Alone No More

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Back before she came to campus withdrawn, trusting no one, and back before she was a high school All-American.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

It's an unlikely moment to choose, to point to, to say this, this moment here, is the sum total of Sandora Irvin's talent. Because the moment is not momentous. It's not a game-winning shot. It's not a dunk. It's two points in a first half of a game few will recall five years from now.

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.

The play starts on the court's other end. Angel Bradley, a 5-8 Louisville guard with a quick first step, drives baseline, her head down the whole way, past TCU forward Ashley Davis. Bradley gets to the basket, jumps and realizes her error.

The 6-3 Sandora has moved across the lane to contest the shot. She's made a name for herself as a shot blocker. She holds the single-game NCAA record for blocked shots. She holds the all-time NCAA record for blocked shots. University of Cincinnati head coach Laurie Pirtle says her team this year tried a perimeter offense against TCU, just to limit Sandora's block chances. Sandora still swatted away six.

Now, Angel Bradley, in the air, cocks the ball back to her shoulder. She's hoping to glide past Sandora's reach. But Sandora has a 77-inch wingspan. Gliding past ain't happenin'. Frantic, Bradley throws up a shot, a sort of double pump half-hook shot. It hits the backboard but nothing else.

TCU with the ball, going fast the other way. Natasha Lacy, TCU's point guard, brings it across half-court and already Sandora is on the left wing, anticipating the pass. She gets it at the three-point line.

Sandora's three-pointers have been a contentious issue with TCU head coach Jeff Mittie. Until this season, he hasn't trusted her behind the arc. It took the summer of 2004, a summer of late-night hour-long workouts where 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).

In fact, Sandora opened the Louisville game with a three. This makes Louisville's transition defense extend out to her now, as she settles herself behind the line. A pump fake gets the defender in the air, and Sandora drives toward the basket.

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

Two quick dribbles and Sandora's met in the lane by 6-3 Louisville forward Missy Taylor and 6-2 center Jazz Covington. All season--and, really, all her life--Sandora's faced double-teams. In the semifinals yesterday, when Sandora had the ball, sometimes four DePaul Blue Demons swarmed around her. Sandora's still gangly, mostly elbows and knees and big feet that point out when she walks, but she fights through double-teams with a fierceness unbefitting her build.

That's what she does now. Louisville's Taylor flops to the floor, hoping for the offensive foul. But none is called. Sandora's shot drops through the hoop...

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.

With 1:30 left in the game, Sandora hits a three, sealing the victory and the C-USA Championship for TCU. To the numerous records she holds--the two NCAA records for blocked shots, the C-USA record as its all-time leading rebounder, the 10 TCU all-time records--add this one: C-USA Tournament MVP.

She looks to the crowd after the game. Her dad is not there, despite promises he'd show. Neither is her mom, who made no such promise. But Sandora's fine with this. Accepting, even.

The past no longer haunts her present. She has so much going for her.

In second grade, strange men would show up. It was normally late at night, after Sandora had gone to bed. The strange men would come, different men on different nights, and Angela Hollis wouldn't return until morning. Angela acted... different after being around the strange men. 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--at whose home Angela and Sandora lived at the time--and as the hours passed, the second-grader would cry, "go crazy," as she would later say, until Goins picked up the phone, called around, found Angela and fairly yelled into the receiver, "Come get this child."

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. They gave sincere nods and asked Sandora more questions. She tried to answer as best she could, but that candy on the table was so enticing, she got distracted. "Can I have some more candy?" she kept saying.

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 Beach. Sandora didn't like that. She wanted to live with her mom. She'd been a good mom until the strange men showed up.

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 Daughn Irvin? Why didn't he take Sandora in? With age, Sandora understood her mother's drug problem kept her away, but what about her father? He lived clean. He had a good job.

He also had that second, growing family in Fort Lauderdale. A growing family and a wife named Beverly. Angela Hollis and Daughn Irvin never wed. Sandora often visited her father, sometimes saw her famous uncle, Michael, when he came home from Dallas. 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 her and her other grandmother there--and a strict grandmother at that. No playing outside after school. Only the best of grades allowed.

Lorretta Hollis appeased Sandora by buying her video games. Every console and game title her salary at the airplane parts plant could afford. She also nurtured Sandora's intellect. Every essay, each report card--if it was a scholastic achievement, it was laminated, hung up in the house, shown to the ladies at work. Look how smart her granddaughter was.

One day after school, though, in sixth grade, Sandora didn't feel like beating another video game, 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. No boy would choose her for his team; she was the only girl waiting to play. But she was a tall girl, taller than most of the boys. And height is such a hard thing to resist.

She had never played the game before. Never learned to shoot; never learned to dribble; Grandma thought sports weren't ladylike. Nonetheless, in that first game, Sandora blocked a shot.

"DAAAANG," the crowd roared, impressed that a girl could do such a thing to one of its own.

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, shower if she had time, wipe off the sweat if she didn't, change back into her school clothes and be lounging around the house 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 back yard 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. "I would just get so nervous that someone would knock her around."

But man was she tall. At 5-10 and growing, Sandora towered 10 inches above some opponents. Stearn told her to stand under the basket with her hands in the air and wait for teammates to lob the ball in. It was the only way Sandora could score.

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 by coaches just so they could tell her that 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 Sandora's seventh-grade year, during basketball season, actually. At first, Lorretta's health held up. But that spring, after Sandora joined an AAU basketball team, the better to improve her skills, the game became more than a box score and a win or loss. It 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.

"That's where my mom is," Sandora said one day that summer, pointing to the women's jail removed some distance from the street. She and her AAU teammates were on their way to a game. Everyone in the van froze. Even Taunya Dix, Sandora's AAU coach, the woman who stopped by Sandora's house on days when there wasn't a game, just to take Sandora somewhere, anywhere, to remove her from her adult worries. In their time together, Sandora never spoke to Dix about her mother's whereabouts. She hadn't told anyone about it.

And then to just blurt it out, on the way to a game. And to blurt it out as casually as Sandora did, as if she were reciting grammar rules that helped her ace an English test. Nobody knew what to say in response.

But she was opening up; that much was obvious. 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, and Sandora's aunt came over to care for her. Sandora split time between Dix's house and her grandmother's. At school, she often stopped by Coach Stearn's class room. 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 grandmother thank you, tell her how she'd raised Sandora well, how grateful she was to have found a home and mother in 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."

When she returned to Daughn Irvin's house, Lorretta Hollis had died.

Irvin took his daughter in, at Lorretta's request. He received custody of Sandora. Angela Hollis was in no shape to argue. The night of her mother's funeral, as court records would later show, Angela got high.

Basketball became more than her sanctuary. Through basketball, Sandora could prove herself as a person. That ugly night in Ugly Man's Corner? A coach who was more parent than her own parents? Sandora could harness her rage until she stepped on the court, proving she was more than the street bums she passed or the daughter who felt neglected. The grandmother who never saw her play? The grandmother who never knew how much her granddaughter loved her? Sandora could honor Lorretta's name by making sure opponents knew hers.

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 School in another and took home the county championship, just as she'd promised Coach Stearn.

Taunya Dix landed the head coaching job at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano. Sandora enrolled her freshman year, since she more or less lived with Dix anyway. But after one year, Dix was fired; she still doesn't know why. Daughn Irvin enrolled Sandora in Fort Lauderdale High School, 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. Daughn allowed the move.

Sandora loved Loving. She was a kind and 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. No, ma'am. Every time Sandora failed to slap the backboard after a layup, 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. Sandora wanted nothing but excellence in basketball to silence the doubts inside. But Coach K pushed her beyond her own desire. Early in Sandora's sophomore season, she called Colleen Stearn. Coach K was too hard, Sandora said. She wanted to quit the team.

She didn't, though. She stuck it out, learned that 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 TCU. 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.

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

For the first time in her life, Sandora controlled her destiny. But she still couldn't tamp down her past and its repercussions. Sandora lived with Coach K her junior year, having moved out of Beverly Loving's, where she thought herself a burden. Daughn Irvin didn't want Sandora at another coach's house, but, again, he didn't do much to stop it.

Coach K lived with her boyfriend, Gary Wyche, the assistant girls coach at Fort Lauderdale High. They didn't have kids, part of the reason Sandora moved in. A funny thing about Coach K--she may be intolerable after a loss, slamming doors and stewing over every play until the morning, but there was a caretaker beneath the discipline and temper. A side Sandora saw a lot of. 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. Questions that exposed Sandora's vulnerability--she hated to do that. Leaving herself vulnerable meant trusting someone. Her life had hardened her: Be wary of trust, it said.

Coach K, though, Sandora could trust. 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.

"Families sometimes have to deal with their own personal demons and behaviors," Coach K would say...As for Sandora's grandmother, don't discount kindnesses bestowed through divine intervention, Coach K said, the sort that brings a granddaughter to the care of two coaches.

Or even three. Lonnette Hall had the same initials as Lorretta Hollis. This stood out to Sandora, scanning through the deluge of e-mails from college coaches one day. 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 was 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 her to go to Tennessee. "Tennessee has the competition. Don't run from the competition now," he said.

The 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.

She 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.

She never played like a freshman. She led the team in rebounds, set a single-season TCU record for blocked shots and finished second in points. But Sandora was inconsistent throughout the season. Against the better teams, her output was limited (Duke: eight points, nine rebounds) or absent (Oklahoma: three points, seven rebounds).

Sandora 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 over her freshman year.

She took Mittie's criticism personally; internalized it; dwelled on it. It affected her game--a strange reaction from the protégé of Coach K. Truth was, Sandora wasn't happy.

She didn't go out--she had to study, she told teammates. She didn't talk a lot, couldn't relate to anyone; they came from such happy families. Mittie certainly wouldn't understand; neither would her teammates. Well, maybe one teammate, Stephanie Faulkner. Thank God for Stephanie Faulkner. A post player who transferred to TCU Sandora's sophomore year, Faulkner was raised by her grandmother as well. Faulkner's mother was in and out of jail. The father in and out of her life. From 14 on, she lived where she could. She and Sandora became best friends and moved in together.

She told Faulkner how she was the first person on her mother's side to go to college, how she wanted to make Lorretta Hollis proud. They talked about their parents. "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. But, alas, he was Michael Irvin. The comparisons to his greatness seemed inescapable and unfair.

That's not to say Sandora wasn't great her sophomore season. At times she was brilliant. 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. For a monster 26-point, 19-rebound performance against Cincinnati in the Conference USA Tournament championship, Sandora was crowned C-USA Tournament MVP.

But all season her scoring was spotty. After the Cincy game, Sandora put up six points against Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Then, against Connecticut, the best team in the country, 19.

"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; the Cincinnati game proved that much. Had the drive, too; 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. I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to hang out in the house, a loner," she says.

On 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? She wasn't getting to the WNBA on seven points a game against some satellite school.

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 after his niece.

He told her to think things through; don't make a rash decision based on one lousy game. She said she was frustrated and she wasn't getting the ball enough and it was more than one lousy game. Well, just keep posting up, he said. But more than anything, enjoy basketball. "I've always told her that," Irvin says today. "Because you never know when it's over."

She met next with Coach Mittie. He said take a break, go to Florida, regroup. Don't worry about the Arkansas game four days from now (though the Razorbacks had a tough squad and the Horned Frogs needed Sandora). See how she felt when she got back.

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. She'd look in the stands after games and get so mad: There were Niki Newton's parents; there were Ashley Davis'. She wanted to do more as a player, but by pushing harder, she accomplished less. School stressed her out. And still, all these years later, because she realized what life was like without her, it saddened her to think of her grandmother, and how Sandora never...

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

The coach reminded her of a prayer--the Serenity Prayer, for years repeated by members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Coach K was sure it would help her now: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

The Horned Frogs beat Arkansas. Sandora returned to TCU. "She came back and she was a different person," Coach Hall says. "It was like a cleansing."

She sought out all teammates not named Stephanie Faulkner. "She was like, 'This is me. This is where I'm from. This is who I am,'" forward Ashley Davis says. She talked to all coaches not named Lonnette Hall. Mittie hadn't known the extent to which her past bothered her. 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. Became the only Horned Frog in school history to average a double-double for the season. Broke the single-season school record for points, rebounds and field goals made. Took home her second straight C-USA Defensive Player of the Year award. Was named first team all-conference and was an All-America honorable mention.

After the season, Stephanie Faulkner transferred to Henderson State University in Arkansas to finish her degree. Injuries at TCU kept her from the court. Sandora wrote her a letter, in which she said she was "truly blessed" to have known Faulkner.

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 people with signs that read "We ·· #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 time-out. And 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 10 points and, already, 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 postgame handshakes, arena officials escort the woman in knee-high boots to the court. The woman is Angela Hollis. Sandora, it turns out, flew her mother in just to treat her, to do something nice for her, to make sure she was here today.

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 now than earlier, accepting praise for her daughter from passers-by.

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. He tries to calm her, tells her of the story he's doing on Sandora, says she's one of the greatest players he's seen in person. She smiles. Her sunglasses are still on.

In October, police arrested Angela Hollis for possession of cocaine. She served 60 days in the Broward County jail.

The man feels she will not endure much small talk. 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? His head motions to the court.

"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."

Sam Eifling, a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, one of the Dallas Observer's sister papers, contributed to this story.

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