Archive for April 1, 2012
It all started with a random glimpse.
The commuter train always slowed precipitously when it was about ready to enter the railyard, a necessity when maneuvering across other tracks to settle into one of the two dozen berths at the terminus.
Through the oval windows, there was usually not much to see through the glare except for an urban landscape dotted with a college campus, the back of a corporate headquarters, a homeless encampment.
But there, near a jogging path running alongside an earthen lot with a basketball goal hunched over the scene like a vulture, was where I first sighted the athlete.
I didn’t know who it was, this fleeting, solitary figure with a mop of hair throwing a basketball at a ramshackle hoop at the edge of a rocky, trash-filled lot with only a small embankment separating it from the railbed.
The whole scene seemed out of place. An earthen court, a winter’s day, an urban setting. I was curious.
I boarded the train so that my window seat would overlook the makeshift court, morning after morning. There were days when I could see more of the figure than others, given the track on which we approached the station.
One day, I got a closer look when our train veered towards the extreme outside of the yard on a slow approach. I got a good look: our mystery basket-shooter was a woman.
I took action. Instead of taking my usual route to work once our train emptied at the station, there I was walking up the bikepath to try to find this empty lot with the basketball hoop.
It was a trash-strewn scene, with some rocks poking out of the packed dirt.
And there in the distance was the mystery basket-shooter. She had tightly curled gray hair, wore a white sleeveless shirt, and — for some reason this made the greatest impression — white tube socks and white canvas sneakers with the thick gum soles. She appeared to be a relic from out of the 1970s.
I drew closer for more detail. Her face was broad and freckled. A large image was imprinted onto the front of her sleeveless shirt. The image was hard to discern because of fading, but it looked like a religious symbol or an Inca drawing. I couldn’t tell.
The hoop on this court didn’t have any basket attached to it, not even the metal chain you would see in an urban setting.
The athlete squared toward the basket and flexed her arm; it was about the only part of her body that was moving.
She recovered the ball from the pile of trash in the corner, and aimed a two-handed set shot.
The ball bounded towards the railroad bed near the bike path where I was
standing. I tried to make eye contact, but she didn’t seem to notice.
I tried to get her attention by being her personal rebounder. She seemed to tolerate my presence, but she didn’t smile, didn’t break concentration.
It took a while for me to figure it out because of the lack of a basket threaded to the hoop. But I noticed that
the athlete was making every single shot.
A running one-hander slipped into the cylinder. A set shot from the corner of the lot slithered through. A bank shot clanged and went in. It was easy, effortless — almost supernatural the way the ball would arc towards the goal.
I complimented her on her shooting. But the athlete did not break concentration, did not smile, didn’t come out of her game face, barely knew I was there.
The thought occurred: was she deaf or hard-of-hearing?
My hands started doing the talking. I pointed at her (“Do you”), then pointed to the sky with my fist hear my temple (“understand”), then made a fist with my thumb outside the knuckles (“A”), moved my thumb across the front of my knuckles (“S”), then splayed my thumb and index finder (“L”), followed by pointing at her again (“?”).
She took the rebound and turned aside. As she dribbled, I heard a woman’s voice speaking, but the athlete’s mouth wasn’t moving.
I never retained the words that were spoken. All I knew was that the sound was coming at me from all directions — like an all-encompassing stereo.
Then I heard a resonance coming at me from all angles … a single pitch at first, then multiple sounds.
I didn’t stick around long enough to discern what it was. All I knew was that it might have been best to clear the area — a response borne more of confusion than fear.
Days later, I ran into my friend Jonathan, a budding basketball blogger. He served as a stringer for the on-line presence of a major metropolitan newspaper, and, as a history major, loved to delve into some of the unknown stories in the history of basketball, hoping one of his enterprise pieces on traveling amateur teams would get him noticed.
While getting a drink at his place, I told him of the woman who was shooting baskets in the empty lot near the train line. I described what I could of her odd attire and her physical appearance.
“How tall was she?” Jonathan asked.
” ‘Bout five-eleven, six-foot,” I replied. “Why? You know her?”
I tossed off that question in a desultory manner. Jonathan couldn’t know this one person just from my description.
“Curly hair, with sort of a broad forehead, never smiled?” Jonathan asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Rained down shots from all angles, many of them with picture-perfect technique from the 1950s.”
Jonathan’s expression changed.
“Sourire Hoefke,” he breathed. “I don’t believe it.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The Sourire Hoefke,” he said earnestly, putting a bit of literary emphasis on the “the.”
I shook my head.
“The greatest Mighty Mac of them all,” Jonathan said. “Or, at least, she was supposed to be.”
He strode to his entertainment system and rifled through a shelf of DVDs.
“This is from the local sports cable channel out of Philadelphia,” he said, pulling out a disc that had the word PRISM on the case.
He hit the “play” button, and there was grainy black-and-white footage which looked like it came from the truck and recorded off a camera monitor.
The teams were wearing long socks, sleeved double-knit jerseys, playing on what looked like a plastic floor; the dark color contrasted with the white lines and the players’ white shoes.
“Immaculata College?” I didn’t really have to ask. I knew of the small school’s exploits. With a budget built on selling toothbrushes and with a van running on fumes, the Mighty Macs won three AIAW national championships at the dawn of Title IX.
On the screen, the ball went into the corner through a gaggle of spectators out of bounds. The female PA announcer, with cat-eye glasses and beehive hairdo, came onto the court with her microphone to protest the call. The referee blew his whistle to get the intruder off the floor.
“Wow!” I said. “Never saw that before!”
“I thought you might have enjoyed that,” Jonathan said.
I did … not just the announcer gaffe, but the historical time capsule this footage afforded. These Immaculata teams spawned a generation of coaches that influence the way the game is played to this very day.
“Hoefke was the secret weapon that was to have kept Immaculata at championship level after their first three titles,” Jonathan said. “But one day, she up and left school. Some thought she might have gone to a faraway uncle’s house, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded. She wouldn’t have been the first person to withdraw from a women’s college — especially a religious one — because of pregnancy, venereal disease, or if she was found with cigarettes, alcohol, or — horrors! — a boy in her dorm room.
“Since she left the school, there have been these rumors. Some people said they saw her on one of the WBL teams in the late 1970s,” Jonathan said. “She’d also be playing those early-season exhibitions … the AIAW equivalent of Athletes in Action. Every once in a while, you heard about her throwing in 70 in a game somewhere — Italy, Russia, Japan.”
“Is that so?” I asked. I had never heard of her, so my rejoinder was tinged with skepticism.
“And once people started noticing, she would disappear before scouts or other official types could see her play or have a chance to film her,” Jonathan continued.
Jonathan pulled out a DVD case with a WNBA logo on it.
“She was supposed to have been one of those ‘discovery’ players that would have been the greatest story of the first WNBA season,” Jonathan said. “Remember all of that ‘We Got Next’ stuff when the league was beginning? The marquee names were supposed to be Sheryl Swoopes in Houston, Lisa Leslie in Los Angeles, Rebecca Lobo in Boston, and Sourire Hoefke in Philadelphia.”
He pressed a button or two, scanning the DVD to find the right clip.
“This was going to be part of the profile on Sourire that was going to be shown on Draft Day and on NBA Inside Stuff,” Jonathan said. “I don’t know how NBA Entertainment got hold of this. Watch.”
The picture flicked on.
“This footage was shot by an NBA scout who was scouting Tim Duncan in the Virgin Islands,” Jonathan said. “But what he found was this religious missionary team. This is the only footage that exists of this team and the way it played.”
All the players on court for the missionary team wore uniforms straight out of the 1970s — sleeveless shirts with what looked like an ornate religious symbol stenciled on the front, blue cotton shorts, and long tube socks.
The film shown was jerky and a bit overwashed with color, as if taken on an old Kodak Instamatic still camera. But there in the frame was a mystery woman, with blonde curly hair and the same game face from the urban court.
“Looks like her,” I said.
While her teammates were somewhat competent on the ball, Hoefke was exceptional.
Like a ghost, she wove in and out of traffic to get open or find teammates. And like that day in the empty city lot, I didn’t novice a single shot go awry in the game footage.
“The WNBA was trying to start up back in ’96 when the American Basketball League was still active,” Jonathan said. “They were competing for all that Olympic talent as well as former college players.”
“So, Hoefke was the player who got away?” I asked.
“Yes. And it changed the league forever. You’ll notice there still is no WNBA presence in Boston or Philadelphia. Rebecca Lobo eventually went to New York, and played only a handful of games before blowing out her knee. Sourire Hoefke disappeared before anyone from the WNBA could offer her a deal,” Jonathan said, shaking his head. “And you found her when an entire league couldn’t. Unbelievable.”
It was decided that the two of us would light out the next morning to the earthen lot next to the railroad tracks.
When we got there, the sun was orange and the sky a rich hue of light blue.
And there she was, the vision from another era, moving effortlessly on packed earth.
She stopped and aimed — a set shot. The ball flew from her hand through the basketless hoop. Stole in for the rebound, swooped in a two-hand underhand scoop.
Jonathan and I were half a block away from the lot, and we froze.
“Wow,” Jonathan said in a whisper. “It’s her.”
We stared from a distance as she moved fluidly, making shot after shot.
“What it must be like,” Jonathan said in a hushed tone, “to have game like that.”
“You want to know?”
A voice pierced the calm morning air. The sound was coming at me from all directions — like an all-encompassing stereo.
We looked at each other. Did that just happen?
“It’s why I play,” the voice continued while baskets were being made 200 yards away. It was a slightly maternal tone, but slow as if it was being delivered as a homily. “On the off chance I would miss.”
The ball went through the hoop again. The figure did not appear to move her mouth. I put my pinky in my ear and shook it for a second, trying to figure out what was going on.
“I couldn’t stand the way that crowds would build when people knew my name,” the voice said. “I had to leave the world at large and give all glory to God. But this is my meditation.”
Suddenly, another noise started up, in the same way, in multidirectional stereo. Only this time I knew what it was. Very loud church bells.
Hoefke picked up the ball and headed off the dirt lot. Still in her uniform and sneakers, she stepped around a hedge and picked up what looked like a bundle wrapped in black fabric.
She shook the package and in one motion ducked under a billowing black cloth. Her head ducked out from the center of it. It looked very much like a nun’s habit; the fabric billowed down and trailed behind her.
Jonathan and I followed the figure about a half-block behind her until she ascended a set of brown stone steps into a stone building with bars in the windows, but few other distinct markings.
That is, until your eyes found the sign above the letter box next to the door: “Perpetual Oblations of St. Clare.”
It made sense. The Poor Clares are a cloistered Franciscan holy order based on eight centuries of tradition.
Unlike many other orders, members of the group have very limited contact with the outside world. Family visits, phone calls, and mail are at a minimum.
As Jonathan and I talked back in his home office, we tried formulating a couple of theories.
“So, if cloistering means what you say it does,” Jonathan asked, “leaving the building is out of the question, right?”
“Except in rare instances,” I said, borrowing the NASCAR phrase.
We sat for a long pause.
“And how did she fit that basketball underneath her robe?” Jonathan asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “That’s a miracle in and of itself.”
Jonathan nodded and said, “In an era when we take things too seriously, basketball needs a spiritual figure, one whose devotion to the game and the right way to play it transcends the need to show off for the masses.”
“Kind of like a Sidd Finch,” I replied.
FULL TIME Thanks for joining us this afternoon.
FULL TIME Meanwhile, Loyola did what you might expect from a team which is coached by the greatest female lacrosse player to ever walk the face of the earth. They made the early run, played strong at the last minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second, and played without fear
FULL TIME Notre Dame’s effort was a bit curious. It almost seemed as though the Irish either didn’t learn lessons from its play against Rutgers, or came into this game unprepared
FULL TIME And Loyola takes this Big East match by a final of 17-11
59:00 Last minute of play with Loyola ahead 17-11
57:53 ND GOAL Grainger sticks in another Tamasitis feed; while it’s unlikely the Irish can make it all the way back, they are certainly trying
57:03 ND GOAL Margaret Smith finishes a Tamasitis feed
55:00 ND GOAL Morrison quicksticks a Tamasitis pass and the deficit is eight
54:47 LOY GOAL Annie Thomas takes a Paton feed and deposits the ball into the upper 90; Loyola takes their lead to nine goals; that’s eight straight goals by the hosts after the Irish were hinting at a second-half insurrection
53:31 LOY GOAL Sydney Thomas with a hat trick from a crease roll; Loyola 16, Notre Dame 8. This is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke
52:00 ND YELLOW Emily Conner sits for two minutes and Loyola goes on the EMO
50:00 LOY GOAL Off a Murray turnover, Schmitt picks up a loose ball and finds Annie Thomas for the goal; the Greyhounds keep applying the pressure
49:04 LOY FP and GOAL Paton connects from the center hash and Loyola is now ahead 14-8
48:06 Timeout, Notre Dame. Can Halfpenny and the Irish coaching staff engineer a run similar to what happened in the first term? It’ll start with a change in the goal cage, as Allie Murray takes over for Ellie Hilling
48:06 LOY FP and GOAL Annie Thomas takes the feed from Paton off the right hash and the lead is five!
46:15 LOY GOAL Sydney Thomas finishes Annie Thomas’ pass and the EMO goal gives Loyola a 12-8 lead; does Notre Dame have a final run left in them?
45:05 ND YELLOW Kaitlyn Broscoe is off for two minutes
42:00 Irish run the break and think they have a proximity goal, but Notre Dame bats the ball in while it is in the cylinder. That’s still a crease violation, people
41:00 Interesting game of cat-and-mouse; Loyola is spreading its offense and Notre Dame is doubling to try and get the ball back
39:16 LOY GOAL Schmitt with her fourth and the Greyhounds are back up by three
37:19 LOY GOAL Dalton, on the move, stakes Loyola to a 10-8 lead
35:08 ND GOAL Megan Sullivan inserts the ball neatly into the goal cage and the Irish are down by one!
33:59 ND GOAL Gargan catches and finishes Jenny Granger’s pass from the left wing and the deficit is back to two
31:39 ND GOAL Another nice shot off the move by Gargan and the Irish stare at a three-goal deficit
31:01 LOY FP and GOAL Sydney Thomas rips in a low shot from the right hash and the lead is back to five
30:16 LOY GOAL And just like that, Molly Hulseman finishes Paton’s pass off the break
30:00 The second half is under way
HALFTIME The matchup I’ve been watching is Loyola defender Ana Heneberry on ND first-home Maggie Tamasitis. Tamasitis has been a good contributor this half, but Heneberry has been hounding her every step of the way
HALFTIME Notre Dame has been winning draws like they were going out of style. The extra possessions have helped the Irish when they engineered their comeback from that 5-1 deficit
HALFTIME The Hounds have to feel good about having a two-goal halftime lead, but cannot feel good for having a four-goal lead slip
HALFTIME The horn sounds with Loyola holding a 7-5 lead
29:54 LOY GOAL Schmitt’s goal gives the host Greyhounds a two-goal cushion and a psychological boost heading into the interval
26:17 LOY GOAL Joanna Dalton catches Marlee Paton’s pass and whips her wrists, sending it into the cage seemingly without effort
26:24 ND GOAL On a speed cut, Caitlin Gargan skies a shot top-shelf and ties the match at 5-5!
17:31 ND GOAL Margaret Smith makes a nice catch and finish off a Tamasaitis pass, cutting ND’s deficit to one
17:08 ND FP and GOAL Morrison again from the center hash and it’s 5-3 Loyola
9:54 ND GOAL Jaimie Morrison quicksticks Tamasaitis’ feed and the deficit is three
8:15 Timeout, Notre Dame — Christine Halfpenny needs to wake up this team before Loyola runs off and hides
8:15 LOY GOAL Loyola solves Notre Dame’s double team, allowing Schmitt to make a 30-yard cut down the middle of the Irish defense for the finish
6:44 LOY FP and GOAL Cursaro, a right-handed shot, skips it in from the left hash, 4-1 Hounds
4:08 LOY FP and GOAL Annie Thomas, after being fouled from behind on a breakaway, sinks hers from the center hash; the lead is two
3:10 LOY FP and GOAL Schmitt, from the center hash, sees her ball deflect in
2:02 ND GOAL And just like that, Maggie Tamasitis equalizes
1:29 LOY GOAL Cassandra Cursaro, late of Team Koala, takes a nifty pass from Hannah Schmitt and the hosts are on the lead
0:00 The game is on
PREGAME Notre Dame is wearing navy jerseys with gold numbers and green kilts, Loyola is wearing white tops with forest-green numbers and kilts
PREGAME On the other hand, Notre Dame has done a splendid job under first-year head coach Christine Halfpenny. It must be said, however, that the meat of the Irish schedule remains ahead of them, including a non-league match with Northwestern in three weeks
PREGAME Loyola is 5-4 this season and has had results which are literally all over the map. Two uncharacteristic losses to Towson and James Madison are sprinkled in with last week’s rainy 15-14 overtime win against a Georgetown team that upset North Carolina
PREGAME It must also be said that both Notre Dame and Northwestern have had major scares the last 48 hours. Last Friday, Rutgers took the Irish to overtime but Notre Dame won 13-12. Yesterday afternoon, Ohio State took Northwestern to extra time, only to lose 13-12
PREGAME This is a meeting featuring one of the last two undefeated teams in NCAA Division I; Notre Dame is 8-0 this season (defending national champion Northwestern is the other undefeated team in D-I)
PREGAME Welcome to the Ridley Athletic Complex for today’s Big East women’s lacrosse game between the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the host Loyola Greyhounds