Down here on the other side of the Cross Bay Bridge, they say you can tell a Rockaway girl by the way she walks, especially the ballplayers. Clare Droesch, 17, of Beach 134th Street, her name spelled without the i like County Clare, Republic of Ireland, is no different. Generally regarded as the best girl basketball player in New York City, and one of the greatest scorers ever to come out of this roundball hotbed by the sea, Clare Droesch walks like a Rockaway girl.
You can see it even 100 feet away, across the fog-bound expanse of sand. That deliberate, almost sulky stiff-legged gait. The clipped steps are nothing like the quick-foot broadside Clare uses to propel her five-foot-eleven, 175-pound body off a pick. But still, it’s punky, plenty hard-nose. Her shortish, dirty-blonde hair is tied back in what looks more like a samurai topknot than like a ponytail. Clare’s walk is aloof, unassailable. An athlete’s walk.
Like most of the other Rockaway girls from St. Francis De Sales parish, growing up, Clare spent her summers here on the beach, just hanging out. But then the weathermen would begin bleating about tropical depressions and worse, the skies grew dark, and the sloppy Rockaway surf began to swell. Clare would come running down 134th Street with her Challenger board, past the grammar school, the Jewish nursing home, and the upside-down end sign that marks the place where the asphalt stops.
“It was something to do.” Clare shrugs in her offhand way, those clear blue ironic eyes giving playful lie to her teen insouciance. Then she laughs, thinking about the charge of catching the crest of even a Rockaway wave, and how, even for a moment, it was like being in Hawaii.
“Yeah,” Clare amends, “it was something to do.”
A junior at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens, Clare is now one of the most sought-after high-school basketball players in the country. With hundreds of letters from colleges – “The Gators of Florida,” “The Lobos of New Mexico,” say the return addresses, complete with full-color depiction of the animal mascot – arriving in her mailbox every week, Clare doesn’t have much time for surfing and boogie-boarding. She’s often called the Larry Bird of the girls’ game because of her gritty full package of court skills. Heady and wholly intuitive at the same time, from the top of the key, Clare’s an equal threat to throw a bullet no-look pass, pull up for a 25-foot jumper, or steam toward the basket with near rim-rattling fury.
“Rockaway girls play really free. Open. Not robots. They show off, but there’s never that sort of brutishness you get from the boys’ game.”
This coming July is Clare’s official “evaluation period.” Which means, in the oft-arcane convolutions of NCAA dictates, the period when college coaches and their recruiter minions will be able to watch Clare play and legally approach her about enhancing their basketball programs.
It is a serious business. Barely 25 years removed from days of six on a side (three players confined to defense, three for offense, and no one allowed to cross midcourt – it was considered unladylike to get overheated running end to end), women’s basketball is among the fastest-growing “revenue streams” in collegiate sports. With Title IX (which sharply increased the number of athletic scholarships for women), schools like Connecticut and Tennessee drawing 15,000 fans a game, and the success of the WNBA – Chamique Holdsclaw, Clare’s illustrious predecessor at Christ the King, just got a million-dollar shoe contract to go with her $300,000 salary – the future prospects are suddenly quite expansive for a Rockaway girl who’s hellacious on the break.
Consequently, with the walls of her prim, exceedingly tidy basement bedroom covered with photos of ballplayers (Kobe Bryant and Jennifer Azzi are favorites) and dozens of trophies arrayed on the shelf, Clare isn’t thinking of becoming the “secretary, mom with a lot of kids, or barmaid” – things many Rockaway girls, even those with moves, used to wind up being. “I don’t put any of that down. None of it,” Clare says with her usual diffidence. She is nothing if not regular. “It’s just, that is not me. Not now.”
The tomboy has been redefined. In Clare’s case, it’s not even an issue. Every morning, like all the other good Catholic girls at Christ the King, Clare puts on her skirt and tights, but no one snickers when she ditches that stuff in her locker and spends the rest of the day in nylon tear-aways. When you are as good as Clare Droesch – noted scout Joe Smith says she’s already got “most of the offensive skills of an all-timer like Carol Blazejowski” – you are no longer simply “a girl who can play.” You are, as Omar Cook, the star guard of the Christ the King boys’ team, says, “a player … damn, Clare is a player.”
Clare doesn’t surf much these days, but she still comes to the beach. “With everything going on, it’s good to just think, get it straight in my mind,” she says. On this particular morning, there is a bunch to contemplate. In a few hours, Clare’s team, the Christ the King Lady Royals, will meet Brooklyn’s Bishop Kearney to play for first place in the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) Brooklyn-Queens division.
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.
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.
Physicality, that’s one of the first things the people who want to give her scholarships say about Clare. “She’s got the body of a college junior, very advanced,” says a scout from a Big East school. “Tremendous strength in her upper body.” Then again, Clare, who is far larger than her mother, father, or brother, has always been big and strong. Not that she’s worked at it, much. A total gym rat, she’ll practice her shot for hours, even kill herself with hated rebound and defense drills. But otherwise, she does little exercise. In pregame warm-ups, while her teammates stretch out, Clare barely bends over. When she goes to the Ramshorn Diner on Beach Channel Drive, she orders a bacon-and-egg sandwich and a plate of cheese fries. “God, am I eating this?” she asks herself with a wince, and keeps on eating.
At the “next level,” up against the best college players, all this will have to change, Clare knows. Things won’t come so easily. At the end of the summer, Coach Mackey will come over to her house and they’ll sit in the living room narrowing those thousands of offers down to five or six. Sure, she’d like to stay near home. Even when the team traveled to California for a week to play in a tournament, she got “bad homesick.” But there’s still plenty of time before that. Now an athlete in repose, Clare is happy, and smart enough to bask in the irreplaceable glow of being a natural, perfect in her hometown.
Rockaway, they say, is ruled by “the three b’s – the beach, basketball, and bars.” So it figures that Clare Droesch, surfer girl, would first learn to shoot the ball in the joint her father and grandfather owned and ran for 37 years, the Belle Harbor Tavern on 129th Street. “I’d be behind the bar,” remembers George Droesch, Clare’s father, now 47 and currently in the office-cleaning business, “and I’d see Clare – she was just this little thing, at least as little as she ever was, 5 years old – playing on the 25-cent Pop-a-Shot machine. She didn’t miss. And it’s funny, because her shooting motion then, it hasn’t changed. It’s the same.”
For Clare, those were the days, when her dad and grandpa owned the Belle Harbor. “It was right down the street from St. Francis, so I’d come over after school, get some chips, a soda, do my homework. Pull the beers. My father was always there. Grandpa too. Lots of people. It was a really warm feeling. Maybe a lot of people got drunk. But at least it was drunks we knew.”
“I’ll do something good,” says Clare, “then I’ll look up in the stands and I’ll see my dad sitting there, just smiling. That’s pretty great, because I made him happy.”
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of my daughter, the joy she gives me,” George Droesch, a soft-spoken man with a soulful melancholy about him, says with unashamed pride. Their son, George Jr., was a baseball player at the priestly Cathedral school in Kew Gardens, but nothing has prepared George and Patty Droesch for the kind of athlete Clare appears to be. “She was always playing ball, but did I expect this? No,” says George, who along with Pattie, Clare’s grandmother, and various aunts and uncles attends most every Christ the King contest, home and away. As Clare gets antsy before a game, staring off into space and refusing to speak while Coach Mackey wraps her ankle, George Droesch is a nervous rooter. If Clare misses a couple of shots in a row or makes a turnover, he’ll let out a staccato “Come on, Clare,” but this is a private exhortation, rarely heard above the gym din. Clare appreciates the restraint. “I see these other parents, how crazy they are, and I look up to God and say thank you. Thank you very much.
“Then I’ll do something good, then I’ll look up in the stands and I’ll see my dad sitting there, just smiling. That’s pretty great, because I made him happy.” But then, not to get too mushy, when asked if she has a boyfriend, Clare rolls her eyes and says, with endearing brattiness, “Boyfriend? No. You might say my father is the man in my life. Just ask him.”
As the full moon rises over E-Z Pass lanes on Cross Bay Bridge, Rockaway people, the b-ball nuts, anyway, are heading up toward Metropolitan Avenue to the gully between the Lutheran Cemetery, the Metro Mall, and the M-train terminus, to sit in the wooden bleachers at Christ the King. Not counting playoffs, this will be the last time to see Clare and Janelle McManus in the same game as high-school players. Next fall, Janelle will be running the point for Boston College.
When the two played each other last year, Clare blew up, scoring 48, which broke Chamique Holdsclaw’s Christ the King single-game record. Kearney has not beaten CK in recent memory, but tonight anything is possible, especially the way Janelle has been playing. Now the all-time leading scorer in CHSAA history, two months ago, in a performance that has entered Rockaway folklore, Janelle scored seven points in the last 8 seconds to give Kearney a one-point win over Loughlin.
In the Christ the King locker room, Bob Mackey is psyching his team. Decked out with P. J. Carlesimo-like facial hair, Mackey, who once tended bar in a place owned by Tim Tubridy, father of Trish Tubridy, has coached boys but prefers the girls’ game. “They listen, they’re fundamentally sound, and they care. It isn’t that supercool thing,” he says. Other differences in coaching the sexes, Mackey says, are that you can’t curse (even though he did scream at the team the other day to “stop making girly noises”) and no one wants to watch videotape. “You put on the tape and no one is watching the plays – they’re all upset about how fat they think they look.”
“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.