The girl started playing basketball against her older brother on a raggedy curbside hoop in front of their house. The brother, 16, always won. The sister, 10, always ran inside and cried in her mother’s arms.
In the dozen years since, that basketball hoop has been confiscated by the local police. That older brother, DeShawn, has been incarcerated for selling cocaine. That house has been torn down. That mother is dead. So all that’s left, really, is the little girl, now a grown woman, looking to make a name for herself in a neighborhood where names have never been made.
That’s Sugar Rodgers.
A senior guard and team captain at Georgetown, Rodgers is the No. 2 scorer in the nation at 24.8 points per game. She’s led the Hoyas in scoring in 10 of their 11 contests this season and is on pace to become the most prolific scorer — man or woman — in the 106-year history of Georgetown basketball.
But that’s not the impressive part.
No, the impressive part is what Rodgers, 23, has overcome to get there. How she’s escaped the drugs and crime of her neighborhood in Suffolk, Va. The deaths of her mother, uncle, nephew and father, in that order. The incarceration of two siblings and another nephew. The seizure of her house. The homelessness that followed.
“You cry every night for a better life,” said Rodgers, whose birth name is Ta’Shauna. “You just always wish that you had another life, but you don’t. That’s the part you have to deal with.”
Before the points and the accolades and the deaths and the tears, Rodgers was just another kid in the Williamstown neighborhood of Suffolk.
Drug deals were commonplace. Shootings and robberies, too. Rodgers saw it all, the very worst of human nature, and she saw it before entering middle school.
“You can’t understand Sugar,” said Boo Williams, her AAU coach, “until you understand where Sugar comes from.”
Rodgers was 10 when DeShawn bought that old wooden basketball hoop from a man down the street for $20. They set it up on the curb in front of their house, using cracked bricks and old tires to keep the base firmly on the ground. Their mother bought them a rim for $15 at Wal-Mart.
As the only basket in the neighborhood, that curbside hoop became one of the most sacred spots on the block. It’s where neighborhood kids, drug dealers and felons came to pass the time or bet on a game. And it’s where Sugar and DeShawn played their ever-important games of one-on-one.
Rodgers shot at that hoop for hours on end, and she was good. So good, in fact, that the boys in the neighborhood couldn’t afford to play her like a girl. They would push her and shove her, elbow her and trip her. Rodgers remembers all the bloody noses, and she still has scars on her legs from those games today.
“If you come out there and play, they’ll knock your head off,” she said. “So that’s why I think I’m physically strong. I don’t complain about injuries or nothing.”
Rather than face the basket toward the house and play on dirt in the front yard, Rodgers and her neighbors always turned the hoop around so they could play games in the middle of the street, on concrete. Cars drove through the court, but play never stopped.
Local police would pass by and ask the children to stay out of the street, and they always obeyed. But when the cops drove around the corner, out of sight and out of mind, Rodgers flipped the hoop around and the games continued.
Sugar and Barbara Mae
Rodgers‘ older sister, Sharon, was in prison for 10 years when Rodgers was growing up, leaving their mother, Barbara Mae, to raise two children and three grandchildren in a cramped, three-bedroom home off Second Avenue.
Barbara Mae and Rodgers were inseparable, and Barbara Mae was always extra nice to her youngest daughter. As a former basketball player at Booker T. Washington High School, she saw in Sugar pieces of herself.
“She was mean to my brothers and them,” Rodgers said with a smile, “and I liked that.”
Rodgers used to be an avid golfer but started focusing on basketball in eighth grade, during which she averaged nearly 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists per game. She also played AAU ball for Williams, a nationally renowned coach and brother of then-Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy.
“You’ve got to come down and see this kid,” Williams-Flournoy remembered her brother saying. “I know she’s young, but I think you’ve got to come see her.”
In 2005, Barbara Mae was diagnosed with lupus and moved to a nursing home shortly thereafter. Bills began piling up and DeShawn tried to support the family by selling drugs. He was arrested and charged with possession and intent to distribute cocaine, and the house was condemned.
“It caused [Sugar] to not really express her feelings a whole lot to people. It took a minute for her to really, really, really cry,” said Sharon Rodgers, who was in prison at the time. “She channeled it out with basketball. Everything that she was going through went towards playing basketball.”
Rodgers arrived at King’s Fork and immediately became one of the most dominant players the region has ever seen. She was a four-time team MVP and a three-time conference Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American who graduated with school records in career points, rebounds, assists and blocks.
Her crowning achievement, however, may have come at the 2007 AAU Nike Nationals. Rodgers came off the bench in every game for the Suffolk Blazers — and still was named the tournament MVP.
“Never in my 30 years of basketball did I have a kid get MVP who didn’t start,” said Williams, whose past players include Allen Iverson and Alonzo Mourning. “We’ve had nine lottery picks, two No. 1 picks and nobody ain’t never done that.”
Between Barbara Mae’s death and her high school graduation, Rodgers was never in one place for more than eight months at a time. Her father, Oscar Allen Saunders, Jr., was 80 years old, married and living in Portsmouth. When he refused to take Rodgers in, she spent a few months here and a few months there, living with two cousins, an aunt, a coach and others.
One of the nephews Sugar grew up with, Vanshawn Rodgers, has faced numerous felony charges, including marijuana distribution and illegal possession of a firearm, and is still incarcerated today. Uncle Junie, who first called his niece “Sugar” when she was young, died of a stroke in 2007. And one of Rodgers‘ closest friends and nephews, Keshawn, died in a car accident the summer before she enrolled at Georgetown.
DeShawn, now 28, is scheduled to be released from prison April 8, 2013. After their father’s funeral in July, he assured his younger sister that he would do whatever it takes to stay out of trouble and help her succeed. Sharon, who served 10 years for distributing cocaine, agreed.
“[Sugar] just let me know that if you set out to do anything, anything in the world that you want to do, it’s possible to do it,” said Sharon, who now works as a nurse in Suffolk. “Don’t let hurdles get in your way and stop you — keep going. Keep going, keep pushing forward.”
Rodgers has battled through tough circumstances all her life — 23 years which, as Williams said, “ain’t been a fairy tale.” But those circumstances have helped mold her into a strong person off the court, and an even more formidable opponent on it.
Rodgers has had to assume more of a leadership role this season for a 7-4 Georgetown squad that lost seven seniors from a year ago. She’s taking the most shots — 33 percent — but making them, too. Her experiences in life have given Rodgers the one characteristic that all great scorers have to have: confidence.
“I always told Sugar that the only person that can stop her is herself,” Williams-Flournoy said. “Sugar’s just the type of player where if she doesn’t want to be guarded, if she wants to get open, if she wants to make a move to the basket, she’s going to do that whenever she wants to do it.”
‘All the kids love Sug’
Rodgers never struggled at school, but she struggled to find motivation. In high school, she would roll out of bed, check into her first block and leave, either to go back to sleep or practice her jump shot at a local rec center.
“I’m not going to say it was a joke,” she said, “but it was a joke.”
Still, Rodgers managed to get decent grades — decent enough, at least, to keep her on Williams-Flournoy’s radar.
“The bad part about it was there was really nobody there to make her do it,” said Williams-Flournoy, who left Georgetown for Auburn in April. “Nobody made it of any importance and told her the importance of bringing home an A instead of a C.”
When Rodgers first enrolled at Georgetown, her class attendance was monitored by the university. She sought help from the writing center, academic advisers, tutors and professors. Today, she is two classes away from an English degree with minors in sociology and theology.
“Everybody takes responsibility for Ta’Shauna ‘Sugar’ Rodgers,” first-year Hoyas coach Keith Brown said. “When you talk to her instructors, you talk to the administration, everybody has a chapter in the book.”
“There’s a lot of resources here,” Rodgers added. “There’s no room to fail.”
Rodgers has finished her required credits and could have graduated this winter, but she has to be a part-time student to play for the Hoyas in the second half of their season, per NCAA regulations. Scouts have pegged her as a mid-to-high first-round pick in April’s WNBA draft, but if that doesn’t work out, Rodgers will fall back on a career as an English teacher.
“When it comes to kids — I don’t care whose kids they are — all the kids love Sug, and she loves all the kids,” her sister, Sharon, said. “There’s nothing that she wouldn’t do to get them to do positive things.”
This time last year, Rodgers went home to Suffolk and spent an afternoon teaching local children how to ride their bikes without training wheels. Sharon watched 4- and 5-year-olds from around the neighborhood swarm to her younger sister with big smiles on their faces, treating Sugar like a celebrity.
“They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you famous — we saw you on television,’” she said with a grin. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not famous. I’m just going to college, trying to get my degree.’”
‘The happiest place’
Hours before the Hoyas defeated Monmouth 61-48 earlier this month, Rodgers walked into Brown’s office in tears.
She had the flu. She felt awful. She couldn’t stand it. So Brown told her that she didn’t have to play.
Rodgers shook her head.
“When I play,” she answered, “it’s like the happiest place I can be.”
Rodgers didn’t just play; she scored 30 points that night and eclipsed 2,000 points for her career.
Still, Rodgers is technically homeless. When she goes “home” for breaks and holidays, she stays with her 32-year-old cousin, Rickeda Fofana, in Suffolk. Sometimes she’ll stay with her niece, Ebony, who now has three children and helps Rodgers with things such as sheets, clothes and spending money. One day, she’ll have a home of her own — and perhaps a WNBA contract to go with it.
But before Rodgers goes there, she wants to retrace her steps. She wants to be 10 again. After DeShawn is released from prison, she wants to play him in one-on-one.
“I just wanna whoop up on him,” she said with a smile, “and see if he cry.”