After the fall: An inner-city girls’ basketball tournament finds new life after 9/11
An espnW feature returns to New York to find hope after the attacks
It’s raining in Harlem. Rochelle Murphy waits as drops pelt Colonel Charles Young Playground, just east of the Harlem River. As the director of a basketball tournament for junior high school girls, she worried the weather could doom today’s championship game. And now, with the courts soaked after a heavy downpour, the final of the Clyde Frazier Jr. Slam Jam Women’s Basketball Classic, scheduled to start in an hour, is in doubt.
The rain tapers then stops, and Murphy and her family pull a scoreboard, speaker, chairs and awning out of the back of her car and lug them courtside. Rochelle hustles to a building on the other side of the park to grab a push broom. The six-week long competition is supposed to end today, and she’s going to do everything she can to get the game in.
Basketball has been part of Murphy’s family since there has been a Murphy family to be a part of. Rochelle and her husband, Joe, played in parks in New York City as a young married couple in the 1970s. When their daughters Monique and Melanie grew old enough, they all played two-on-two in their backyard in Brooklyn. Joe and Rochelle have both coached kids for decades, Melanie coaches in northern California after playing at Stanford, and every summer the four Murphys gather at this little park in Harlem to keep alive Frazier’s dream of using basketball to give young girls opportunities.
And now all four of the Murphys are together on this basketball court again, trying to get it ready in time for a 10 a.m. tip-off. Monique took the day off of work, Melanie flew in from California, and their efforts are paying off, as the court they will use is almost completely dry while puddles pockmark the other courts at the park.
The playing surface is green with white lines and a brick-red key. The stanchions have “Slam Jam” pads on them. The net under one double rim is red, white and blue, the other is white. Co-ed softball teams play a spirited game at an adjacent field. At the far end of the park, police investigate a fatal shooting from last night.
Rochelle’s husband, Joe, 60, works the broom near center court. Ten years ago he retired from the computer department of a phone company. Some of his former co-workers wonder why he walked away from a lucrative career to spend time coaching girls, some of them as young as kindergarten. If they could see him now, pushing water off of a basketball court on a Sunday morning in Harlem for a game whose spectators will number in the dozens … He smiles and gets back to work.
He has suffered two strokes but still finds great joy in teaching girls about life and layups. “I didn’t want my whole life to be working at the phone company. That would be my funeral: ‘He was a good guy. He worked for the phone company for 30 years,'” Joe says. “I like this ending.”
The pursuit of a better ending explains why the Murphys are here working tirelessly for the legacy of a man they barely knew. Rochelle only met Clyde Frazier Jr. once, at a basketball tournament like this one two days before he died. But 15 years later she feels a connection to him so powerful that, when a friend asked if she was going to turn around and go home when the rain picked up while they were en route, Rochelle responded, “Are you crazy?”
The chip (as the championship game is called) that seemed doomed an hour ago will start in a few minutes — a better ending, indeed, for a day that started out bleak. Slam Jam has survived much more than a little rain.
One day in 1994, as Cornell Hampton, who worked for the New York City Housing Authority running basketball leagues, walked to a park to referee a basketball game, Clyde Frazier Jr., a friend from the basketball community, drove up to him. Frazier Jr. (his loved ones called him Kippy) told Hampton he had received funding to start a basketball tournament for girls, and he was working on plans to make it successful. He didn’t want to run it in the summer because he was worried there would be too many no-show forfeits.
Hampton suggested Frazier run it in the fall right before the high school season started. That was common for boys, but there were no girls tournaments then.
“He said, ‘Yo, that’s a good idea,'” Hampton says. “He drove me to the park where my game was at. We got there early. He started writing stuff down. He was picking pieces of paper up off the ground — we didn’t have any paper to write on. He was like, ‘I can do this, I can get this, I got this.'”
And thus Slam Jam was born. It didn’t have Clyde’s name on it yet; that would come much later. The first year, it was held in PS 194 — where Clyde Frazier Jr.’s father, Clyde Frazier Sr., had attended school decades earlier. The gym was so small that jump shots would hit the ceiling.
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