After tragedy, hope grows in Brooklyn

Despite enduring the death of their coach and the news that their school will close at the end of the year, Bianca Cuevas and her Nazareth teammates have continued to win. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

BRONX, N.Y. -- The hardest times are when Lauren Best is alone and the painful memories start replaying in her mind's cinema.

So to salve the loss of Robert "Apache" Paschall, her longtime partner in life and basketball, Best pours herself into Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.), where she is co-coach with Ron Kelly of the girls team that Paschall led until his death on Jan. 3.

"I'm at my best when I'm taking care of people," Best said. "Being with the girls on the basketball court is the place I most like to be."

But the basketball court can be a double-edged sword -- a sanctuary for some, a tough reminder for others.

Kasim Alston has the soft, sympathetic eyes of a father whose daughter is in distress. He is the coach at Bishop Loughlin (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and his girl, Aliyah, is his point guard. Her best friend was Tayshana "Chicken" Murphy, an elite player who was shot to death in Harlem last September.

"Honestly, it's been hard being on the court," said Alston, who was Murphy's godfather. "Basketball is what we all loved to do, and so we do it every day and think of Chicken."

It has been a harsh winter, following a bitter fall, for girls' basketball in Brooklyn. Last Sunday's games at The Mecca Challenge in a neighboring borough provided, depending on the viewpoint, needed or scant respite.

Life has gone on for the Lady Kingsmen since Paschall, who was battling an aggressive form of skin cancer, died of cardiac arrest. But not easily.

In the days after his death, controversy ensued as Bishop Ford and Christ the King refused to play Nazareth, and the Lady Kingsmen petitioned the Catholic High School Athletic Association to award them victories by forfeit. The request was denied. Then the players had to endure the emotion of his funeral, yet another investigation (and subsequent exoneration) into the propriety of a transfer and, finally, the sudden announcement last week that Nazareth, a small Catholic school in East Flatbush, will close in June. That all followed a turbulent period during which Paschall's cancer diagnosis was made public, three transfers to the program initially were declared ineligible and then cleared, and Paschall's arduous cancer treatment forced game postponements and cancellations.

Asked how her team reacted to the news that its school will close, guard Brianna Butler, who transferred from Penn Charter (Philadelphia) before the season, shrugged and said, "We're used to all this by now."

Best concedes the turmoil is troubling.

"When it rains, it pours at Nazareth," she said. "We never get a drizzle; we get monsoons."

The Lady Kingsmen found temporary shelter at the storied Gauchos Gym, where the likes of Mark Jackson and Stephon Marbury made their marks on the boys' side. The Bronx landmark often rumbles when the green line of the New York City subway passes underneath. And for an hour or so it rocked as Nazareth, ranked No. 7 in the POWERADE FAB 50, put on a show and one of its talented transfers, sophomore guard Sadie Edwards, symbolically imprinted herself on her new team by playing her best game.

Edwards exhibited an exquisite sense of timing to match her abundant speed, ballhandling skills and moxie. Eleven of her game-high 26 points came during a fourth quarter when Nazareth caught, then overwhelmed upset-minded Manasquan (N.J.) for an 83-73 victory. The biggest shot Edwards delivered was one of her trademark rainbow jumpers, launched well beyond the 3-point stripe with plenty of time left on the shot clock, which gave Nazareth the lead for good with 2:13 to play.

"The coaches told me to shoot if I was open," said Edwards. "I was open and I was confident it would go in."

She had no imperative other than whether her team needed her to take the shot, in other words, and she was happy to deliver. The game was Nazareth's first since the players learned of the latest hurdle placed in their path.

"Basketball is like our getaway," Edwards said. "It takes us away from things."

At Bishop Loughlin, basketball takes the Lions right back to the heartache.

Murphy played for Loughlin her freshman year, then transferred the following season to St. Michael Academy, which ironically was where Paschall spent a decade coaching before it closed its doors in June 2010 and he moved the girls basketball program to Nazareth. Murphy missed her junior season after tearing her ACL, and had transferred to Murry Bergtraum (New York, N.Y.) but was killed before she could resume her basketball career.

As a result, the Lions have been slow to move on, especially given the Alstons' personal connection to Murphy. (Aliyah's cousin Jasmine, is Loughlin's starting point guard.) They've struggled off and on this season, losing close games they shouldn't have. Sunday, they mustered a third-quarter flurry to produce a 54-44 victory over Shipley (Bryn Mawr, Pa.).

They say time heals all wounds. Such has not yet been the case at Loughlin.

"I would like it to happen," Alston said. "This year, it hasn't. It's been like a roller coaster."

Fact is, games like Sunday's can't help but prompt the Alstons to wonder how good their team might have been had Murphy still been part of it.

"We'd be great," Aliyah Alston said. "If we had Chicken, we'd really be unstoppable."

For Best, the thing about death isn't necessarily its finality. It's the often insensitive relentlessness of life.

While she ponders and plans her team's future, Best says she's also coming to terms with the fact that some of her rival coaches have treated the announcement of Nazareth's closure as an invitation to declare open season on its players.

"Believe me, my players are being actively recruited," she said. "I just wish they had the respect to at least let us finish our season."

Asked if Nazareth has reported any violations, Best said, "It's not our style."

Edwards is adamant that she and the other Nazareth underclassmen have agreed to stay intact as a program under Best and Kelly at another school. Best said discussions already have been held with a school in Queens, but that school currently is accepting only incoming freshmen. The group will continue to explore options, as it did when forced to relocate from St. Michael's.

Based on personal experience, Best believes her players will ultimately remain together.

"After going through so much with a group of people," she said, "you really don't want to go off somewhere to face it all by yourself."

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.