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THE UNKINDEST CUT
Mark Bowden
February 17, 1997
FOR BASKETBALLERS IN COATESVILLE, PA., AS FOR TEENAGE ATHLETES ALL ACROSS AMERICA, HIGH SCHOOL TEAM TRYOUTS ARE WRENCHING TESTS OF HEART ANO EGO
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February 17, 1997

The Unkindest Cut

FOR BASKETBALLERS IN COATESVILLE, PA., AS FOR TEENAGE ATHLETES ALL ACROSS AMERICA, HIGH SCHOOL TEAM TRYOUTS ARE WRENCHING TESTS OF HEART ANO EGO

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Then there's Nin (short for Ninja), perhaps the most skilled of the four. But he's just a sophomore. Scoogy will probably stash him on jayvee.

Even so, there's too much traffic at point guard. Damon feels that because he didn't come out in previous years, he has marked himself for doom. He always had a reason for not trying. As a sophomore it was a bum ankle. Last year it was his asthma; it started kicking up something awful. At least that's what he told his friends. "The real reason is, I was scared of gettin' cut," Damon says, offering up the worm in his gut. "I went out and saw how good the other guys was, and I just quit."

Quitting was better than getting cut: It preserved the illusion that he would have made the Red Raiders if he had tried. This was the fragile base that sustained Damon's ego. Until last summer, that is, when his mom found $275 that she could hardly spare and sent him to a one-week summer basketball camp in Reading, Pa., with Scoogy and the guys on the team. Damon played with them day and night and slept in the same dorm with them. They bonded. "I overcome my fear," Damon says. "It's like I'm on the team. I hang with the guys all the lime. We always be playin' ball. I know all the plays. I hustle. Other people, they good, but when I hustle I can play with any of them. I decided I got to do it for my mom. If I get cut, I get cut. I can handle it. I think I'm gonna make it, though."

Two weeks into intramurals, Mark comes home in a funk. He dumps his books in his bedroom and emerges with a deep pout. His mom, Kathy, prods. "Scoogy's got me running with the third and fourth teams," he says. Mark knows that won't be good enough to make the varsity. He's a skinny 6'1", with an Adam's apple so prominent that it gives a sharp angle to his long, thin neck. He ranks 17th out of 517 students in his class, but schoolwork is a secondary concern to him. Basketball is his obsession. He is an exception; whites make up 65% of Coatesville's student body, but the Caucasian boys have all but conceded basketball to the black kids. Mark and Eric are the only white guys at intramurals. Mark's friends call him the Great White Hope.

Mark lives in a redbrick colonial house with a basketball hoop in the driveway. His dad, Jim, drives him down to Ash Park in the summer so Mark can play pickup ball in the playground, where teams of high schoolers often take on teams of older guys, many of them former Red Raiders, and get whipped every game. Mark is often the only white person there.

He thinks he has a shot at varsity this year, but he's not sure. Scoogy doesn't like to load the jayvee with juniors, so there's a chance Mark won't make varsity or jayvee. "I don't know what I'll do if that happens," he says. "My dad said that if he has to, he'll send me to Bishop Shanahan [a Catholic school about 16 miles away in West Chester, Pa.], where I know I could play."

Later, out in the yard, Jim says, "I don't know if I can afford Bishop Shanahan. We're just praying he makes this team."

Scoogy is constantly annoyed by the boys' inability to dribble with both hands. He blows his whistle to interrupt play for a speech: "Can anybody here honestly tell me they worked on their weak hand? Anybody? Too busy trying to dunk"—he mimes a comical dunk—"tryin' to dribble between your legs, tryin' all this fancy s-~. Work on your weak hand! That's what summers are for. The weak hand! The weak hand! The weak hand! You need to put your body between your opponent and the ball. You've got to be able to use both hands. That's the difference between a mediocre player and a good player. Which hand is your good hand? Put it in your damn pants! Play with yourself! I don't care! Just get rid of it.

"Y'all are lookin' at me with that coach-be-talking-s—look. Tell me I'm wrong. Because I know I'm right. Know why I know? Because I did the same thing when I was your age. Listen here"—his voice drops to a stage whisper—"this is wisdom talking. I'm trying to pass something along here."

Tion has shown up. It's a few days into the second week of intramurals. He's the tallest kid on the court. He can dunk from a two-step jump. He looks born to the sport. Anybody surveying the crowd of boys playing in this gym would pick Tion as the one with a future in basketball.

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