By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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, where 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Back before she came to campus withdrawn, trusting no one, and back before she was a high school All-American.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, Florida, called Ugly Man's Corner.
There's nothing ironic about the name. In Ugly Man's Corner, there are bums, crime, blighted buildings, empty syringes and now, just walking past, a young Sandora Irvin, already 6 feet tall and so very skinny, looking for her mother.
Sandora lives with her father, Daughn Irvin, in Fort Lauderdale but is visiting her mother today in nearby Pompano Beach. Or, that is, she was visiting her mother: Angela Hollis left the apartment some time ago with a boyfriend Sandora doesn't know. Angela promises to return. Sandora waits...and waits...the day loses its light...Ugly Man's Corner grows uglier...
Angela Hollis has never really raised Sandora. Neither has Daughn Irvin. That burden fell to Lorretta Hollis, Angela's mother, Sandora's grandmother. Lorretta Hollis reared her granddaughter while her own daughter failed to stay off cocaine, while Daughn Irvin, older brother to Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin, started a second family.
But five months ago, Lorretta Hollis died. Cigarettes kill even the strongest of women. On her death bed, Lorretta asked Daughn to take in Sandora. Still, Sandora often begs him to let her see her mother. Today she gets her chance...
Sandora had talked earlier in the year with her junior high coach, Colleen Henry, about a fear she had. Sandora feared no one would care for her if Lorretta Hollis died. Indeed, Sandora is now another mouth at Daughn Irvin's house, one of seven children. She yearns for something more with her mother. She's always wanted a mother.
That's why she won't wait any longer. That's why she's out tonight, walking the streets of Ugly Man's Corner. She's out to change reality.
She stops in bars. "Have you seen Angela Hollis?" She knocks on apartment doors. Despite its derelicts, Ugly Man's Corner is a closely knit neighborhood. People know people. Somebody must have seen her.
She keeps her focus on her mother and not the refuse of last night's fun littering the sidewalks, the apartment complexes, still coursing its way through the veins of people she passes.
She can't find her. She keeps walking. Where is she? How could she have left Sandora alone?
More time passes. She does not find her mother; she finds instead a pain inside her that grows with each step she takes.
She walks around one street and sees a pay phone. Her legs are tired and she wants to go home, though she doesn't know where that is. But she 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, the one adult who regularly visited Sandora while the child tended, alone, to Lorretta Hollis. Dix took Sandora for ice cream as Lorretta's death loomed, took her to the park. Tonight, with Sandora crying and saying she can't find her mother, Dix decides she'll go a step further. She'll take Sandora in.
"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. She waits by the phone just as Dix said. Minutes later, Dix's car pulls over. Sandora doesn't know it yet, but as she opens the door and slides in, so begins the second half of her childhood, the one in which many parental figures circle her life, but never her mother, and never, really, her father.
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 conclusions: Mom didn't care that she was gone; or worse, Mom didn't even know.
But it is instructive. 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-America. All in a little less than eight years. The shot she made against Louisville on March 6, with 11:17 left in the first half of the Conference USA Tournament Championship, is a testament to how far she's come.