They didn't recognize one another at first. And really, how could they?
More than 15 years had passed. Back then, Tajama Abraham was an all-everything basketball player at Kecoughtan High. Jennifer Conrad was 5, dressed in school colors, and cheering for the Warriors basketball and football teams coached by her dad.
The Conrads and Abrahams were like family. The Abrahams had moved to Hampton in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo destroyed their Virgin Islands home, and Revis Conrad coached TJ's three brothers.
Now, in a confluence Jennifer steadfastly believes was choreographed in the heavens, she and TJ are co-workers, Ngongba (Abraham's married name) the women's basketball coach at Radford, Conrad her new director of operations.
"What are the odds?" Ngongba said from her native St. Croix, where this summer she is coaching the U.S. Virgin Islands' national team.
Ngongba wouldn't have accepted the national team challenge — the Virgin Islands opens play Wednesday in the Caribbean Basketball Confederation championships in the Bahamas — were she not supremely confident in her staff back home.
A 2005 Kecoughtan graduate, Conrad joined the Highlanders' staff full-time earlier this month after earning a history degree from Radford. As a student, she served as a team manager, the same role she filled for her father's teams.
"She was beyond just a manager," Ngongba said. "She was always in the office helping out. Very sharp, on time. She was organized to the point where she'd be one step ahead of me. I love that. I love people that I work with that are one step ahead of me."
Here's how Conrad and Ngongba reconnected.
Conrad transferred from Chowan, where she was a football manager, to Radford for the 2008 fall semester. Unbeknownst to her, the Highlanders had just hired Ngongba, a college star at George Washington who played professionally in the WNBA and France.
Searching for another managing gig, Conrad wandered into a women's basketball scrimmage. She did a double-take.
"I kept looking at the coach," Conrad said. "She looked really familiar, but I couldn't exactly place her. Then I was like, 'Man, that looks like TJ.' "
An Internet search confirmed her hunch, and a couple days later Conrad approached Ngongba.
"Hey, I know you probably don't remember me, but I'm a ghost from your past."
"I'm looking at her Chowan shirt and thinking, 'Why would I know anyone from Chowan?' " Ngongba recalled.
"I'm Coach Conrad's daughter."
"My mouth almost went to the floor," Ngongba said. "The last vision I had of Jenny is in this green-and-white cheerleader outfit that she wore at the games. And now this grown woman is in front of me saying, 'I'm Jenny.' And I'm like, 'No you're not. You're supposed to be 3 years old.' "
Ngongba immediately hired Conrad as a volunteer manager, but midway through the season, in January 2009, Revis Conrad passed away. He was 66, a decade removed from an 18-year coaching career at Kecoughtan.
"The last thing he said to me when he was still coherent was, 'Don't let Taj down, and I love you,' " Conrad said. "Once he passed away, everything was crazy. So I needed to get a real job to have real money.
"When my dad was there, he was helping me out. And when he wasn't there, I had to grow up almost overnight."
Conrad worked in retail and as a resident advisor to make ends meet before returning to the basketball team the past two seasons. She has not let her boss down.
Radford finished second in the Big South this year, earning Ngongba the conference's coach of the year award. Conrad graduated in May and was stressing about employment when Ngongba promoted operations director Katrina Williams to assistant coach.
Conrad was the first and only serious candidate to fill Williams' job.
"I told her, 'Just having you around makes me a better coach because I worry about less things,' " Ngongba said. "It's been great for both of us. We're just feeding off each other to make this program better."
"I'm exactly where I want to be," Conrad said. "When I first started the history program I wanted to teach high school and coach basketball like my father did. Then I started thinking about it, and the more I started hanging out in the office, I thought this was more along the lines of something I'd want to do. Maybe eventually getting on the coaching level, but right now I'm perfectly happy just doing all the fun stuff like the travel.
"I tell people, I'm basically the glue that holds the pieces of the ship together."
That glue has been especially important since Ngongba departed for St. Croix two weeks ago to begin preparing the Virgin Islands for the CBC tournament. Ngongba played for the national team during the early 2000s and also coached the junior national squad.
Alas, none of Ngongba's players are as good as she was — Ngongba scored a school-record 2,134 points at GW and led the Colonials to the Elite Eight of the 1997 NCAA tournament.
"They're very raw and we've been doing a lot of fundamentals," Ngongba said.
So raw that Ngongba finds herself on the court demonstrating precisely what she wants. That's not so easy for a 35-year-old mother of two.
"Just that 30 seconds of demonstrating and I'm, 'Whoa, I can't believe I used to do this for a whole game,' " Ngongba laughed. "One of my assistants said, 'Coach, can you suit up? You're the best post player here.' I said, 'I'm the best post player for about two minutes.' "
Ngongba understands the Virgin Islands challenge will require the same patience she's needed at Radford, where her roster has distinct international and Hampton Roads flavors. The Highlanders have players from the Virgin Islands, Australia, Macedonia, Chesapeake (forward Sarah Tabb) and Norfolk (guard Breshara Gordon).
"The 757 is loaded with talent," Ngongba said, "and if we can steal someone out of there that other people might overlook, that's a wonderful thing."
When a Hampton Roads prospect visits Radford, Ngongba makes sure to introduce her to Conrad, whose enthusiasm for the school, and her 757 roots, is contagious.
"I'm so excited," Conrad said. "It's almost like it was meant to be. I really feel like my dad was looking out for (TJ) and for me."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun