“Bitch, you ugly!” Rhonda Alston shouts from the back of a half-empty bus.

“I am the most beautiful black thing there is,” sasses back her target, a cheerleader near the front.

Rhonda is doing what she always does on the bus to basketball games: talking trash to the cheerleaders. It’s not that Rhonda doesn’t like the cheerleaders; aside from her coach and a few random fans, they are often the only witnesses when she’s shooting threes or driving to the hole for the Cardozo High School “Lady Clerks.” And while they don’t actually cheer at the girls’ games, the cheerleaders’ physical presence in the stands does offer the team a semblance of moral support.

But Rhonda is compelled to flay a few of the cheerleaders because they are girls, and girls at Cardozo don’t play basketball. “’Cause they think they cute,” she explains. “They think they might mess they hair or they nails or somethin’. That’s the reason a lot of girls don’t play. They come to the games to get boys off the teams. That’s the only reason they be comin’.”

Rhonda is 18 years of pug nose, gleaming eyes, and a fast mouth that hurtles from menacing scowl to amused smirk in a flash. Her hair is equally unreined, unfurling over the course of a day from a tidy bun into a whirl of nappy wisps. School, with its requisite hours of immobility, is something Rhonda endures in order to play basketball, a game that has obsessed her since she was 10 years old.

The living-room walls of Rhonda’s house are streaked with skid marks and pocked with basketball-size holes from indoor scrimmages. The painted wood above a doorway is chipped where Rhonda and her three little brothers installed a makeshift hoop—they have converted their mother’s home into their personal Garden. Apart from her fondness for Sweet Valley High romance novels, everything about Rhonda down to her chewed off nails suggests a tomboy in full tilt. Everything, that is, except the tiny shadow that follows her every move on and off the court.

“Rhonda was real surprised when she got pregnant, because she was a boy,” says her mother, Jacqueline Bulluck.

Rhonda’s 2-year-old son, Andre, is one of the few relatives who regularly show up to watch the Lady Clerks hoop it up week after week. With his shaved head, tiny sneaks, and regular seat on the Cardozo bench, Andre has been dubbed Charles Barkley, team mascot. He passes from lap to lap during games, often watching his mother haphazardly fling the ball toward the hoop, a skill never quite refined by the discipline of regular training. But once in a while, as she jogs her muscular body down the court and dribbles toward the basket with her eyes tracking the maze of defensive players, Rhonda flashes sparks of the natural talent that has bought her a seat on the bus today.

Those sparks flicker in comparison to the well-tended fires of the suburban white girls who nab 60 percent of the lucrative college basketball scholarships, but Rhonda is sui generis in the District’s inner city. Out of 1,200 students at Cardozo High School, she is one of only eight girls who play basketball. More than twice that many use the day care center.

For the Lady Clerks, there is none of the sideline pageantry associated with youth athletics elsewhere: no car pools, no after-game pizza fests, no video cameras. And there is little of the crackle that comes off the hoop dreams of black inner-city boys. Girls’ basketball is the neglected stepchild of D.C. public-school athletics. Out of the 14 teams in the girls’ D.C. Interathletic Association, only one or two even come close to rivaling the boys in terms of competitiveness, level of play, and attention from NCAA recruiters. The majority of the city’s girls’ teams are like Cardozo’s: small, struggling, with players on the heavy side, with height and talent in short supply.

“The emphasis is really not on girls’ basketball,” acknowledges Robert Richards, the Cardozo girls’ head coach. “We don’t get a lot of parents at the games. Parents take boys’ games more serious. Other than the college scholarship, the rewards just aren’t there like they are for the guys.”

Still, amid the intermittent practices, absent parents, and institutional disrespect, girls like Rhonda use basketball to play their way out of bad schools, shitty neighborhoods, and sketchy prospects. They don’t possess stylish uniforms or well-practiced jumpers, but they have a visceral love of hoops that allows them to create an insular world of their own making on the court. Whatever it lacks in glory, the hardwood is at least a place where there are rules, where people fight fair, and where effort counts for something.

At 5 p.m. on a January afternoon, a small crowd has gathered in the badly lit gymnasium of Lincoln Middle School to watch Cardozo square off against the Roosevelt High School Rough Riders. The air is thin with anticipation. A few scrappy-looking Cardozo players wander down the sidelines ignoring a cryptic sign under the scoreboard that reads: “Look good, feel good.” Bored cheerleaders in street clothes recline in the bleachers, flirting with a few lanky boys who have showed up early for their 7 o’clock game.

Cardozo’s season has gotten off to a rough start. Of their first 10 games, they’ve won two, beating Phelps, the worst team in the eastern division, and Bell, the worst team in the west. Those victories failed to satisfy, but tonight’s game should be different. Cardozo’s best players, twins Damiya and Nakiya Whitaker, take to the court to warm up, tossing shots from the outside and dribbling nonchalantly. As they glance down the court, sizing up the equally lumpy competition from Roosevelt, they realize they should win this one.

Joyce Boston, Cardozo’s shy, knobby-kneed center and team captain, assembles the Clerks for the tip-off, yelling, “Tuck yer all shirts in!” Sporting thick, braided tresses and glasses, Joyce stands taller than the Roosevelt center by several inches. Gingerly, she taps the ball toward her teammates, who scramble artlessly into a big pile. Somewhere in the process, a Roosevelt player fouls Joyce, who scores the first point of the game from the free-throw line.

The ball back in play, the girls pass it around methodically just around the edges of the key, inching towards the basket. “They scared of the ball,” a kid in the stand grumbles. But just as the fans begin to complain about the game’s slow start, one of the twins steals the ball, breaks away, and makes a by-the-book layup. Cardozo manages to keep the game close, relying more on will than skill. Strategic approaches—full-court presses and zone defense—are only abstract concepts in this game. The girls chase the ball and put it in the hole when they have a chance.

The twins are confirmed ball hogs. They always play a physical game, driving down the sidelines and eventually plowing over any defense that might obstruct their path back to the basket. But tonight, the twins’ urgency turns into raggedy play, and their desire to win far surpasses their endurance.

A few minutes into the first quarter, Nakiya Whitaker fouls a girl and Coach Richards yells at her from the sidelines, “Don’t push it!” Nakiya plants her feet squarely, puts her hands on her hips, and gives Richards the evil eye before stomping back into the fray. After the free throw, Cardozo starts to run down the court, and Nakiya commits another foul. Richards replaces her with Rhonda, whose son is sitting nearby drinking root beer from a can held by a cheerleader.

The cheerleader is joined by a handful of other girls who watch these games regularly—usually because they are waiting for the boys’ game to begin. With their leather coats, platform shoes, and elaborately coiffed hair, the girls radiate attitude as they strut around the court to buy hot dogs and bean pies from the concession stand. Far more girls watch this game than play, although that doesn’t stop them from being the team’s loudest critics.

“Look at Joyce,” they cackle loudly. “Joyce, baby, you need some Slim-Fast.” If she hears them, it doesn’t show. At 6-foot-1, her size is an asset here. As Cardozo’s Gheorghe Muresan, Joyce jogs slowly down the court and doesn’t make too many sudden moves for the ball; she relies on her height to shoot and score.

Near the end of the first quarter, Nakiya dribbles the ball on her foot. It rolls across the floor, prompting the girls to lunge over each other, dogpiling on top of the ball. After they recover, Cardozo lobs a few more air balls toward the basket, prompting one boy in the stands to sigh, “Man, they can’t shoot.” But at the end of the first quarter, the score is 9–6, Clerks.

The lead is short-lived, however. By the third quarter, the Clerks start to look tired. During the break, they sit on the bench, too weary to prevent sweat from dripping into their eyes. In the stands behind the players, their prissy peers have lost their marginal interest in the proceedings and are poring over a thick photo album filled with pictures of their friends, their babies, and their babies’ fathers. Dragging themselves up from the bench, the Clerks head back to the court.

Even though barely anyone is watching, in the last seven minutes of the game, the Clerks rally from their fatigue. Damiya breaks away and scores a layup. The fans emit a lukewarm cheer, quieting down just in time to see Roosevelt make a three-pointer that brings the score to 32–31, Cardozo. With the clock ticking, Damiya fouls out and Rhonda comes back into the game. Rising to the occasion, she breaks away from the pack of girls huddled under the basket and sinks the ball through the hoop with an underhanded granny shot.

Most of the girls thunder down the court to play defense, but Joyce has stopped to adjust her shorts and push up her glasses. By sheer accident, she looks up just in time to intercept a Roosevelt pass and put the Clerks back on offense. With the score tied 36–36, Nakiya fouls out as well, and the twins grudgingly watch the end of the game from the bench. In the final six seconds, some purple-skirted cheerleaders bop up in front of the bench to usher in the boys’ varsity team. The twins shove them aside in time to see their team lose, 39–36.

As the Cardozo girls somberly line up to shake hands with the Roosevelt players, their chorus of “good game” is lost in the shuffle of varsity boys appearing on the court and the entourage that accompanies them. The girls quietly evaporate among the myriad of coaches and hawk-eyed men in beige Johnnie Cochran suits (recruiters most likely) that has assembled along the sidelines. The TV news crew has arrived, as has a photographer from the Washington Post. Several D.C. cops appear as the crowd grows larger and the air more serious.

Cardozo’s boys won last year’s D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball championship for the first time since 1959. Tonight, as a dozen boys line up along the key, it’s easy to see why. Their shots are all net, their jumpers balletic. The boys ultimately win tonight’s game, 55–51.

Every morning when they arrive for class, Cardozo High School students march single-file through the Magnascanner and wait while the security guard pats down and rifles their pockets, backpacks, and lunch bags. They patiently endure the invasion, if only because the alternative is much worse. Last year, 14-year-old Antar Hall was shot and killed by another student inside the school.

In the afternoon, when students flow out of the building at 13th and Clifton Streets NW, they are greeted by a row of burned-out town houses. To the west of the school is the notorious Clifton Terrace apartment complex. To the east is Garfield Terrace, public housing stocked with all the usual social pathologies. But to the south, at the right time of day, students are treated to a breathtaking view of the sun shining behind the Washington Monument.

Built in 1916, Cardozo High School is not quite the tribute to the distinguished Supreme Court jurist that it was intended to be. The once-majestic building still retains some of its original luster, but like most D.C. institutions, it is in disrepair. The halls are an imposing network of peeling blue paint peppered with an occasional electronic advertising marquee to remind its occupants that the freshman class will be the last graduating seniors of the 20th century. Not many of them will graduate, though: With a student body that’s 60 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian, Cardozo starts the year with about 1,200 kids. Only about 100 seniors actually graduate each spring.

The day after the loss to Roosevelt, Coach Richards is watching his ragtag team suffer through 10 laps around the Cardozo High girls’ gym. Only five players have arrived. One of the twins is jogging in her socks, having forgotten her shoes. Rhonda’s son is trying to dribble a ball around the sidelines. “Girls’ basketball is not a life-or-death situation,” Richards says humorlessly. “Bobby Knight couldn’t make it in this environment.”

A low-key guy who rarely smiles, yells, or jumps off the bench during games, Richards has been coaching girls’ basketball for 20 years. Ten of those years have been at Cardozo. “The level of dedication here is not what it is at other schools,” he says. Richards explains that the girls on his team have jobs as part of their education at Cardozo and that other extracurricular activities distract them from basketball as well. “They just don’t take the game as seriously as the guys,” he says.

Richards says the girls’ team is also hampered by the school’s two Depression-era gyms, which have no bleachers, only some old wooden flip-down chairs in the balcony. As a result, Cardozo is the city league’s wandering Jew. The Clerks play home games at any other school that will have them. “I think we could attract some of the better players if we had a gym,” Richards says.

Instead, he says, the better players tend to gravitate to schools like Coolidge, Anacostia, and H.D. Woodson, which dominate the girls’ league. “Recruiting is the name of the game in this league,” he says. “Coaching is overrated. With a program like this, you basically just try to be competitive.” The team has just three practices a week, on the days when it doesn’t have games. There is no rigorous training schedule, no running outside the gym, and no penalties for not coming to practice. “As long as they show up at the games, that’s fine,” he says.

Usually, that’s enough. In three of the last four years, the Cardozo girls have made the league playoffs, and out of the 14 city teams, they usually finish somewhere in the middle. But from Richards’ perspective, the prospects for making the playoffs in 1996 are worse than usual. As he watches the girls gasping through a series of wind sprints, Richards says, “Teams like ours, by the end of the season, we’re either worn down or much better. I know if Joyce and the twins don’t get in shape, we’re going to be worn down.”

Inside the Dunbar High School gym on a Friday night in February, expectation builds as the Cardozo boys stream in for a game against Wilson High School. A festive buzz muffles the sound of the scoreboard, wiping out evidence of the earlier girls’ game, much to the relief of Cardozo’s girls. They were hammered, losing to Wilson by more than 20 points.

Damiya and Nakiya are slumped courtside in orange plastic chairs with their arms crossed tightly across their ample chests. They display a menacing array of magic-marker “Lady Clerks” tattoos, doodled across their biceps by an admiring fan. Damiya’s right eye is spotted with blood—an injury inflicted by one of her own teammates at the last game—but it doesn’t stop her from glaring across the court at the Wilson girls packing up their gear. Wilson recruits players from all over the city. The girls are tall and thin, with arms sculpted by Nautilus. Despite their superior aesthetics, though, Wilson is really not that much better than Cardozo, and the twins know it.

“The girls at our school don’t get a lot of support,” fumes Damiya. “All the other teams we played on won a lot. Last year, we made it to the playoffs. Our elementary school teams did well. But we have only eight players on our team. All the others have 15.”

The twins have been playing basketball together since the fourth grade. Losing infuriates them, but the Whitakers see no reason to hope that the dismal season will turn their way any time soon. Almost everyone on their team is new and inexperienced; they recently lost two players to pregnancy. And then there are the boys. “The boys have new warm-ups,” says Nakiya, adding that they also have more coaches, practice uniforms, and special workout equipment.

“The boys play summer league; they start earlier,” Damiya spits in disgust. Officially, girls’ basketball practice can start Nov. 1, but Damiya explains that their coach is also the boys’ football coach (and Cardozo’s dean of students and athletic director), so girls’ basketball practice can’t start until football season is over, several weeks later.

Even though the school has two gyms, the girls say their 3:30 p.m. practice is scheduled before both the boys’ varsity and junior-varsity evening practices. As a result, the girls often have to choose between basketball and a school-sponsored work program. “Our coach says he just doesn’t feel comfortable with the girls walking home at night,” explains Nakiya.

“We just don’t have enough young ladies who are encouraged to play sports,” Damiya says. “Our boys won the championship last year, but the girls, we’re virtually unheard of. It’s sad, because with a little work, we could be awesome.”

Damiya and Nakiya are the only children of Doretha Whitaker, a formidable woman with a deep, soulful, church-choir voice and high expectations. Nearly indistinguishable on the court, they are like two halves of the same whole—one right-handed and the other left. They live near Cardozo in a neat brick apartment building across the street from St. Augustine’s church. While their teammate Rhonda’s house is scarred by basketball, the twins’ three-bedroom apartment is adorned by it. Their living room features a plug-in fireplace whose sole purpose is to support the dozens of trophies the twins have won in basketball and choir competitions.

Mrs. Whitaker taught them to play when they were in grade school, and when the twins surpassed her in skill, she recruited a neighbor woman who had played basketball at Kentucky to coach them. The twins played basketball competitively at St. Augustine Catholic School through the eighth grade, until their great-grandmother passed away and money got tight. Mrs. Whitaker made a personal appeal to D.C. school board President Wilma Harvey to get the twins admitted to Wilson, to no avail. In 1992, they were thrust into the hostile world of Cardozo. The transition has not been easy.

“I can honestly say that attending Cardozo has been the most draining experience of my life,” Damiya says later in the season. “Because of the negative element at our school, we try not to get too involved with some of the young people.”

To survive among the “element,” the twins have created a small circle that includes a few friends from the basketball team and choir, and a host of extracurricular activities that keeps them too busy to bother with much else. The twins know that being smart is not enough to propel them into careers and out of Shaw. To compete for scarce college financial aid—their pipeline to the middle class—they must be “well-rounded.” To that end, Cardozo basketball, if not world class, is at least an accessible credential in the cash-strapped inner city.

“It makes you more marketable,” says Damiya. “It’s just another way to excel.”

Both girls also work every day in a school-sponsored program at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and they punch in on the weekends at St. Augustine’s. They sing in the school choir and one of them will likely be the school’s valedictorian. But their crammed schedule has conflicted with basketball this year. By the time public transportation brings them back from the FAA at L’Enfant Plaza to Cardozo each afternoon, they’ve usually missed the first hour of basketball practice.

Given the option, the twins would have chosen basketball exclusively over their $3-an-hour FAA jobs. “We just love basketball,” says Nakiya. But they didn’t have a choice. They needed the money. They didn’t want to saddle their mother with more bills for such luxuries as school photos and activity fees. “My mom did not have a lot of financial resources,” says Damiya. “She basically had the same clothes for the first eight or 10 years of our lives, making sure that she could provide. I think that’s exemplary for a mother to do.”

Their father, on the other hand, is the source of enormous bitterness. Like many of the girls at Cardozo, the twins don’t know where there father is—he left when they were about 2 years old. “He hasn’t been in our lives. We have no contact with him at all,” says Damiya. “Basically, all I want from him is my money. I think he owes me a lot. I think he ought to be ashamed of himself, because we turned out OK without him.”

But Nakiya, the more demure sister, says wistfully, “Sometimes I think I would have enjoyed having a father.” She imagines a father who would have taken her fishing, crabbing, and boating. He would have taught her how to swim. “I think he could have helped me with my basketball skills,” she adds.

Damiya seems to soften and concedes that as much as they adore their mother, daughters need fathers, too. “Sometimes we feel that sense of despair,” Damiya says. “But you have to go out there and make a world for yourself, even if you don’t have the parents to do it for you.”

“I don’t know what Rhonda be doin’ sometimes, but it just seems like, at the right time, whatever she be doin’ is right,” observes Charles Anderson, an unofficial volunteer coach at Cardozo. It’s a midseason February game for the Clerks, and Anderson is sitting in the bleachers at Dunbar High School, watching Cardozo square off against Roosevelt again.

Rhonda has just plowed through Roosevelt’s defense, prompting one of the Roosevelt players to foul her. “Rhonda’d be all right if she’d just pay attention,” suggests Anderson. “She’s a good player. But she’s wild. I thought havin’ a baby would have calmed her down some.”

This is Rhonda’s first full season with Cardozo’s basketball team. She didn’t finish last season because she had to stay home and take care of three of her six siblings. This year, though, she’s been to most practices and she hasn’t missed a game. Andre’s 21-year-old father has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania on a gun-possession charge, so her son usually comes along with Rhonda for the ride.

Tonight he’s sitting on the Cardozo bench watching his mother make a free throw. He looks up briefly from a bag of chips and observes Marsha, Cardozo’s shortest guard, making a surprise steal under the Roosevelt basket. Stunned, Marsha turns around and lobs the ball clean through the wrong basket, scoring two points for Roosevelt. She immediately realizes that she has screwed up and slaps her hand across her mouth, horrified, but most of her teammates fall out laughing. Rhonda calls time out and puts her arm around the sobbing Marsha’s shoulders, consoling her between laughs.

Cardozo maintains the lead it’s had since the first quarter in spite of the wrong-headed basket. With 1:34 left to go in the game, someone in the stands yells, “Oh my God! We’re winning!” The buzzer sounds, and Cardozo wins, 47–43. It’s only their fourth victory out of more than a dozen games, but one more will put them into the league playoffs. Rhonda jogs up to Anderson, slaps his hand, and says, “All we got to do is beat McKinley Tech and we’re back in the show.”

One of seven children, Rhonda learned to shoot hoops from her stepfather, who took her out to play one-on-one when she was 10 years old. “I beat him once and he beat me once. That’s about all I really knew about basketball.” Her hoop dreams have been fueled by the memory of her uncle, Darnell Bulluck, who was once a star player at Cardozo. A family legend, he won a basketball scholarship to Washington State University, where he played for a while, but he got sick and died before graduating. That was more than a decade ago, but the memory lingers.

Rhonda played ball in junior high school, until her own father died from liver cirrhosis. Then, in ninth grade, she landed in the D.C. Street Academy, a school filled with kids with academic and behavioral problems—and no basketball team. After a year there, Mrs. Bulluck says Rhonda wanted to get away from the kids at the academy and to straighten out her life. “Really,” says Mrs. Bulluck, “she just wanted to play basketball.”

Rhonda’s mom helped her get into Cardozo during her sophomore year, but pregnancy unexpectedly delayed her plans to transfer until last year. Now that Rhonda is at Cardozo in her fourth year of high school and a grade behind her peers, basketball is not just her favorite pastime, it’s part of her determined effort to stay out of “OTS University,” her code-name for trouble: On The Street University.

“I had to realize that I had a child, and I had to make my child my first priority, and make school my second priority, and make my livin’ life my third priority,” says Rhonda. “I couldn’t put nothin’ else first.”

To play basketball, Rhonda must maintain a C average in school, which she has done this year for the first time in ages. “I just put my head to it,” she explains. “I set a schedule for my son. I know I gotta go to basketball practice. I know I got to go to bed on time. Last year I used to be wild. This year I’m quiet. ’Cause I thought about it, and I thought, I can’t be acting this way. I got to grow up. I can’t just be like everybody else.”

If all goes well, Rhonda’s bootstrap dreams will get her to a 1997 graduation and into the Army. She also secretly fantasizes of college, specifically North Carolina State and its hot women’s basketball team. “When I come out of the military,” she explains, “I want to be a school teacher….I’d teach either P.E. or English.”

Although Rhonda has found a way to get herself together around basketball, she hasn’t completely left the streets behind. Once in a while, pieces of the old Rhonda show up on the basketball court—gettin’ up in people’s faces, stomping her feet, and throwing things. The prim and proper Whitaker twins can really set her off.

“I just want to say right off, I don’t like the twins,” Rhonda declared after Cardozo’s loss to Wilson High School. Apparently the twins, the team’s veteran members, don’t pass the ball enough. “A lot of people say they be heistin’,” she explained later. But usually it’s just Rhonda who sets off Rhonda.

“I be gettin’ frustrated and nervous, and when the ref, like, call a foul that I think is not really real, I catch a attitude and get mad,” she explains. “Like on the Dunbar game…it’s just that the ref started callin’ all them petty fouls, and then I got a attitude and [Assistant Coach Barbara Jones] had to take me out to calm me down. She was telling me that’s how the game really got away from us.”

Rhonda takes the advice and chalks up the Dunbar game to experience.

“I guess we just see ’em next year.”

Joyce Boston is shooting free throws in an empty gym. The ball makes lonely bounces that echo off the yellow, chipping paint. It’s the day after Cardozo’s victory over Roosevelt, and the only practice before the crucial showdown with McKinley, but only Joyce has come to practice. “It’s Valentine’s Day,” she explains, taking some side shots off the backboard, making most of them.

As she pivots back and forth under the basket, you can see the methodicalness of a girl with four years of perfect school attendance but who just missed the honor roll. “I can’t shoot with my left hand,” she says diffidently. She tries a few ball-handling drills, dribbling the ball off the wall at shoulder height, but can’t seem to get the rhythm.

Giving up, she collapses her large frame into a little grade-school chair on the sidelines and rolls her eyes up with an uncertain smile. “Pants be all highwaters,” she says, tugging self-consciously at her fuscia leggings. Sometimes she looks uncomfortable in her queen-size body, running down the court tugging at her ill-fitting shorts, but Joyce is braver than most. She puts her corpus on the foul line week after week, where every bump and budge is subject to vocal, public scrutiny. That quiet endurance and cultivated diplomacy have earned Joyce the title of team captain.

“She just loves everybody for some strange reason,” Damiya Whitaker later says of her friend. “She’ll just add a little salt and sugar sometimes,” Nakiya adds. The Whitakers are Joyce’s best friends. The three of them are the only girls on the team who have played the last three seasons. Fiercely loyal, Joyce cheers on the twins as they join the honor society, make the all-star team, and apply to colleges she’s never even heard of.

The youngest of five girls, Joyce lives with her mother, a housing specialist at the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing, and two sisters. Her father lives in D.C. He has eight other children, mostly boys, and Joyce doesn’t have much of a relationship with him. But she thinks she might have gotten the basketball gene—and her height—from him. “My mom’s not much of a sports person,” she says.

“I started playing in the sixth grade,” Joyce says. “My gym teacher made me play. That was the only way I could pass the class, because she needed my height.” She played in junior high, but when she came to Cardozo she couldn’t play in ninth grade because of a board of education rule prohibiting ninth graders from playing varsity basketball. (The city doesn’t have a junior varsity league for girls.)

By 10th grade she had turned her attention to other things, but an older girl named Crystal encouraged her to play. Joyce says Crystal was bigger and heavier than she is, and Crystal gave her moral support to stick with the game. But then Crystal got pregnant and couldn’t play, so Joyce has spent the last two seasons as the biggest girl on the team. “Being the only big girl on the team, and not that good, it’s hard,” she says, with a matter-of-factness that belies any self-pity.

“But I play ’cause I like the sport. I really do. I watch the game on TV and see the men do stuff, and I be like, ‘Ooo, I could do that.’ Well, maybe,” she says with a laugh. “It’s real exciting, ’cause you never know what’s gonna happen. You don’t know if you’re gonna make the shot or miss it, if something’s gonna go wrong and somebody’s gonna block it or get all up in your face and talk trash.”

She senses the criticism spewed by kids in the stands, but says, “Sometimes I don’t even hear it. I don’t really even pay attention to it too much. I mean, when you’re playin’, your mind is focused on the game and not what’s going on around you. Maybe like when it’s a time out or at the foul line you can hear them screaming something, but not when you’re playing.”

She says girls worry too much about making mistakes, so she often advises the younger, greener players on the team, “There’s nothing to be scared about. Just get out there and play.”

Along with basketball, Joyce’s résumé includes choir, volleyball, swim team, and track and field. “I threw the shotput, the big metal ball,” she whispers confidentially, adding, “I couldn’t run.”

“I like to cheer, but I’m not a cheerleader,” she says. “They let me cheer for football,” but she says the school doesn’t have a uniform that will fit her so she can cheer for basketball. “You know the uniforms. You have to be, you know…” she says, trailing off.

In spite of her brave exterior, Joyce is looking forward to the end of basketball season—and to college, where she wants to study journalism and pre-law. She’d like to get out of the District, but not too far out. Until now, her world has mostly been the few blocks around Cardozo. A few days after this practice, Joyce will move to Southwest, which to her seems like a move across the globe. At 5 p.m., Coach Richards tells her she can go home, but she says, “I don’t really want to go home yet. My mom will make me pack. I think I’ll go watch the cheerleaders.”

The day after Valentine’s Day is Cardozo’s big game against McKinley Tech. The day starts off just like any other for the girls on the team. The twins arrive at school just after 8 a.m. for choir class. Dressed in neat pantsuits, they drop their overstuffed bags of basketball gear on a desk and line up with Joyce and two dozen other students. For the next hour-and-a-half, they proceed to make the beautiful gospel music that landed them on the front page of the Washington Post Metro section a few days earlier.

Rhonda, on the other hand, misses most of school and shows up at 2:30 to board the bus that will transport her basketball team to Dunbar High School for the game against McKinley. The twins, however, have disappeared. Bounding onto the bus, Rhonda bellows at the driver, “Come on, roll out!”

When they arrive at Dunbar, defeat hangs close and near before the five lone Clerks even hit the floor. The twins are still missing in action, as is one of Cardozo’s best defensive players. Rhonda is livid that the twins haven’t shown up for the game. Joyce is lost without her friends, and she drags her feet around the court, dribbling lethargically and shooting poorly. When the five Cardozo players convene at the bench before tip-off, they give such a halfhearted cheer of “De-fense” that Coach Jones makes them do it again.

The game does not go well for the Clerks; it’s clear they rely heavily on the twins. Joyce’s rhythm is off-kilter without the twins to set up plays for her. The other players are hesitant to shoot the ball. Rhonda, though, is thriving in the leadership void left by the twins, ordering players to get open and stay in their zones. But even with some good performances by some of the girls who don’t usually play much, the team breaks down into bickering and backbiting.

At halftime, the score is 21–9, McKinley. Coach Jones takes the team out into the hallway for a talk. Rhonda hunches up against the wall and scowls. “Y’all better than y’all are playing out there,” says Jones. “Y’all gotta use your own talent. Don’t rely on the twins, ’cause they’re not here.” When the team heads back out on the court, Rhonda reminds her teammates that they need to stop picking on each other on the court. “Ain’t nobody out there perfect,” she lectures.

Just after halftime, Cardozo’s missing defensive player comes running in the door, and the team begins to perk up. The twins come in shortly after. When Rhonda spots them, she stomps a war dance around the chairs on the sideline, then flops into a chair, crosses her arms, and scowls some more. She grumbles obscenities and argues with Coach Jones, saying the twins should not even be allowed to play.

By the third quarter, the twins are back in the game and the team has cheered up, even though McKinley is still winning, 31–12. Alfred Taylor III, the center for the boys’ team, is watching the game from the bleachers behind Cardozo’s basket. “They have a really good team when they want to,” he says. “They could win all the time, but they play too much. And they complain a lot in practice.” Jumping up as Cardozo scores, Taylor exclaims, “Man, girl! Now they want to play. In the fourth quarter. Maybe they could come back 20 points in the last 48 seconds.”

They don’t. With a confluence of external and internal forces working against them, the team ultimately self-destructs. Cardozo loses by more than 20 points, dashing the Clerks’ small hope of making the city playoffs. It’s a disappointing end to a largely disappointing season. After the game, Rhonda storms off to change, while Joyce and the twins mournfully retire to the bleachers to watch the boys warm up.

“We shouldn’t have lost this game,” says Nakiya.

“It makes me so mad,” says Joyce. “McKinley. They’re one of the worst teams in the league.”

The twins missed the first half of the game because they were singing with the choir at Howard University. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but since the boys’ junior varsity season was finished, the girls’ game started an hour-and-a-half earlier than usual, and the twins missed the bus. They were lucky enough to get a ride to the game with the cheerleading coach or they wouldn’t have made it at all.

“We tried to give our all to both teams and we just couldn’t do it,” sighs Damiya.

“We have a lot of responsibility in everything we do,” says Nakiya. “It’s like if we don’t get it going, nothin’ happens.”

The girls turn to watch the boys’ game, which is just getting started. They admire the way the boys support each other and their near-psychic sense of their teammates’ positions on the court. They covet the boys’ organized plays, their solid passes, and especially their ultrastrict coach, the daunting figure of Henry Lindsey. As Joyce and the twins comment on the boys’ new sneakers, Rhonda comes over to join them on the bleachers.

Never one to hold a grudge, Rhonda contributes her own assessment of the team’s performance. “I don’t think our coaches are hard enough on us,” she says in her gravelly, hoarse voice.

“They’re not!” respond the other girls in unison. Then the four proceed to complain about their coach and the much-hated refs. “They’re always cheatin’ us,” insists Damiya. The griping is interrupted when Cardozo star Sheik Pearson makes a gorgeous dunk. They jump up and join in the raucous cheering.

In a week, the Lady Clerk’s season will end with a humiliating whimper. They will lose their last game to an undefeated Coolidge, 73–15. Coach Richards will give them an uninspiring final lecture about returning their uniforms. The twins will start planning for the city all-star game. Rhonda will set her sights on softball season. And Joyce will go back to her after-school job stuffing mail, where there are no fans, no critics. In a few months, high school will be over as well, and Joyce, Rhonda, and the twins will go their separate ways. But for now, for a few brief moments, they will share a laugh and a bleacher beneath the basket in the Dunbar High School gym. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Guion Wyler.

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