She Got Game

The hoops and dreams of Colorado's budding girl basketball stars.

It's the beginning of summer for many high-school kids, but a group of gangly teenage girls files into a Thornton school gymnasium one May evening for a different type of summer school. Each of them carries athletic bags and half-gallon Thermoses full of ice water. Once inside the gym, some of them stretch on the sidelines in loose groups, others shoot baskets languidly, limping after stray balls like cheetahs loping on the Serengeti. They hold back on the sprinting until it's time for business.

All of these teens are standouts on their high-school and junior-high basketball teams. They've come together tonight to scrimmage against each other in preparation for the start of the second season: the growing phenomenon of club basketball. Instead of lounging by the pool this June, they'll be matching up against other talented basketball players in tournaments across the country. And instead of spending time flirting with boys at the mall, these girls will be ogled by hundreds of college coaches.

As the scrimmage starts up and the nets start popping from pinpoint jump shots, three players immediately step forward to take over. Jamie Carey, a senior-to-be from Horizon High School in Thornton, is the flashiest and most vocal player on the floor. With the sleeves of her T-shirt rolled up to her shoulders and shorts hanging past her knees, the 5-foot-6 Carey jets across the court throwing no-look passes and hitting double-clutch layups over taller players. She jumps into the stands to fight for a loose ball.

Matched up against Carey is a 5-foot-5 guard named Alli Spence from Chatfield. Spence nearly negates Carey's spectacular play with fundamentals. She makes the right play almost every time down the court: bounce passes right to the cutter's hands; pull-up jumpers when the defense sloughs off; and sticky, on-the-ball defense. Throughout practice, both Spence and Carey exhort the younger players to work harder and keep the scrimmage running tight.

Carey and Spence are considered two of the best guards in Colorado. Carey is nationally renowned; she's attracted attention from powerhouse schools like Stanford and has gotten an invitation to try out for the U.S. women's junior team.

But there's a younger girl who walks into the scrimmage late who is really turning heads. According to her club-team coach, fourteen-year-old Ann Strother from Castle Pines is already receiving handwritten letters from Pat Summitt, coach of the national-champion University of Tennessee Lady Vols. At least one college coach has called Strother "the white Chamique Holdsclaw," a reference to the Tennessee star.

As she laces up her sneakers, Strother looks like any other 6-foot-1 girl about to become a freshman in high school. A little shy about her slender frame, she smiles nervously as she waits her turn to play. But the moment she steps onto the court, it's easy to understand why coaches like Summitt are getting writer's cramp.

Strother outruns the guards. She can touch the rim. She plays good defense. She dribbles the ball like a pro point guard--it's an extension of her hand. Her head's up and she scans the court. A 6-foot-2 defensive player steps up to meet her at the three-point line and gets broken off with a between-the-legs crossover dribble. Strother floats up for a three-pointer that's all net. She glides back on defense, her self-conscious smile replaced by a smirk.

Although Carey, Spence and Strother stand out during the scrimmage, it's impossible to look around the gym without seeing other players pull off an amazing move, a wicked blocked shot, a turn-around jumper. Midway through the run, a team of middle-school boys swaggers into the gym to check out the action and talk some smack. They walk out two minutes later, silent and somber-faced.

Practice wraps up, and most of the girls slip back into their flip-flops and head out into the warm spring night. Spence and Carey hang out for a little while, shooting jumpers and joking around. When a reporter walks up to them at half-court, they suddenly get very serious. They size him up as a player (at 6-foot-3, he played a year at the University of California at San Diego). Like a couple of velociraptors, they glare at him as he stands on their court in his street clothes--as if they're checking for weaknesses in his game, figuring out how to break him down off the dribble.

He asks if there's any player in the country whom they're worried about matching up with during next week's tournament in New York City. Yeah, right, fool.

"There's not one girl in the U.S. who frightens us," Spence says with a serious tone. "Jamie is one of the best in the country, and I play her every day. So why would I be afraid of anyone else? The competition here in Colorado is as tough as anywhere. If I can play here, I can play anywhere."

Over the past six years, there has been at least one girl from Colorado named on the annual Parade High School All-American basketball team. This year Colorado boasted one of the best prep players in the country in Keirsten Walters, a 5-foot-9 point guard. The Class 5A player of the year from Heritage High School in Littleton will play next year for the University of Connecticut, a perennial Final Four participant. Local coaches estimate that for every Colorado boy basketball player who gets a Division One basketball scholarship, three girls sign on to play D-1 hoops.

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