Many followed, people like Marianne "Noodles" Noonan; Grace Kelly and her twin sister, Bridget; Eileen McCann; Meegan McGuire; Kristen Fraser; and the great Jill Cook, who, in 1985, was the first Rockaway girl to go over the Cross Bay Bridge and travel the five miles up Woodhaven Boulevard, thereby establishing the Rockaway-Christ the King "pipeline." Now 31, Jill, who still holds the single-season assist record at Georgetown, just missed the wave that might carry Clare Droesch to fame and fortune. "It's a different world now," says Jill, who worked for Avis after college in what she calls "the pre-WNBA years." Still walking like a Rockaway girl, Jill is now Bob Mackey's assistant at Christ the King. In this capacity, she regularly screams at Clare, whom she's known "since she was in diapers," to move her goddamned feet on defense.
It is this "lineage . . . building on role models and what's gone before" that distinguishes the Rockaway girls' game, says Keith "Bugsy" Goldberg, whose mother coached CYO at St. Francis and who swears he's Irish, despite his name. Bugsy, who lives three doors down from Clare on 134th (and held her in his arms at her christening), runs the 400-girl-strong St. Francis summer league, which makes him a self-confessed "encyclopedic passionate romantic" on the topic of Rockaway girls.
He says: "Out here, its eclectic, part of the city and not. It's an island, cut off, so you feel protected and free at the same time. The game reflects that. Rockaway girls play really free. Open. They're instinctual. Not robots. They show off, but there's never that sort of brutishness you get from the boys' game. You never lose the sense of femininity."
If the Rockaway-island style evolved independently, like Darwin's Galapagos finches (Clare says, "People I'd meet ask, 'What kind of place do you live, that you have to pay a toll to get there?' "), no one has ever epitomized that game like Clare and Janelle McManus. "Clare and Janelle," Bugsy Goldberg says with reverence, "are the full flower of the modern Rockaway women's game. A source of civic pride."
Clare and Janelle. They're the queens, subjects of legend. Celebrities. Out on the beach, little girls ask for their autographs. Few hoopheads on this end of the A train don't know the story of how Clare and Janelle, like some chubbette Mutt and Jeff tandem of fourth-graders, tried to sign up to play in the St. Francis CYO and were turned down. No fourth-graders, they were told. You got to be in sixth. Undeterred, the girls walked up the beach to rival St. Camilla's, where no one cared what grade you were in. A couple of weeks later, St. Camilla blew out St. Francis, Clare and Janelle scoring most of the points. No fair, they said at St. Francis. Those girls are from our parish!
Then there are the more recent tales of Clare and Janelle, Ms. Inside and Ms. Outside, out by the school yard, waiting for some dumbo boys, clueless machos, to challenge them for the court. Wham, right quick, they'd lay some "white girls can't jump" hoodoo on those fools, leave them scratching their heads.
"Yeah, me and Janelle, we've got this . . . communication. It's scary sometimes," Clare yawns as she lies across the couch in the friendly living room of the house where she grew up, first upstairs while her grandparents occupied the bottom floor, and now down here. Not exactly what you'd call hyper, on the court or off, Clare suddenly looks weary.
It has, after all, been a long day, classes starting at eight and the daily two-hourlong practice. While pulling decent grades, Clare has never been partial to schoolwork. "I pretty much hate school," she says, pretty much summing up her position. She admires Trish Tubridy, who looks like Kim Novak, scored nearly 1,400 on her SATs, and will likely go to Harvard. "But I'm not like that," Clare says without regret. Most schools will only ask her for 820 on her boards, no big deal, but as for 821, that sounds like kind of a hassle. Still, with her grandmother praying for her to pass the Regents, she does the work. The WNBA, Clare's dream, generally won't let you in without a degree from a four-year college. Besides, it's $5,000 a year to go to Christ the King, and even if Clare exhibits a "you must be kidding" look when asked about the spiritual enrichment the school offers, she's not about to waste her parents' money.
Snuggling deeper into the couch, Clare closes her eyes for a moment. Her high-cheeked face relaxes, and it seems as if she has dozed off. It is kind of a sweet moment: the athlete in repose, the faint roar of the airplanes going to Kennedy out the window. Watching her, you find it hard to believe Clare's still 17. Even asleep, she looks formidable. There's an indomitable yet effortless presence about her.