By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Money, or lack of money, affects nearly every aspect of this race for college scholarships. Nike and Adidas give free sneakers to some teams, but Exodus doesn't have a sponsor. In fact, there were not even enough Exodus uniforms to go around; for this trip, the younger girls wore jerseys left over from a boys' tournament. Unlike some clubs, Exodus doesn't have an office or business cards or color brochures. At this tournament, the Pittsburgh Rockers passed around bound books showing each player's face, height, playing stats, e-mail address, SAT scores, and class rank.
On Saturday, Exodus's older girls were scheduled for a 5 p.m. game at Duke University. Apache and Rodney thought there would be enough time to get there since the younger team finished their game at N.C. State before four. But then the coaches realized one van and two older players were missing. By the time the kids resurfaced, the coaches were furious. "We're not fucking going," Apache announced. "Let's go back to the hotel."
After a few minutes, Apache changed his mind, and the vans set off. They stopped a few times for directions, then arrived at Duke at 5:15 p.m. The older girls ran through the arched entryway, searching for their court. By the time they found it, the officials at the scorer's table said it was too late. Exodus had to forfeit. The loss knocked the team out of contention for the tournament title. The older girls would now be bumped to an 11 p.m. slot for their next gamefar too late for any coaches to watch.
Apache slouched in a chair next to the court. Once again, everything that could possibly go wrong had just gone wrong. What if they had left a little bit earlier? What if they had been able to afford a charter bus so the coaches did not have to drive? What if they had enough coaches so that each team could travel on its own? Next time, Apache vowed, they would all be better prepared.
Exodus's players and coaches were exhausted, hungry, and angry. They had barely slept in two days. As if to vent everyone's frustrations, one skinny eighth-grader kicked a foldout chair so hard that it flew through the air and smashed against a wall.
Exodus's vans left the Econo Lodge on Sunday at 11 a.m., their duffel bags and suitcases stuffed under the seats. The club was, as usual, running late. The younger girls had a noon game, and once again there wasn't much time for breakfast. When the vans stopped for gas, the teenagers filed into a convenience store. "Get something light," Rodney said. The players walked out with armfuls of Cheetos, Funyuns, Ruffles, and Yoo-Hoo.
The girls had barely eaten all weekend. Late at night, some walked to McDonald's from the hotel or ordered pizzas. Most had survived on just one meal a day. So far, two Exodus players had collapsed during games, perhaps due to lack of food or sleep or both.
Back on the court at N.C. State, the younger girls looked more alert than they had all weekend. Maybe they had finally recovered from their 11-and-a-half-hour road trip, or maybe the sugar-loaded breakfast helped. At any rate, they raced to an early lead over a Georgia club called the Dream Team.
Shortly before halftime, 14-year-old Carmen Arias, one of Exodus's most aggressive players, collapsed. A trainer revived her, but the team suffered. Exodus's opponents cruised to a 12-point lead.
After a little Gatorade and several bites of a tuna sandwich, Carmen returned. Her energy was infectious, and soon everyone was playing better. Kia grabbed rebounds and blocked shots. Carmen stole the ball. And another eighth-grader, Shanice Bell, sunk several free throws. Their teammates hollered from the sidelines. In the end, Exodus's heroics did not give them a victory, but they held onto their self-respect. They lost by only two points.
"I played good today," Shanice told her coach afterward. "I don't care what anyone says, yo. I tried my hardest."
"I'm proud of you," Apache said.
In the end, both of his teams won only one game. But to Apache, the trip was a success. His players had seen what it would take to come back here and win. And he had a stack of coaches' business cards in his jeans pocket. Over the next few days, coaches would call from N.C. State, St. John's, Georgia.
The trip would end 12 hours later, at 4 a.m. on Monday, after Apache had driven overnight and Exodus's caravan finally emerged from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. "As much as we bickered and had spats, when I get home, I'm gonna miss it," the coach said. "We'll be back next year."