A Time to Shine
My family means the world to me, and I’d do anything for them. But sometimes, when you’re the little sister, you have to step up and earn respect in whatever way you can … even if it’s at the expense of someone else in the family.
For me, one of those moments happened on a random Saturday afternoon back in Douglasville, Georgia, where I grew up.
This was long before Louisville. And a full four years before I became the No. 1 high school recruit in the country. I was in the eighth grade at the time, and it happened in my family’s backyard, on the adjustable hoop we had out there. I was playing against my brother Christian.
He’s about five years older than me, so he doesn’t love talking about what went down. Sometimes he’ll even play it off like it didn’t happen. But it did happen, and I have witnesses … and it was pretty much the coolest thing ever.
We’d lowered the goal to about eight feet to make things more fun, and the matchup started out like most of our games. He got some early buckets, was playing me rough on defense … and was yappin’ the whole time. My dad was out back watching, and every once in a while I’d look over at him and he’d just be sitting there silently shaking his head.
At one point I drive to the basket and go up for a shot … and my brother blocks it with ease. Like it was nothin’. So I track down the ball and shoot again, and he somehow blocks that one, too. He’s just straight-up laughing at this point.
But I stick with it, and I grab the ball again, and shoot again, and … Christian blocks it a third time.
Now he’s talking crazy smack. Just, like, going waaaay overboard.
And I’d had enough.
All of a sudden I grab the ball, force my way to the hoop and straight-up dunk on his head. Just, like, BLAAAAAAAAAAAM! Right on his head.
He jumped up and tried to block it, but that wasn’t happening.
I posterized him. I really, really did.
It was like one of those dunks they always show on SportsCenter, where the defender tries to hang in but eventually just has to duck down and then basically gets slammed on. I dunked it really, really hard, too … because as soon as the ball went through the hoop it started shaking like it might fall over.
The other thing that happened right then was that my dad jumped out of his chair and started screaming.
“Ohhhhhh my God! Ohhhhh my God! What did I just see?”
I stayed quiet for less than a second.
“Take that!” I yelled. “Block that! Talk smack about that!”
Christian and I were pretty much the same height at the time, so it wasn’t like I’d skied over someone twice my size. But it felt like I’d just jammed on Shaq.
“I don’t hear any yappin’ from you now!”
My brother just shook his head. I mean, there was really nothing he could say. He just got his head dunked on. He knew it. We both did. And it was incredible.
Now, for all I know Christian may have blocked 10 straight shots after that dunk, and scored a bunch of buckets on me, but no one will ever remember that stuff.
They’ll only remember my monster dunk….
Mainly because my dad will never … stop … talking … about it. At every family gathering he tells that story. In crazy detail. And, you know what? I never get tired of hearing it.
I think we’ll all be talking about that dunk for the rest of our lives.
It’s kind of fitting that my big moment of family shine came against my brother, because where I grew up I was always known as the little girl who played against boys.
From when I was super young, I’d always run around on the court with Christian and grab the ball from him to try to dribble it. So it just seemed natural that I’d be on boys’ teams when I turned six and was old enough to play rec league. After that, straight up to high school, the majority of my time on the basketball court was spent competing against boys.
As a kid, my go-to move was always the crossover, and when I’d put it down … those boys didn’t know what hit ’em.
I mean, we were all six year olds … most of the time coaches were just trying to make sure their kids were going toward the right basket. But I was an Allen Iverson fanatic at the time, and that guy had some sauce to his game, so I followed his lead and was crossing over little boys left and right.
After a while, I got a bit of a rep. At one point, when I was 10, I was even cast in a commercial for the Atlanta Dream where the role called for me to school a group of boys on an outdoor court.
It’s easy to look back at that video now and laugh. But, in all honesty, the role I was playing there … that was really me. I really was that little girl. I loved going to the park and driving past the boys and proving myself against people who assumed I couldn’t play. That was my every day.
As I got older, playing against the boys got tougher. But it also made me tougher — as a player, and as a person. By the time high school rolled around, I was ready to show all of Georgia what I was about.
I could hold my own with anyone in my town — boy or girl — and, I mean, come on … I’d just recently dunked on my big brother’s head. Things couldn’t have been going better. I felt like I could do it all, and that nothing would ever be able to slow me down. I was planning to take over the world, and assumed everything would go off without a hitch.
Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to plan.
High school is when I learned that there’s more to life than basketball.
I always kind of knew that, of course, but I don’t think it was until I was in high school that I fully understood it. Up to that point, my life may have been a little bit hectic — always shuttling between school and practice and extra training and back home, and constantly having to deal with the crazy traffic that we have down in Georgia — but nothing too serious had gone wrong with me or my family.
That all changed during my junior year.
In addition to Christian, I have an older sister, Genesis, and a younger brother, T.J. Because T.J. and I are only 14 months apart, we were pretty much inseparable as kids. We’d run around outside together all the time, and we played NBA2K for hooooours together. By the time we got to high school, we were driving in together each morning, and we were hanging out together with the same friends.
T.J. and I would usually go over to my grandma’s house after school, and at one point I began to notice that he was falling asleep as soon as we got there. Like before I could even sit down, he was already asleep on the sofa.
It was strange, but I didn’t think too much of it. Then, not too long after that, T.J. started experiencing double vision. Weird neck pain came next, and then it was headaches that had him in a ton of pain.
Something wasn’t right.
My mom took T.J. to the hospital one morning, and an MRI showed that he had a brain tumor.
When my mom got the news, she and my dad knew how devastated I’d be so they actually kept it from me at first.
I knew something was wrong when T.J. didn’t show up to one of my games. He always went to my games, same with my parents and my grandparents, but on that day, it was only my father in the stands.
After the game ended, I ran up to my dad like, “Where’s everybody at?”
Just by the way he looked at me, I knew something was wrong.
“They’re at the hospital.”
And that was basically all he said. When I asked why they were there, he told me T.J. was being checked out, but he wouldn’t tell me why, or for what.
So for two days I didn’t know.
I told T.J. that I was going to play for him that night, and I also told him that … I’d see him later. I believed it, no doubt. But, honestly, I didn’t know for sure.
I appreciate now that my folks were looking out for me, but it was really rough at the time. Basically they told me gradually, in small pieces, rather than all at once.
When I finally got the full story — that T.J. had a brain tumor, and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen next — it broke my heart. And it didn’t help things that the doctors initially kept telling us they weren’t sure what to do. That just added another layer of stress to what everyone in our family was already feeling.
They said that trying to remove the whole tumor was too risky. But they needed to determine whether it was cancerous, so they decided to schedule a biopsy for three days after the initial MRI.
That surgery was to take place on a Friday, and I had a high school playoff game that night. I didn’t go into school until noon that day because I went to the hospital in the morning and visited T.J.
That was probably the most difficult day of my life. Just seeing him laid up in the bed, in that hospital gown, neither of us knowing what was going to happen.
I told T.J. that I was going to play for him that night, and I also told him that … I’d see him later.
I believed it, no doubt. But, honestly, I didn’t know for sure.
Before I left, they rolled him out of his room to take him into the ICU, and that was just … really hard to watch.
T.J.’s always been my best friend in the world. I really, really love him.
And, at that point, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see him again.
I scored 30 points that night. For T.J. And we won the game.
Afterwards, I hurried back to the hospital to tell him all about it. He’d come out of the surgery O.K., and I knew he’d be excited. But he was so medicated, and in so much pain, that he didn’t really understand what I was trying to get across. I told him how I’d played one of my best games due to the inspiration he gave me, and he kind of just responded by nodding his head — like saying “thank you” without actually using words.
I could tell he wasn’t himself. He was alive, though. That was the main thing. And the doctors were super optimistic after the surgery. They told us that the tumor was noncancerous, and that T.J. would be able to take medication that would destroy it, allowing him to lead a normal life.
And, I’m happy to say, that’s exactly what’s happened.
It’s been really cool to see him bounce back.
T.J.’s a sophomore in college now, at Louisville, and we’re as inseparable as ever. He even became one of our team managers so that we could spend more time together. That’s always been our thing. We always want to be around one another, no matter what.
I mean, check this out: Even before I decided where I was going to go to college, T.J. came to me and told me that he wanted to go to the same school … regardless of which one I picked.
Thankfully — for both me and for T.J. — I picked Louisville, because we love it at UL. And I can say for a fact that the three years I’ve spent here so far have been some of the best of my life.
When I visited the school before committing, it immediately felt like home. I clicked with the players and coaches right away, and the fan base that supports the team just absolutely blew me away.
The fans here are just straight-up unbelievable. I don’t know how else to put it. They’re so loyal and supportive, and our fans are not afraid to travel. I mean, when we play Boston College, our fans are there. When we go to Connecticut, our fans are there. At the conference tournament, they’re right there screaming their lungs out for us.
It’s so cool to be playing for fans like that, and to be part of something that brings joy to so many people.
I’m very, very thankful for it.
We all are.
But you know what? We’re also all ready to be more than just thankful to our fans. We’re ready to take them on the ride of their lives during this year’s NCAA tournament.
We’ve been building up tournament experience over the past few seasons, and coming together as a unit, and gradually learning what it takes to be great — not just good … great. And it’s been really neat to see things pay off for us so far this season.
But we definitely want more.
From super early in the season, we already had our minds set on doing big things. We kept telling one another that we could be better, and go further as a team than we had the previous couple of years. And when we won that overtime battle against Ohio State early in the year, that kind of showed us all that we were on the right track … that things actually were different this year.
That was our first top five win since I’d been at Louisville, and we all wanted that win soooooooo bad. I mean … national TV … against an incredible team? What more could you ask for?
And, you know, we got it done. Afterwards I couldn’t help but think back to the previous season, when we played South Carolina early in the year and got beat by almost 30.
It was clear that something had changed with our team — that we’d come a long way.
Everyone always wants to talk about the 47 points I put up in that game against Ohio State, but really, if you go back and look at the tape, it was all about my teammates finding me for good looks, and Coach Walz calling some great plays. That performance, and that win, wasn’t about me. It was about a team that had grown together and willed itself to become something potentially special.
And we’re still getting better every day, still growing and pushing for more. Nobody on this team is satisfied with what we’ve already done this season, or with winning the ACC tournament. We’re all chasing something bigger here.
We’re looking to win it all. Period.
And if we do, I can promise you this much: The first person I’m searching out to hug as that confetti rains down will be … a certain University of Louisville women’s basketball team manager who I love more than anything in the entire world.