Photographer Madeline Gray moved to Kinston, N.C., in early 2018. As a teenager, Gray played on her high school's basketball team in rural Ohio. In Kinston, she found a chance to revisit that formative experience.
Gray spent over a year getting to know the girls basketball team at Kinston High School, following them to games, practices and through rites of passage that were interrupted this spring when Kinston High closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gray's photographs paint an intimate portrait of high school life. With emotional moments and thoughtful frames, the viewer is invited to connect with the players through wins, losses and the challenges of high school.
In Kinston, N.C., basketball is king — or queen, as the case may be.
The town has a reputation for producing more NBA players than anywhere else in the country and the boy's team is often in the spotlight. Yet the girls team wins just as often as the boys. The girls often receive top grades — in the spring, two players graduated at the top of their class — and after graduating, many stay in the community, sometimes serving as assistant coaches for the team.
But this year the team saw its share of disappointments. They came up just short of making it to the State Championships, and spring graduation rituals were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, players like Alena Rivers, 18, who graduated in the spring, managed to stay positive.
"I feel like we've all gained something by the loss of our senior year," she says.
"I think we learned how to adapt to different situations," says graduate Lesley Sutton, 18. "And we learned how to create like a new sense of normalcy."
Growing up in Kinston isn't always easy. In the 2017-18 school year, more than half the students at Kinston High were economically disadvantaged, according to the most recent state report card — and that was before the pandemic hit. The school also rates below the state average in math and English language arts.
Head Coach Chris Bradshaw understands that basketball can only take the girls so far. "The most important thing is academics," Bradshaw explains. "Athletics come and go, but what you learn in academics you can take with you for your whole life."
Seven of the eight 2020 graduates on the team started college in the fall. Self-described team mom Lori Carmon says Coach Bradshaw was with the seniors until the end. "He was there at graduation sitting over there just like a dad would do."
For those graduates, including Zykia Andrews, 18, it was a fitting end to their time at Kinston High. Andrews says the team has always been about much more than basketball.
"The Kinston High women's basketball program ... it's another definition for family. A lot of the girls, a majority of the team, we grew up together. ... We could go through a lot of adversity, but we still got each other."
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