Ten minutes before her team took the floor against LSU in last April's Final Four in Cleveland, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer gave a stirring pep talk. "You have the opportunity to make your own bobbleheads," she said. "You're going to rock 'em. They're going to feel like dolls." As 10 stoic Scarlet Knights jogged onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena, one ball of energy bounced out of line. Point guard Matee Ajavon went faceup with a TV camera, jumping and spinning her head as she chanted, "Bobble! Bobble! Bobble! Bobble!"
Typical Ajavon: leadership wrapped in levity. Sure enough, the Knights loosened up, then held LSU to 14 field goals and 35 points, both NCAA Tournament semifinal lows, while Ajavon scored 16 and Rutgers earned a shot at its first national championship. Two days later, after the Knights ran into a familiar buzz saw, losing 59-46 to Tennessee, Ajavon again lightened the mood, this time with impressions of the ultra-intense Coach Stringer and a frozen Leo DiCaprio from Titanic—a not-so-subtle reminder that Matee and her teammates had come too far to hang their heads.
It was Ajavon's humor and perspective that helped keep the Knights poised and together after radio host Don Imus disparaged the team with his now-infamous slur. Ajavon was one of the players who spoke at a press conference, and she confronted Imus himself in a private meeting at New Jersey governor Jon Corzine's house before declaring the matter closed for good. "Mat is our release," says sophomore guard Epiphanny Prince. "She reminds us we don't have to be stressed 24/7."
This season, Ajavon is again front and center, ona squad that returns all five starters and is rankedas high as No. 3 in early polls. And, once again, the 5'8" senior is staying true to the mantra she borrowed from her mother: Smile under all circumstances.
Of course, it's hard to imagine how Patience Wilson could remember to do that while she was struggling to raise a family in fractious Liberia. There were scares at every turn. A few months after her second child was born, Wilson felt a pain in her right side. Her doctor in Monrovia diagnosed a benign tumor and decided to monitor it. The tumor grew for five months before Wilson sought a second opinion. Her new doctor's diagnosis: "It's a huge baby girl!" Four months later, Matee was born. "In our culture," Wilson says, "children are named according to circumstance." And in their native Grebo language, Matee means "hidden"—which seemed to make sense at the time.
The real hardship came shortly thereafter. That same year, 1986, Wilson made the difficult decision to leave her three girls with their maternal grandmother and move to New York to work as a live-in nurse. (She had separated from Matee's father.) Her plan was to make enough money to bring her family to the States. During their five years apart, Wilson couldn't get a phone call through to Monrovia, so she spent hours on the phone with the Red Cross, trying to get information and praying her family was safe. "The country was in chaos," she says. "It was like they were trapped there."
Although Matee remembers little from that time, she says she will never forget the smile on her mother's face when she returned from New York in 1991. Wilson drove alone through the bullet-riddled outskirts of Monrovia to collect her girls and bring them to the U.S., moving to the Weequahic section of Newark's South Ward, where friends from Liberia had settled. Matee became a McDonald's All-American and led Malcolm X Shabazz High School to two state titles. "I know what my mother went through for us," she says. "It motivates me."
Ajavon's teammates say watching how hard she works—always with a smile on her face—motivates them. After an embarrassing 40-point home loss to Duke last December, Ajavon set the tone. It was her first game back following surgery to repair a stress fracture in her left tibia, and she was out of shape. They all were: Not a single member of the squad had passed the preseason conditioning tests (running a mile in 6:15 and a set of suicides in 55 seconds). So Ajavon hit the gym harder than ever. Within a month, she was back to playing 30 minutes per game. "She pushes people to be better," says senior guard Katie Adams. This year, everyone passed the conditioning tests—three weeks before Midnight Madness.
But despite all that's expected of them, Ajavon won't let the Knights get ahead of themselves. Why focus on tomorrow when today is full of possibility? "I don't plan," she says. "I let things happen."
Just call it improv.