We Expect to Win

Gerry Broome/AP

I always tell people that they don’t know who Deja Kelly really is.

People might know Deja Kelly the basketball player, or they might look on social media and think they got me all figured out….. but they don’t really know who I am. People don’t know the journey I’ve been on to even get to this point. 

I can remember the very first time I picked up a basketball — I was about three years old, and playing in a church league back home in San Antonio. The jersey they put me in was basically swallowing me up lol and the shorts went down all the way to my ankles. But I didn’t care.

Back then, I had to play on the boys team, since I was the only girl. But trust me, that didn’t stop me from wanting the ball in my hands. The funny thing is, during one game, my time had finally come…… I got an open look!! I shot the ball and I scored. Happy moment right??? I’m just so excited, like, WOW I just made my very first basket! And then they broke the news to me: I’d shot the ball in the wrong hoop. It didn’t even count. Haha I was DEVASTATED. But I still felt I’d done a lil something that day. 

For those next few years, even though I was only playing here and there, I always found myself playing against older kids. Really it’s because I was trying to do whatever my older cousin Megan was doing — if she was playing, then you know I was playing. So just imagine these kids who are in the fourth grade at the time, all hooping…… and then it’s me in kindergarten out there with them. Ha. But I didn’t care how old they were, or how much bigger they were. In my mind, I’m telling myself, I’m GOING to play. Why wouldn’t I??? 

Deja Kelly | University of North Carolina | We Expect to Win | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Deja Kelly

When I got to the third grade, I asked my mom if she could make a team for girls my age like she’d done for Megan. That was when I really started getting after it. And along with me hooping more, came all these big dreams. My mom was always great about that, and encouraged me to not shy away from having goals. She even helped me make a dream board, where I’d cut and tape all these pictures and words of things I wanted someday. I had my dream house on it, and my dream car (a BMW convertible), and then a few other things too like:

McDonald’s All American

Getting my first college offer

Making it to the WNBA

My mom gave me this look when I added those and said, “You sure this is what you want to do?” She wanted me to understand how achieving those dreams was going to take a whole lot of sacrifice. That there wasn’t going to be any turning back just because it got hard. I was going to have to commit to this — that much she made clear. I told my mom I was ready to do whatever. 

I was ready to put in the work.

After that? Whew. After that we got the ball ROLLING. Working out every day. Studying other players. Anything and everything that was going to make me better. And I loved it…. although that’s not to say we didn’t have some bad training sessions haha. Training with your mom and then having to eat dinner with her hours later, it can be tough. Because all you’re thinking about was how she had you doing crazy drills that day, or you weren’t hitting your shots or whatever it was. But I wouldn’t trade those moments with my mom for anything. It was special having her right there with me as I was chasing my dreams.

And then it came time for me to start making some of those sacrifices we’d talked about — everything I had to do to keep elevating my game. I moved to Dallas and played at Duncanville High School. That was a huge moment for me, and it definitely wasn’t easy at first. But it really helped me figure out how so much of basketball is just mentality. You know what I mean? I told myself when I got there that, whether it was good or bad, I was going to headhunt EVERYBODY on that court. I was going to become that player. A player who, once I got on the floor, nobody was stopping me. Period. Playing for Coach Howard really showed me what it took to level up — and that was something I knew I needed when I picked a college as well. I needed a coach and a program that would demand that same mentality out of me. I needed to keep finding new levels, both as a player and as a leader.

I’d gotten my first college offer way back in the sixth grade, and then a lot more offers after that. There were all these great schools and great programs that I could’ve been a part of. And what’s funny is, out of those schools? North Carolina was actually the last school to offer me. I was hesitant at first to speak with them, to be honest, but my mom had known Coach Banghart since she’d been running things at Princeton — so she was telling me, you know, “Deja, just listen to what she has to say.” I'm like, I guess it can’t hurt to sit down and listen….

Deja Kelly | University of North Carolina | We Expect to Win | The Players’ Tribune
Simon Asher/NCAA Photos via Getty

I’m glad I trusted my mom, because everything Coach Banghart said when we met felt real and felt honest. She talked about her vision for the program, her vision for me, and how we could build something special at UNC. How we could put UNC women’s hoops back on the map. She also told me that she really was invested in my development, not only as an athlete but also as a woman.

I came out of our conversation just having this feeling that was hard to ignore. The idea of helping get UNC back on top really intrigued me. That’s Charlotte Smith’s school, you know what I’m saying?? Now, don’t get me wrong…. it’s great to go to a place that’s already winning and established. I’m sure that’s what’s best for a lot of players. But I also know myself. And for me? I didn't want to go somewhere and be “just another player.” I wanted to really be able to impact a team.

Actually, no — I wanted to really be able to impact a program.

And I’m working hard every day right now to make sure I do that.

One thing I love about our group is how we understand that winning is a process….. but at the same time, how we have a lot of goals and we’re not the patient type. Anyone who watched us last year saw what potential this team has. Making a run to the Sweet 16, that doesn’t happen by accident. And the thing is, I don’t think anyone was even satisfied by it. We wanted to go so much further. It was TOUGH being in that locker room after we lost — there were some tears, I won’t lie. But to me that just goes back to mentality, right? Taking that loss as hard as we did, it shows what our mentality has become as a program: Every season, the goal is a championship.

Deja Kelly | University of North Carolina | We Expect to Win | The Players’ Tribune
Simon Asher/NCAA Photos via Getty

This season, it’s no different. Real talk: We know that our Sweet 16 run wasn’t even us reaching our peak!! And I’m telling you guys, we’ve been WORKING this offseason, and we’re about ready to show y’all. People probably think I’m crazy when I say that we’re ready to get to Dallas this year. That we’re ready to put UNC women’s hoops back on the Final Four map. And that’s fine with me — let them think what they want.

But I believe in us.

And when I say we expect to win, I mean every word.


Deja Kelly