Tyonna Williams—sitting in front—and her teammates review their game plan before the start of a big matchup. Photos by Simon Bruty
The hum of fluorescent lights is deafening in the high-school locker room in Chandler, Arizona. An hour and a half earlier, 14 teenage girls were singing and dancing and drumming on the aluminum lockers.
Now the only sound coming from the Riverdale Baptist Crusaders, a high-school basketball team from Upper Marlboro, is the shuffle of bags and sneakers as the players take off their sweat-soaked uniforms. They’ve just suffered a 23-point loss to Illinois’s Bolingbrook Raiders, the fourth-ranked team in the country. It’s a disappointing blow in their second game at Nike’s Tournament of Champions, an invitation-only tournament considered the country’s most prestigious in girls’ high-school basketball.
For all practical purposes, the Crusaders are a running, jumping, three-point-shooting Nike ad. Their sponsorship contract with the company means the “swoosh” logo is everywhere—on their jerseys, warm-ups, and shiny blue shoes.
The Crusaders wear their uniforms like a badge of honor—that it will get them places is practically a given. Not counting this year, 45 Lady Crusaders have gone to college on athletic scholarships since 2000. Among the biggest-name schools are the University of Virginia, Wake Forest, and Duke.
Former Crusaders have gone on to play professionally in the WNBA and overseas as well as to coach basketball at the college level. Four have been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
For some of the players, the dream isn’t just about the game. The girls on this year’s team want to become physicians and lawyers and tech wizards. The uniform is a vehicle, a way to get to the next step. If everything goes right, they’ll achieve that goal on someone else’s dime.
But today none of that seems to matter. At halftime, the Crusaders have 26 turnovers and ten fouls. They’re one for nine from the three-point line.
Three minutes into the fourth quarter, Tyonna Williams, a captain and the team’s best three-point shooter, fouls out. Down 21 points, the Crusaders lose their composure; whereas the Raiders play with control, the Crusaders seem frenzied. There’s no patience or teamwork—just sprint down the floor, shoot, miss, sprint back.
Adding insult to injury, Bolingbrook coach Tony Smith sends in his bench players with 1:30 left to play. A Crusader turnover and a three-point air ball round out the final minute.
Deflated, the Crusaders file into the locker room. The coaches—there are four—wait outside while head coach Diane Richardson gathers her thoughts.
The door opens slowly and Richardson walks in, her five-foot-five frame looking bigger than usual. The girls avoid eye contact. Richardson stands in the middle of the room with a whiteboard behind her, the team’s pre-game strategy still inked in green marker.
“I’m angry,” Richardson says. “I don’t think you wanted it enough.”
The girls sit quietly. They know she’s right.
Richardson talks for the next 45 minutes, her voice passionless as she recounts everyone’s mistakes—a turnover here, a bad pass there. Her mind is photographic when it comes to basketball, even for games she wants to forget.
A janitor finally interrupts. He thought everyone had left, he says, and he’s already armed the security system. “We’ll just be a minute,” Richardson says almost sweetly, a forced smile on her face.
She turns back to the team. “We put all our time and energy into making you the best basketball players on earth,” she says, pausing to let the words sink in. "But with all that instruction, where in the world is your heart?"
Next: Richardson's Crusaders basketball team is a family