I lost it the moment I spied Moriah Jefferson in the post-game aftermath of the Nike Nationals championship. It was the end of a long summer in 2011 and, sobbing, I told her, “Mo, you are going to have to hold me up.” And she did, so we embraced for a long time, crying together.
What moved me so was that Jefferson and her teammates on the DFW T-Jack team out of the Dallas area had delivered on their vow to capture club basketball’s biggest prize in memory of their fallen coach, Marques Jackson, who’d died of a heart attack in April, 2010.
Jackson had been the first big supporter of a fledgling business I started, HoopGurlz, the first media outlet to cover high school girl’s basketball on a daily and national basis. He’d stood up to the sport’s old guard to do so. We’d shared a vision of empowering girls and women by illuminating their work and accomplishments. His death had been a major blow.
It’s because of Mo Jefferson and her Connecticut teammate, Bria Hartley, that I’ll watch the 2013 NCAA Women’s Basketball championship game with a box of tissues. Both lost their club basketball coaches, and both coaches were friends and supporters of mine.
Only twice in my decades-long career have I been outwardly emotional while covering a story. Both happened in girl’s basketball within months of each other. The January after Jefferson’s triumph at Nike Nationals, Hartley’s coach, Apache Paschall, also died of heart failure. Paschall was an even closer friend, someone who called me from New York City almost every other day while battling cancer and the after-effects of a stroke, to make sure I was doing OK. I still haven’t recovered from his death.
Sometimes I tear up while watching college games on TV because of the pride I feel for young women whose lives intersected with mine through HoopGurlz. I’ve seen in person every player on the roster of Connecticut, as well as its opponent, Louisville. I’d written about Shoni Schimmel, one of the young stars for Louisville, when she was a precocious, but audaciously talented high-school sophomore.
Next week, during the WNBA Draft, two of the first picks are expected to Brittney Griner of Baylor and Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. I’ve been in both of their homes. The other Big Three prospect, Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame, wrote and rapped a piece for me and my audio recorder.
High-school girls basketball was not just a beat for me, it was personal. How could it not be? I started on that path because of my daughter, Sassia. And far more than a business, HoopGurlz for me was a movement – a small but meaningful way for me to help make the world a better place.
I left ESPN, to whom I sold HoopGurlz, when it decided to leave the high-school space last summer. People ask me all the time if I miss it. Not the travel and politics, for sure. I miss the people, some of whom have moved on from this life and some who are moving on to things previously unimaginable.