It's weird, the Lady Royals sweating first place. After all, Christ the King, former home to the incomparable Holdsclaw and the current Connecticut star Sue Bird, has won the citywide CHSAA title every year since 1985. The school has been state champion ten times in a row. In its league, Christ the King won 232 straight games, a Guinness World Record-like streak dating to 1986. A typical score was, like, 90-22. Better teams -- Kearney, or St. Francis Prep -- might get within 25.
That is, until a few weeks ago, when Bishop Loughlin of Fort Greene, alma mater to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which hadn't beaten the Royals in seventeen years, crushed CK, 72-54. It happened on Christ the King's hallowed home court, to boot. The result was a state of shock. Says Bob Oliva, coach of the CK boys for twenty years, during which time such players as Jayson Williams, Lamar Odom, and Erick Barkley attended the school, "it got so I didn't even watch the girls' games, because it was always 75-0. So I look at the scoreboard, and we're behind like 16-2, and I'm thinking, What's that, a misprint?"
For Clare, the Loughlin game was a nightmare, mainly because she watched it from the sidelines, leaning on crutches. Her ankle, which she'd hurt the previous summer, ballooned up. She couldn't even walk, much less swagger like a Rockaway girl. It was the nadir of what had been a difficult season for CK. Everyone knew it would be tougher than usual, with the excello rebounder Trish Tubridy, of the Broad Channel Tubridys, as the only starting senior. But then, after eighteen years as coach, building the top girls' high-school program in the country, Vinny Cannizzarro took a college job at Stony Brook. Assistant coach Bob Mackey moved up. The transition has not been what Rockaway guy Mackey, chemistry teacher at Christ the King and son of an NYPD hostage negotiator, terms "without its bumps."
Clare has been as good as ever, recently scoring the one thousandth point of her high-school career, but with her injury, and the lack of an experienced point guard to get her the ball on the wing the way she likes it, it has been "kind of frustrating." Even before the Loughlin game, the rest of the league, so often battered that a player for Mary Louis Academy likened playing CK to "jumping off a bridge twice a year," smelled blood in the water.
As for the Kearney game, a whole other thing is at stake, for Clare and this whole little Gilligan's Island out here past Floyd Bennett Field. Tonight Clare goes against Janelle McManus, Kearney's magic point guard, another Rockaway girl who walks the walk. Everyone on the beach knows -- as great as Clare is around the basket, pulling down the boards, starting the break, that's how sweet Janelle's shot is. Janelle might be only five feet six, her stocky legs white as snow, her hair tied back in that same Rockaway samurai topknot, but when it comes to putting it on the floor, she's the bomb. Clare, of course, knows this. Clare and Janelle are best friends. They always have been, since, Clare says, "like, from birth."
That's how it is in Rockaway, a New York world apart, where everyone seems to know everyone else or at least punched them once in a bar, and if someone says you play like a girl, well, put that in your pipe, smile, and keep on shooting.
In Rockaway, where hoops line the sidewalks like L.A. palm trees, traditionalists trace the beginnings of beach ball back to the forties. The McGuires were kings then, playing on the legendary 108th courts -- Al, the great coach, and his brother, Dick, the first and best Tricky Dick, whose No. 15 hangs next to Earl Monroe's 15 from the ceiling at Madison Square Garden. Great male players came from here, like NBA star Brian Winters, who was once traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the real history of Rockaway basketball is in the women's game.
Bed-Stuy has Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown; Harlem has Goat Manigault; and Roosevelt, Long Island, has Doctor J, but in Rockaway people talk about the white flashes of the St. Francis De Sales, St. Camilla, and St. Rose. First and still foremost of Rockaway girls was Nancy Lieberman, feisty and flame-haired Jewish sorceress of the corner jumper (one of the few non-Hibernian lassies in the Beach pantheon), who came to play CYO at St. Francis because no one at Far Rockaway High School could catch the passes she threw. Later famous as Martina Navratilova's lover and now running the WNBA's Detroit Shock, Lieberman in 1975 led a team of St. Francis high-school girls to a near victory against the Queens College varsity, then the No. 2-ranked college team in the country.