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The sorrow and the glory

Anacostia girls play their hearts out in memory of lost teammate

(Published March 8, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

A somber and tearful Anacostia High School girlís basketball team took to the court to warm up for their District championship semifinal game against Coolidge. But before they started their warm-ups they had one task to do first. The girls carefully placed a set of sweatpants, a team T-shirt and a pair of high tops on one of the chairs on their bench, arranging them so it looked like someone was sitting there. On the shirt was stenciled a glittering "22," Kelli Bradfordís number.

Kelli, the teamís starting point guard, didnít start in the March 4 game. Kelli, 16 and a junior at Anacostia High School, was struck by a car while crossing the street at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and H Street NE two nights earlier. She was on her way home from getting her hair braided in preparation for this game. Kelliís father said doctors told him she was brain dead and on life support.

The semifinal game was supposed to have been played the night before, but athletic directors postponed the game for a day after getting news of Kelliís accident. But the game had to be played, with or without Kelli, so the team began the warm-up routines. They looked sluggish and disheartened as they took their free throws and field goals. Most of their shots hit the front of the rim, not enough juice on the ball to sink the basket. Several times teammates stopped and hugged each other, crying.

The Coolidge girls took the court running, taking two laps around the court before lining up and briskly taking their free throws. They would bang out six staccato hand claps for every free throw that fell, two for those that didnít. More often than not, the girls would clap six times.

When it came time to start the game, the Anacostia girls walked over to their bench to take off their warm-ups. When the lanky girl with the braided hair took off the team T-shirt, she was wearing number 22, Kelliís number. Andrea Noble, who usually wears number 10, was wearing the 22 jersey in honor of her teammate and friend.

As the team huddled before the game for their coachís final words of advice, coach Frank Briscoe had only one thing to say. "Okay, you know what you have to do," Briscoe told the team, his voice almost a whisper.

Anacostia jumped to an early 4-0 lead and never looked back. Despite some sloppy ball-handling early in the game, Anacostia extended its lead over Coolidge to finish the half with a 30-22 lead. When the teams took the court for the second half, Anacostia turned up the heat and went on a 10-0 run. Coolidge put on a full-court defense, challenging Anacostia at every possession and fighting for rebounds and tipped passes. Coolidge, however, was simply overpowered by the Anacostia girls.

Leading the fight for Anacostia was number 22, the girl wearing her teammateís jersey. Sinking lay-ups one after the other and fighting for every rebound, Noble was the driving force behind several runs that brought cheering fans to their feet.

At one point in the third quarter, Noble was fouled and came to the line to take her shots. After making the first one, Noble, who had written "R.I.P. Kelli" on her arm and tube socks, stepped back from the foul line, looked up and gestured with one finger skyward. She did that after every subsequent basket and the rest of the team followed her example, dedicating their points to the friend who wasnít there. Noble scored a game high 25 points and snagged 10 rebounds.

By the fourth quarter, Anacostia was 30 points ahead and the team and the crowd were elated. For the first time in the game, the teammates were smiling and high-fiving each other as they ran away with the game. Coolidge tried, but there was no stopping them. The Anacostia fans, many of them wearing ribbons with the team colors in honor of Kelli, kept the decibel level high as the stunned Coolidge fans either sat silently or switched allegiance for the duration of the game.

With three minutes left in the game, coach Briscoe pulled his starting lineup from the game and sent in the bench players to finish the game. As they sat on the bench watching their teammates bring the game home, the starters began to cry. And though they would stand and pump their fists every time their team scored, the tears wouldnít stop. Noble refused a towel from an assistant coach to wipe her eyes and instead cried into her friendís jersey she was wearing, wiping her tears on the number 22.

When the final buzzer sounded, Anacostia had won, 71-46. The team gathered arm-in-arm in the center of the court and cried. Schoolmates and friends joined them in an emotional release at the end of a very long two days for the team.

"This was for you, Kelli," they yelled.

Kelli Bradford died at 3:25 that afternoon, just over an hour and a half before her team took to the court. At the request of Kelliís parents, no one told her teammates of her death until after the game, in the locker room. When the team left the locker room, there were no more tears. Their emotions had been spent already.

Leroy Eley, the 33-year-old man arrested at the scene of Kelliís accident, has been charged with driving under the influence and driving without a license. Police said he will likely face additional charges related to Kelliís death.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator