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It was 10:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, and Apache had less than 20 hours to get two girls' basketball teams to North Carolina for a tournament. The players did not look worried, however. Several were guzzling bottles of Smirnoff Ice they'd picked up at a Warner Bros.-sponsored party nearby. Close to midnight, the vans finally arrived. Apache, the assistant coach, five friends, his sister, his one-year-old niece, three players' parents, and all the teenage girls crowded inside.
Apache was taking his teams to the Deep South Classic, one of the nation's largest tournaments for teenage girls' traveling teams. More than 120 teams and 200 college coaches would be there. The event promised far more exposure than most of Apache's players would ever get at their high school games. And these girls needed the exposure more than most. They came from Brownsville, Harlem, Bed-Stuy, the Lower East Side. Most are poor. Many live in the projects. Without a basketball scholarship, few will ever have a shot at college.
This trip would be the national debut of Exodus, the basketball club Apache started on the Lower East Side in 1993. In the past, there had never been enough money to travel farther than the Bronx. But if Exodus was to succeed, it would have to compete in tournaments around the country. So Apache spent months scrambling for money, begging friends and relatives to help. It seemed something of a miracle that he had actually pulled it off, that Exodus's caravan was now heading toward I-95.
From the front seat, Apache called out, "Is everybody comfortable here?"
The question was, of course, a joke. No one was comfortable. There was almost no leg room between rows. No headrests. No armrests. Already, the kids were complaining: "My butt hurts." "Get your feet off me." "My knees hurt." Sleeping would be a challenge, if not impossible. But no one was eager to sleep anyway.
"Hot-97, please," one girl shouted from the back.
Apache cranked up the volume, keeping the music on as he drove through the night.
Like many of his players, Apache grew up in the projects. His mother went to prison when he was 10. Then his grandmother took over, raising him and his three younger siblings. Basketball became his escape from the projects, his ticket to travel the country. He visited Colorado, Maryland, and Nevada with New Life, a Manhattan AAU basketball club. He also played for the Gauchos, based in the South Bronx, which is among the nation's top AAU clubs. Eventually, Apache won a scholarship to a South Dakota prep school and also to college. But before he could earn a college degree, he left. His grandmother was dying, and he needed to help care for his younger sisters.
As his hopes of playing college ball evaporated, Apache pursued a new basketball dream: his own AAU club with several traveling teams. He started with just one teamhimself, three cousins, and a few friendsand picked a club name that reflected his mission. He hoped Exodus would become a sort of family that moved around togethernot only from one tournament to the next, but from a past of poverty to a better future.
Apache coaches high school girls at St. Michael's Academy, but running Exodus consumes most of his time. Exodus now comprises 10 teams and about 100 players, both male and female, all of whom are recruited through word-of-mouth. Apache spends his days zooming around the city to tournaments, washing uniforms, and conducting business on his cell phonechatting with players, parents, scouts, and college coaches. This year, he helped several girls get scholarships to colleges, including Penn State and the University of Rhode Island.
For the trip to North Carolina, Apache figured he needed at least $3000 to cover the hotel rooms and vans, plus another $1000 for tournament fees. He convinced four friends to help drive for free. Traveling teams routinely charge players $500 or more for a national trip, but Apache asked for only $40. Still, that was more than some girls could afford. They were allowed to go anyway, though Apache told everyone they would have to pay for their own food. He felt bad about this"They don't need any added stress," he saidbut he did not know what else to do.
At 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Exodus finally arrived in North Carolina. There had been a few stops, including one to give a tipsy teen the chance to vomit on the side of the highway. Now the vans pulled into the parking lot of Waffle House. Some of the girls slid into booths and grabbed menus; others sat off to the side by themselves.
"Are you not eating because you don't have any money?" one girl called to another.