nation’s six hardest-hit counties or parishes in COVID-19 death rate per capita.

Two days after the funeral, Dumas walked into Crescent City’s small gymnasium, searching for something like closure.

Dumas had already put the 2020 state championship trophy in the small trophy case that sits underneath one of the bleachers. After placing a small chair at midcourt — a small chair that would look more at home in a hotel conference room — he began to take each trophy out, one by one.

He picked up the 2017 trophy and remembered where Brianna was after the win. He picked up the 2018 and 2019 runner-up trophies and remembered her being there to console him.

Then he got to the latest one. The one she wasn’t there for.

Down the hall, in the locker room, a bouquet of yellow roses and carnations sat atop a locker in the corner.

He sat down at midcourt. His four trophies were set in front of him. And as a pandemic raged around him, and the world as he knew it began to grind to a halt, Shaun Dumas allowed himself to smile.

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