With no gymnasium at Sacred Heart High, basketball players from the small, 105-year-old Catholic girls' school located in East Los Angeles must walk a mile through a gang-infested neighborhood to the Lincoln Park Recreation Center for practices and games - a fact that initially shocked principal Sister Janice Therese Wellington. "The first time I saw the situation I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. These girls have to do what?' " she told Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who recently chronicled the dangerous plight of the 10-member team.
In addition to having no gym, Sacred Heart does not have enough vans or qualified drivers to transport team members to the rec center, so the girls walk or jog - and always in groups. That travel-together protocol has been in place since last year, when one player left school early and arrived ahead of her teammates, only to be jumped by gang members while waiting.
Here is how Plaschke describes the team's perilous journey:
For the next 15 minutes or so, covering a mile that feels like a marathon, the 10 players will walk or jog through a neighborhood that will stare and scowl. They will pass tiny shuttered houses with front porches filled with bored men in bandannas. They will pass a barber shop where men will turn their half-shaved heads and shout. They will pass a dry cleaner whose curb is home to a man who reaches out to them from his cardboard box.
One minute, they feel the breath of charging pit bulls, the next minute they hear the whistle of a tattooed wolf, and eventually they will be confronted by the leering driver of a squeaking Chevy that has slowed to bounce alongside them. It's always somebody like him, and, confronted with the sight of a group of young women walking through gang territory in the middle of the afternoon, he always asks the same question.
"Where you going, ladies?"
Their answer is always the wrong one, demeaning for girls who consider themselves athletes, distressing for a society that has supposedly embraced women's sports, and befuddling for anyone who wonders how a high school could have existed for 105 years without a gymnasium.
"We're going to basketball practice."
But the trouble doesn't end once the team reaches its destination. As Plaschke writes:
Once the girls arrive at the gym, the difficulties continue. There is no locker room, only a public bathroom with no mirror and, often, no toilet paper or towels. The girls actually dress for the games in there, taking turns occupying the stalls while sometimes waiting in line behind women from the neighborhood. Opponents are often intimidated, not by Sacred Heart, but by the bathrooms, and refuse to use them.
Once the players are dressed, coach Greg Nakashima gives them their pregame speech in a cramped hallway. During one recent talk, some neighborhood thugs walked in, leaned against a wall, and listened.
"I looked at them like, could we please just have a minute?" Nakashima said. "It's just hard to get anything done."
The games are played underneath a tiny scoreboard covered by bars, on a court marked by graffiti, surrounded by walls with prominent holes...
Sacred Heart - which boasts among the lowest tuition fees in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and provides financial assistance to 98 percent of its mainly Latino student body - can only afford to rent the gym for two hours at a time three days a week; consequently, just four of the Comets' 16 basketball games are played there. On days when the school does not rent the gym, the basketball team practices on a tiny piece of asphalt crammed onto the school's property. As Plaschke describes it, "One fast break could crash a player into a parked van, and a fast break the other way could topple a statue of the Virgin Mary."
Sacred Heart is owned by the archdiocese (the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States), and many graduates become the first female in their family to attend college. The school recently launched its first booster club; Plaschke became its seventh member, behind Wellington and Milkovich.
"The thing about our young women is that they don't give up," athletic director Kim Milkovich told the columnist. "They have a sense of familia that bonds them through these hardships."
That said, Sacred Heart's "brother" schools - the all-boys' Cathedral and Salesian high schools - house relatively new gymnasiums. Said Wellington, "Would we have lasted 105 years without a gym if we were a boys' school? No way."