The gym rats want her to keep dunking. Her coaches want her to play “vanilla.” So what does fifteen-year-old Fort Worth phenom Brooklyn Pope want? To give the other team a stomachache.
DURING THE SATURDAY GAME of the March 2004 Adidas All-American West Coast Evaluation Camp in Los Angeles, one of those perennial shoe-company-sponsored all-star gatherings for high school basketball players, a few of the game’s top women’s college coaches must have wondered if they were suffering from some sort of collective amnesia. How else to explain having never heard of Brooklyn Pope, the five-foot-eleven-inch girl wearing the thick, wire-rimmed glasses who was running circles around some of the best players in the country? Every other rising senior on the court that day had been on their recruiting radar for years. Many of them had already committed to one of the big dogs: Juanita Ward to Mississippi, Charde Houston to UConn, Kirsten Thompson to Arizona State. But as the game dragged on, the unheralded and unsigned Brooklyn Pope was making her high-profile opponents look stone-tired.
In the second half, she took a pass on a wide-open fast break and appeared to be heading for a routine layup. Instead, she picked up her dribble and took two giant steps inside the key. Rising up to the backboard with the ball held high in her right hand, she hammered it into the basket. Then, as if to make sure everyone was watching, she hung on the rim for a few seconds on the way down. Never mind that the ball clanked off the back of the rim and ricocheted toward half-court: Some unknown player under six feet tall had just tried to dunk in a girls’ high school basketball game. And so the one hundred or so coaches in the stands hopped to their feet and did what you’d expect any leader of a big-time program to do: They pointed to the school logos on their shirts and shouted toward Brooklyn as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me!”
But why hadn’t they seen this girl before? Where had she been hiding?
Brooklyn Pope was only in the eighth grade.
IF BROOKLYN IS READING THIS STORY, her coaches would rather that she stop right here. No need to let her get a big head, they’d say, from all the praise about to be lavished upon her. But it’s hard to imagine that anything could surprise the fifteen-year-old small forward at this point. By last February, when Brooklyn was leading Fort Worth’s Dunbar Lady Wildcats to their first-ever Texas high school basketball 4A final four in Austin—as a freshman—she was already the talk of the Stop Six neighborhood. Wherever she went, neighbors bragged about how she was already six feet two and still growing. About how she was averaging 16.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots a game. How before the season even began she’d already won Most Outstanding Player at the Adidas Elite 100 Superstar Camp in September and Slam magazine had gushed that she’d “outhustled, outsmarted, and pretty much outplayed everybody on the court” in July’s Adidas Top Ten Girls All-American Basketball Camp in Atlanta. Even the man who ran the West Coast camp, Ray Mayes, testified: “I think Brooklyn will be the best player to come out of Texas, period. And one of the top five to play the game. I haven’t seen a kid with that much broad skill and ability in a long time. LeBron James, maybe, is the last time I saw somebody play with that skill at that age.” That seemingly impossible comparison didn’t sit well with some of the talkers, though, who said that with Brooklyn’s size and dribbling skill, she should really be compared to Magic Johnson.
Hype like this is probably inevitable when you’re the first female superstar at Dunbar, an institution best known as the home of the winningest high school boys’ coach in the country, 77-year-old Robert Hughes, and therefore the home of one of the most rabid basketball communities in the country. And it’s been like this for Brooklyn since the seventh grade, when she opened the mailbox to find her first recruiting letter, from Princeton. Since then she’s accumulated so much fan mail from scouts—at UCLA, Duke, UConn, Stanford, Baylor, Texas Tech, Tennessee, UT-Austin, and every other upper-echelon college program—that her mailman told her he wants a raise. No matter that she won’t be able to step onto the court at anyone’s university for another three years. Brooklyn is a can’t-miss recruit, the coaches say, the kind of impact athlete who can relieve the pressure of a few losing seasons or even save their jobs just by signing her name. So they stare at their keyboards searching for new and inventive ways to praise her. Like the letter from Notre Dame that arrived a week after a camp Brooklyn attended in July: “We had the opportunity to see you at the Adidas Top Ten camp in Atlanta and all I can say is ‘Wow.’ That move in the all-star game? I don’t even know what to say.” Brooklyn Pope, in other words, already knows that she’s been tagged the Next Big Thing.
She also knows she isn’t supposed to believe any of it. From the time she was nine years old, her coaches have been preaching humility and teamwork and respect. They tell her that the recruiters and the scouts and the player-ranking Web sites are a dangerous hype machine that will forget her just as quickly as it has built her up. They tell her that being able to dunk won’t be enough to make her a special player. Last year, after all, Candace Parker, a high school senior from Illinois, won the slam dunk contest at the McDonald’s All American High School Basketball Game—against a field full of boys. To get to the next level, she’s told, she’ll have to learn to play vanilla. Don’t let your head get full of helium, the coaches say. Can’t let yourself think you’re all that. But when you’re a fifteen-year-old freshman being told repeatedly that you are all that—and told just as often not to believe a word of it—how do you know whom to listen to?
This was the predicament Brooklyn found herself in a few days before the 2005 high school final four. The Dunbar boys’ team had already lost in the regional quarterfinals, leaving her with the community’s undivided attention. During the Lady Wildcats’ recent run in the playoffs, as they’d notched wins against Denison (74–33), Lubbock Estacado (46–43), and Denton (62–45), and Denton (62—45), Brooklyn had become an undisputed force. In the final two regional playoff games in San Angelo, she had played Magic-like all-around basketball, pouring in 29 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, and tallying up 9 blocks. But to the chagrin of her coaches, the ones who tell her she needs to stick to the fundamentals, she had also attempted another dunk. It was a miss. And so heading to the semifinals in Austin, the girl with the unstoppable talent, whose game was about to be on the biggest stage of her short career, was caught between playing to a crowd wondering what she would pull off next and listening to the coaches who begged her to play vanilla.
Away from the court, Brooklyn looks like the friendly, noncompetitive twin of the intimidating jock pictured in the newspapers. She’ll don a letter jacket and a T-shirt, but her large gold hoop earrings give her casual attire a dash of confident femininity. Unlike many high school freshmen females over six feet, she rarely slouches, which makes her seem Amazonian. She has the air of someone who enjoys her size and her personality. I asked her why she likes to try to dunk. “It puts the momentum back into my teammates,” she told me. “The crowd loses it, and if we have the crowd, we have the game. They determine the game. Their excitement brings it. If I dunk in a real close game and the whole crowd loses their minds on our side—so that even the other side has to clap? It makes the other team mad at us, like they messed up.” Then she thinks about it for another moment, as if she’s trying to construct a sentence that won’t sound obnoxiously overconfident. “My doing this as a freshman just blows the lid off the expectations of the game,” she said. “There’s a different reaction when [WNBA star] Lisa Leslie dunks than when I dunk. Because of my age, I get more hype. Leslie just kinda puts it in there, whereas when I put it in, I’m like, ‘Whoa! I can feel it.’ I make it so we all can feel it.”
THE STOP SIX NEIGHBORHOOD, SO NAMED FOR ITS position on the old Dallas—Fort Worth train line, is a little like a basketball incubator. There is a hoop on almost every block. Most guys at Dunbar High School wear basketball jerseys whether they’re on a team or not. At the Martin Luther King Community Center gym, which sits just a few blocks south of Brooklyn’s house and a few blocks north of Dunbar’s gym, there is always a game of pick-up being played. The girls who grow up playing here don’t always learn the fundamentals of the traditional girls’ game, sometimes referred to as “thump-thump” basketball, where the ball gets tossed around for a long while before somebody takes a shot. Playing against their older brothers and male classmates, they learn to play fast and tough, picking up aggressive moves that sometimes earn them fouls in girls’ games.
It’s a more modern style of play that has been developing elsewhere and is slowly changing the women’s game. Gordon Loucks, who covers high school basketball for Texas Girls Basketball Report and has watched between three hundred and four hundred teams a season for the past eighteen years, said he witnessed a change starting around 1997, when the WNBA held its first game. “There’s definitely influences coming down from the WNBA,” Loucks says. “We’re in the drive to be more appealing and entertaining. There’s less fundamentals, more athleticism. That’s the sad part to watch, because you’re losing what a lot of us hold pretty dear. But there’s not a lot you can do about it.” Of course, some say the change is good for the girls: A more intense game translates into ticket sales, a greater fan base, and careers in professional leagues.
The evolving style has certainly benefited girls’ basketball at Dunbar. When 31-year-old coach Andrea Robinson took over the Lady Wildcats three years ago, the team hadn’t made the playoffs in a decade. All the attention was on the boys’ team, which had won 27 consecutive district titles under Coach Hughes. But Robinson’s teams found success—Dunbar made the playoffs in her first year—and their crowds have grown. Now the Stop Six girls grow up dreaming of playing on the Dunbar varsity squad the same way the Stop Six boys do. This year, playing a fast-paced style with Brooklyn, sophomore LaShandra “LaLa” Hill, junior Victoria Davis, and junior Jerin Smith setting the tone, the Lady Wildcats were 29–4.
But going into the semifinals, none of the Lady Wildcats had had much experience in high-pressure games. Meanwhile, their opponents, Dallas Lincoln, were last year’s state champions and hadn’t lost a game in Texas in three years. Lincoln had five seniors on the team, and forwards Simone Cooks and Dominic Seals would be going on to play Division I college basketball next year. The celebratory “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” song was probably already cued up on the Lincoln bus. Even Dunbar’s fans believed their team would probably lose in Austin and then go home happy to have had a winning season. One observer willing to give Brooklyn and her teammates a chance was Coach Hughes, who’s been to the state semifinals thirteen times. He told the naysayers, “Sometimes a team is so young they don’t know enough to get nervous.”
And from the opening tip of their Friday night contest, his comment seemed prescient. Before a raucous crowd of 4,575, Dunbar jumped out to an early lead. Brooklyn, in her number 32 jersey (same as Magic’s), wore her hair tied up in a softball-size poof of a ponytail near the top of her head and contacts to replace her lucky Coke-bottle glasses. She had her game face on from the outset: Her eyebrows diving toward her nose and her nostrils flared, she yelled at her team on the court, trying to keep up the intensity. During the second quarter, with the game still tight, Brooklyn had a chance to dunk on a fast break, but she took the layup instead.
Deep into the second half, however, Dunbar’s aggressive defense had worn down its opponent, forcing 22 turnovers. With two minutes and sixteen seconds left on the clock and her team up by nineteen points, Brooklyn picked up a loose ball at mid-court and hit her stride on another open break. For a moment, you could hear the little squeals of anticipation coming from the spectators. Brooklyn went up for the dunk and came up just short, but as the ball slipped off her fingers, she managed to tap it forward over the rim, where it bounced off the backboard and through the net. On the way down, she grabbed the rim with her hand, and the crowd was hushed as the thunngggg hung in the air.
Seated next to me at the Frank Erwin Center was Rick Sherley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. The whole game he had remained tight-lipped about Brooklyn. “I’ve heard of her” was all he’d said. But now he turned to me and laughed. I asked if he had ever seen a girl attempt a dunk during a high school game, and he shook his head.
“How long were you a coach?” I asked.
“Thirty-two years,” he said. Then he leaned over. “She’s got another three years to get better?” he quipped.
Outside the locker room after the game, a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked Brooklyn why she’d tried to dunk. Why hadn’t she gone for the layup, as her coach had instructed? “I wanted to give the next team we play a stomachache,” she said.
BROOKLYN’S DAD LIKES TO TELL the story of how his daughter first got “discovered.” A hoops fanatic, Tony Pope Sr. is six feet four and would have played for Coach Hughes back when he went to Dunbar, but doctor’s orders after a bout with rheumatic fever kept him off the team. Instead, he passed his love of the sport on to his two sons, Tony Jr. and Tim, and to his only daughter, Brooklyn. He became so impressed with her early talent that when she was only nine years old, he brought her to a local Amateur Athletic Union club, Team Ichiban, a rigorous March-to-September all-star group directed by Gene Watts. Over the years, Watts has earned a name for himself for developing talent. (Most recently, he trained UT star and 2004 ESPN.com National Freshman of the Year Tiffany Jackson.) Taking Brooklyn to Team Ichiban would be a reality check. If Watts said Brooklyn was good, she was good.
She was already five feet eight when she walked into Watts’s gym. The coach put her out in a scrimmage with a team of thirteen-year-olds and passed her the ball.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” he said.
Brooklyn took her defender down the court, weaving in and out and then spinning under the basket before banging a shot off the glass. As the ball dropped through the hoop, Watts blew his whistle and called a time-out. Then he brought all the girls to center court and asked them to estimate the new player’s age.
“Thirteen,” they guessed.
“She’s only nine years old,” he told them.
But while Brooklyn was good enough to play with girls four years her senior, there was a catch. “Her attitude was horrible,” Watts remembered. If things didn’t go her way, he said, she threw a tantrum. “I kicked her out of practice about every day for the first two months just to get her to understand no one is above the program.” The other players told her about the dangers of “helium” and “hype” and how she’d better be ready to meet someone who would be better than her. Whether it was the lessons or just maturity, Brooklyn gradually came around, playing two and a half hours a day with either Team Ichiban or her school’s team. She started memorizing the maxims about staying humble, hoping the stale-sounding phrases would sink in.
Brooklyn’s mom, Janice, admits that while Tony was teaching their daughter to dribble, she was wishing that Brooklyn would show more interest in gymnastics (which Brooklyn vetoed) or classical piano (which she flat-out didn’t have time for). But even in second grade, when Brooklyn was wearing matching socks and hair bows to go with her dresses, she’d be out on the playground at lunchtime, barefoot, throwing a ball into a trash can. When her grade-school teacher asked the students to write about what they loved most, Brooklyn wrote in large, perfectly formed round letters, “I like basketball 24-7. 24-7 means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
And she was a die-hard gym rat years before other girls in her class. The MLK center’s late-night supervisor Wayne “Spanky” Lewis, himself an old player from Hughes’s 1965 state championship team, knew what he was looking at when he first saw Brooklyn coming in to play pick-up games with the guys. Usually girls would be there to attract a guy’s attention. Brooklyn, on the other hand, consistently played to win, and the boys ratcheted up their game to avoid defeat by a girl. Lewis, who predicted she’d be famous someday, started calling her “Brooke Shields.” That was six years before she surpassed him in height.
When Brooklyn finally arrived at Dunbar, Coach Robinson knew her job wouldn’t be as simple as handing the new kid the ball. Dealing with a gifted player is tricky. “You want to structure her, but you don’t want to take away her talent,” said Robinson. And the game has to stay fun. “[At the San Angelo playoffs], she attempted to dunk it, and she came to me afterward and said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what happened. I was just going at it really hard and it just happened.’” Robinson laughed. “So you accidentally dunk?”
ROBINSON AND OTHER COACHES say they are often taken aback by Brooklyn’s knowledge of the sport. When she isn’t playing, she and her dad watch old VHS tapes from the public library, memorizing big games and talking shop. At home, her older brothers grill her about televised games. Which player is doing what? Why? What should he be doing instead? She studies basketball history and the players whose posters neatly adorn one of her bedroom walls. At her house one night, she curled up on the couch and started talking about her favorite players in her low, silky voice. She didn’t just know which players were great; she knew why they were great: “Of course I like Michael Jordan—he’s the typical choice as a favorite—but I also like Bill Russell because he was the champion. I like LeBron James because he passed expectations. I like Magic Johnson because he did the unexpected thing: He played guard at 6’9” back in the days when you had a 5’11”, 6’ guard. [Magic’s] a big old dude that could play center.”
She also understands that some of those players knew the art of trash talking. One night we went out to Wing Stop with her next-door neighbor E’Tasha Keeton, who plays ninth-grade volleyball at Dunbar. Brooklyn is a giant compared with the petite E’Tasha, a sweet-faced girl who is pleased to have finally reached one hundred pounds this year. E’Tasha often flashed a smile while we talked, while Brooklyn struck a cool pose, playing the straight man.
“Brooke, you know, she’s fun,” E’Tasha told me, teasing her friend. “She brags a lot though.” Then she took my tape recorder and began to pretend to interview the superstar: “With all this stuff about Brooklyn Pope, do you get a big head?”
Brooklyn slipped on her sunglasses and leaned back, perhaps imagining herself at a post-game news conference. “No,” she said. “I stay down to earth. I keep it real for myself and others.”
“What would you say about your playing? Overall, how is your game?”
“Real talented. I have a lot of faith in my game.”
They continued like this, Brooklyn teetering on the verge of remaining humble until E’Tasha began a brief exchange about who was better than whom at what, like the time they played each other in eighth-grade basketball. Then E’Tasha offered a challenge. “Look at that little bitty box over there in the corner. Who’s going to get through that thing quicker, me or you?”
“Me,” said Brooklyn, “because I’d bust it up while you’re trying to crawl through.”
“Uh-uhhhh!” said E’Tasha.
“I win!” Brooklyn said with her arms in the air.
“I will win. You will lose,” said E’Tasha. “You would lose in volleyball too.”
“I would spike it,” countered Brooklyn.
“No you would not. Your height doesn’t matter!”
At this, Brooklyn simply put her hand up in front of her.
“Don’t wave your hand at me!”
“I’m just tryin’ to get some air,” said Brooklyn.
A SEA OF BRIGHT-BLUE T-SHIRTS marked the sections that held the Dunbar Lady Wildcats fans at the Erwin Center, in Austin, for the 4A championship game on March 5 against Angleton. One of the Dunbar fans told me she hadn’t missed more than five boys’ basketball home games since 1974, and several of the men were wearing T-shirts that read “Stop Six.” Among the crowd was Hughes, who had been down to Austin with the boys from Dunbar thirteen times over the years and was a month from announcing his retirement. “Usually, when you go down to the Erwin Center,” he said, “the only seat worth a dime is the seat next to your team. Any other seat is unsatisfying. But this is not me looking at a team I don’t know.”
I took a seat in an area adjacent to the tightly packed Dunbar crowd, where the two men next to me were leaning back in their chairs, talking about Brooklyn. “So this girl from Dunbar can dunk?” one asked.
“So they say,” said the other.
“I read in the paper she wanted to scare the other team.”
“I guess if you can do it.”
Dunbar jumped out to an early lead, shooting an astounding 63 percent from the field in the first half. But it couldn’t pull away. Each trip down the court, concerned that her team was losing patience, Coach Robinson would yell at her players—“Calm down! Calm down!” Before heading into the locker room, Angleton had cut Dunbar’s eleven-point first-quarter lead to seven.
And in the second half Angleton was matching Dunbar basket for basket. When Brooklyn started playing aggressive defense, she quickly picked up her second and third fouls, and while she sat on the bench, Angleton continued closing in, pulling to 41–40 by the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Dunbar fans were now standing and hoarse, shouting with exasperation, “Come on, ladies!” “Defense!”
When she finally got back in the game, Brooklyn immediately helped swing the momentum. She pulled in a long, downcourt pass near the sideline, and, after barely maintaining her balance to stay inbounds, she drove in for a layup. After trading a few more baskets, Dunbar pulled ahead 53—49. Then, with 57 seconds on the clock, Dunbar guard Victoria Davis stood at the free-throw line. She hit the first shot, and the crowd cheered. When she missed the second, Brooklyn stepped in once again to make the big play. Moving in off the key, she grabbed the offensive rebound and made a quick put-back for two points. Angleton would make one more free throw, but when the buzzer sounded, Dunbar had won, 56—50.
The team ran to center court, crashing into a heap on the floor and then rolling over one another like puppies. As the sea of blue T-shirts finished a round of high fives in the stands, Brooklyn posed for photographs with her teammates, then she held her index finger high in the air and led the team in a cheer: “D! H! S! D! H! S!”
“This is the first championship for the Lady Wildcats…” said the announcer over the loudspeaker. Then he read an announcement passed to him from Coach Hughes: “Stop Six will rock the night.”
TRY TO REMEMBER WHEN you were a freshman in high school. You didn’t have a driver’s license yet. Maybe you had braces. Chances are, especially if you were a girl, you tried to find a spot in the world where you wouldn’t be horribly embarrassed just to exist. So when the announcement was made that the fifteen-year-old freshman with so much hype had been named the tournament MVP, was it anything but beautiful when she slowly strutted off the court wearing her flashy sunglasses, proudly reveling in the spotlight? A few days later, Coach Hughes would tell her that if he ever saw her showboating with her shades like that again, he’d make her run laps. But that would come later. On that night in March, as she posed for the cameras with her arms folded across her chest, Brooklyn Pope had earned every bit of her delightful brashness.
Okay, Brooke, you can quit reading now.