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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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"They called me everything but the N-word," says Scoogy. "As much as said I cut the kid because he's white. I hated to cut the kid. I've got a rainbow mind. I'm out here looking for talent. The kid's mom told me her son was going to go on and play in college and prove me wrong, and I told her, 'Good, I sincerely hope you're right. I wish him nothing but the best.' " The kid did not speak to Scoogy again. Just walked past him in the halls without a look. Scoogy could feel the boy's hatred. "Some of these boys, I have them in my phys-ed classes," he says. "I came up with their parents. Some go to the same church as me."

Damon, the muscular little point guard, is inserted into a scrimmage. He plays like a dervish. While playing pressure defense, he ties up two men by himself. They pass back and forth at midcourt, but Damon keeps up with the ball, finally slapping it downcourt and then outracing everyone to it. He dribbles back toward half-court, allowing his teammates to set up on offense, and then, with a flurry of fakes, he makes a suicidal drive into the key. The ball ends up across the gym.

"I got one word for you guys who love all that playground razzle-dazzle s—-," Scoogy scolds loudly. "It's a four-letter word. Most of you haven't heard it. It's pass."

Late in October, Mark is regularly playing in the first five. He's so blond and pale he could be a film negative of the other boys on the court. His torso glows pink with exertion. Mark was the best player on his Catholic school team in the eighth grade, but the first time he came out for basketball at Coatesville, he says, "It was, like, whoooah. I was getting killed. The black kids were just way quicker and had more skills than I had."

Jim Hostutler says many white parents in the area discourage their kids from playing basketball. I've seen kids with talent playing with Mark and heard their fathers say, 'Why waste your time?' Because they just assume their kids can't compete with the black boys from the playgrounds. The white parents steer their kids to football and baseball." Coatesville's football team is 58% white, 42% black. Its baseball team had one black player last season.

Asked who he thinks Scoogy's final 12 will be, Mark picks out players intently. Among them are two from the football team who haven't come out yet. Mark does not pick himself.

On the court, meanwhile, Scoogy is amazed. Doober puts a particularly good juke on two men in the key, faking a move to the foul line and then cutting back to take a nifty pass from Nin and casually drop in a layup. Scoogy leans his head against the gym wall and howls. "Aaaaaooooohhhhh! That was the first person groaning," he shouts, both saluting the offensive play and chastising the defense. "Aaaaaooooohhhhh! That was the second person groaning. I can't believe it! That was so wide open!"

Tion walks through the door of his aunt's house on Coates Street, a block of ancient row houses on the East Side, several blocks uphill from Main Street. He lets his backpack slide to the floor, moves to the leather couch without saying a word, slips one big hand under the warm belly of his sleeping two-month-old sister and gently lifts her to his face. He nuzzles the sleeping baby, delicately fixes the pink blanket around her and speaks to her softly.

This house is his cousin Doober's place. Doober and Poughkeepsie Kris are upstairs in a tiny attic bedroom. Its slanted walls are decorated with pictures of girls from magazines and with drawings and photos of Coatesville High basketball players. Doober's mom, Roxanne, videotaped all the jayvee games last year. Doober has quite a stack of cassettes. He likes to hang out upstairs with his buddies, running the tapes over and over. Roxanne's voice provides loud, hilarious, emphatically onesided commentary.

"I get so tired of hearing my voice on those tapes," Roxanne says. She's a cheerful woman whose long hair is woven into hundreds of thin, shiny braids. She and her sister, Cassandra, Tion's mom, who is expressing milk for the baby, practically share their children. Tion spends most weekends in this house and often comes here after school. This is also where a lot of basketball players congregate. "They come over because they like to see themselves on the tapes," Roxanne says.

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