The Reason I Play
I’ve had a lot of people come up to me the past few days.
“What’s it feel like?”
“How’d you do it?”
This is the first time Mississippi State has ever reached the Final Four. I scored 41 points in the game that got us there, our 94–85 upset of Baylor on Sunday. After the game, someone even told me it was the most points scored by any SEC player in the history of the women’s tournament.
I’m still letting it sink in because it doesn’t feel real to me. I was just playing basketball. So how did I do it? To really understand, I’d have to take you back to when I was growing up.
Back to Birmingham.
I remember a game my freshman year at Shades Valley High when I went 1 for 9 at the free throw line. As soon as I got into the car my dad shook his head at me.
“We are making 100 free throws every day after practice.”
The car rides were always long. Whether I had a good game or bad one, he never let my head get too big.
“You played good,” he would say. “You could have played better.”
That was as much of a compliment about basketball as he ever gave me. He didn’t want me to get complacent, so he wouldn’t tell me to my face very often that he was proud of my games.
He used to tell everyone else, though — a lot. So I always knew.
When I was four years old, my dad used to watch me try to steal the ball from my older brothers, so maybe he knew I had a special feeling for the game — even then. But he didn’t push me into playing. Actually, he even encouraged me to try out other sports to see if there were any I liked more than basketball.
So I played softball for a few years. I played soccer for a little, too — until, one game, when another kid kicked me and sent me flying. I broke my pinky, and I decided not long after that … that soccer just wasn’t for me.
No other sport compared to basketball. The way I felt on the court was special. It didn’t take long for me to know that playing basketball was how I wanted to spend my time.
I was in sixth grade when I told my dad that I wanted to play in college. He started taking me to the gym at 5 a.m. every day so I could train before school.
He’d run everything like it was an official practice: stretching, ballhandling drills, running … a lot of running. He was all about conditioning. Everything from doing laps to full-court layups. Down with the right hand, back with the left — in under nine seconds. He’d always have a stopwatch in his hand so he could time everything I did. A lot of pressure on a 13-year-old.
It was straight-up grueling. I’d be exhausted by seven in the morning, right when most kids were getting out of bed. You wonder sometimes why you’re pushing yourself so hard when you can just as easily go home and do regular stuff — especially as a kid.
“You are not a regular person,” my dad would tell me.
Of course, he’d always give me the opportunity to quit and go home, but then he’d ask me again if I was truly serious about playing college ball. I’d say that I was … and then we’d get back to work.
Three years ago, when I was a senior at Shades Valley, my mom, my sister and I went to watch Mississippi State play at home in the WNIT. Dad usually went to every basketball event he could, but this time he said he didn’t want to go — he was having some chest pains that night so he decided to stay home. I thought it was a little strange, but it didn’t seem like too big of a big deal. He had just been to the doctor a few weeks before and they told him he was totally fine. Everything was normal.
That was the last time I saw my dad. The next day he passed away. All the years we had spent preparing together, all the time I had put in practicing with him in the gym — that was all over. Just like that. My dad had taught me so many things, about basketball and about life, but he’d never prepared me for dealing with death, certainly not how to deal with a world that didn’t include him.
I wasn’t ready. And I didn’t know how to deal with what I was feeling. I had experienced loss before, but nothing this close to me before. And it wasn’t something I could overcome by practicing harder in the gym.
It was a huge loss, and there was nothing I could really do to come back from it. I needed time. That was the only thing that was going to make it better.
I had a lot of support from my family and friends. Even Coach Schaefer, who had just recruited me to Mississippi State but who didn’t know me very well yet, came to the funeral — that’s something I’ll always remember. But in the days and weeks that followed, I spent most of my time alone, in my room back in Alabama. I didn’t go to the gym for a month. Didn’t touch a basketball once. There were a few times when I tried to get up and force myself to get back on the court, but I really couldn’t do it at first.
The thing was, I kept hearing my dad’s voice in my head.
“Somebody is going to take your spot if you don’t put the work in.”
There really were times when I thought about quitting basketball for good. But then I thought about how it would make him feel if I just gave up and walked away after we both had put in so much time and effort.
So eventually I got back to the gym. During every workout, his words would pop up in my head.
“The ball is going to keep bouncing, whether it’s in your hands or someone else’s.”
“If you want to play you have to be ready to give everything.”
To be honest I really didn’t feel like myself for my entire freshman year at Mississippi State.
I was a 17-year-old girl at a new school — in a new state, playing with all new teammates, and for a new coach — who was still carrying around all these emotions from having lost my father only a few months earlier. I know people say I’m a pretty quiet person now, but you should’ve seen me when I first got here. Some of my teammates probably didn’t even know what my voice sounded like.
Last Saturday marked exactly three years since he’s been gone. Sunday was our Elite Eight game against Baylor. My dad was on my mind in the days leading up to the game, but for the most part I tried my best to stay focused on the NCAA tournament and helping my team.
Before we played the Bears I went out and started shooting around early, since I had never really gotten into any kind of rhythm in our win over Washington last Friday. I knew I was going to have to contribute in a big way if we were going to get to the Final Four.
We knew how big the game was. We knew Mississippi State had never been to the Final Four. As a team, we’ve gotten used to getting less respect than we thought we deserved. We also knew that most people had already counted us out … that people were saying that Baylor was too big and too much to handle. And we remembered a year earlier, when we had been sent home from the tournament after a 60 point loss to UConn in the Sweet Sixteen.
I was focused before the game, but I didn’t really have a sense of whether I’d be on or off once the game started. Then I hit a shot in the first quarter and I started to feel some energy in the arena. I thought that I might be in for a good night.
When I hit a banked three early in the first half, I started thinking that maybe something special was in store. I could almost hear my dad, though:
“A banked three? Really?”
Forty-one points still hasn’t really sunk in. Yeah, it was a big game. All of a sudden people are mentioning me all over social media and approaching me out of the blue on the street. For now I’m just trying to roll with it as best I can and stick to my normal practice routine. Our team still has a bigger goal in mind.
But no matter what the future holds, that game on Sunday will always be for Dad. For all the years he spent helping me, coaching me and loving me. All the hours he made me fine-tune the little parts of my game — the footwork and the conditioning.
For never even once letting me complain about my height (I’m 5′ 5”) or telling me I needed to be taller to play Division I basketball, even though it was something I kept hearing from college recruiters. It never mattered to him, so it never mattered to me.
For pushing me past my limits, again and again, and for never letting me be satisfied with just being ordinary.
I loved every second I got to spend with him. I only wish that I could go back and do it all over again.
It feels like so much time has passed, and so much has happened in my life, since he’s been gone. If he were here today it’s hard to even imagine what he’d say to me.
If I had to guess, it probably wouldn’t be about scoring 41 points. It’d be something about me going 6 for 6 from the line in the final minute of Sunday’s game.
He was on my mind for all six.