The seven girls on the Hart Junior High School basketball team wore black ribbons on their green uniforms Monday evening as they played in the first round of the District of Columbia championship tournament.
Their teammate, 13-year-old Arlene Flowers, had been found slain in rural Prince George's County less than a week earlier. After the game they would attend her wake, and the following morning they would go to the funeral. As they prepared to take to the court, the girls on the team were filled with sadness and anger, which their coach, James Fields, tried to channel into the task at hand.
"You must concentrate, concentrate, concentrate," Fields told them. "The question is, how bad do you want to win this game. That question has to be answered by each of you in the proper way. Those ribbons you all are wearing mean that you lost one of your teammates. Play your best, give it all you've got. Win this game for her. She'd do that for you."
The girls listened intently, and then gave a spirited performance in the contest against Taft Junior High, coming back from a 12-point deficit only to lose by four points. Yesterday, in tears, her teammates attended Arlene Flowers' funeral.
Flowers, who lived in the Valley Green public housing development in Southeast Washington, was shot to death sometime between Feb. 20, when her mother reported her missing, and March 2, when her body was found floating in a creek in Accokeek in Prince George's.
She was last seen running an errand to a local 7-Eleven convenience store for her older brother shortly after midnight. Her mother, Ada Jean Flowers, reported her missing the following afternoon. It is a neighborhood where some youngsters habitually stay out all night, but Ada Flowers said her daughter never did. Police conducted an intensive but fruitless search of the area.
The Maryland state medical examiner said that Arlene Flowers, found some 20 miles from where she was last seen, died from one gunshot wound in the back. She was fully clothed when found. Time of death and other details have not been released by police.
In many ways, the basketball team at Hart, which is on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, was at the center of Flowers' life when she died, coach Fields said. As with many other girls growing up amid poverty and the constant assault of "negative" influences, he said, the odds had seemed to be against her.
"This neighborhood could be a pitfall for a kid. It can be a jungle," Fields said. "But if a person has any desire to lift himself out of that, he can do it. Arlene was reaching that peak."
Playing basketball kept Flowers in a positive frame of mind, said those who knew her. "She showed great promise as an athlete," said the coach. At 13, Flowers was the youngest girl in the starting lineup, yet the second-highest scorer on the squad.
But the important thing, Fields said, was that her development on the court led to her maturing as a young woman in a tough city. She, in turn, infected her teammates with her spunk and optimism, the girls said.
"She was the kind of person who made you feel like you could do anything," said Tyresa Redmon, 15, a ninth-grader who plays forward on the Hart team. "She was always talking about winning."
"When Arlene came to Hart two years ago as a seventh-grader, she had an attitude problem," Fields said. "She was touchy and immature. Like some of our other students, she was a bit stubborn."
Participating in sports allowed her to focus her mind, he said. "As a basketball player on the team, she learned that to do well in life, you must learn discipline and teamwork and responsibility. Arlene is special to me because she became a leader--a very enthusiastic leader whom her other teammates willingly followed."
To the team captain, 16-year-old Tanya Moorer, Flowers left a void impossible to fill. "We miss her. We miss her because we loved her and we needed her."
At Monday's game against Taft Junior High it was evident that something was missing in the Hart players. As Fields said, there were many factors working on their emotions. That morning, a memorial service had been held in the school auditorium, and the grief of some students had been nearly uncontrollable.
Then there was the expectant, mounting pressure as the hours ticked away toward a challenge that loomed important in the girls' young lives--beating Taft, last year's champions, who had filled the Spingarn High School gym in Northeast with their enthusiastic supporters.
Two minutes into the first half, an official called five consecutive fouls against Hart and Taft took a 9-point lead. Taft maintained a solid lead throughout most of the game. Then, with about two minutes left, something clicked. The Hart girls would say later, their recollections perhaps colored by emotion, that at that moment they all became fearful that they were letting Flowers down.
Hart scored four straight baskets, bringing the score to 32-29. With 1:11 on the clock, Tanya Moorer hit two free throws, ignoring the howling and catcalls from Taft fans and making the score 32-31. Spectators who were there to root for other teams--there were few from Hart, because the school does not have a bus--began to root for the underdog.
But Taft stole the ball and scored. Taft scored again and Hart was only able to get one free throw before the clock ran out. Hart lost, 36-32.
The Hart girls wept openly, some uncontrollably. Fields, a burly, usually calm man, leaned against the bleachers, put his forehead on his arm and tried to hold back the tears. "I can't ask these kids to do no more. They gave all they had," he said, shaking his head.
"It was a hell of a comeback. Y'all played y'all hearts out," a spectator told the Hart girls, some sitting on the bench with their heads bowed, uniforms wet with sweat, black ribbons still in place.
During the 20-minute ride back to Hart school in Fields' car, the coach told five of his players: "You all proved to me that whatever you want to do in life, you'll be able to do it. I just wish your parents were there to see you play."
Later that night at the wake, the funeral home was crowded with family members and friends. Flowers' body lay with two sports trophies on a ledge of the casket, to the right of her head. One of the many floral arrangements was in the shape of a basketball, sent by Flowers' teammates. There were also flowers from the Valley Green Resident Council, as well as from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club, where Flowers also was involved in sports.
There were other expressions of sympathy throughout the neighborhood. Parents, teachers, staff members and students at Hart raised about $250 to help the Flowers family pay for the funeral. Police at the 7th District raised almost $100 for the family. Little boys helping shoppers carry their groceries at area grocery stores reportedly donated some money as well.
"Arlene's death has affected the school a great deal," said Carl Contee, principal at Hart. "There is outrage because this is the same area where we had the 'Freeway Phantom' murders."
During a 16-month period, beginning in April 1971, seven young black girls, six between the ages of 12 and 18, one of whom was a student at Hart, were strangled to death and their bodies dumped along Prince George's County freeways. One was found near Waldorf in Charles County.
Police Officer Eddie Banks, supervisor of the Boys and Girls club Flowers belonged to, said her death should serve as "a reminder to the community that we've got to protect each other."