Expanded and updated with a new epilogue, Madeleine Blais’ book tells the story of a season in the life of the Amherst Lady Hurricanes, a girls’ high school basketball team from the Western Massachusetts college town. The Hurricanes were a talented team with a near-perfect record, but for five straight years, when it came to the crunch of the playoffs, they somehow lacked the desire to go all the way. Now, led by senior guards Jen Pariseau, a three-point specialist, and Jamila Wideman, an All-American phenom, this was the year to prove themselves. It was a season to test their passion for the sport and their loyalty to each other, and a chance to discover who they really were.
As an off-season of summer jobs and basketball camps turns to fall, as students arrive and the games begin, Blais charts the ups and downs of the team and paints a portrait of the wider Amherst community, which comes to revel in the athletic exploits of their girls. Finally, a women’s team was getting the attention they deserve. And the Hurricanes were richly deserving; these teenage girls are fierce and funny, smart and ambitious, and they are the heart of this gripping book.
“Extraordinary.” —The Baltimore Sun
“A picture of a changing period in American sports history, when a town rallied around its female athletes in a way that had previously been reserved for males.” —Publishers Weekly
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Everything went wrong.
Early in the second half, the girls on the bench began to weep.
It was a game that made everyone connected to the Hurricanes wince to relive.
On the court of Cathedral High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, on the night of March 3, 1992, the Amherst Hurricanes had disintegrated into four players standing around as if waiting in line in the cold for tickets, stomping their feet to no avail. They appeared distracted and out of it while their point guard, Jamila Wideman, lunged about, contorting her body in any number of ways. She was everywhere and she was nowhere. Although she was dazzling, she was also doomed. For every effort she made as an individual, the Blue Devils from Northampton replied with a chorus of five passes, ending, with frustrating inevitability, in an open shot and an easy deuce. When Amherst wasn't frantic, it was comatose. The message the Hurricanes had heard from their coach all season, those rousing talks studded with terms like team and unity and DYB (for do your best), seemed to have fled, scattered leaves lost to a gargantuan gust.
Coach Ron Moyer sat on the sidelines, watching the carnage.
He shook his head back and forth and thought: Einstein was right. Time is relative. When you're winning, the game can't end soon enough, and every second on the clock moves forward as slowly as traffic caught behind a farmer on a tractor towing a corn planter. When you're losing, like tonight, it's over in seconds, a sudden skid on glare ice.
Tonight's loss fit an old pattern.
As usual the Hurricanes had had a distinguished regular season, winning twenty games and losing only once, yet for the fifth year in a row, when it came to the crunch of the play-offs Amherst lacked that final hardscrabble ingredient that would take them over the top. A scrappiness was missing, that harddriving desire to be the best.
At times even Coach Moyer was tempted to believe that their reputation as players was doomed to mirror the college town they represented: kindly, ruminative, ineffectual; more adept at eating sprouts and quoting Emily Dickinson and singing nature songs like "I Love Seeds" than throwing elbows going for a rebound or hitting the floor for a loose ball. They came from a town that prized tofu, not toughness. You think something's not fair? Stand on a street corner holding up a placard. Still not fair? Write a letter to the editor.
A finesse team: the Lady Hurricanes, nice girls from a nice town. The eleven-point loss didn't begin to describe how badly they'd been beaten. Amherst never found a rhythm, and Northampton was able to penetrate at will.
The fans from Amherst were entertaining the same misgivings, wondering further why Coach Moyer didn't make an adjustment. Hamp was using a two-three zone. Look at Jen, buried on the weak side. Why was Coach Moyer keeping Kathleen Poe, a junior forward, on Lauren Demski, who was eating her alive?
When the game was over, Kathleen couldn't even walk off the floor to the locker room without first collapsing in a corridor outside Cathedral's gym, the neutral site, which at this moment engendered feelings that were anything but neutral.
Immobilized, she placed her head in her arms.
Then her strong broad shoulders convulsed as the victorious opponents trooped by, muttering the usual sportsmanlike phrases, "Good game" and "Nice try." The well-intentioned comments only made it worse.
Out-and-out trash talk would have been easier to take.
The weeping continued as their tin can of a school bus, nicknamed the Yellow Cadillac precisely because it lacked both comfort and style, headed out of Springfield on a journey that would last an hour through a cold dark maze of small towns, Ludlow and Granby and Belchertown, past what Dickinson once called "lonely Houses off the Road a Robber'd like the look of."
Some players kept to themselves; others played music quietly and spoke in subdued tones.
Defeat creates orphaned thoughts.
Jen Pariseau felt as if she had spent the whole night running up and down on the perimeter, a helpless stick figure unable to join the action.
She felt torn, a disloyal unsettling mix of disappointment and relief. It had not been a good year. There'd been tension with Coach Moyer; why did he persist on singling her out during practice?
Jen, don't give up the baseline.
Jen, square up on the shot.
Jen, put your feet on the darn line.
It was as if (this was not a thought she would ever voice out loud) her longtime friend Jamila could do no wrong and she could do no right. Outside the bus, the night air was frigid and still. As the Hurricanes rolled past bare trees and dirty dispiriting patches of snow, Jen wanted spring and she wanted softball.
Jamila's analysis had a different cast. The more driven she was, the more her teammates faltered, yet the more she pushed ahead, all the time processing what was going wrong while it happened:
The rest of the Hurricanes have bought into relying on Jenny and me far too often. Everyone is waiting for someone else to do it. Even if they keep messing up, I'm going to play the way I can. Whoever wants to come with me can. It's my right and my responsibility to take from the game what I can. I'm not giving up just because my team has.
On the way home, Jamila glanced over at Jen. At times during the game Jen's bushy eyebrows had dwarfed her big eyes: It was what Coach Moyer always called her scared look, the look of a squirrel desperate for a tree. You could see it at the foul line the way she shot from her shoulders; it was as if the rest of her body didn't even exist.
Sometimes during the previous season, Jen and Brenda Sepanek, the lone senior on the team who had just played her final game for the Hurricanes, would catch each other's attention for a moment on the bus or a quick exchange in the school corridors and make remarks about Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, the dynamic between the two Bulls players.
Jamila would hear one girl say, "Pippen's doing a lot of the work that makes Jordan look so good."
And the other might respond, "You'd think Jordan might give him some of the credit."
Jamila assumed her teammates were speaking allegorically about their relationship to her. This was code with a razor's edge. She knew that Jen sometimes felt overshadowed, but lately Jamila's sympathy for what Jen was feeling had changed to anger:
She should have respect for my situation too.
When Jamila's eyes swept the bus, eyes filled with a piercing elderly knowledge, she could see that Jen wasn't the only person on the bus who looked at last unburdened.
Everyone looks relieved, as if all along they wanted the pressure gone more than they wanted to win.
When at last the bus made the final heaving, laborious turn off Triangle Street into the parking lot at Amherst Regional High School, Coach Ron Moyer arose from his traditional place in the first seat opposite the driver on the right-hand side. He unfolded his six-foot, six-inch frame as best he could, cramped from having stuffed himself into a seat intended for someone half his size. If he ever retired from coaching, it would be to escape this one torment.
There was the usual ripple of nudges and commands: "Quiet, quiet, Coach Moyer wants to give one of his parking-lot talks" and "Listen up, everybody, it's the last speech of the season."
The respectful silence that greeted the coach was not just for him. Everybody was feeling bad for Brenda. All season there had been a secret chant, a hidden motivation: Win it, not just for ourselves, but for Brenda. Tonight she sat in a quiet huddle with Jen and Jamila in the prized backseat of the bus, the place of honor reserved for captains and seniors by unspoken assent. The disappointment they radiated was as unmistakable as the cloying odor from the fertilizer in the fields surrounding Amherst during the growing season.
Lucia Maraniss, one of the youngest players, a freshman who just that night had moved up from the junior varsity, experienced the defeat as a thing of shame, not because they lost but because they played so poorly. Yet she also felt an inner glow; the opportunity to play alongside Jen and Jamila and the others as if she were their equal made her feel beatific, anointed, touched on the shoulders by a sword. She gazed down the length of the shadowy bus at Coach Moyer.
"This won't be long.
"First of all, I want to tell Brenda how much I admired her spunk, her consistency, the way she came to practice every day, ready to play. I'm sorry we couldn't win it for her. At the same time we owe it to Brenda to start thinking about next season. We need to be tough, we need to learn from this defeat. Look at yourself; think about what you didn't do in this game. Did you take the ball all the way to the basket? Did you finish the play?
"I hope you'll dedicate some time during the summer to getting yourself ready for the challenges next year."
He paused. He likes to let the team own the victories, and he believes it is his job to take on most of the defeat. If tonight they needed to blame evil spirits, he was willing to be the designated evil spirit.
"I know you gave it everything you had."
He looked at their upturned faces, big-eyed, tremulous, sincere.
"Maybe you just didn't have the right preparation."
It wasn't maybe.
Something had gone wrong, not just wrong, but spectacularly awry.
He knew he would be revisiting tonight's game compulsively to figure out why his kids, over and over, had failed to finish the play. They were dutiful, they worked hard. Several of them, not just Jamila, had the potential to be great. They would not easily forgive themselves tonight's failure; that was his job.
"Look, you kids couldn't screw up bad enough for me not to love you. I have two great daughters, and if I could have fifteen more, I know I could get them right here on this bus in the Amherst uniforms."
Up until now, there had been a few sniffles but no raging displays. The mention of "daughters," however, inflamed them. Daughters: the word reverberated, hung in the trapped air like a ball wavering on the rim of a basket. First from one, then another, a wail arose, so that soon the entire bus, already overstuffed with gym bags and the bureaucracy of outerwear needed to endure winter, was further overtaken by full-scale sobs, a luxurious unstoppable lamentation. It was a stampede of tears.
This, he thought, is not the note on which to end an entire season.
This, he thought, could be a disaster.
If Ron Moyer has a streak of hubris, it's his pride in his sense of humor. He always says that if someone wrote a book about him, the title would be Ron, and the sequel would be Moron.
And so on this night, lunging about for a lighter tone with the same ferocious hope Jamila had shown on the court earlier in the evening, he remembered with gratitude Schwarzenegger's famous words in The Terminator; and so he said, in Arnold's authoritative Austrian accent, pluralizing the original promise, "We'll be back" (pronounced "We-al-be-bach").
One or two deeply dutiful daughters managed a weak grin.
And then, the final ritual of the season, the descent from the bus.
There was none of the usual backslapping and snippets of song, shouted plans about meeting at Friendly's for ice cream (or, if you have strange tastes, like Jen, for plain whipped cream in a cone). It was a sullen solitary exodus marked by lowered faces and red swollen eyes.
As always, Coach Moyer went inside and waited in the Amherst gym until the final girl had left the locker room and was on her way home.
His plans were vague, and they mostly had to do with taking it easy for a while and then shining up his extra-long Striker golf clubs.
Most New Englanders think there are four seasons, but to him there are only two: basketball and summer.
On this evening when the temperature hovered at freezing, basketball was over, and summer had begun.
Later that night, teenage insomnia was rampant in the Amherst area, a wild vine of twisting thoughts and knotted associations.
Her face stiff with unwashed tears, Lucia lay awake on the low narrow bed in her small room on the second floor of her family's sprawling old white wooden house near the center of town.
She reached into the bookshelf, pushing aside the tools for her artwork, passing over the stamp collection that embarrassed her a little because practically everyone she ever met thinks stamps are nerdy. But she still treasured them for their artistry, all that intense miniaturization and tidy perfection. She had a lot of normal stamps, with the usual themes of flowers and founding fathers, but her all-time favorite came from Indochina, showing in little more than a square inch that region's history as one of the most-bombed places in the world: explosives flying over a tropical landscape as if they were delicate birds. What she applauded was the instinct, the courage really, that it took to find beauty in something that terrible.
Her strong hands, muscled from all the years of piano practice, lighted at last upon a small journal, which she opened to a blank page.
In tiny, perfectly rendered capital letters, she recorded her feelings about the evening:
TODAY I REALIZED HOW MUCH I LOVE BASKETBALL. WE LOST THE WESTERN MASS SEMIFINALS TO HAMP. THE GAME WAS A BLUR. ALL I REMEMBER WAS HOW WE WERE IN A CONSTANT STRUGGLE TO COME BACK. WE STARTED OFF WELL, BUT AFTER THE REFS GAVE HAMP A BOOST, THEY RAN WITH THE BALL. NO ONE PLAYED EXCEPTIONALLY WELL BESIDES JAMILA, WHO WAS THE HIGH SCORER WITH THIRTY POINTS. JENNY WASN'T HAVING A GOOD NIGHT AND THE FORWARDS COULDN'T GET THE BALL TO SINK EITHER. I FELT AS IF EVERYTHING THAT THE TEAM HAD WORKED FOR SO LONG JUST LEFT OUR GRASP.
IT'S NOT FAIR. IT'S NOT FAIR. THE TEAM HAS SOME OF THE FINEST ATHLETES IN THE WORLD, NOT TO MENTION THE MOST FUNNY, SMART, BEAUTIFUL, INCREDIBLY AWESOME PEOPLE EVER TO WALK THE EARTH. JUST SEEING ANYONE ON THE TEAM MAKES MY DAY. JAMILA HAS GOT TO BE THE SWEETEST PERSON. SHE IS FUNNY, BEAUTIFUL, AMAZINGLY ATHLETIC, AND TO TOP THAT OFF SHE IS NICE TO EVERYONE. JENNY IS THE ONE PERSON WHO I RESPECT AND LOVE THE MOST. SHE SEEMS TO KNOW EVERYTHING AND WHENEVER SHE SPEAKS TO ME I'M SPEECHLESS BECAUSE I LOOK UP TO HER SO MUCH. I LOVE IT WHEN SHE SLAPS MY HAND, OR HUGS ME. IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I'M WORTH SOMETHING.
And then she wrote, in what could only be interpreted as pure boosterism, given the facts of the night:
NORTHAMPTON IS NOT A TEAM LIKE AMHERST. AMHERST IS A TEAM OF UNSELFISH, INCREDIBLY TALENTED, TEAM PLAYERS WHO LOVE THEIR TEAMMATES. NORTHAMPTON IS A BUNCH OF GOOD BASKETBALL PLAYERS PUT TOGETHER WHO DO NOT FEEL OR LOOK LIKE A TEAM. KUZMESKI, DEMSKI, FROST, STILES — THEY'RE ALL GOOD, BUT THEY DON'T DESERVE TO HAVE WON. ON THE BUS ON THE WAY HOME EVERYONE WAS SHOCKED AND MISERABLE.
A couple of miles away, on a tree-lined side street in a suburban development, Jamila could not sleep either.
She had been a member of the girls' varsity basketball team since seventh grade, and this was the second year in a row that they had won the Valley Wheel league title and gone to the Western Mass tournament, only to lose in the semifinals.
In five years Jamila had never missed a game.
In five years she'd never missed a practice.
Tonight's defeat was unacceptable.
She tossed in her bed: Even before the game, she'd had a bad feeling. The Hurricanes came out flat, without any fire. They were waiting to see what was going to happen. They worried about reacting, not acting. Hamp came out excited and ready. They put their famous press on, and after six steals it was obvious they'd won the game. The Hurricanes had everything, on paper. Good players, good seeding in the tournament, no injuries. Everything was there, except for what really mattered. There wasn't the trust in each other, the confidence in themselves, the sense of team that makes you play beyond your individual abilities.
If it is possible, mentally and physically, to be more yourself on a certain occasion than on another, to be yourself squared, then that is one way to interpret Jamila's performance during that game against Northampton that clinched the 1992 season; as her father, John Edgar Wideman, once wrote in Philadelphia Fire, "Leg and heart and mind and breath working hard together. You forget everything you know and play." Shooting, he maintained, is all in the mind:
You must believe the ball's going in. Confidence and the amen wrist flick of the follow-through. You reach for the sky, launch the ball so it rotates off your fingertips and let it fall through the rim. When you hold on too long, when you don't relax and extend your arm and let nature take its course, you shoot short. Because you don't believe. Because you're trying too hard to maintain control, you choke the ball and it comes up short.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle"
Copyright © 1995 Madeleine Blais.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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