They’ve had years to ponder the decision while weeding through the streams of letters from college recruiters. It’s exciting when the letters start to come, but over time the ritual—checking the mail, opening letters—becomes a reflex. The letters end up stuffed into drawers and shoeboxes.
Today Lauren and Tyonna sit at a folding table draped in a Crusader-blue tablecloth, balloons tied to their chairs. In front of them is swag from their schools: a maroon Temple Owls T-shirt for Tyonna, and a gray-and-yellow UMBC sweatshirt for Lauren. Their teammates skipped out on last-period classes to come, and parents and grandparents took a half day off work. The athletic department set out a table of refreshments—fruit salad, a platter of Chick-fil-A nuggets, and sheet cake. Richardson brought Tyonna a jug of apple juice, her favorite drink.
Signing day is exciting for everyone—three generations of Lauren’s family have turned out for the ceremony—but it’s especially momentous for Tyonna. Her grandmother, Ella Simmons, is here with Tyonna’s aunt, Angela, one of the people who stepped up to help raise Tyonna and her brothers after Cynthia split. Angela is blind, so Simmons sits at her elbow and explains what everybody’s wearing and doing. She has a camcorder in her hand; Matthew, her husband, was rushed to the hospital last night after suffering a stroke. Simmons doesn’t want to let him miss anything.
Also absent is Tyonna’s brother Anthony, who is in jail at the Prince George’s County Detention Center. His arrest shattered Tyonna, and it’s still hard for her to figure out. They sometimes talk on the phone, which helps; she tells him about her games and school and how their grandparents are doing. She hasn’t been to see him, but she hopes to visit the jail on her birthday in May.
Anthony’s arrest was a reminder to Tyonna about why she has to succeed. At Temple, she’ll study criminal justice; she wants to be a lawyer or detective someday. Her goal is to clean up the streets of her old neighborhood. She wants to give the kids there a better shake than what she and her brothers got.
Signing day is Tyonna’s first step toward realizing that goal. She and Lauren, best friends since sixth grade, smile and laugh as they pose for photos.
The two are opposites. Tyonna is strong-willed and outspoken, Lauren thoughtful and measured. It shows in how they play: Tyonna, flashy and in-your-face, gets more of the spotlight, while Lauren, who’s equally talented, takes a back seat to her best friend. It’s one of the reasons Lauren is going to UMBC rather than a bigger basketball school. The Maryland honors college was among the first to see her quiet talent. By the time bigger schools took notice, it was too late—Lauren had made a commitment.
Richardson’s nickname for Lauren is Bird—not because she can fly but because she picks away at her opponents like a bird nipping at road kill. She runs circles around defenders; forwards and centers look like clumsy giants in comparison.
Tyonna and Lauren are the first two seniors to formally commit to schools. In the coming months, Deja Hawkins, the center, will accept a full scholarship to Clemson, an incredible achievement considering that this time last year no one had heard of the 250-pound athlete. The other two seniors, Lydia Evans and Courtney Warren, will head to Virginia Union University.
Richardson stands in the corner, arms crossed, beaming at her two stars. If you were to ask her, she’d say days like this are why she does it—why she spends hours a day reviewing game film, why she takes time away from her family.
“Of course I want to win, and of course I want to do well,” she says. “But when they step out on the court, they’re not just fighting to win a game—they’re fighting for an opportunity to go to college. That’s what I’m here to teach them.”
Next:The Crusaders face their biggest game of the season