Georgetown captain Sugar Rodgers goes up for an easy layup in practice.… (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
A dollar bill was all Sugar Rodgers needed. As a teenager in the Williamsport neighborhood of Suffolk, Va., where drug dealers didn’t think twice about conducting business steps from her front door, Rodgers would take the handout from her mother, head to a nearby basketball goal and begin the hustle.
Matching jumpers with pushers, cons and delinquents, Rodgers wagered a buck a shot, and by day’s end she’d return home with a healthy profit, all in singles. Going out at night was a risky proposition back then, especially with cash in your pocket, so Rodgers would stay put in her single-family home, where mother Barbara Mae, one brother, two nephews and a niece also lived.
But even behind locked doors and windows, Rodgers recalled feeling vulnerable because of all the nefarious activity on her street. Take when she had to dive for cover while bullets riddled her home on Second Avenue during a drive-by shooting. Remarkably, Rodgers survived that and other chilling episodes. Childhood friends, most of them young men, often weren’t as fortunate.
“I don’t know anybody who you can say, like, made it,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers has made it, though, in part because basketball was her salvation. With a support group that includes coaches, mentors and teammates, the Georgetown junior not only escaped her childhood circumstances but has blossomed into one of the program’s most accomplished student-athletes.
The 5-foot-11 shooting guard is on track to become the Hoyas’ career scoring leader this season, was named preseason first-team all-Big East and has 10th-ranked Georgetown positioned to advance beyond the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the first time. So respected is Rodgers among her teammates that they elected her captain even though she isn’t a senior.
Rodgers, whose given name is Ta’Shauna, owns the single-season school record for points, is the top returning scorer (18.7 points per game) in the Big East and has been at her best when the stakes are at their highest. In last season’s NCAA tournament, Rodgers scored 60 points combined over the first two games, including 34 with seven three-pointers in a 79-57 second-round victory over Maryland.
“She had to learn how to fight for herself, fend for herself, take care of herself,” said Georgetown Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, whose first contact with Rodgers came when she played on an AAU team coached by Boo Williams, Williams-Flournoy’s brother. “The bad part about is it makes you grow up too quick. She had to become an adult before she could continue to become a child.”
The process was that much more complicated when Rodgers’s mother passed away from lupus. Rodgers was 14 at the time, and shortly thereafter the family lost the house. Her father, who is battling cancer and Alzheimer’s, had occasional contact with Rodgers, and at first Rodgers figured she would live with him. But when he didn’t take her in, Rodgers bounced around from house to house, staying with other relatives for months at a time.
All the while, Rodgers remained active in athletics, which she pursued from an early age at the encouragement of her brother. Rodgers played football on a youth boys’ team and even developed into a low-handicap golfer by frequently accompanying a neighbor and his son to the driving range. That hand-eye coordination also made her a natural on the basketball court, where she began paying special attention upon learning the sport could be her ticket to college and, after that, a steady paycheck in the professional ranks.
Academics were another matter entirely. Rodgers, by her own admission, did all she could to avoid class at King’s Fork High. She would often skip school for days at a time, hanging out at the local recreation center or in some cases simply relaxing on the couch.
Rodgers did show up for basketball games, and with each winning shot or extravagant scoring performance her stature grew around the region. Soon she began receiving national recognition, including being named most outstanding player at Nike Nationals and the 2007 AAU under-16 MVP.
“When she became famous here, all of a sudden people came out of the woodwork, and that scared me,” said Chris Quattlebaum, a King’s Fork assistant principal who’s a father figure to Rodgers. “Where were you people when she was struggling? Where were you people when we were trying to help her with academics? I was so afraid she’s now going to be famous and be getting a lot of accolades, and I didn’t want anybody to become a parasite.”
That’s about when Williams-Flournoy came into Rodgers’s life, and the two developed a bond that’s as close to mother-daughter as possible between non-relatives. There’s been plenty of tough love administered in the two-plus years Rodgers has been at Georgetown, including last week when Williams-Flournoy reprimanded her star player at the conclusion of practice in front of other coaches, teammates and reporters.
Part of that also meant having an academic adviser ensure that Rodgers went to class when she’d rather be anywhere else. These days, Rodgers has a 3.0 grade-point average and is on schedule to graduate with a degree in English.
Rodgers has aspirations of becoming first-round WNBA draft pick after her senior season, but before she ever slips on a professional basketball uniform, she’ll wear her cap and gown, walk to the stage across Healy Lawn and collect her diploma. That, according to those closest to Rodgers, will mean more than any basketball commendation.
“It says a whole lot,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t let the family’s name die, so that’s a good thing.”