After the fall: An inner-city girls' basketball tournament finds new life after 9/11
It's raining in Harlem. Rochelle Murphy waits as drops pelt Colonel Charles Young Playground, just east of the Harlem River. As the director of a basketball tournament for junior high school girls, she worried the weather could doom today's championship game. And now, with the courts soaked after a heavy downpour, the final of the Clyde Frazier Jr. Slam Jam Women's Basketball Classic, scheduled to start in an hour, is in doubt.
The rain tapers then stops, and Murphy and her family pull a scoreboard, speaker, chairs and awning out of the back of her car and lug them courtside. Rochelle hustles to a building on the other side of the park to grab a push broom. The six-week long competition is supposed to end today, and she's going to do everything she can to get the game in.
Basketball has been part of Murphy's family since there has been a Murphy family to be a part of. Rochelle and her husband, Joe, played in parks in New York City as a young married couple in the 1970s. When their daughters Monique and Melanie grew old enough, they all played two-on-two in their backyard in Brooklyn. Joe and Rochelle have both coached kids for decades, Melanie coaches in northern California after playing at Stanford, and every summer the four Murphys gather at this little park in Harlem to keep alive Frazier's dream of using basketball to give young girls opportunities.
And now all four of the Murphys are together on this basketball court again, trying to get it ready in time for a 10 a.m. tip-off. Monique took the day off of work, Melanie flew in from California, and their efforts are paying off, as the court they will use is almost completely dry while puddles pockmark the other courts at the park.
The playing surface is green with white lines and a brick-red key. The stanchions have "Slam Jam" pads on them. The net under one double rim is red, white and blue, the other is white. Co-ed softball teams play a spirited game at an adjacent field. At the far end of the park, police investigate a fatal shooting from last night.
Rochelle's husband, Joe, 60, works the broom near center court. Ten years ago he retired from the computer department of a phone company. Some of his former co-workers wonder why he walked away from a lucrative career to spend time coaching girls, some of them as young as kindergarten. If they could see him now, pushing water off of a basketball court on a Sunday morning in Harlem for a game whose spectators will number in the dozens ... He smiles and gets back to work.
He has suffered two strokes but still finds great joy in teaching girls about life and layups. "I didn't want my whole life to be working at the phone company. That would be my funeral: 'He was a good guy. He worked for the phone company for 30 years,'" Joe says. "I like this ending."
The pursuit of a better ending explains why the Murphys are here working tirelessly for the legacy of a man they barely knew. Rochelle only met Clyde Frazier Jr. once, at a basketball tournament like this one two days before he died. But 15 years later she feels a connection to him so powerful that, when a friend asked if she was going to turn around and go home when the rain picked up while they were en route, Rochelle responded, "Are you crazy?"
The chip (as the championship game is called) that seemed doomed an hour ago will start in a few minutes -- a better ending, indeed, for a day that started out bleak. Slam Jam has survived much more than a little rain.
One day in 1994, as Cornell Hampton, who worked for the New York City Housing Authority running basketball leagues, walked to a park to referee a basketball game, Clyde Frazier Jr., a friend from the basketball community, drove up to him. Frazier Jr. (his loved ones called him Kippy) told Hampton he had received funding to start a basketball tournament for girls, and he was working on plans to make it successful. He didn't want to run it in the summer because he was worried there would be too many no-show forfeits.
Hampton suggested Frazier run it in the fall right before the high school season started. That was common for boys, but there were no girls tournaments then.
"He said, 'Yo, that's a good idea,'" Hampton says. "He drove me to the park where my game was at. We got there early. He started writing stuff down. He was picking pieces of paper up off the ground -- we didn't have any paper to write on. He was like, 'I can do this, I can get this, I got this.'"
And thus Slam Jam was born. It didn't have Clyde's name on it yet; that would come much later. The first year, it was held in PS 194 -- where Clyde Frazier Jr.'s father, Clyde Frazier Sr., had attended school decades earlier. The gym was so small that jump shots would hit the ceiling.
Under Frazier's steady guidance, the tournament outgrew that low ceiling and jumped to gyms at St. John's and Fordham and Riverbank State Park, an indoor facility with multiple courts in Harlem. Frazier took pride in running a professional operation. With three courts in use at once, nine games could be completed in four hours.
The tournament grew in prestige and reputation until it included five yearly events, including one for junior high schoolers. Frazier asked college coaches to attend Slam Jam to recruit players and would not take no for an answer if they resisted his overtures, says Hampton. "He went all out to make sure those high school girls were getting a fair shake for themselves to go to college," Hampton says.
Hampton and several former Slam Jam players say hundreds of girls who participated in the program also played in college. At least four current WNBA players are Slam Jam alums. "So many of them are doing so good for themselves in life, in whatever form or fashion," Hampton says.
The women who played in the tournament looked forward to it because the basketball was great and so were the relationships they formed around the games. "I remember Slam Jam being so exciting for more than just the basketball. It was somewhere I wanted to be," says Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who played at Stanford and is now a TV analyst. Her mom ran the Slam Jam website. "It was somewhere my friends could hang out all together. At the ages of junior high school and high school, we're not going to clubs, we're going to the tournament. We're going to Slam Jam. It was cool."
A championship at Slam Jam became a crowning achievement of a player's high school and AAU career. "Everyone would sit in the bleachers and watch. You were among your peers, and you either had it or you didn't," Gold-Onwude says. "It was walk-the-walk time. Put up or shut up. You got to show yourself and earn your stripes."
The trophies were as big as the bragging rights. When Melanie Murphy played in Slam Jam, the Murphys borrowed a neighbor's minivan so they could get the trophy home -- it wouldn't fit in their sedan. Melanie says she measured her growth by standing next to it. Says Gold-Onwude: "One year I was the scoring champion of the tournament. The trophy was bigger than my parents."
If Frazier had a defining moment that led him to be passionate about girls' basketball, nobody knows what it was. He was married but had no children. The end goal of Slam Jam was not a higher scoring average but higher education. He simply thought it wasn't fair that girls didn't get the same opportunity as boys to use their basketball skills to get into college. He showed his devotion to the young women in Slam Jam in ways large and small.
During stops in play and between games there was a rule: Only girls could shoot around. No boys.
The girls liked and trusted Frazier, and knew he cared about them -- and not just about their basketball skills. He required that all girls who played in the tournament and their parents attend seminars about hygiene, getting into college and how recruiting worked. Even as Slam Jam attracted corporate sponsors, it never lost its family atmosphere. "There was something that felt very organic about it," Gold-Onwude says. "The same people you saw running it at the beginning were there at the end."
Rochelle picked up the game in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I played in the park and stuff with my brother, being kind of embarrassed to be even out there, even though I loved playing, because girls at that time didn't go out in the park to play basketball, of all things," she says. "I was kind of in and out, shyly going to the park."
She played in high school and then at John Jay College. She describes herself as more willing than able, a sponge mentally and willing defender physically. She became a fan of the NBA -- particularly of Julius Erving. She played less after becoming a mother. She tried once while pregnant but got a migraine. "That ended that," she says with a laugh. "I don't know what I was thinking, anyway."
Joe first talked Rochelle into coaching when Melanie was in elementary school. "I said, 'No, no, no. I don't want to coach.'" But there was a need, and she filled it. "Suddenly I was in it for the long haul," she says.
In 2001, Rochelle wanted to enter a team she coached into the Slam Jam tournament. She tried to reach Frazier by phone and email but couldn't get a hold of him. When she saw him at a basketball tournament in Harlem on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001, she introduced herself. Their paths had likely crossed in some gym or court somewhere before that, but they had never met. They had more in common than just girls' basketball. They also worked in the same building -- the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Two days later, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Clyde Frazier Jr. went to work as a state tax investigator.
At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines flight 11 crashed into the north face of the North Tower. Frazier was the floor fire warden and started to evacuate everyone. At 8:55 a.m., he yelled at his boss to get off the phone and leave.
Around that same time, Rochelle Murphy emerged from the dark tunnel of the subway into the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful day. She looked up at the Twin Towers. The North Tower was on fire. She picked up snippets of information among shouted voices on the street. Something about an attack, but that didn't make sense, not yet at least. She kept going for a little bit, unsure of what she was seeing. Something told her to get out of there. She turned around and went back to the subway.
Many people tried to cram onto the train, and she had to run to get on it. She caught the last train out of the area.
Nothing about the fact he died helping others surprises me. It speaks to his character. I think of him as someone who was on our side.Rosalyn Gold-Onwude
Meanwhile, Joe, who worked across the street from the World Trade Center, saw much of the same view as his wife -- the building on fire, growing chaos on the street. He worried about Rochelle. Not knowing she had left, he tried to get to her building to find her. A police officer blocked his way. He pretended to do what the officer told him ... and then he tried to sneak past her. The officer stopped him and told him to leave.
He missed that last train and walked home instead. As he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, he looked back at the World Trade Center. He saw what he thought was debris falling.
He learned later that was people jumping.
At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into floors 76-84 of the South Tower. Frazier worked on the 86th floor.
Nobody knows exactly what happened to him or where he was at the moment of impact. There are stories about him, the kind that are impossible to verify, the kind his friends want to be true, if only to try to make sense out of the senseless -- to make such a horrible end a little better. One friend heard he made it out and went back in to help. Another heard that the only reason he went to the office that day was to work on Slam Jam schedules.
His father, Clyde Frazier Sr., wishes there was some way to find out what his son did in his final moments. The only hard fact he knows is that his son's boss called him the next day. The boss told the grieving father that he obeyed when Clyde told him to get off the phone: "Your son saved my life," he said. Clyde Sr. takes pride in this: "He was the No. 1 first responder."
Says Gold-Onwude: "Nothing about the fact he died helping others surprises me. It speaks to his character. I think of him as someone who was on our side."
Clyde Frazier Sr. mourned the loss of the oldest of his three sons deeply. At Ground Zero, with the smoldering ruins of his son's work place around him, he first berated, and then sobbed with and embraced former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
As word of his son's death spread, Frazier's phone began to ring. Many people offered condolences. But others, including Hampton, called to say they wanted to keep his son's passion for girls' basketball alive. The tournament will go on, they told him. The world of big-time sports vowed that games were still important even amid overpowering grief. So did the world of small-time tournaments like Slam Jam.
And it did, rechristened as the Clyde Frazier Jr. Slam Jam Basketball Classic. For a time, the tournament continued to thrive. But about nine years ago, the funding fell through. Clyde Frazier Sr. tried to keep the tournament going with the hope he would find alternative sources of money. He didn't, and referees sued when they weren't paid. Slam Jam was canceled for a year.
But Frazier wanted a better ending. Seven years ago, he asked Rochelle Murphy to take over the tournament, just for junior high girls. He admired her passion for and knowledge of the game and the detail-oriented approach he noticed in her coaching.
He watched how Melanie Murphy played and carried herself and figured that was a result of good parenting. Rochelle resisted Frazer's overtures at first, just as she resisted her husband's promptings to become a coach. Even after Rochelle initially said no, Frazier never asked anybody else. He wanted her -- and only her -- to do it.
She thought about how important girls basketball was to Clyde Frazier Jr., and their 9/11 connection, and decided she had to say yes, though even now she has a hard time pinpointing why. "Maybe because he was so passionate about it -- maybe he transferred it to me," she says. "Maybe it was to fill a void, knowing the good he was doing."
Clyde Frazier Sr. attends every game, and Hampton runs the referees and attends the final weekend. They watch the tournament with something like bittersweet joy. They separately say they hope to maybe, possibly, in the future, try to turn Slam Jam back into what it once was. But not yet, and maybe not ever. For now, they are content with the state of the tournament. "We're far from where we were," Clyde Frazier Sr. says. "But at least we're some place."
Girls in this year's Clyde Frazier Jr. Slam Jam tournament were born in 2002 or later. Not a single one of them was alive when the eponymous founder of the tournament was. Not a single one of them was born when the towers fell. If they know about him -- about his passion for them and the sport they play -- it's because their parents or coaches knew him and told them about him.
But lessons of his life and death are everywhere -- that life goes on, that it has to even if you don't want it to, that giving up is wrong and bad endings don't have to be the end. Perseverance can turn ends into middles.
Even the championship game itself teaches that.
In the second semifinal game of this year's tournament, New Heights -- the five-time defending champs -- starts the game with four players, as a few are running late. New Heights falls behind to Hoopers NY. New Heights' fifth player finally arrives, and the game settles in to a sense of normalcy, until about midway through the second quarter, when Hoopers NY's best player fouls out, leaving the team with only four players. Her coach loudly and angrily insists that the player on whom the foul was called was not even involved in the play.
She doesn't appear to be saying it wasn't a foul, but that the refs blamed it on the wrong player. She gets so angry that she orders her players off the court, announces that they're leaving and abandons the court. For at least five minutes it appears the game will end that way.
Clyde Frazier Sr., Hampton, the Murphys -- all of them have watched endless hours of basketball, and none of them have ever seen anything like this, in Slam Jam or anywhere else. They are baffled and incredulous. The lesson of the game, if it ends like this, is beyond bad: If the game doesn't go your way, quit. It's the opposite of everything Slam Jam represents.
Melanie Murphy chases the coach after she has left the court but before she leaves the park. Melanie tries to talk sense into her. "That's not what we're about," she tells her. "That's not what you're about. It's about the kids."
Soon Clyde Frazier Sr. joins them. He doesn't want to yell at the coach, as that would make her madder than she already is. But he doesn't want to let her leave without making his point either. He gives her his "coach's face," he says, a stern look, one a father would give a child. His and Melanie's efforts work; the coach returns to the court, and eventually the game resumes. "Refs make good calls and bad calls all the time," Melanie says. "You have to keep going."
Rochelle Murphy allows the player who fouled out to stay in the game, but every time she collects a foul, she says, a technical will be assessed against Hoopers NY. Hoopers NY hangs on to win and advance to the championship game.
Cecil King, who has coached some of the best women players in New York City basketball history, watches from the sidelines: Melanie Murphy, Gold-Onwude and Kia Vaughn of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, all played for him. The day before, another of King's former players, New York Liberty star Tina Charles, won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
"This is where it starts," King says. "This is really where you learn to play. If you mess up, the crowd finds out where you're from. 'Oh, you're from Long Island? Go back to Long Island!' Once you get your game, you get a nickname."
Slinky and Buckets and Bang-Bang and The Specialist and I Can't Be Stopped and Speedy and Red stand out for their play. "If you can play out here -- with the wind and the rain and the sun -- once you go to college, it's a piece of cake," says King, the winning coach in the first Slam Jam.
Hoopers NY zooms out to a 14-0 lead over Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Melanie Murphy DJs the game like she's auditioning for a standup role. "That was a million-dollar move," she says after a drive to the hole ends with the ball clanging off the unforgiving double rim, "but a nickel finish. Next time, girl."
A few Brooklyn players arrive late, including the daughter of Kym Hampton, who played in Europe for 12 years and for the New York Liberty. She works for the team now and watches from the sideline as Brooklyn slowly eats away at Hoopers NY's lead. The 14-0 lead dwindles to a two-point advantage at halftime. Hoopers NY -- the team whose coach wanted to quit when a call didn't go her way -- falls apart when the game gets tough. The Brooklyn Stars lead by two at the end of the third quarter and eventually pull away for a 10-point win. Their perseverance rewrote the game's ending.
Phinnette Edwards ("Buckets") dominates the game for Brooklyn and is named tournament MVP. She is not the biggest or fastest player, but she appears to be far ahead of the rest of the girls in court vision, ball-handling and passing. Still, for a girl nicknamed Buckets, she rarely scores any in the title game; not because she can't but because that's not her role. Her coach and father, Phinnigan "Phree" Edwards, preaches that the open girl gets the ball. She follows that ideology.
After the game, "Coach Phree," as he's called, smiles broadly. He grew up watching the way New York City point guards Mark Jackson and Kenny Smith controlled games, and he has taught his daughter the same skills. He says he has been trying to win this tournament for years. He lost last year's title game by two, so this feels good, especially considering the comeback and his daughter's role in it.
It's still early -- Buckets hasn't even started high school yet -- but she could become one of Slam Jam's next great players. "Serious, serious baller," King says. "Look at her. Runs the show."
It's sunny in Harlem. A hilarious mother-daughter game follows the championship game. Moms in dresses and sandals run, jog and walk up and down the court. The smiles are as broad as the fashion is bad. Hampton pulls a Slam Jam T-shirt over her dress shirt. Melanie Murphy trash-talks: "Mothers, if your daughters are too scared, we have a few rent-a-daughters."
Daughters race around moms, and the difference in speeds looks like special effects in an action movie. The moms win anyway, because they are all probably a foot taller on average, and all that speed doesn't help the ball go into the basket.
After that is an All-Star game. Melanie Murphy coaches one of the teams. While the players on the court build a healthy lead, she looks at the players alongside her. "Do you guys have dreams for the future?"
She has asked this question once already this weekend, while in the car. Then, she got a wide range of answers, from coroner to theologian. Now, though, with the game going on, the girls are single-minded, and they answer in unison. Melanie smiles at their all-at-once response. "Besides basketball, I mean" she says.
After the games end and the girls scatter, some to go play in other tournaments, Clyde Frazier Sr. lingers at the park. "I lost a lot when I lost my son," he says. "Believe me. I went from here," he holds his hand by his eyes, and makes a whistling noise as he drops it to his knees, "to here."
But that wasn't the end of the story. He looks out at the empty court. "This keeps you alive."