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Block Party

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Back before she came to campus withdrawn, trusting no one, and back before she was a high school All-American.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.

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Paul Kix

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