"No excuses," Mackey shouts. "No way this team stays with us on our court. Racehorse basketball! We're in better shape! Run them down." Right! The team comes together in a bunch between a row of lockers, twelve teenage girls in satin shorts and tops, shouting a Hail Mary.
Clare is already in her zone: "It's how I get before a game. Calm, but really, really intense. Then everything opens up for me. I see better and hear better." A boom box is blaring as the players run through their layup drills. In uniform Clare looks even bigger, her shoulders slumping like a fighter's. On the other side of the court, Janelle, her hair done up with a samurai topknot to match Clare's, is popping three-pointers. It is only a couple of nights ago that Clare and Janelle went driving on the Rockaway Freeway, under the relic-like stone A-train trestle. Now that Clare's got her license, it's something to do. They drove past the old Belle Harbor Tavern. Years ago, George Droesch sold the place. Recently, it was sold again -- this time, by coincidence, to Janelle's two brothers. For Clare, it was another bond between her and her friend, like keeping the place in the family. But as for now, the girls are on opposite sides. Janelle looks toward Clare; Clare turns away.
From the start, the game is no lark. Jill Cook has been yelling all week in practice that Janelle "only goes left. Everyone knows Janelle only goes left." Janelle goes left all right, but fantastically quick off the dribble, she breaks the press, beating one defender after another, scoring on her first six attempts. Erick McManus, Janelle's brother, famous for getting loud, is screaming "Every time! Every time!"
Meanwhile, Clare is in a funk. Not hitting from the outside, she forces things. "She's trying too hard," George Droesch says to no one in particular. "It's playing Janelle for the last time. She's emotional about it." At the end of the first quarter, Christ the King is up 19-18. Janelle has 14 of Kearney's points. By the half, when it's 37-31 CK, Janelle has 25.
In the second half, the taller CK team wears Kearney down. Janelle can't do it all alone, certainly not after CK goes into a "triangle and two" zone against her. Meanwhile, Clare takes over, dominating both ends of the court. Never hurried, she's catching the ball up top and leaning in on her jump shot. The smaller Kearney players foul her, but she's too strong; the ball goes in anyway. Then she's busting to the basket in that sneaky fast way she has, and flinging her no-look passes. When Clare makes a critical steal, the game is basically over. Janelle has scored 33 points, Clare 22, but CK is the winner.
At the end, the Rockaway people gather at midcourt, staging another kind of old-home gathering. It is the last game at Christ the King for Trish Tubridy. In honor of the occasion, which is marked by many tears, Trish's grandfather, Chick Toland, invokes the Rockaway past, talking about how back in 1944 he used to play with the McGuires on the 108th Street courts in Snug Harbor, before they all went in the Navy. "Al," Chick says, "he was a tough guy. Couldn't shoot much, but tough. McGuires had a bar then, they called it McGuire's."
Clare and Janelle, gym bags over their shoulders, signing autographs for the Rockaway kids, arrange to get together later in the week. A sleepover or something.
A couple of days later, Clare is back on the beach at the end of 134th Street. It is a raw day, but picturesque, with the bells from St. Francis ringing in the background. "One part of this life will be over when I go to college, " Clare says, kicking at the damp sand, walking her Rockaway-girl walk.
Will she miss it? Sure. There's no place like Rockaway. But it can drive you a little stir-crazy, those ladies with the orange lipstick talking to themselves, the guys in the bars. As homesick as she might get, it will be good to get out, Clare thinks sometimes, take advantage of the opportunity her talent has dealt her, "to see the way things are . . .
"You know," Clare says, looking out at the ocean. "The world."
Meanwhile, a half-hour later and a couple of blocks away, in the school yard at St. Francis De Sales, a boy and girl are shooting around in the wet, still-wintery air. They are obviously brother and sister, just as obviously Irish. The boy is older, and he's pissed. His sister, about 9, is standing out beyond the foul line, bouncing the ball, lining up a shot. Wide through the shoulders, her blonde hair tied back in a bump like a samurai topknot, from a distance she might as well be a miniature Clare Droesch.
"Would you shoot the freaking ball already?" her brother barks, nasal and harsh.
"Okay," the girl says, and lets fly.
The net barely moves. Swish.
"Ball!" the girl shouts to her brother, who is running down the rebound.