By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
"No, I'm not hungry," she responded.
This seemed hard to believe; the last chance to eat had been a 2 a.m. stop at Roy Rogers.
Before they left, Rodney Johnson, Exodus's assistant coach, had reserved 10 rooms at a Sheraton, but the price was more than the club could afford: $69 per room per night. After driving around for an hour looking for a cheaper hotel, the teams ended up at an Econo Lodge off Route 70 in Raleigh. Rodney negotiated with a manager, a calculator and stacks of twenties covering the reception counter. The rooms here were only $39.95 per night. Apache doesn't have a credit card, and so they paid the bill in cash: $770.56.
By now, it was 1:30 p.m., 13 and a half hours after Exodus left Manhattan. As soon as the girls saw their rooms, the grumbling started. No hot water. Holes in the walls. Too few cots. The hotel was certainly not the Sheraton, or even a Days Inn. But it would have to do. Apache told the girls to sleep and shower. Their first game started in four hours.
Three collegiate basketball powerhouses hosted the Deep South Classic: North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina. The campuses promised a picturesque backdrop, but for Exodus at least, the setup would be a logistical nightmare. Apache had divided the girls into two teams: 17-and-under and 15-and-under. Each team was scheduled to play five games. And so over three days, Apache and Rodney would have to figure out how to get 21 girls to 10 games in three different towns.
Both teams played the first night at N.C. State. The younger girls won, then watched the older girls lose. By the time everyone got back to the hotel, it was 12:30 a.m. Few of the girls wanted to sleep. They played spades, watched BET, and danced in their rooms all night.
In the lives of Exodus's members, Apache plays many roles: parent, college counselor, coach, friend, shrink. His duties range from holding his players' earrings during games to attending parent-teacher conferences if a player has no one else to go. One teenager calls Apache "Daddy"; another calls him "Mama Apache."
At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, Apache dived into the role of coach and began banging on players' doors.
"Let's go!" he shouted. "Let's go! Lights! Camera! Action! Responsibility! Let's go!"
Doors slowly cracked open and sleepy eyes stared out. Four or five girls shared each room, and most were still in their pajamas or boxer shorts.
Two hours later, the younger girls were tying the laces on their Air Jordans and And 1s inside the Dean E. Smith Center at U.N.C., where Michael Jordan's college jersey hangs from the rafters. Once the girls got on the court, their fatigue showed. There had been no time for breakfast. The Lady Rockets of Chicago beat Exodus by 20 points.
"Those are monsters, those aren't girls," an Exodus player complained.
"Number 14 looks old enough to be my mother," said her teammate.
Apache and Rodney refused to entertain excuses. "That team outplayed us, and they are better than us," said Rodney, 38, who played basketball for the University of New Hampshire. "Nobody was doing what they were supposed to do. . . . This trip is not for y'all to have a vacation."
The girls stared at their sneakers and said nothing. They had come to North Carolina to win games, of course, but their coaches had another motive: to scare them into working harder. Many of Exodus's eighth-graders have great potential. Belmarie Ramos is already 6-6, taller than almost everyone in the WNBA. And Kia Vaughn has inherited the athleticism of her father, the legendary streetball player known as "Predator." But for all these girls, winning a college scholarship will not be easy. They will have to work hard, while also navigating the triple threat of drugs, poor grades, and pregnancy.
Apache had shouted himself hoarse during the game, but he continued the lecture Rodney had started. "Now you're not just the big fish in a little pond, dominating all the little girls at your junior high school," he said. "We're talking about going to college. It seems a long way off. Just the other day, you were in sixth grade, but time goes like this." He snapped his fingers. "Y'all have to seize the moment."
The college coaches are the ones who sit alongside the courts, scribbling in spiral notebooks and taking in two games at once. Every school seems to have sent someone. Even Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee coach, shows up, prompting a young Exodus player to announce optimistically, "She's going to be my coach."
Girls' college coaches often stay away from New York City because they assume players won't have the grades or SAT scores to get into their schools. Apache insists, "All my girls could go to Division I if they could be seen." Being seen, though, means having the money to travel to tournaments around the country.
"New York is usually underrepresented" at these events, says Darcel Estep, head coach at St. John's University, who stopped by an Exodus game. "It's great to see them down here at such a large-exposure-type camp. It's definitely the right step in the right direction."