From the time she received her first letter from Florida State in the seventh grade, Nicole Louden was recruited by every major Division I women's basketball program in the country, from Connecticut to Tennessee to Rutgers. Dreaming of one day competing in the WNBA, Nicole devoted her days to basketball, while her friends were busy working or taking it easy. She's Got Handle follows Nicole along the recruiting trail, from the Nike summer camp to AAU tournaments to interviews with college coaches, documenting her career as her star rises, falls, and then rises again.
Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, a city riddled with the empty buildings, dilapidated housing projects, and violence characteristic of many of our nation's inner cities, Nicole manages to stay on the straight and narrow. She avoids the common pitfalls of drugs, violence, and teenage pregnancy largely because of the strength and spirit of the women in her Jamaican immigrant family. Her grandmother, Euphemia Richman, is a steadfast believer in the American Dream and inspires Nicole to become a high achiever in both academics and athletics. Her mother, Andrea Richman, is a hard worker and devoted mother. Joan Richman is Nicole's aunt and her biggest fan.
As women's sports have exploded in popularity in the wake of Title IX, a generation of girls like Nicole can now imagine playing professional basketball, something that was unheard of only a few years ago. She's Got Handle examines the crossroads at which women's hoops appears to stand. Will the women's game mirror the mistakes of the men's game -- recruiting players so early that childhood takes a backseat to basketball, and crossing the line from aggressive to illegal recruitment practices -- or will it remain, as now, a purer and more ideal version of the sport?
|Publisher:||Andrews McMeel Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.15(d)|
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Nicole positions her feet behind the foul line, gazes intently at the rim, and lets loose a free throw as if nothing else in the world exists but the net 15 feet away. All around her, her Kennedy High School teammates engage in loosely organized shoot-arounds and games of one-on-one. The squeaking of sneakers and the chatter of children on the verge of adulthood fills the air. Within the confines of the Kennedy High School gymnasium, Nicole is an island of concentration in a sea of distraction.
The 14-year-old freshman's focus isn't the only thing that sets her apart. The other players warm up in red-and-black Kennedy T-shirts and sweats; Nicole wears a white shirt neatly tucked into her black athletic shorts. It advertises the nascent WNBA and its catchphrase, WE GOT NEXT. Standing 5'6" and weighing a solid 145 pounds, Nicole has straight brown hair ending above her shoulders. Her skin glistens with sweat.
On this late afternoon in January 1998, Nicole and her fellow Lady Knights are preparing for their next game against Eastside High School, Kennedy's arch-rival on the other side of Paterson. Kennedy has won four of its first seven games, and Nicole has led the team in scoring in each victory. Already she has piled up 31 points on two occasions, a fairly remarkable feat considering that many high school girls' teams struggle to score 50 or 60 points in a game. Before the season began just a couple of weeks ago, Nicole was just another freshman walking the halls. Now, people stop her in the hallway and ask, "How many points you gonna score this game?" Withgood reason, Kennedy's coach, Donovan Jonah, hopes that Nicole might help restore Kennedy to its glory years when it was one of the best teams not only in New Jersey but in the nation.
The Kennedy gymnasium is two or three times the size of many other high school gyms. The words KENNEDY KNIGHTS appear in red in two places on the wooden basketball court. A red circle sits at its center; two red knights, like chess pieces, adorn either side of the floor. Giant movable dividers separate the gym into sections, one for today's girls' practice and one for the boys. In the area in which Nicole and her teammates are working out, large red-and-black banners depicting the success of the Lady Knights during the late 1980s and early '90s are visible on the gym wall; they stand opposite similar banners highlighting the triumphs of the boys' team. The Lady Knights didn't always draw capacity crowds as the boys did back then, but there was no doubting their talent. Under Lou Bonora, Coach Jonah's predecessor, all five starters from the 1990 squad earned Division I scholarships. Led by Falisha Wright, the star of the team, all five scored 1,000 career points, a testament to its tremendous balance.
When Nicole has a moment for a break from practice, she sits down on the bleachers to give her first extended interview. She immediately comes off as a self-assured, confident kid with a sense of humor. Whereas many high school athletes look away or down when answering questions, stumbling and stammering in their speech, Nicole looks people straight in the eyes, generally coming up with measured, thoughtful answers.
She explains how she enjoys writing poems and raps, and was inspired by a Langston Hughes composition she read in the fifth grade.
"At first I started writing about love," she says with a chuckle. "I don't know why. I was in the sixth grade. I didn't know anything about love." She doodles in a series of notebooks she keeps in her room, writing potential rhymes in the margins. For one poem, entitled "Striving for Success," about her desire to overcome the challenges of the inner city and make something of herself, she won an award in junior high school.
* * *
All of this basketball business got started only after she dabbled in softball and track, where she specialized in sprinting. "I only started playing sports to lose weight," she says with a shy smile. During fifth grade, she played basketball with a Paterson midget league team called the Knights composed primarily of boys. Her dribbling and shooting were fairly strong at that age, even if she couldn't control the ball very effectively with her left hand. Still, she quit basketball after that year because she "wasn't feeling it." She didn't have the passion for the game. One fall day a year later when she was walking home from the library, she saw one of her friends playing basketball outdoors with a girls' city league team called the Trojans. The friend pestered Nicole to join, saying, "Come on, Nicole. You're gonna have fun." Finally, Nicole relented. That same day she called her mother and asked for permission to join the basketball team. Almost immediately she was out on the street with her Trojan teammates asking for donationsa fund-raising process known as "tagging."
Her basketball career didn't have a stellar start. As a sixth-grader playing for the Trojans in a city league game, Nicole scored the first two points of her career with a scoop shot along the baseline. She was thrilled until her teammates started yelling at her because she had put the ball in the wrong basket. She broke down and cried in front of everyone. If her coach, Ronald McLaurin, hadn't convinced her to stay, her career might have ended right there in city league.
Nicole didn't see much playing time back thenshe didn't get much "burn," as the players sayand was happy for the two or three minutes she spent on the floor each game. She wished she could play like Dakita and Delfiah, Chocolate and Buffy, the stars of the league.
When Nicole did play, it was at center because she was often bigger than the other girls, and knew how to play the post, or forward, position. She studied the lithe, graceful movements of Lisa Leslie, the 6'5" star center of the U.S. Olympic team, and learned everything she could about her: her birthday, and how Leslie's mother, a truck driver, used to take her children with her on road trips all over the country. It was clear that Nicole was not bound to be a lead-footed, stocky center, though. Her coaches all said she worked harder, and listened more attentively, than anyone else.
Soon Nicole began playing basketball on Paterson's outdoor courts. After finishing her homework, she would often leave her house, passing the drug dealers who congregated out front on North Sixth Street, walk down the hill along Temple Street, and meet her friend Dakita Trapp at the Christopher Columbus Housing Development.
A dark-skinned girl with a solid, compact body and sleepy eyes, the 5'2" Dakita had been friendly to Nicole when she first arrived at the Trojan practices, showing her how to shoot a layup. She and her family live in the hulking seven-building 498-unit public housing project that sits on Matlock Street and was built during the urban renewal movement of the 1950s and '60s. Nicole and Dakita would sometimes meet Delfiah Gray, a shy, quiet girl who, at 5'9", can leap almost to the rim. She also lives in the Christopher Columbus Project, known in Paterson simply as the CCP.
Because the CCP is only a short walk to Kennedy, hundreds of students from the project attend that school. Both Dakita and Delfiah, in fact, are on the current Kennedy roster along with Nicole.
The girls would head out to play ball on the hallowed, graffiti-covered basketball courts opposite the buildings. The court at CCP features many current and past Kennedy players, who spend countless hours playing pickup games, or competing in tournaments against one another. When it gets too cold to play outside, they sometimes retreat to the recreation center next door for games.
Nicole, Dakita, and Delfiah were often the only females on the court; many of the other girls at the project were busy jumping rope or perfecting dance steps. Others were taking care of chores at home, caring for siblings or babies they had made as teenagers. The guys would tease Nicole, Dakita, and Delfiah, saying, "You're trying to be a boy," "You can't play basketball," or "You're a girl. You're supposed to go jump rope."
Nicole didn't often get into full-court games with the men. Instead, she and her friends played three-on-three, or shooting games like 21. When she got a chance to compete against the men at CCP, Nicole loved the challenge.
"My main thing was to score a basket," she recalls. "That's all, just one basket. That one basket meant more to me than anything." She often stayed at the CCP courts until it grew dark, running up the hill to get home before her grandmother scolded her for being out too late.
Dakita and Delfiah had grown up playing ball together on those courts long before Nicole first joined them. Carzell Collins, a powerful rebounding forward on the Kennedy boys' team and the best friend of Dakita's older brother Danny, would often come to Danny's window late at night with a ball, and say, "Yo, Trapp, come downstairs."
"What's up?" Danny would ask as he laced up his ankle braces.
"Come on, let's go to the courts." At two or three in the morning, with only the streetlights to see by, the two boys would play one-on-one and work on improving each other's games.
During the day, Dakita would follow Danny to the court, while Delfiah shadowed her older brother, Rondell. Dakita developed a deadly jump shot. But when she was on defense, the guys would say, "I'm just gonna back you up," meaning they were planning on posting her up under the basket to take advantage of her height. Other times, they would make Danny defend her, forcing her to learn how to get around her brother to drive to the hoop.
When faced with verbal assaults from the men, Delfiah would take her ball and dribble or shoot by herself at the opposite end or at the secondary court below the main one. Eventually, when the guys needed an extra player, they would look over, notice that Delfiah had a decent shot, and ask her to play
In those hours on the court, competing against the best players in Paterson, Nicole, Dakita, and Delfiah forged themselves into tough, unrelenting competitors who could dominate most girls they met.
They did it because they loved basketball, Dakita and Delfiah especially because they needed an outlet from the disturbing, violent surroundings in which they lived. Dakita and Danny's mother, Delores, and Delfiah's mother, Rhonda, had lived in the projects for most of their lives. Dakita's father had been around to teach Danny and his other sons about basketball before moving to Florida when Dakita was young; he still stays in touch with the family and supports them financially. Delfiah's dad moved out when she was five. She still sees him around Paterson, using drugs.
Mrs. Trapp and Mrs. Gray remember the days when they were young and CCP was a nice place to live. They recall green lawns, working playground swings, carefully trimmed trees; hallway floors shined; doors left unlocked so people could move easily between apartments; drugs being sold discreetly, by relatively clean-cut guys in gabardine slacks and alligator shoes. Even the dealers looked out for one another.
"It was more like a family," says Carmela Crawford, a Kennedy basketball star in the early 1980s who returned to become the assistant coach at Kennedy in 1998. "Everybody would watch out for everybody. If you did something wrong, somebody would take care of you and then take you to your mother and tell her, 'Look, I saw your child throwing a rock,' or 'I saw your child spit on somebody.'"
That child might then get two or three beatings aimed at preventing a repeat offenseone from the person who caught him in the street and at least one from a parent.
But in recent years, things began to degenerate around CCP. Dealers began to sell drugs more openly, and some paid residents' rent in exchange for stashing large amounts of drugs in their apartments. Users shot up in the hallways and stairwells and maintenance crews stopped cleaning away urine, human feces, and crack vials that littered the property. Graffiti covered buildings inside and out. Garbage bins overflowed with waste. Playground equipment was rendered useless. In just a matter of years, dealers and users took entire buildings hostage, making life dangerous for law-abiding tenants. Mrs. Trapp got so used to the gunshots that she would routinely duck in the middle of her second-floor apartment.
Dakita became so jaded by the drug use around her that she didn't think life would be that much different outside the projects.
"A lot of people moved to other places or whatever thinking it was gonna be okay," she says. "But it's the same thing everywhere. It's drugs everywhere. Everywhere you go, it's gonna be drugs. It's not like it's just the projects."
Still, Dakita tried to steer clear of the drugs and the violence by watching television or inline-skating when she wasn't playing basketball. Her mother encouraged Dakita to play basketball because it kept her daughter out of trouble.
"[Other girls] start getting grown, being out with the crowd and stuff," Mrs. Trapp said. "I ain't never had that problem because ... Dakita's mind was all into basketball. She ain't have time to get into with the girls or boys or nothing because she was into basketball. That's why I thank God for that."
Delfiah was a deeply introspective girl who sometimes had trouble verbalizing her thoughts. She wanted out of the violent life in the projects, but knew no other way of life.
"You see people get killed, beat up, cops every day," Delfiah recalls. "You see drugs being sold to parents, young people, old people, pregnant people, stuff that ain't right. And it's like, you keep your mind on it, you might follow up and start doing stupid stuff too. So I had to do something to clear my mind and keep my conscience right and stay focused. If I don't get involved, then no one can put nothing on me. If I stay over here for five minutes and let them argue and fight, then when the police come, they gonna get in trouble, and not me. So if I just isolate myself, I'll stay out of trouble and I'll be living to see tomorrow when someone else might not be."
Delfiah played organized basketball on and off in city league, but she didn't have the staying power of Nicole and Dakita. She quit teams because she felt she wasn't touching the ball often enough. One day, Carmela Crawford, a former Kennedy basketball star who grew up at CCP, discovered Delfiah shooting baskets at the projects and persuaded her to join an AAU team co-run by her friend Debbie Tillman.
By the time Nicole was in seventh grade and Dakita and Delfiah were in eighth, all three were competing for Tillman's AAU team, the Pioneers. Throughout the spring and summer, the Pioneers practiced and traveled to tournaments in Massachusetts and Virginia and on Long Island. For the girls it was a chance not only to measure their skills against those of other select traveling teams but also to get out of Paterson, to leave the inner city and be exposed to other parts of the country, other types of people, and other ways of life. The team did well, twice qualifying for the state AAU tournament. The trio of Nicole, Dakita, and Delfiah contributed to much of the Pioneers' success. "They all clicked," one coach said. "They always knew what the other one was gonna do."
For Dakita, the AAU team led to a more stable life. She became so attached to "Coach Debbie" that she always wanted to stay in her coach's hotel room during tournaments. Even when she wasn't on the road, she would stay with Tillman, who lives with her husband in a residential part of Paterson. Tillman eventually became Dakita's godmother. In Tillman's view, it is not too much to say of both Dakita and Delfiah that "basketball saved their lives."
During the week, Nicole looked forward to the weekend AAU trips, to the team camaraderie and the chance to contribute to a winning unit. But as a seventh-grader she was devastated when she wasn't chosen for the Pioneers' 16-and-under team headed to Florida to compete in a tournament. Nicole desperately wanted to go, but Dakita and Delfiah were selected instead. Nicole was 12 at the time, and probably wouldn't have played much anyway. But that didn't matter then.
"We had tryouts and I didn't get picked. I kept crying and crying and crying. I cried for a couple of days. That was one of the things that I wanted most in my life."
Perhaps that's what set it off. Rejection can be an awfully strong motivator. After that incident her interest in the sport grew into a full-blown obsession. She compared it to an addict's desire to feed his drug habit.
After that, Nicole played as much basketball as she could. She was so obsessed that at one time she played for three teams. On top of playing for the Trojans during the winter in city league and the Pioneers during the spring and summer, she competed for her school team, the School 4 Bulldogs. When time permitted, she also practiced with the Kennedy varsity team. Nicole's two-years-older cousin, Jody Foote, would sometimes bring Nicole along to practice. Nicole simply couldn't get enough. In seventh grade she got a glimpse of the recruiting madness she would later experience at the Nike camp. She received her first letter of interest from a college. Florida State sent Nicole what would be the first of many recruiting letters.
* * *
Now that she is enrolled at Kennedy and has witnessed the tremendous success of the WNBA during its first season in 1997, her obsession with the game has not abated. She keeps her mother up at night bouncing a basketball off of her bedroom wall. "She annoys me," Andrea Richman says. "Even at like two o'clock in the morning, she's bouncing balls." Now that Nicole has seen Falisha Wright, a former Kennedy point guard, make it to the ABL, she has big dreams.
As she sits in the bleachers on this January day, she imagines where basketball might take her eventually. And with only the slightest shred of self-doubt, as if communicating the thought for the first time, she says: "I see myself playing pro ball. Hopefully, I'll be there someday. I hope the girls on the team feel the same way. I don't know what they want to do or where they want to go with their life. But for me, I want to play pro."
Excerpted from She's Got Handle by Adam Zagoria. Copyright © 2001 by Adam Zagoria. Excerpted by permission.
Table of Contents
|Prologue: 1999: Nike All-America Basketball Camp||1|
|Part 1||1996-99: Working Toward Nike Camp||11|
|Part 2||September 1999-June 2000: Junior Year||49|
|Part 3||Summer 2000: Recruitment||117|
|Part 4||Fall 2000: Decisions, Decisions||169|
|Epilogue: 2000-1: Senior Season||223|