By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
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By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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.
"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."
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."