With bullets flying and apprehension rising because of a gang war in their Watts neighborhood, Larry DeHughes and his Los Angeles Jordan teammates are dealing with plenty of distractions.
Somehow, their focus remains, for the most part, on the reward that awaits them if they stick with their commitment to basketball and school: a college education.
As the rival gangs shoot it out and the police try to stop the senseless violence, teenagers try valiantly to go about their business, which includes making the important decisions of what color shirt to wear, with whom to talk and where to walk.
"Walking home from practice, I'm scared to death," DeHughes said last week. "They're really killing people. They're really shooting."
DeHughes is a 6-foot-4 senior who has decided he wants a future. Gone are the D's from his report card, replaced by his determination to complete his homework and graduate.
"My mom always told me I could do something with my life," he said.
He's not alone in pursuing a different path.
With 37-year-old Jordan alumnus, Van Myers, serving as coach, cheerleader and source of inspiration, the Bulldogs are again poised to be the surprise basketball team of the City Section playoffs.
Last season, Jordan won its first 18 games before losing in the quarterfinals to Los Angeles Fairfax, 74-70. This season, the Bulldogs won 21 of their first 23 games and were 9-0 in the Eastern League.
Myers' father, Jackie, graduated from Jordan in 1964. Myers' son, La'Von, is the standout junior point guard on this year's team. Myers had to go back to college for six years to pass the necessary requirements for a teaching credential, and he still has one class left.
Why would he devote so much time and energy to become a coach and P.E. teacher at Jordan?
"My goal was to give back," he said.
Last season, Chris Johnson was Jordan's standout guard. He earned a scholarship to UC Riverside. Myers is trying to push, prod and cajole others to follow.
DeHughes does what he can to stay out of harm's way, but he said he lives 15 blocks from school.
"103rd Street is the gang street," he said. "I try to avoid it, but that's the street I live on."
When he can, Myers gives players a ride home after practice.
At least when they are on campus, the players feel safe. But no one should doubt the dangers they face in the neighborhood.
"It's a gang war that's gotten out of hand," said Mike Hopwood, the Los Angeles Unified School District's operations coordinator for Local District 7.
Hopwood said since the second week of December, there have been more than 20 shootings in the area, with seven fatalities. He said Jordan is the only public high school in the nation within walking distance of four housing projects.
Hopwood has been working with police, clergy, community members and parents to put a stop to the violence and to increase security. Police have been making arrests and others have sought to negotiate a gang cease fire.
Meanwhile, the Jordan basketball team keeps its focus.
La'Von is the team's second-leading scorer at 11 points per game and must perform at a high level because his father is watching and critiquing.
"There's pressure on me every day, but my dad says I can get through anything," he said. "I don't get any breaks like others. People look at me differently.
"I like it. I'm proving myself."
The team's leading scorer at 12 points per game is 6-6 senior Jameel Johnson, who hadn't played organized basketball until high school.
"I worked with him day and night," Myers said.
Senior guard Jonathan Francis is a dependable shooter who scored 17 points against Fairfax in the playoff loss last season.
And there's DeHughes, a tough, hard-nosed rebounder who likes to attack the basket.
There were lots of people who doubted Jordan's unbeaten regular season last year, suggesting the Bulldogs didn't face many challenging teams.
Jordan gave Fairfax a scare, and the players think this season's team is better.
"We can play with anybody when we bring our A game," La'Von said.
Considering what the players have endured on a daily basis to get this far, they deserve all the respect in the world, and no one should doubt their commitment to succeed.
\o7Eric Sondheimer can be reached at email@example.com