Last of four articles
A hard pass and the basketball was in Ben St. Ulme's hands. An easy jump shot from the wing.
Seconds later, he had the ball again. He shot with confidence this time.
It bounced off the rim.
An inbound pass. An 11-foot jumper from the short corner, his signature shot.
It hit the side of the backboard.
The playoffs had arrived. Just three more wins would take St. Ulme and the Kennedy High Cavaliers to Comcast, the arena where the state championships are held. That goal had driven them throughout their improbable season.
The Cavaliers, dismissed at the beginning of the season as a team from a "ghetto" school, as undisciplined and rough, had twice beaten the taller and tougher Northwest Jaguars, their opponents tonight. The Cavaliers were division champs. Tonight, everyone expected them to win.
St. Ulme had a lot riding on the game. He had slowly come to realize that his childhood dream of the NBA simply couldn't be carried on his 5-foot-8, 145-pound frame. No matter the swollen ankle from the fall he took in the game three days ago. Tonight, he thought, could be his chance at the greatness he longed for.
Once more within the first four minutes of the game, St. Ulme shot and fell short.
"Ben's killin' me!" Coach Diallo Nelson shouted from the sidelines, looking up at the ceiling. "I can't watch no more."
He took another shot. Miss. And another. Miss.
"Come on, Ben," sweat-drenched team captain Lamine N'dour yelled at him. "It's like you never played basketball before!"
The stands, which usually had been empty, began to fill, first with the curious, then with the stomping and hooting fans the Cavaliers had wanted all season. By the end of the game, a pulsating crowd of 1,300 people would pack the gym to capacity for the first time.
Night of Reckoning
In the hours before the game, St. Ulme had been wound tight. "Whoo baby! Playoffs tonight!" the 17-year-old had burst out throughout this chill March day, pumped and clapping, until the house could no longer contain him. His zeal carried him down the street to the familiar basketball hoops of a nearby playground. He had been coming here for years, shooting and shooting, preparing for a moment like this one.
He knew his father would not be there to see it. A Baptist minister to more than 600 Haitian Americans, Jean St. Ulme was in France at a revival. He knew his mother would not be there. She worked the night shift. They had never thought much of his basketball dreams. They expected him to be a good Christian. He was to become a respected engineer.
In this, St. Ulme was little different from many on his team. More than half were the sons of recent immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Like St. Ulme's parents, who had fled dictatorship in Haiti, many other parents hadn't come to watch their sons' 21 regular season games. Some had to work. And most dreamed of a future for their sons built on education, not basketball, anyway.
But St. Ulme's older brother, Othniel, home from graduate school in New York, was coming tonight. Othniel got it. Living this American passion for sports in a Creole home of spirit and achievement. Othniel. And that three-foot-tall wrestling trophy of his on the dresser that Ben had to wake up to every morning. Ben St. Ulme wanted a trophy of his own.
This game was personal. This was the team that, earlier in the season, had given him the scar that still wept. A sharp shoulder from a taller player had sliced the soft tissue under St. Ulme's left eye. As he readied himself for the game, he didn't put on the usual music. No rapper Jay-Z's "Moment of Clarity." No Haitian Konpa. It was just him and the ball.
As he made his way to the school, limping slightly, he prayed. He loved that verse from Romans: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" God had a plan. God's will be done.
'Play Like Champions'
Nelson was nervous. He had written his mantra on the board in the team room: "Play like Champions. Defense is key."
The Cavaliers were not tall. There were no real superstars on the team. They had fought and scrapped their way to the top of the division. No Kennedy team in nearly a decade had been closer to making it to the state championship.
Nelson gathered the players near the bench. "Fellas. This is your house," he said. "This is y'all's team. This is your chance."
Principal Fred Lowenbach, who came to most games, was so sure of their win tonight, he'd gone to see the girls team play instead. He knew how badly St. Ulme and the team wanted to win. But Lowenbach had mixed feelings. A basketball win at a school such as Kennedy -- where 80 percent of the student body is minority, hundreds of recent immigrant students speak little English and nearly two-thirds have been poor at some point -- comes with a price.
A basketball win is the most that people expect of a school with such demographics, he said. A basketball win doesn't raise test scores. Doesn't advertise that players such as St. Ulme took Advanced Placement calculus or that team captain N'dour had won an academic scholarship to Brown, where he will play football, that guard Kevin Lee was chosen as one of 20 potential presidential scholars in the nation.
A basketball win wasn't enough to explain that these immigrants' sons were writing a new chapter in the American story of race.
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, Northwest was up by eight points. Ben St. Ulme, who one day last summer shot 1,000 baskets to prepare for a moment like this, hadn't scored a single point.
Nelson benched St. Ulme. But then sent him back into the game. With two minutes and 47 seconds left, St. Ulme launched the ball into the air. A three-pointer. Kennedy now trailed by one. One minute later, he hit another shot.
The score was tied 54-54 with 13 seconds on the clock. This is it, St. Ulme thought. I'm about to hit a big one.
N'dour had the ball at the top of the key. St. Ulme was on the wing. Wide open. He could save the game. He would be rewarded for all his work. The seconds ticked. The buzzer sounded. The ball never came.
Overtime lasted four minutes. Northwest scored five times. Kennedy twice. St. Ulme never.
At the final buzzer, St. Ulme stood, frozen, breathing hard, staring at the scoreboard. There would be no Comcast. And no next season, no college ball, no NBA for redemption. Reality felt like a harsh smack in the face.
Seeking Meaning in Loss
St. Ulme was the last player to drag into the locker room after the game. He was not among those who wept, jerseys pulled over their heads, or yelled in frustration. He sat in the back, apart from the others, staring. He did not join in when Nelson gathered them for a final time, bringing fists together in the air to mumble a disheartened "Togethuh."
That night, he went straight to his room in his sweaty white game jersey with the green trim and lay on his bed in the dark. His father looked in on him and quietly shut the door. His Christian youth group called about 10 p.m. for evening prayer. He refused to come to the phone. His mother sat on his bed and tried to console him. "At least you made it to off-time," she said softly.
The next day, a school holiday, he could not talk. He did not eat. He sat all day watching ESPN in his game jersey, the sweat now dry and stiff. When Othniel finally cajoled him into going out for pizza, he simply pulled a pair of sweat pants over his uniform.
Then, at exactly 6:05 p.m., nearly 24 hours after his last game ended, St. Ulme finally took off his basketball jersey. His eyes were swollen from weeping. Number 13. The number of giants. "Maybe there was a reason we lost," he concluded.
All through this spring, St. Ulme has tried to move on. He went out for the baseball team. He got a job at Giant. He was accepted by the University of Maryland. He signed up to study engineering.
But he says it has taken months to be able to think that God still has a plan for him. That greatness might come to him in some other way. That someday, there will be other dreams.
Colorful Kennedy High students Xavier Hernandez, left, Ryan Yuen and Kosta Dionisotoulos show their spirit during a pre-playoff pep rally.Cavaliers Coach Diallo Nelson works his players as they battle Northwest. "Fellas. This is your house," he told them before the game. "This is y'all's team. This your chance."Team member Erik Jones's expression tells the tale of the Cavaliers' overtime defeat.