Some Clarkston residents, not unlike those of any other town, recoiled from all the strangers. A town that was 90% white in 1980 had found itself, by 2007, with the highest concentration of African and European immigrants and the second-highest concentration of Asians among all towns in Georgia, with foreigners comprising roughly a third of its 7,000 residents.
Luma wondered why her team had to practice on a barren field behind an elementary school, electric wires dangling from poles, more broken glass and trash than grass poking from the dust. Adults quaffed beer and smoked weed in the surrounding woods. Young men strolled onto the field in mid-practice. Tensions had begun to boil between refugee families and African-Americans, some of whom called the immigrants "African booty scratchers." One gang, in packs of 20 and wielding bats, materialized at refugee-dominated apartment complexes, watched foreigners scatter, then plundered bicycles and TVs.
Firecrackers exploded one day near the practice field. A few Fugees had flashbacks and dove to the ground, panicking Luma and the rest of the team into following them. "What are we doing?" she asked when she finally lifted her head.
"They're coming to get us!" cried one boy. No, she convinced them, that's crazy. Or was it? Tito, a Liberian teenager who'd just joined the Fugees, was approaching that sorry field one day last year when a bullet ripped through his chin.
Luma rarely cried. She walked away when emotions were about to strangle her, lapsed into moody silence for a few days or laced on boxing gloves and tore into the heavy bag at a gym. Then went right back to battle. She got permission from the town to practice on Armistead Field, adjacent to the municipal park, on a probationary basis rather than risk another day on that minefield. She scrounged up money for the players to be tutored in two classrooms at Atlanta Area School For the Deaf. She cleared out of her apartment five miles away and moved to Clarkston. Her home became Fugee Central, the team's hangout and sleepover pad on Friday nights. She drove the streets on weekday mornings scanning for Fugees late for school or wearing sagging pants. She moved Josiah and Prince, two Liberian teenagers whose single mothers were often away working, into her home for much of the year.
The doors of the school where she tutored her team burst open one evening just as homework was about to begin, and two Fugees raced in with four gang members on their heels. Luma felt her legs rush toward the gangbangers, heard her voice croak, "You need to leave now!" and saw her hand on the chest of a glowering young man nearly a foot taller than she.
"Do you know what we could do to you?" he asked.
Luma trembled as he turned and walked away.
The Fugees had never been to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Their eyes grew wide as they approached their first buffet line, but not as wide as their coach's when she saw their plates: spaghetti piled atop fried chicken piled atop soft-serve ice cream piled atop grapes. "What are you doing?" she cried.
"But, Coach, we're hungry!"