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Block Party

Sandora Irvin: Pompano to Texas to the WNBA
Mark Graham

Let's take it back. Back before scouts whispered her name as a top-five pick in this year's WNBA draft. Before she broke all those records at Texas Christian University. Before, even, that one game her junior year, when she considered giving it up, all of it, the basketball, the fame and college, just because she played poorly.

Back before she came to campus withdrawn, trusting no one, and back before she was a high school All-American. Yes, let's take it back to a Saturday night in the spring of Sandora Irvin's 14th year, to a neighborhood in Pompano Beach called Ugly Man's Corner.

There's nothing ironic about the name. In Ugly Man's Corner are bums, crime, blighted buildings, empty syringes and now, just walking past, a young Sandora Irvin, already six feet tall and so very skinny, looking for her mother, Angela Hollis. Angela left the apartment some time ago with a boyfriend, promising to return.

Sandora stops in bars. "Have you seen Angela Hollis?" She knocks on apartment doors. Somebody must have spotted her.

Sandora's legs are tired, and she wants to go home. Then she sees a pay phone and has an idea. Sandora pushes her change through the phone slot, dials the number, and waits.

"Hello," Taunya Dix says.

Sandora starts bawling.

Dix is her Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach. "You can come over here," Dix says. "You know you'll have a place to stay. A route to school. Warm meals. Warm bed." Though the Dixes have two children of their own, Taunya tells Sandora they could make room for a third.

Sandora hangs up. Minutes later, Dix's car pulls over. Sandora doesn't know it yet, but this is the beginning of the second half of her childhood, the one in which many parental figures will circle her life. It will include neither her mother nor, really, her father, Daughn Irvin, who is the older brother of former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin.

Sure, Daughn Irvin will at least nominally protest Sandora's living arrangements. But Angela Hollis? Put it this way: In the days after leaving Ugly Man's Corner, Sandora never hears from her mother. This leads her to two possible conclusions: Mom didn't care that she was gone or, worse, Mom didn't even know.


Though she's six feet three inches tall, Sandora found basketball relatively late in life. She's grown from a shot blocker with no other discernible skills to a center with decent moves to an all-around scorer to a first team All-American. All in a little under eight years.

She holds the single-game NCAA record for blocked shots. She holds the all-time NCAA record for blocked shots. University of Cincinnati's head coach, Laurie Pirtle, says her team this year tried a perimeter offense against TCU, just to limit Irvin's block chances. Irvin still swatted away six.

And Sandora can make three-pointers, though this has been a contentious issue with TCU head coach Jeff Mittie. Until this season, he hadn't trusted her behind the arc. It took the summer of 2004, which included late-night, hourlong workouts during which Sandora shot nothing but threes to gain Mittie's respect. She's rewarded him. Coming into the Louisville game, Sandora has more three-pointers this season (22) than she had in her three previous years combined (14).

Mittie wanted her to score more her senior year. So in addition to the late-night three-point shootouts, there were the recreational-league games against men stronger and quicker than her. It was in these leagues, on these courts, that Sandora learned to score off the dribble from the perimeter. She's averaging 20 points a game this year, up four from last season.

She has so much going for her. A coach who (finally) understands her. Her idols, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, the very keepers of the throne of women's basketball, praising her game on ESPN. Seven WNBA scouts sitting through the Conference USA Tournament.

The past no longer haunts her present.


In second grade, strange men would show up. It was normally late at night, after Sandora had gone to bed. Angela Hollis would leave with them and wouldn't return until morning. Pretty soon, the strange men kept Angela from home during the day. Sandora would return from school, sit with her great-grandmother, Cora Lee Goins -- in whose home Angela and Sandora lived at the time -- and the second-grader would cry, "go crazy," as she would later say.

In second grade, other strange men asked to see Sandora at school. They were nicer than the men who stopped by the house. They were formally dressed and brought candy. They asked questions like, "Sandora, does your mother beat you?" She said no -- not unless she'd been a really naughty girl.

 

A couple of days later, after school, Sandora's grandmother, Lorretta Hollis, picked her up and said Sandora would live with her from now on, across town, in a nicer part of Pompano. Sandora didn't like that. She wanted to live with her mom.

Sandora was confused. She was angry. Why did all her cousins have moms they lived with? "My grandma -- I gave her a hard time," Sandora would later say about those first years with Lorretta Hollis.

And what about the father, Daughn Irvin? Why didn't he take Sandora in? With age, Sandora understood that her mother's drug problem kept her away, but what about her father? He had left Angela, started a new family. He lived clean and had a good job.

Sandora often visited her father, sometimes saw her famous uncle, Michael. But Sandora never lived in Fort Lauderdale. Never really knew why either.

She did love the Irvin family gatherings, though. Daughn was one of 17 children. Having a party at Grandma Irvin's meant a near-endless supply of cousins to play with. Sandora didn't have that in Pompano Beach. Just she and her other grandmother there -- and a strict grandmother at that. No playing outside after school. Only the best of grades allowed.

Lorretta Hollis, who worked at an airplane parts plant, nurtured Sandora's intellect. Every essay, each report card -- if it was a scholastic achievement -- was laminated, hung on the wall, shown to the ladies at work.

One day after school, though, in sixth grade, Sandora didn't feel like doing her homework. She looked outside. In the park across the street, boys played basketball. It took her a long time to get in a game. She had never played before. Never learned to shoot or dribble; Grandma thought sports weren't ladylike. Still, that first time Sandora blocked a shot.

She came back the next day and every day thereafter. She'd tear home from school, throw off her clothes, throw on some shorts and a T-shirt, and race across the street. She'd block as many shots as possible -- still all she could do -- then run home around 5 p.m. and be lounging at 5:30 when Grandma got home, none the wiser.

But one day, the blocks were coming with ease. The crowd loved it. Sandora lost track of time. It was after 6 before she entered her grandma's house. Lorretta Hollis pointed to the backyard and said, "Get a switch."

A whupping, however, couldn't curb her desire to play. In seventh grade, Sandora joined the school team after some coaxing from a fiery white woman named Colleen Henry, the basketball coach at Pompano Beach Middle School. Lorretta Hollis gave her grudging approval: At least these games were school-sanctioned and against other girls.

Her new teammates called her Tall But Nothin'. Sandora still couldn't dribble, couldn't shoot. In the midst of her growth spurt, she had no coordination, no muscle on her bones. "She was very frail," says Colleen Stearn, formerly Colleen Henry. But at five-foot-ten and growing, Sandora towered ten inches above some opponents. It killed her to miss shots. "She would almost, like, just shut down," Stearn says. Near tears a lot of time on the court, Sandora was often benched so coach could tell her missed chances were a part of the game.

Still, the team was good. Undefeated through the regular season, advancing to the Broward County junior high championship, where it played Ramblewood Middle School for the title. The game was as much about race and socioeconomic status as basketball. On this side of the court, the white, mostly affluent parents of the Ramblewood kids. On that side, the black, poor, mostly single parents of Pompano Beach. The one-point overtime loss still burns Colleen Stearn. But what's most vivid in her memory is Sandora's reaction. There was no end to her crying. She was inconsolable.

The next day, Stearn got a letter from Sandora.

Dear Coach, it said. I will improve my game. We will never lose again.


Doctors diagnosed Lorretta Hollis with lung cancer during basketball season of Sandora's seventh-grade year. That spring, after Sandora joined an AAU basketball team, the game became a reprieve from Sandora's life. It became a talent to perfect in a less-than-perfect world.

Sandora cared for her grandmother alone. She watched her lose strength, and then weight, until this fragile thing no longer needed her large bed or large room; she and Sandora switched, a practical if disheartening arrangement. It only got worse from there. Soon, Sandora had to feed her grandmother, bathe her grandmother.

Oh, and deal with her mother's incarceration. Angela Hollis took a brick to her boyfriend's head while the two argued over cocaine on March 29, 1996, according to Pompano Beach police reports. She was arrested on one count of aggravated battery but couldn't make bail, set at $10,000.

 

Then one day, on the way to a game with her AAU teammates, Sandora pointed to the women's jail. "That's where my mom is," she said. Sandora was opening up. She'd found in basketball a stability she didn't have anywhere else. A family she didn't have anywhere else.

Dix and her husband would often invite her for dinner, and afterward Sandora would cry and cry. It was so hard -- a mother in and out of jail, a father in another city, a grandmother dying before her eyes. The coach would calm her. "Anybody who goes through so much so early can't help but have it better later on in life," she said.

Eighth grade began. The cancer overwhelmed Lorretta. At school, Sandora often stopped by Coach Stearn's classroom. Doctors had recently diagnosed Stearn's mother with cancer. "I told her it was OK to be sad," Stearn says. "Me, even as an adult, it was still hard for me and upsetting for me."

One Saturday afternoon in November, with her grandmother in the hospital, Sandora went to a wedding reception with her father. At one point, she sneaked off and called Lorretta. She knew there wasn't much time. She wanted to tell her how grateful she was to have found a home with her grandmother.

A nurse answered Lorretta's phone and gave it to her. Lorretta couldn't speak.

"Grandma? Grandma?" Sandora said.

"I'm sorry," the nurse said. "Try calling back later."

Then Lorretta Hollis died, and Daughn Irvin took his daughter in. Angela Hollis was in no shape to argue. The night of her mother's funeral, court records would later show, Angela got high.


Basketball became more than Sandora's sanctuary. Her blocked shots became highlight reels, swatted deep into the crowd. Her offensive output was enormous. She was the star of a team that scored 100 points in one eighth-grade game, beat Ramblewood Middle in another, and took home the county championship, just as she'd promised Coach Stearn.

Then Taunya Dix landed the head coaching job at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano. Sandora enrolled her freshman year, but then, after one year, Dix was fired; she still doesn't know why. Daughn Irvin enrolled Sandora in Fort Lauderdale High, where she could be closer to home.

But Sandora didn't get along with her father. She wanted the maternal figure she'd had in Dix. So she moved in with Beverly Loving, by that point Daughn's ex-wife.

Sandora loved Loving. She was a kind, generous, and religious woman. But also a woman burdened: Two of Loving's daughters lived with her, and soon, both were expecting their own children. No home for Sandora there. She turned to basketball and found, once again, a coach who cared deeply for her: a middle-aged black woman with a knack for developing tall girls into ballplayers. Coach K. Kaola King.

But Coach K wasn't about to nurture Sandora. Every time Sandora failed to slap the backboard after a lay-up, Coach K made her run sprints. If she didn't take it to the hole strong, there'd be an obscenity spat in her face. Coach K, like a lot of coaches, was hardest on the player who had the most potential.

Scouts came to Sandora's games her junior year. One of them was Lonnette Hall, an assistant coach at Texas Christian University. One game, Sandora blocked a shot, recovered it herself, took the ball the length of the court, gave an opposing guard a wicked crossover and nailed a 15-footer. Don't do anything else great, Sandora, Hall thought. We want to keep you to ourselves.

Later in the season, the University of Tennessee's Pat Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, visited Sandora at Coach K's house. Just stopped by to tell Sandora what a fine school Tennessee was.

Soon, Sandora was living with Coach K and her boyfriend, Gary Wyche, the assistant girls coach at Fort Lauderdale High. They didn't have kids. Many nights, Sandora couldn't sleep, and she'd knock on Coach K's bedroom door. The coach always welcomed her in, despite the hour. Then out came Sandora's questions, questions about her parents, her grandmother, why things were the way they were -- she still struggled with this. The coach didn't have many answers for her 3 a.m. questions, but the ones she gave soothed Sandora -- until the next knock on her door.

Then Sandora was deluged with e-mails from college coaches. The name of Texas Christian's Lonnette Hall stood out. She had the same initials as Lorretta Hollis. She wrote Hall back.

 

"Whoa," Hall said when she checked her inbox. "Sandora Irvin just e-mailed us."

Hall then asked Coach K how to win over Sandora. She's big on goals, Coach K said. She'd taught all her players to set goals for themselves. If she scored 20 points one night, she wanted 30 the next. If she were first-team all-conference, she wanted first-team all-state. Each new goal she attained proved that, through basketball, she could do anything.

By Sandora's senior year, she was USA Today's first-team All USA, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and nearly five blocks a game. Assistant Coach Larry Tidwell and TCU Head Coach Jeff Mittie visited Sandora at her father's house. They brought along the media guide. Pointed at all those records.

The coaches said they could see Sandora getting this one, that one, all of them, really.

Her eyes widened. "Yeah, I want my name all over these books."


Daughn Irvin wanted Sandora to go to Tennessee. "Tennessee has the competition," he said. "Don't run from the competition now."

Father and daughter were at Irvin's house. She was living with him her senior year, trying to make it work. With Coach K, in the end, it was impossible to stay another year. Too intense. She brought practice home. Plus, Sandora's teammates thought King played favorites because Sandora lived with her.

Sandora answered Daughn: "Dad, I'm not running from the competition. I want to make my own way."

She liked the idea of TCU, this program on the rise. She liked Lonnette Hall -- their e-mail correspondence had developed into a friendship. She liked leaving Florida behind but not everyone she knew: Michael Irvin told his brother he planned to spend his retirement in Dallas.

Sandora came to campus as the highest-touted recruit in school history. Her first game didn't disappoint -- 22 points, 18 rebounds, and four blocks in a 67-point thumping of Sam Houston State.

"She thought that every game should be like that first one," Mittie says.

But Sandora was inconsistent. She needed a stronger build, better footwork, more range on her jumper. She put in the time over the summer, but her sophomore season began with no visible improvement. Sandora wasn't happy.

She didn't go out -- she had to study, she told teammates. Then came Stephanie Faulkner, a post player who had transferred to TCU Sandora's sophomore year. Faulkner's grandmother raised her as well. Faulkner's mother was in and out of jail. Her father in and out of her life. She and Sandora became best friends and moved in together. "She had so much hostility," Faulkner says today. They talked about Michael Irvin. Sandora loved that he came to her games: The man couldn't help himself -- he ran up and down the aisle, jawing at the ref, his toddler wrapped under his arm like a football.

At times, Sandora was brilliant her sophomore season. She finished second in the nation in blocks. Was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. Ended the season with 13 double-doubles, tied for first in the league. And she was crowned Conference USA Tournament MVP.

But all season, her scoring was spotty. "There was a lot of frustration -- on her part and on the coaches'," Mittie says. "Her sophomore year, the team needed her to be the go-to person. But she wasn't ready yet."

She had the ability and drive; she studied scouting reports and asked for the tapes of her opponents' games. But Sandora Irvin couldn't forgive. Her mom had been arrested in September of her sophomore season for grand theft in the third degree. Sandora found out through a cousin. Her relationship with her father was spottier than her shooting. She didn't get along with Coach Mittie; if she were upset, she wouldn't tell him why. Instead, she'd call Coach K. Team camaraderie? Please. "I didn't feel like I needed that," she says. She'd made it this far on her own.

She put undue pressure on herself. Expected perfection on the court -- her junior season was to be her National Player of the Year season -- and in the classroom: How else would she start her own clothing and shoe lines?

Of course, perfection didn't happen. Her junior year, "I was really depressed," she says. "I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to hang out in the house, a loner."

December 2, TCU played the University of Texas at Arlington. Sandora finished with seven points, seven rebounds, and one block. Never mind that her team won by 30. Seven points? Against UTA?

 

Sandora pulled aside Coach Hall afterward.

"I'm quitting," she said. "I'm done."


Coach Hall sought out Michael Irvin. He'd come to the game. She told him what had happened.

"What?!" he said, and ran down his niece.

He told her to think things through; don't make a rash decision. Enjoy basketball. "I've always told her that," Michael Irvin says today. "Because you never know when it's over."

She met next with Mittie. He said take a break, go to Florida, regroup. Sandora landed in Fort Lauderdale and went straight to Coach K's house. Her game was crap. Mittie didn't understand her. Neither did her teammates. School stressed her out. And then there was her grandmother, and how Sandora never...

For six hours they talked. Coach K told her to forget the past. Forgive her parents. "You have to be humble and forgiving to accomplish what you want in life," Coach K said.

Sandora returned to TCU. "She came back and she was a different person," Hall says. "It was like a cleansing."

She truly and finally forgave her parents.

Her first game back, a win over Wisconsin-Green Bay, she scored 24 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, and blocked seven shots. Her next game, against Rutgers, she finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. She ended the season with 23 double-doubles, best in Conference USA. She was named first-team, all-conference and was an All-American honorable mention.

After the season, Stephanie Faulkner transferred to Henderson State University, in Arkansas, to finish her degree. After the two friends said their teary goodbyes, Sandora didn't look for an apartment of her own. Instead, she moved in with Ashley Davis and TCU point guard Natasha Lacy.

By her senior year, Sandora had never missed a players-only domino tournament, held at her apartment.


There are about 20 fans behind the TCU bench, a banner-bearing crowd with signs that read "We *heart* # 50" and "# 50 WNBA Bound." Though they come from South Florida, some wear Horned Frog-purple T-shirts that carry the Superman insignia. Others are raucous and dance when the latest hit from Ciara plays during a timeout. Among this group, but not of it -- you can tell by her uneasiness -- is a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, a leather jacket, plaid pants, and knee-high boots. She stands and walks around the arena as the game progresses.

It's senior day at TCU, and the Horned Frogs are playing Houston. Sandora Irvin's off to a great start. By halftime, she has ten points and five blocks.

What a season she's had. She again broke TCU's single-season scoring record. Became TCU's all-time leader in points, rebounds, and blocked shots. Became the first player in school history to record a triple-double, with 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 16 blocks against the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The 16 blocks were a record; no NCAA basketball player, male or female, had ever blocked more than 15 in a game. In February, she became the all-time NCAA leader in blocked shots. Was selected to the Conference USA All-Decade team. Was named C-USA Player of the Year...

Four years later, just as she'd hoped, her name is all over those record books.

She calls her father about three times a week. Things are better. Daughn Irvin's spent the past seven days in Texas, watching Sandora's final three regular-season games. "I wanted to be here for this week," he says.

TCU loses to Houston, despite Sandora's 21 points, eight rebounds, and seven blocks. Amid the post-game handshakes, arena officials escort the woman in knee-high boots to the court. She's Angela Hollis. Sandora, it turns out, flew her mother in just to treat her. She had recently left jail following another cocaine charge.

With her parents standing behind her, Sandora's honored at half court. A bouquet of flowers. A framed portrait of herself in uniform. A standing ovation. Minutes later, with the bouquet now in her own arms and sunglasses once more on her nose, Angela Hollis sits not far from the rest of Sandora's family, more at ease than earlier, accepting praise for her daughter from passersby.

A man she does not know asks to sit with her. Her back straightens. She pauses to consider the offer. When she says yes, her voice is tense and high. Given your history, he says, given your daughter's history, what does it mean to be here today? To know that, despite all the things that have happened in the past, Sandora wanted you present for this?

"Oh," she says, her voice wavering now. She considers her words. Her sunglasses have slid down the bridge of her nose. You can see the red in her eyes. "I..." A short pause. "Overwhelmed. Very overwhelmed."

 

-- Staff Writer Sam Eifling contributed to this report


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