Driving Force

Basketball gives Clarissa Flores a shot at success.

By Patrick Z. McGavin

On a cool March evening, a crowd of 5,000 gathers in the stands of the UIC Pavilion to watch Chicago’s two best high school girls’ basketball teams, Whitney Young and Marshall, vie for the city championship. Clarissa Flores plays off-guard for Whitney Young. At five-foot-seven, 120 pounds, she’s intense and driven, yelling out for a teammate to help on a double team; yet she’s always in control. Flores jumps center to start the game, helps all-American point guard Natasha Pointer break Marshall’s ferocious full-court press, and plays at the top of Young’s two-one-two zone, harassing Marshall’s outside shooters. Flores is on fire, hitting three out of five three-point shots, scoring 11 of her team’s first 17 points, and giving Young an early six-point advantage.

But then she picks up her second foul and has to sit out for a while. When she returns she can’t play as aggressively. Despite some missed shots and turnovers, Young manages a five-point lead at halftime. Marshall recovers from its funk at the start of the third quarter, using its superior quickness, depth, and offensive rebounding to gain control. Pointer is off her game. Early in the first quarter she took a hard foul on a layup, falling to the floor with a loud thwack. Now she’s struggling with her outside shot; she can’t get into the offensive flow. Flores takes over for her team and keeps Young within hailing distance; early in the fourth quarter she rebounds her own missed shot in the lane for a pretty bank off the glass.

Late in the game Young is down nine points; it puts together a last valiant run, pulling within three points with about two minutes to play. But after a turnover Flores commits a costly foul, her fourth, and the referee rules it intentional. Marshall keeps the ball after shooting its free throws. Moments later, vying for a loose ball, Flores is whistled for her fifth foul and disqualified. She walks to the bench, sits down, cuffs her face inside her jersey, and begins to cry. She cannot watch the final seconds of the game. Her team loses by five points.

After the game Flores says, “At first when I was walking off the court I told myself, ‘Don’t cry, you always have next year.’ I couldn’t help it. This overwhelming feeling overcame me that I couldn’t hold inside. It was the knowledge this was my last high school game, this was the last time playing with my teammates, my last time in this uniform. It was a very tough moment emotionally.” Flores finished with a team-high 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and a blocked shot. “My shot was on,” she says quietly. “But, I mean, we still lost.”

Flores has a lot going for her. She’s bright and friendly, possessed of an innate curiosity about the world around her. Plus she has a lethal jump shot and could beat a lot of guys off the dribble. Though left-handed, she’s adroit with either hand. More than any other sport, basketball’s form and style allows players to influence the look and feel of the game through their own personalities: the singsong dribble; the expressive, even stylized movements on the floor; the arrangement and flow of bodies on the court. And because the fans are so close to the floor, they can scrutinize a player’s every move. The court is probably best understood as an elongated stage. Performance is everything.

This element of the game gives Flores a rush. “There are players who are straight up,” she says. “They pass and shoot. For me, I like being flashy. I like the no-look passes and spin moves. I like getting the crowd excited, throwing my hands up. When I’m having fun that’s when I play even better.”

Flores is one of the elite high school players in the state, named by the Chicago Sun-Times and Associated Press to their all-state teams (she received special mention in the Chicago Tribune). In April she was chosen for a prestigious Nike-sponsored all-American game in Hampton, Virginia, and this fall she’ll attend Northwestern University on a full athletic scholarship. Her personal achievements demonstrate how radically opportunities for women have altered the look and feel of amateur sports, especially basketball. There are some other good Hispanic women players in the city, notably Wells’s Hilda Madrigal and Mather’s Esther Balint, though neither plays at Flores’s level. “You don’t see that many Hispanic ballplayers,” says Flores. “We’re a minority as far as basketball is concerned.”

For too long, simply being a woman was a significant obstacle to athletic prominence. As recently as 25 years ago, high school girls in Illinois weren’t even allowed to play in state-sanctioned games except for club team and intramural play. In 1972 the controversial Title IX program mandated that institutions receiving federal funds had to offer the same opportunities for women’s sports as for men’s. Though conservatives have long criticized Title IX as a form of affirmative action, it unquestionably increased women’s access to cutting-edge facilities, improved training, and better coaching. As a result, young women have blossomed, and the popularity of women’s basketball has increased. Aesthetically it differs from the men’s game: women don’t play above the rim, but the style of play is purer and more grounded in fundamentals, with a greater emphasis on passing, movement, shooting, and dribbling.

Flores started playing as a fourth-grader at Saint Alphonsus grammar school in Lakeview. She was a prodigy, displaying such brashness and innate skill that the coaches immediately elevated her to the eighth-grade squad. By the time Flores reached eighth grade, she was scrimmaging with the boys, the only kids at her school who could give her a game. “I always had this feeling with the ball that everything was so natural with me,” she recalls. “I can’t explain it. My mom’s like five feet tall. My dad’s about five-eleven. For some reason God just gave me this talent.”

An only child, Flores grew up near Ashland and Diversey. Her Puerto Rican mother, Rosa Maria, and Filipino father, Anthony, met 25 years ago while working at a factory on the northwest side. “Even when she was in kindergarten, Clarissa was always playing with balls,” her mother says. “She was always out with boys, her cousins, playing ball. I was afraid she was going to get hurt. I wanted her to be a cheerleader. She was different from the other girls. I saw how happy and thrilled she was, and I told my husband, forget it, [basketball] is her life.” Her parents’ support has been instrumental in Flores’s growth and development. Since Flores was in fourth grade, either her mother or her father has attended every one of her games–even when her mom was undergoing outpatient treatment for cancer.

Flores held her own against the neighborhood kids, forging an identity as a talented, resourceful player. “I was always at Wrightwood Park with the guys,” she says. “That’s what made me a better player. You can’t improve if you’re not playing with people as good as you. I played everything with my older cousins. I was into running. While the other girls were playing with their dolls, I was kicking a soccer ball or something like that.” In eighth grade Flores was already being recruited by colleges, receiving letters from Purdue, Marquette, and Vanderbilt.

As a high school freshman Flores attended Saint Scholastica on the north side. She averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds a game on Saint Scholastica’s team and was named all-conference, but she was miserable playing for a mid-level school that couldn’t compete with Catholic city powers such as Mother McAuley, Saint Ignatius, and Resurrection. An intensely competitive player, Flores was willing to sacrifice personal statistics to play for a better team, one that had a realistic shot at a championship. Against her parents’ wishes, Flores transferred to Whitney Young. “I felt like [Scholastica] was holding me back,” she says. “I didn’t have the same opportunities. Some people thought it was a bad decision on my part because I was transferring because of sports. I knew I had the brains to do what was best for me. I knew Young was a good school athletically and academically. I always strive to be number one. I want to be the best. I wanted to win a state championship. I just didn’t think Scholastica could give me that.”

When she began her sophomore year at Young, Flores had to assimilate her game to a strong program. No longer the focal point of the offense, she had to adjust to Young’s stars, senior off-guard Dominique Canty and sophomore point guard Natasha Pointer. Canty is one of the best players ever to come out of Chicago (she’s currently an all-American at the University of Alabama). Pointer’s ballhandling, passing, and shooting were astounding for such a young player. Flores had to prove she could play in elite company. “I’ve had transfers before, that was no big thing,” says Young coach Arthur Penny. “The thing with Clarissa was she had to prove she could play with and be comfortable around the caliber of players we had. The larger question was whether she could fit into our system and not be intimidated by Dominique and Natasha. Not too many players could come in and play at that level.”

In fact, basketball was the easiest part of Flores’s transition from a mostly white Catholic school to a mostly black, west-side magnet school. Her musical tastes changed; her clothing grew more eclectic. She liked the freedom of Young.

In terms of athletics there was no comparison. As a sophomore Flores was the team’s sixth player, averaging about ten points a game. Despite her limited role in the team’s offense, Flores loved the intense competition. The other players accepted her immediately. “She fit in well right away,” Pointer recalls. “In the same way that Toni Kukoc comes off the bench for the Bulls, she would come in and give us that sparkplug. She was the person we needed to get that team going.”

Flores refined her game in the Public League. “I never had girls tell me they were going to jump me after the game until I played in the Public League,” she says. “The Public League is never boring. Michael Jordan has this attitude–when he steps out on the court he knows he’s the best. People in the Public League, whether they’re good or not, always have that attitude.” When she first attended Young, Flores’s outside game was so erratic Penny wouldn’t even let her shoot from the perimeter. Now her outside game is dead-on.

In Flores’s sophomore season, Young won the city championship and qualified for the state championship quarterfinals. After Canty went to Alabama, Pointer and Flores became leaders of the squad. Flores’s game developed in subtle ways: the range of her jump shot increased, her ballhandling improved, and she developed a strong move going right. One game-winning play her junior year illustrated her unique ability. Competing against a good team from Buffalo Grove, Flores had the ball on the right baseline in the final seconds. After putting up a shot, she sensed immediately that it was off. She grabbed the rebound and, practically falling out of bounds, fired a bullet pass to a wide-open teammate who made a game-winning layup. Her composure, self-awareness, and athleticism were something to behold.

“She’s one of those players who react really well to different situations in a game,” says Pointer. “Some people think about what they’re going to do. With her, whatever happens, no matter her reaction, she makes the right decision. I guess she’s one of those athletes–they just come with this knack for the game.”

Though playing alongside Pointer had obvious benefits, it also obscured Flores’s accomplishments. “I thought I should have been all-state my junior year,” Flores admits, “but I wasn’t. It was tough. In the past I was always the go-to girl. I thought, ‘I could be at another school scoring 30 points a game, doing my own thing.’ But I wouldn’t have a chance to play in three city championship games or go downstate. If you’re a really good player, you can assimilate and do what you have to do.” When she walks the halls at Whitney Young, people typically refer to her as “Scottie Pippen.”

Trying to reconcile academics, basketball, and her personal life has taken its toll on Flores. At times, she says, she’s wanted to give up the game and spend more time with her boyfriend or her other friends. But she knows how much her scholarship to Northwestern means to her parents, neither of whom attended college. “I’ve made basketball my life,” she says. “You’re expected to do things, accomplish a lot, and live up to the expectations made of you. I never got to live that normal life. I enjoy what I do. Although I’ve made sacrifices, if I didn’t have basketball I wouldn’t see myself going to Northwestern or being as successful as I am.”

Basketball has helped her self-esteem. “Basketball has made me a more confident person,” she says. “People recognize me from basketball. That makes me more confident, friendly with other people, and not afraid to talk. I like talking to people. I don’t shy away from people. I have this happy-go-lucky attitude.”

Flores is working out more aggressively to get in shape for Big Ten competition next season. She’s playing on an 18-and-under Amateur Athletic Union Chicago team and working on her ballhandling and outside shot. She just took a job with a company owned by her boyfriend’s mother, and she’s maintaining a B-average at one of the city’s most academically challenging schools. Flores says she’ll probably study electrical engineering or computer science at Northwestern, though she’ll remain undecided her freshman year. Her parents just bought a house in Lincolnwood, so they’ll be closer to the Evanston campus.

“There are so many things I want to do with my life,” says Flores. “I want to run my own business or have my own franchise. There are two women’s professional leagues now. That night at the Pavilion, playing in the city championship game, I had a lot of young girls from my grammar school come and watch me play. I’m paving the road for them in the way that players like Sheryl Swoopes, Jennifer Rizzotti, and Rebecca Lobo did for me. These young girls can look up and see where I’m at and know they can accomplish the same things. I mean, who would ever think that women would get paid to play ball?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photos of Clarissa Flores.