When Kira Orr was in second grade, she briefly lived with her mother and stepfather in Silver Spring. Next to their apartment complex was a basketball court, where men would play pickup games on balmy evenings. “I would sit and watch and watch and watch and I was just fascinated by it, I thought it was a cool game,” Kira tells me.
“One day, they finished playing and one of the guys came over to me and said, ‘Hey, come here,’ and started showing me how to shoot,” she recalls. “He gave me the ball, too, this random stranger. It was a terrible ball, all beat up and starting to form a bubble on one side, but he gave it to me. Man, if I could somehow thank that guy, he had no idea what he sparked.”
Kira went on to become a star basketball player at the Bullis School in Potomac, and then at Duke University in North Carolina. Today, at 44, she is the assistant head of the upper school at Bullis and no longer plays before thousands of screaming fans. But like any good coach or teacher, she has learned to derive satisfaction from the success of others. “I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” Orr says, “but once I got into working with kids, I do think I have a knack for it.”
Because her first basketball was so misshapen, she developed acute ball-handling skills. “You never knew when you’d get that crazy bounce,” she says. Her life has taken some crazy bounces, too. Kira was born in Carbondale, Illinois, where her father was a hot-shot ballplayer but an absent parent. Kira’s mother and stepfather—who both worked for law firms as managers and administrators—moved to Montgomery County for greater economic opportunities and eventually settled in Poolesville.
They lived “paycheck to paycheck,” Orr recalls, and her mother found extra work as a basketball referee, in part to finance her daughter’s blossoming sports career. “My mom would fight and fight and fight for me to be on the boys’ team because there were no other options,” Kira recalls. Then came one of those bounces. The coach of her basketball team was also the coach at Bullis, and with his help, and “a ton of financial aid,” she arrived on campus as a ninth grader in the fall of 1989.
Being a young black woman from a working-class family in a school dominated by rich, white classmates was far from easy. She recalls “the intimidation of driving up the first day and getting dropped off in our old beat-up car” while her fellow students were climbing out of “BMWs and stuff like that.” A friend invited her for a sleepover. “I remember her saying, ‘Make sure you bring a bathing suit. I have a pool in the basement of my house,’ and sure enough she did,” Orr says. “Those things were kind of mind-blowing.”
One day a close friend asked, “Are you embarrassed by me? You never invite me to your house.” As Kira remembers the incident, “When I had to verbalize it I said, ‘I’m ashamed because I don’t want you to see my house.’ There were times when I felt I might be judged.”
She never felt judged or ashamed on an athletic field, however. Orr earned 12 varsity letters in five sports, and in basketball circles she became known as “Kardiac Kira,” with a knack for winning games with last-second shots. Scholarship offers poured in, and she finally chose Duke over Stanford University, in part because her parents could come to many of her games. In college, she scored 1,388 points, and she played a year of professional ball before a ruptured Achilles tendon cut short her career.
That’s when Bullis stepped in, offering her a job as a coach and physical education teacher. After five years there, she wanted to try college coaching and moved to Fordham University in New York, but a rare blood disease almost killed her. She required numerous transfusions—and again Bullis showed its support. “They did a blood drive in my honor, and a ton of people showed up, which was unbelievable,” Kira says. “And that’s why that place is my home away from home.”
After she recovered, she decided college coaching was too stressful, so again she returned to Bullis. Today, one of her main jobs is enforcing discipline. Being a mother—she and her wife, Rose, a social worker, have a 5-year-old son—makes it easier to deal with demanding parents. “There’s a lot of opportunities for difficult conversations, let’s put it that way, and being a parent has changed my perspective,” Kira says. “Instead of thinking, ‘This person is crazy,’ I now have more of an understanding of where they’re coming from, since I will do anything and everything for my child.”
She will also do anything for her surrogate children—her students. “Kids do a lot of dumb things, and a lot of the stuff is stemming from kids with so much anxiety,” Orr says. “When I was in high school, if you had something going on, once you went home you were away from it. When these kids go home, whatever bad thing happened in school that day, there’s no way to get away from it. They go on social media and everything that was bothering them, it’s all there for their friends to see. It’s a constant barrage. Kids can be cruel, and you have this medium where you can be as cruel as you want with this cloak of anonymity, and people just pile on.”
“Part of my job is getting to know them, so when they are in trouble I can say, we’ll get through this together,” she adds. “This is my way of giving back to the community that gave me so much.”
A random stranger on a playground in Silver Spring set off a spark in an 8-year-old girl many years ago. It’s still burning brightly.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.