The big one always gets away. For the past thirteen years, Ruth Lovelace—“Love,” as her players call her—has coached the boy’s varsity basketball team at Boys & Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and each year her Kangaroos come up short. “Just wasn’t my time,” Love says.
Now her team has another shot, because the Big One—the city’s prized Public Schools Athletic League basketball tournament—starts this week. At stake are scholarships and a trip to the final in Madison Square Garden on March 18 that could impress those NBA scouts hunting for the next big thing. All season, that’s been Lance Stephenson, an explosive six-foot-six sophomore guard nicknamed Sir Lance-A-Lot. He’s so good he sells out gyms. He plays for Abraham Lincoln High School, the Coney Island factory that produced Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair and once again is seeded first this year. That’s no surprise.
Love’s team is seeded second. That’s the surprise. “We have a team that nobody really knows, and we can beat anybody in the city,” she says. “What’s that tell you?” Love is the only female coach of a boy’s public-school varsity team in the city’s top division. Her players don’t show up to practice late or sporting hickeys. The game is hoops, not girls. “It don’t matter that we’re all a bunch of boys and we got a female coach,” says shooting guard Ricco Oliver, 18. “What matters in a coach is toughness. She’s got toughness. She’s been there.”
She was there after her point guard came home and found that his mother had hanged herself. She was there for the player who didn’t have enough money to eat. Love bought a week’s groceries and hid them in a gym bag in her office. He’d bring it back empty. She’d refill it. Nobody knew.
She doesn’t want credit. She just wants her boys to play smart. In their last game, the borough championships, against archnemesis Lincoln, Love’s team led every minute until Sir Lance-A-Lot got the ball, and her star, Zamal Nixon, left his man open to double-team. Four seconds were left. Lance passed. The open man drained a three. Lincoln won by a point. “I’ve played over 1,000 games and never cried once,” Nixon, 18, says. “I cried that night.” Love says she never cries. That could change. “You see us in the Garden come finals and we win, then you might see me cry.”