Oh Boy, They've Never Felt Pressure Like This

A dozen times this month, this athlete will step on a basketball court with the future at stake.

Before each of those times, this athlete will do exactly the same thing, in exactly the same order.

This athlete will be too scared to do anything else.

Eat a banana. Brush teeth. Slip on shorts. Slip on left sock. Slip on right sock. Stick a special rubber band in the hair.

If there is no banana in the locker room, rush one in from the store. Brush the teeth after eating it, not before, or you must brush them again.

Throughout the most important 23 days for a high school basketball player, the superstitions will be repeated because this athlete is certain what will happen if they are not.

A big-time college coach walks in. A three-pointer falls out. About $100,000 worth of college tuition disappears.

Similar rituals have filled the heads and homes of hopeful youngsters throughout Southern California for years, with one difference.

It is 1996, and this athlete is a girl.

Her name is Lori Hurlbut, and everything you thought about women's sports is about to change.

"I know I must play well this month for that scholarship," said Hurlbut, 17, a senior guard prospect for state champion Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. "I try not to think about it. But it's hard."

It is called "the evaluation period." It runs July 8-31. It is the only time the NCAA allows Division I college basketball coaches to watch high school recruits in an unlimited number of games.

For some seniors, it could be their last chance to turn years of preparation--not to mention their parents' life savings--into a prepaid college education.

You might have heard about the Slam-n-Jam tournament, to be held for the next six days at Long Beach State, a 13-year-old event featuring the best high school boy players in the country.

But those seeking real adventure will head for UC San Diego at the end for this month when 102 teams play on seven courts in a tournament for the benefit of 150 college coaches.

A tournament for girls.

A tournament showing the sweaty side of Title IX.

Not that the girls' high school basketball recruiting scene is equal to the boys'. It is far uglier.

Thanks to a fast-growing popularity that will increase again this year with the charismatic U.S. Olympic women's team and two new professional women's leagues, thousands of girls are competing for hundreds of spaces, slightly fewer than are available to boys.

"It's gotten so big, it's scary," said Fred Williams, USC women's coach. "It's big organization. It's big business."

Which brings us back to what intelligent, charming and nervous Lori Hurlbut will see throughout her travels to tournaments and camps this month.

There will be parents screaming from the stands. Not at the referee, but at their daughters and her coaches. The harassment is far greater than at boys' games, say those coaches.

Since most girls don't have the exceptional height or leaping ability of standout boys, the average parents can actually teach their daughter to be a scholarship player. A parent starts coaching her when she is 8, and never stops.

"In this sport, if you have a daughter who is not that big or athletic, you can still tell her, 'Work hard and you'll be there,' " said Dale Hurlbut, Lori's father.

Last season, a parent of a prominent Orange County player was thrown out of a gym for engaging in an obscenity-laced shouting match with an opposing coach. Hurlbut remembers a friend who was not allowed to watch TV after bad games.

"You always have parents embarrassing their kids," she said. "Some of these people go absolutely berserk. If my parents did some of that stuff, I would kill them."

And the pressure on the average daughter is far greater than on the average son.

She is already different from many of her classmates. Many feel they must earn that scholarship to validate the differences.

Hurlbut, a shooting guard hoping to show scouts she has recovered from a foot injury, sees her boyfriend during the day . . . and shoots at night at the dimly lit basket in front of her house. When she forgets, she says, her dad reminds her.

"Sure, I've thought about what happens if nobody wants me," she said. "I would be mad at myself. I would think I didn't work hard enough."

There is also the perception by some parents that certain college women's teams have problems with homosexuality. Even when their daughter is offered a scholarship, many do added research before allowing her to sign.

"We have discussed that," said Karen Hurlbut, Lori's mother. "You need to be in an environment where your daughter is able to look the other way."

It's enough to make a 17-year-old girl wonder just where to look.

Sometimes before games, Hurlbut also listens to a tape by country singer Garth Brooks. On it is a song called "Unanswered Prayers." She said she liked others better.

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