Todd Graffagnini, the radio play-by-play announcer for the New Orleans Pelicans, is a walker. You can find Graff pounding the pavement somewhere around this great city almost every day. During this pause in games we've asked the New Orleans native to let fans tag along and learn about the routes he takes and some of the city's sports history.
Hello everyone. Hope all of you are staying safe and taking care of each other. It's time once again to venture into the fresh air and get in a nice long walk to refresh the body and mind. This time, it's off to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding areas of the University of New Orleans.
Full disclosure, this is the first time I've done this particular walk, but I think you'll find it enjoyable and I promise you'll learn a little about the history of this area, especially those of you under the age of 40, so off we go.
Start at the corner of Elysian Fields and Leon C. Simon and head north toward the lake. The main campus of UNO will be on the left. In about a quarter-mile (or less) we come up on a roundabout which was the old entrance to Pontchartrain Beach (more on that later). Veer to the right and head toward Lakeshore Drive. This section of the road has no sidewalk so stay to the right where there is a safe path to walk, then cross over to the road and over the levee and the lake will be in sight.
A little lagniappe about walking on the lake is that the breeze is most always up, so even if the weather is a bit on the warm side (and it will be for the next six months) it's pretty pleasant out there. Head east on the seawall (it's flat and ideal for walking). In another quarter-mile you'll see over the levee on your right the UNO Lakefront Arena and the lights of Maestri Field, the home of UNO baseball. Lakefront Arena has been much more than the home of UNO basketball, volleyball and swimming and diving since it opened in late November 1983. Countless concerts, NBA games, various conference basketball tournaments, even Disney on Ice have all been showcased in this building but as you make the turn right onto Franklin Avenue from Lakeshore Drive and head toward the top of the levee, the northwest parking lot is being used for something that was never expected. The car line this particular day was long for COVID-19 testing on site, beginning daily at 8 a.m.
Time to go off road and walk on the levee itself and continue to head east. Looking at the venerable building conjures up memories of great basketball games inside the arena when capacity crowds were the norm and not the exception. Gabe Corchiani is a well-known local businessman and restauranteur, best known now for owning Fat Boy's Pizza on Metairie Road. Back in the mid 1980s though, he was a point guard for the UNO basketball team that reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time under head coach Benny Dees. Corchiani, a 2009 UNO Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, recalls those early days in the new Arena and the excitement inside on game nights.
"The arena itself they had just opened the year previous, which was the inaugural year, and we were the second year out there to play when I came in as a freshman. For an 18-year-old, coming out of high school (in Miami) and playing in something like that, that type of facility was phenomenal. From the locker rooms, to the swimming pool, to the auxiliary courts to the big main arena, everything was brand new, so we were very spoiled with being the first ones to actually go ahead and play in there and use the facility.
"Those years that I played out there ('84-88) our average crowd was about 7,500-8,000 every game. That's sort of unheard anymore, but we used to be the game to go to in town and of course we did play some real good competition. We always had a Notre Dame come in or Memphis State, USC, and teams like that which were really good draws and of course it didn't hurt that one year ('86-87) we were ranked 14th in the country. We had gotten a lot of publicity and notoriety and we had a lot of local support. The media was out there, all three stations, every day at practice. It was really neat. It was a great experience."
Head back down off the levee back to the seawall where now Lakefront Airport will be directly across the way to the entrance to the Industrial Canal. Continue along to the bottom of the Seabrook Bridge and turn back around and head west back along the seawall. Now the walk gets historical, as you pass Franklin Avenue for the second time on your left you can see the top of a power plant looking building with Old Glory flying proudly. The present day Orleans Levee District Flood Division building used to house one of Andrew Higgins' manufacturing facilities that produced boats and landing craft used to helped win World War II. Still to this day there is a cut in the seawall where Higgins used to launch his boats into the lake for testing.
Heading into the homestretch, go back up over the levee on Lakeshore Drive and to the roundabout. Now, those who want to end the excursion take a left on Elysian Fields back to your mode of transportation. On this day I wasn't ready to stop just yet so I continued on Lakeshore heading west. To the right is the site of the present day UNO Research and Technology Park. However, those of you over the age of 40 can clearly remember when this piece of land was Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park until 1983. You can almost hear the screams from the people who were hurtling down the great Zephyr roller coaster. Still within those walls today is the Milneburg Lighthouse which dates to 1838.
One final little bit of history before the walk concludes. On the left used to be a Naval Air Reserve Base dating to as early as 1941. You can still see the original smokestack and some barracks/office buildings behind that which are the only structures remaining from that time.
I hope all of you enjoyed this trip back into some New Orleans Lakefront history and got in some good exercise as well. We'll visit again next week with another edition. Stay safe.
Todd Graffagnini is the radio play-by-play announcer for the New Orleans Pelicans and a digital contributor to the New Orleans Saints.