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Key Assist Helps Team Heed Lesson In Camaraderie

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page B01

The girls' basketball team at Roosevelt High in Northwest Washington rarely looks back or beyond the game it is playing. It is an intensely focused group, renowned for giving each contest all it has. Little wonder that it is the defending City Title champion and ranked No. 1 by The Washington Post among area high school basketball teams.

Come Saturday, the Roosevelt team will set out for a tournament in New York, where it will face off against Murry Bergtraum High in Manhattan, which is USA Today's top-ranked team in the nation.

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Surely, the Roosevelt girls can't help but look forward to that -- or look back on how close they came to blowing the opportunity.

Roosevelt girls' coach Tyrone Pittman would prefer that everyone forget about the ruckus that followed a game in February between his team and Anacostia High in Southeast. Pittman is a protective coach, revered by his players as something of a father figure. He does not want them distracted by events of the past just as they are about to play the top team in the country.

"There was no problem," Pittman replied defensively when asked for his version of the brief postgame brawl and the uproar that followed, when some of his girls showed up at Anacostia High to challenge one of that school's players to a fight.

But the manner in which the conflict was resolved, not the conflict itself, is the focus here. Old-fashioned justice, as meted out by D.C. schools officials, would have required that the Roosevelt girls involved in the incident be suspended or kicked off the team. That probably would have cost Roosevelt the city championship. And where inner-city basketball is a source of neighborhood pride, Anacostia would be seen as, to use the language of the streets, player haters.

What began as a few girls letting their competitive juices get out of hand could easily have exacerbated a long-standing sectional rivalry --

Northwest vs. Southeast -- and, if history is any guide, escalated to include boys defending the honor of their homegirls, an act that usually involves guns.

Enter Jauhar Abraham and Ronald Moten, co-founders of Peaceaholics, a two-man miracle-working team whose mission is to educate and empower young people to make their schools and neighborhoods safer.

It just so happened that Abraham, 36, was volunteering at Anacostia High and Moten, 35, was doing the same at Roosevelt when the clash occurred.

"I came to [Anacostia High] one morning and found everybody in an uproar over the Roosevelt girls," Abraham recalled. "I called Mo and said, 'We've got a problem.' We convinced the school administrators to back off and give us time to talk to the girls."

The men took the teams to dinner together, on neutral turf, at Cranberry's in Upper Marlboro. The restaurant's owner gave them discounted prices in support of the mission.

"We agreed that the girls would do community service projects, and they ended up doing a neighborhood cleanup in Anacostia," Abraham said. "The honor students also tutored underachieving classmates."

Having the girls break bread together worked like a charm.

"They put us together so we could bond, and it was nice," said Katrina Wheeler, 17, Roosevelt's 6-foot-3 center. "We talked about basketball and took pictures together."

Shanae Brice, a 17-year-old shooting guard at Roosevelt, said: "It brought us closer together, even though we had issues on and off the court. It was like we thought the other team was bad, but as we got to know each other, we found out that they really weren't that bad. They just loved basketball, like us."

Abraham and Moten weren't finished. They wanted Roosevelt to have a cheering squad. So they helped raised enough money to send 90 D.C. public school students from throughout the city, along with the more than 80-member Ballou High marching band, to New York.

Far from distracting the team, that ought to be a source of inspiration. And whether Roosevelt beats Murry Bergtraum or not, the lessons from this creative mediation effort help make the girls winners in life.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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