Alexa Middleton chasing WNBA dream
The stage was bare as Alexa Middleton shuffled her way to the center, deliberating how she wanted to answer a question much too complex for any kindergartener to ever fully comprehend.
But there she was, standing in front of her class, ready to proclaim what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, Alexa?"
"A WNBA player," Middleton said.
The laughter was deafening. It was as if a booger dangled from her nostril -- a moment that would have given any normal 5-year-old stage fright for the rest of her life.
Middleton, instead, has used it as fuel. Since then, not a day has gone by when she has wanted to retract that announcement.
I think at the end of each day I just want to know that I got something out of the day.Alexa Middleton
"Everything revolves around her playing in the WNBA," said Cory Barrett, Middleton's coach at Riverdale (Murfreesboro, Tenn). "She's a lifer and always has been. Her upbringing has been for her to work to achieve that dream, and that's something she wants to do. No one makes her do it."
What they will make her do, however, is assume a leadership role on a Riverdale team that enters next season on a 58-game winning streak -- including back-to-back Class AAA state championships and a 2013 national championship -- and bereft of three 1,000-point starters who all graduated at season's end.
"That class was special," Barrett said. "They went to four straight state championship games and won three of them. They graduated never having lost a regular-season league game, going 40-0."
But next season will just mark the next step in the path to the promised land for Middleton, the No. 21 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the Class of 2014.
"The seniors know we have to come in and be very vocal," said Middleton, who is fielding calls from a burgeoning list of elite Division I schools but remains uncommitted. "Every day we have to come in and work harder because we have that target on our back."
That target, more specifically, resides squarely between the two 3s on Middleton's No. 33 jersey, as opponents attempt to stop the multi-dimensional guard who averaged more than 16 points, nearly four assists and 2.5 steals per game last season.
"She'll be fine and we'll be fine because she's such a student of the game," Barrett said. "She appreciates her team and her teammates more than anything. Everything with her always goes back to her team, and I think that says a lot about her character."
Some coaches mention her character, others go immediately to her relentless work ethic, and others will discuss her selflessness. Whatever the concoction, Middleton's intangibles can be traced to her parents. Both mom, Celeste, and dad, Mike, played high school basketball in Tennessee (Celeste at Oakland, Riverdale's rival). They met at Lipscomb University, where Celeste was on the basketball team.
But Celeste, though talented, never got a chance to experience the opportunities presented to her daughter. ESPN didn't televise the women's Final Four. There was no WNBA. No big-time endorsement deals. Since then, however, Title IX and a growing awareness of women's sports have changed all that, and now Alexa has a chance to not only fulfill her dream, but, in a small way, make her mom's basketball dreams come true, as well.
"It's just neat how things have changed today," Middleton said. "And so I think that it's definitely a big deal for girls to have opportunities that our moms didn't necessarily have."
The dream to play in front of thousands in the WNBA is probably enough to drive an already self-driven Middleton. But maybe she gets an extra little burst because, conscious or not, she's playing for mom, too. Maybe it's why she gets so miffed when people try to thwart her path. Like the Murfreesboro Athletic Club, which decided to reduce its basketball gym to a half-court facility, using the other half as a CrossFit area. It doesn't matter to Middleton, though. It just means she has to spend even more time at the school's facility.
"I don't know where it comes from," Middleton said of her work ethic. "I think at the end of each day I just want to know that I got something out of the day. I want to know that I improved myself at something, whether it's being a better person or a better student or a better basketball player."