Basketball Preview Issue
Anacostia isn’t the kind of place most people travel to voluntarily.
Long plagued by crime and poverty, the historic neighborhood in Southeast has become synonymous with the District’s problems and the butt of its jokes. Its famed go-go music scene is a shell of its former self, smothered under the weight of one of the city’s highest violent crime rates, a decline that has led to the elevation of a 20-foot “Big Chair” to the role of main attraction. Taxi drivers in Northwest make up excuses for not being able to take patrons to Anacostia – not even the crosstown, rush-hour fare is worth the perceived danger.
So when a young physical education teacher named Frank Briscoe found out he had been transferred to Anacostia High School in December 1979, he was less than thrilled. A Washington native, Briscoe had only been to Southeast once before, to watch a football game.
But to Briscoe, D.C. was D.C., and it would take a lot more than a bad reputation to scare him off.
More than 30 years, 500 wins and countless altered lives later, the 55-year old has yet to find a reason to leave.
“If you look out here right now,” Briscoe said on a crisp afternoon in October, “it’s peaceful and quiet like anyone else’s neighborhood. But because it’s Washington, D.C., and it’s Southeast their first reaction is negative.”
The scene is placid and residents are cautiously optimistic about the impact of the new Nationals Stadium across the Anacostia River. There is a sense that the area’s worst days are behind it. Still, it’s not the kind of place people go voluntarily.
Briscoe has made a career and a life from giving players and students like Jessica and Jazmine Adair the mentoring they needed. Like most twins, the Adairs are very different people. Jessica – the starting center on GW’s women’s basketball team – is a natural athlete, understated by nature and content with letting others do the talking much of the time.
Growing up, athletics didn’t appeal to her sister and teammate Jazmine, a flashier dresser who wanted to be a cheerleader. It took convincing from Jessica to start playing sports, and it took some time before she enjoyed them.
Growing up, the Adairs’ mother, Angela, was a police officer on the graveyard shift, but the single mother could not always make ends meet, and the family bounced around – in the sisters’ words – “all over.” They spent time in every quadrant of the city except Southwest, plus a short stint in Maryland’s Prince George’s County.
“It was hard,” Angel Adair said in a telephone interview. “We only one salary to do everything with, so there were a whole lot of times when Jazmine and Jessica couldn’t get new things, especially around Christmas time.”
By eighth grade, area high school basketball coaches were salivating over the 6-foot-3 Jessica and 6-foot-2 Jazmine, who had only recently started playing. The twins had their pick of schools, from Dunbar High School in Northwest to H.D. Woodson in Northeast to Anacostia in Southeast.
The question then became, where?
Briscoe had developed a reputation for taking kids from tough backgrounds onto his team. One early spring day in 2001, he received a call from a counselor at the twins’ middle school, asking if he was interested in meeting the two. He was, he said, but between coaching three sports, he was too busy.
“Then one day my wife and I were lying in bed and she said, ‘Frank, you never went to go visit that counselor to see those girls,’ ” Briscoe said while ruffling his grey beard. “I thought I should go, so I went out there and here come these two gangly six-footers and I almost hit the floor. I couldn’t believe it.”
Briscoe chatted with the girls in their cafeteria and went to meet their mother a few days later. No other coach had taken the time to do that and Angela believed Briscoe when he told her that getting the girls into college was more important than winning titles.
The fraternal twins thrived in their first year under Brscoe. However, during their sophomore year, Angela moved back to Maryland, putting her daughters in a difficult position. She knew Jessica and Jazmine liked their coach and she had come to trust the man who picked them up and dropped them off every night after practice. So an agreement was struck: the sisters would live with Briscoe during the school week, then come home on weekends.
Over the next two years, Briscoe instilled his signature discipline on the two, whom he described as “typical teenagers.” Their mother, the police officer, had run a tight ship but they thrived with a male role model in their lives.
“It was different,” Jessica said. “I kind of felt out of place at first because it wasn’t our home, but as time wore on he became like our dad.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do to raise a kid,” Briscoe said.
The coach told the sisters they had to compete in track and field and cross country if they wanted to play basketball. The intense practices helped improve Jessica’s conditioning and taught Jazmine how to fight through pain.
“Running up and down a court is much easier than running up and down a hill,” Briscoe said.
By the end of their time at Anacostia, Jessica held the school record for longest discus throw at 109 feet.
Angela Adair moved back to the city in time for her daughters’ senior year, and they moved back in with her. But the two years living with Briscoe left an indelible mark on them. Jazmine had come to love the game she started playing by default and Jessica became the school’s only 1,000-point scorer en route to leading the team to two city finals.
“It takes a special type of person to deal with children from that area,” said Angela, who now works as a security guard at Howard University. “Briscoe’s whole life was his team.”
“God don’t put you where he don’t need you”
Busy with basketball and school, Jazmine and Jessica Adair don’t make the trip across town very often anymore. Earlier this year, Jazmine spoke at the school’s athletic banquet and told the kids that making it out of areas like Anacostia is tough, but doable. On this visit, the two are greeted enthusiastically by everyone from counselors to teachers to administrators, most of whom put their arm around the twins and claim to have known the stars back when. Jessica and Jazmine instantly recognize some of the greeters, others they either don’t remember or have never met.
“If every student was half as good as these two were, my job would be easy,” Major Lee Bowman, the school’s R.O.T.C. representative, said while posing for a photo with the two in the school’s lobby.
Upon seeing Jessica and Jazmine walk down the hall, Briscoe can’t help but smile. The sisters’ inability to visit doesn’t bother him so much. They are grown women now, he tells himself. He speaks frequently with head GW women’s basketball coach Mike Bozeman, who he describes as “the closest thing to a non-blood brother I’ve ever had.”
“They’ve matured,” said Briscoe about the Adairs. “It’s typical college. When they first go they get homesick, but when they get older, they don’t worry about home anymore.”
There isn’t an ounce of hurt in his voice. After a reflective pause, he describes how proud he is of them.
“Like a father,” Brisoce said.
Briscoe was recently named Anacostia High School’s athletic director, a role that has forced him to pare down his coaching duties. But helping kids improve at sports was never his end goal anyway. Walking the halls of the school, it is clear Briscoe’s hard-to-earn approval is a highly valued commodity among the students, some of whom respect few opinions but rappers and their own.
“It’s tough being in this environment, but the bottom line is God don’t usually put you where he don’t need you,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s been peaches and cream because it ain’t like that. You think it’s tough getting a cab over here? Try living in Northwest or Northeast and having me come over and say I’d like you to come play at Anacostia. Now that’s a tough sell. But the reward comes at the end when the parent says, ‘Thank you.’ “
The road from tough sell to thank you is the hard part. Some kids make it, some don’t. No matter the result, Briscoe makes sure to hold up his end of the deal for all of them. Do what he says, and you’ll go to college. Reinforced by their mother and blessed with height and athleticism, Jessica and Jazmine Adair got the message.
“They’ve lived a charmed life,” said Angela Adair, who now works as a security guard. “It was like God had laid out the path and all they had to do was walk it.”