D.C.’s charter-school kids finally get a sporting chance.

Fourteen-year-old Melanie Brown stands at the head of a group of twittering teenage girls near the front doors of the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School. It’s 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon—an hour before school lets out—so you’d think they’d be racing away from school to celebrate their early emancipation from the classroom. But they’re staying put, waiting for the first game of their first season as members of the Hyde varsity basketball team.

Oh sure, they’ve played other games this year—”scrimmages” against private schools, says Brown, team co-captain. They lost both, but those games didn’t count anyway, she says. “It was just to prepare,” says Brown.

But now it’s for real. They are about to participate in the first game day of the newly formed D.C. Public Charter School Athletic League, the brainchild of a group of charter-school principals who wanted to start up basketball teams at their schools. Charter schools host plenty of talented, eager jocks, but most have had a hard time finding regular competition, says league Co-Chair Christine Handy, principal at Techworld Public Charter School. Eight of the city’s 27 charters, which operate from 31 campuses, will compete in the league this year, says Handy.

“It’s all part of the school experience,” says Handy. “Our kids deserve just what [D.C. public school] kids or Maryland public school kids do.”

At Hyde, students are required to take at least one sport, but in order to have a real team, they need competition. The school colors are blue and gold, chosen partly because school heads could get hand-me-down basketball uniforms in those colors from some partner charter schools in Maine and Connecticut. Hyde’s cheerleaders still haven’t gotten their uniforms, though, so they won’t be going to today’s game. And the school hasn’t quite nailed down a mascot. The girls tell me their mascot is a phoenix—”you know, like a bird,” says one—but Hyde Athletic Director Ernesto Natera says later that school leaders have settled on the nickname of “Hyde Pride,” a concept most likely embodied by a lion.

Make that a lion cub. The school experience anywhere else is a blend of books, assignments, lunch room set-tos, and, of course, the occasional Big Game. Even though the parents who built Hyde are trying to get away from an educational template that was failing their children, certain aspects of regular school life need to be replicated. And it’s not hard to see how Hyde’s focus on leadership might find expression on the basketball court.

The girls themselves aren’t worried about details. They are, however, a little worried about their opposing team. Today they’ll play Washington Mathematics Science Technology (WMST) Public Charter School, a high school with grades nine through 12. Hyde is technically a junior high, grades seven through nine, which means Hyde’s opponents will most likely be older—and taller. With so few teams in the league, though, principals couldn’t be choosy about the match-ups. “I’m a little worried about height,” admits one player. The Hyde boys, who will be facing similarly tall odds, are scheduled to play right after the girls.

“Height doesn’t matter,” comforts another player. “Because some people maybe can’t move around.” Other girls nod in agreement, pumping each other up into a necessary pregame ardor. Brown insists they’ll be fine, as soon as they get to the court and start playing. “We just need to loosen up,” she says.

By 3:30, the private bus the school hired to take the players to the game still hasn’t shown, so Hyde Principal Don MacMillan and other school staffers start out in a caravan of cars. “I had a feeling this would happen,” says MacMillan. “Big game, late bus.”

It might not be so bad if the team didn’t have so far to go. Handy says league organizers had hoped to hold the games in a gymnasium at the former Rabaut Junior High School, a D.C. Public Schools (DCPS)-owned facility at 2nd and Peabody Streets NW, where two charter schools now rent space. But the charters haven’t figured out how to do an end run around on the school bureaucracy: The gym needed some repairs, says Handy, and the authorizing paperwork didn’t make it through the DCPS red tape in time for the start of the season. Since no other charter school had a gym big enough for the games, the charter schools had to rent space somewhere else—at the Run n’ Shoot Athletic Center in District Heights, Md.

We get to the Run n’ Shoot a little before 4:30. It’s a big block of a building at the end of a shopping strip right off of Marlboro Pike. It’s flanked by stores and service centers like Giant and Big Lots and Pep Boys. MacMillan tells the girls to hustle when we arrive. “I guess you guys are going to start,” he says, only half-joking, to the three who rode in his back seat. “You’re the only ones here.”

We buzz through metal detectors and past cashiers. The girls head to the locker rooms. The place is nearly empty. A couple of guys play one-on-one. Some kids mess around on another court. Off to the left, there’s an area filled with step machines and treadmills and weights, as well as a couple of rooms for aerobics classes. There are also an arcade and a small shop that sells sportswear and snacks. The big, open, brightly lit area suggests family fun center, not battleground for nascent school athletes.

The other team and the league organizers are already set up at a court in the far right of the building. By 4:45, the Hyde team is dressed and on the courts. With no time for warming up, the girls’ team gets in a huddle with Coach Angela Nivens. Their bravado has faded a bit during the drive. A couple of the girls glance nervously over their shoulders to get a look at their competition: The WMST players are even bigger than they feared. Nivens keeps them in check. “When I say, ‘Move,’ you get your butt down [the court] like you have never done before,” she says.

But before they can delve any deeper into the X’s and O’s, league Co-Chair Handy starts the opening ceremony: “I want to welcome all of you to an historic game,” she says. She continues on with the speech, introducing the teams and principals from other charter schools. The crowd claps responsively. But a couple of students can’t help but snicker when she ends her introduction with a message to “always do your best and remain drug- and alcohol-free.”

Techworld teacher Maisha Brown belts out the national anthem next. It’s a lovely rendition, but it doesn’t quite drown out the din of bouncing basketballs on the courts behind. When she’s done, Handy closes with, “I don’t know who says it, but let the games begin.”

The girls head to the courts, and the tipoff happens a little before 5. Melanie Brown’s the first to dribble down the court to the Hyde hoop. She shoots but misses. No. 13 for WMST rebounds and returns to the opposite side. She also misses. The goose eggs on the scoreboard prove to be stubborn: Two minutes into the game, there have been lots of fouls but not a single basket. The 30 or so viewers—mostly other players, along with a couple of parents and teachers—cheer them on anyway. Two minutes and nine seconds into the game, Hyde scores the first basket. Hyde Leadership Public Charter School is on the board.

Parent Larry Logan goes crazy on the sidelines. “Thank you!” he screams. He’s here to see his daughter, Christina Nicholson, No. 22 for Hyde, head down the court in a game that counts. Like a lot of school parents who show up for games—charter or otherwise—Logan cannot contain himself. Dressed in slacks, dress shirt, tie, and sneakers, Logan has to remove his sweater only 10 minutes into the game because he’s so hot from all the arm-flailing.

“You see, I’m on the sidelines, giving my support,” says Logan.

Yeah, I see him. Everybody does. He’s all over the place. A former assistant basketball coach at Brookland Elementary School, Logan says he’s been training his daughter ever since she was itty-bitty. They talk about basketball over meals and TV, says Logan, and lately they’ve been working a lot on her defense. Our conversation is interrupted when Logan catches sight of his daughter, who has just grabbed the ball and is dribbling down court. Logan pivots, kneels almost to the floor, cups his hands to the mouth, and lets out a bloodcurdling scream: “You know where to go. Go with it!” She dribbles a bit but loses the ball, which is recovered by WMST.

Logan turns casually back to me. He has an amazing ability to alternate with ease between scream and regular conversation. “That was my daughter,” he says. His voice is calm, but sweat beads on his forehead. “She was trying to drive, but with two hands.” He turns back to the court. “Use only one hand, Christina!” he screams. She only glances our way. She doesn’t exactly roll her eyes, but she looks as if she could use a little less instruction from the peanut gallery.

By the halfway mark, Hyde’s up 20 to 6. But the WMST girls’ coach, Louise Chick, isn’t worried. “COACH CHICK”—a nice bit of unintended gender signage that’s plastered on her black T-shirt—is also a security guard at WMST. Chick says school heads heard she had helped out with the Coolidge Senior High School basketball team, so they asked her to coach the WMST ladies. Not that she’s able to do much coaching these days. She says WMST doesn’t have a gym, and her girls haven’t had a chance to practice yet—not even once. “We have to beg and beg and beg DCPS to let us play in their gyms,” says Chick.

The players hit another roadblock when they discovered that the uniforms they had ordered—in black and gray, the school colors—wouldn’t be ready in time for the game, says Chick. They opted for white-and-black jerseys instead, because those could be produced faster.

“I didn’t even think they’d score [this many points],” says Chick. “I told the girls they’ll just have to have fun and come out here and play.”

WMST must have a reservoir of natural ability, because near the end of the fourth period, the team has closed the gap. Another WMST basket with only 21 seconds remaining brings the score to 30-28, with Hyde in the lead, but only by a smidgen. Logan is about to hyperventilate. “Oh my God,” he says, clutching his face in his hands. The next 21 seconds last at least twice that long—stopped every couple of seconds by fouls. Foul at 6.4 seconds remaining. Another at 4.3 seconds. And again at 2.8 seconds. It’s killing Logan. “Oh my God,” he says again. Finally, with only a second on the clock: Swish. Two points. Hyde No. 21 makes the basket, and the Hyde Pride…the Hyde Phoenix—whatever—win the game. “Thank you!” Logan says as the Hyde team jumps in celebration.

The boys’ teams scramble to the court for a few practice shots. Their game starts within 15 minutes and moves much, much faster than the girls’. They showboat, with lots of fancy moves, but not many points accrue as a result.

WMST Coach T.J. Tavlarides cheers his boys from the sidelines but says the bigger rivalry is not taking place on the court. “You want to know what the real story is?” he says, pulling me aside. “The reason you have D.C. public charter schools out here in Maryland is because no one in D.C. wants to help us….There are a lot of short-sighted grown folk who are not interested in serving youth.”

There probably are, but the boys on the court don’t seem too concerned. It’s been a long drive to the hoops, and the circumstances may not be ideal. But they’ve still got the steady bounce of the ball, the sweat of the game, and the thrill of a nothing-but-net shot from the corner.

WMST eventually slides past Hyde, closing out the game 58-45. Logan, who has heckled and cajoled almost as loudly during the boys’ game, sees success—for Hyde and for charter schools. After weeks of delays, at least they’re finally playing. “They can win or lose,” he says. “But win or lose, you still got game.” CP