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Reminiscing about the Nike Nationals

7/27/2011
Courtesy of Rebecca Gray

"Basketball is basketball"
-- Oscar Robertson

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Basketball might just be a game to some people, but it has been my past, present and will become my future before everything is all said and done. When you have a great passion for something, you put your whole heart into becoming successful and achieving goals that you have set for yourself. For 16 years, playing basketball has been part of my normal routine. It is so easy to get caught up in the daily grind. You never really stop to think that your days of playing are somewhat numbered. Losing that piece of your life hurts no matter if you stop playing because of graduation, eligibility or if your body physically cannot hold up anymore. In my case, my body finally gave in to all of the years of wear and tear, and now it is time to move on. But I'll never forget all of the great times I had along the way.

The last three seasons of my career were full of injuries and long hours spent in the training room. Last season I only played in nine games because of a small MCL tear that put me out for more than a month. And then the final straw was the labrum tear I suffered in my hip. It was an abrupt end to my career and in some ways it hasn't completely sunk in that I cannot play the game I love ever again. Although it would be too easy for me to mope around and feel sorry for myself, I do not have the slightest urge because that would be selfish. I know that basketball has treated me well, and I have so many great friends and memories because of it.

I never really had time to slow down and look back at what I've done and what I've been a part of during my career. Since last season, it has become my new enjoyment to stop and think about some of the greatest moments in my life and how most of them involve basketball. Most of these recollections are events that happened later in my career, such as winning the 2007 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, female athlete of the year, Miss Basketball and also winning the 2008 ACC championship with the University of North Carolina. Those all are really important to me, and they took a lot of hard work to obtain.

One phase of my career stands out over all the rest, and it happened in the summer of 2005.

The summer before my junior year of high school was by far one of the most exciting stages in my life. I gave my verbal commitment to UNC at its elite camp and then began playing with one of the most all-around talented teams I've ever seen, The Family. We had an incredible summer that involved traveling all across the country to play in tournaments that hosted the nation's best talent. It was a whirlwind of a summer and as we got closer to the end of July, we learned about a new event that we would be attending called Nike Nationals. This was the inaugural year for the tournament, and we were very curious as to how things would work and what we should expect. The good thing about playing for the Family was the fact that no matter where the tournament was or who we were playing, we were going to have a good time.

This team was absolutely filled from top to bottom with talented players that included Amber Harris, Ashley Barlow, Fahkara Malone, Delaquese (Dee Dee) Jernigan, Meredith Marsh, Ta'Shia Phillips and myself just to name a few. We all came from very different backgrounds, and that provided a diverse atmosphere of personalities. Somehow they all seemed to work well together.

Nike Nationals was the last stop of the summer, and it was completely different from any other tournament in which we competed in the past. Before the games started we were involved with an opening ceremony, a dinner that included all the participating teams and then a small Nike Sparq training session. If you have never seen or heard of Sparq training, I can tell you that it is very intense. It includes a lot of timed drills that test agility, stability and speed along with many other things. And it is aimed to make you a better athlete. I had never seen anything like it before and was excited to try it out. So, we started some of the cone drills, and I thought I was doing pretty well until we got to the vertical leap test. I watched Meredith Marsh and Ashley Barlow go simultaneously, and I'm feeling pretty good about my bunnies -- that is, until Amber Harris steps up next to me and everyone busts out laughing. If you don't know Amber Harris, then allow me to tell you that she is 6 feet 6 and can absolutely jump out of the gym (and now plays for Minnesota in the WNBA). My head drops, and all I can do is smile and give it my all.

I jump as high as I possibly can, and I remember Amber soaring past me at my peak. When I hit the ground and got my results of something like a 26-inch vertical, Amber looked at me and said, "Dang! That's not bad for a white girl, Bee!" I laughed when I heard her score which easily had me beat by at least 10 inches. This team was always good at cracking jokes on each other, on and off the court. No matter what the situation might have been, if someone fell or tripped over something, we were taking time out of the day to stop and laugh. Of course we would make sure they were all right first and, if they were, then we would laugh even harder. The best part about this team was how we could all chill together. Whether we were in the gym waiting to play or back at the hotel for the evening, we always remained a cohesive group.

Meredith Marsh had the arts and crafts room back at the hotel because she was teaching people how to braid colorful strings into bracelets and necklaces. She had enough string to cover the entire bed, and that is where I spent most of my time since Ta'Shia Phillips, my roommate, was a remote-control hog. I made so many bracelets on that trip, and I still find them lying around in random places at my parent's house. At the hotel, it didn't matter if everyone else was interested in making these bracelets or not, they were still curious and would stop by and see what was up. Dee Dee and Amber had the laid back room which consisted of people laid out all over the beds, couch or floor watching TV and just chilling. Since I was one of the youngest players on that team, I would buzz around to all the rooms every now and then just to keep busy and see what everyone was doing. The older players never separated themselves from the younger group, and that is rarity when it comes to teams, especially girls.

Nike Nationals provided a lot of things that we had never seen before, but one of the coolest had to be the valet parking. In most cases at every other tournament, we would ride in the 15-passenger van and have to park about a mile away from the gym and walk. When we found out that we just rode to the back of the gym, got out and someone else parked our van for us, we felt pretty important. It was always a funny scene in the van on our way to the gym. We had a very interesting list of songs that we played and as the tournament went on and we kept winning, it became a superstitious routine. The song we played when we were really close to the gym was, "Who Let the Dogs Out" by the Baha Men. This song made everyone in the van sing, and our goal was to get the van bouncing with energy. Then, after plenty of barking, we would pull up to the gym and blast, "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge and that usually turned some heads as we got out of the van singing and leaning on each other.

Pool play and most of the bracket play flew by like a blur. Before we knew it, we were in the championship game against Angie Bjorklund and the Spokane Stars. The day of the championship game just happened to fall on my birthday so it was easy for me to get ready to play. I made sure to tell everyone before we left the hotel that morning that all I wanted as a gift was to be a Nike National champion.

The championship game went back and forth for the most part and, from what I remember, Spokane had the lead more often than not. We looked like we were sluggish throughout most of the first half, and it was a scoring battle between Barlow and Bjorklund. Amber Harris had a slow first half, and I knew we really needed her to turn it on in the second half for us to pull away with the win. The crazy thing about Amber is she might be out there just going through the motions one minute, but if you do something to wake her up, then you just woke up a beast. Halfway through the second half we found ourselves down by eight, and it wasn't looking good until there was a collision. Dee Dee Jernigan got tangled up and injured. It stopped the game for a few minutes, and I remember Amber was pacing the sidelines as Dee Dee had to be helped off of the court.

When we came back on the floor after the delay, I swear I saw fire in Amber's eyes. She took over the rest of the game, scoring points in bunches and shutting down Bjorklund's hot hand with her size advantage. My favorite play of the day was when I got a steal with about seven minutes to play and we were down by only four points. I took off down the floor and had one defender on my backside. As I dribbled into the paint, I saw Amber trailing out of the corner of my eye. Instead of taking an open left-handed layup, I flicked an alley-oop to the front of the rim and Amber went up and dropped it in. It wasn't quite a dunk, but that play prompted a timeout from the Stars and the crowd was totally energized along with our huddle. I can't remember a word that was said in that timeout, but the last part of the game was in our complete control as we ended up pulling away and winning by 10 points.

After the game I went straight over to Amber and said with a smile on my face, "Why didn't you dunk that?" She put her arm around me and said, "I just wanted to make sure we got the points, girl!" I accepted the answer, and we celebrated with plenty of pictures and smiles for the next few minutes. As we were handed the championship banner, I hear the team start singing "happy birthday." Now, this wasn't the usual birthday song that goes, "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you …" No, this song had a beat and a little bit of soul to it, "Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to Becca!" The beat came from people stomping on the bleachers and clapping their hands while singing. That was the best birthday song I've ever heard to this day! It has been one of my favorite stories to tell, and I don't know if I will ever have a better time than I did that day on July 30, 2005.

If basketball is just basketball, then I believe that word means more to me than most people. It's about a lifestyle that builds strong character, long-lasting relationships and memories that will last a lifetime. Just because I physically cannot play the game anymore doesn't mean I am going to drop it all and leave it completely. Thanks to my HoopGurlz family, especially Glenn and Chris, I will be able to continue learning the game from the other side of the bench. Basketball has been a huge part in making me who I am today and pushing me to where I want to go in the future. So if you're a player, cherish the time you have with your teammates and never take for granted one practice or pickup game. You never know when you will end up sitting on the other side of the bench.

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Rebecca Gray is an intern for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously wrote a column for the website about her experiences as a freshman on basketball scholarship at the University of North Carolina. She transferred to and played at Kentucky and now plays basketball and golf at Union College. A 5-foot-10, sharp-shooting guard out of Georgetown, Ky., Gray was named Miss Basketball in the state of Kentucky after averaging 25.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 4.8 assists during her senior season at Scott County High School. She can be contacted at rebecca@hoopgurlz.com.