Sierra Calhoun follows in long line of legends
For Sierra Calhoun, the spark for basketball was already there, but the flame was fully lit on a special night when she was in the fifth grade.
The stage was New York's Madison Square Garden, and the date was Jan. 15, 2006. Calhoun, her parents and her older brother, Omar, were there to watch a girls' basketball game between New York City powers Murry Bergtraum and Christ the King.
"It was a classic game," Sierra said.
She was right, of course.
Bergtraum's Epiphanny Prince, a 5-foot-9 guard, scored 39 points that night, which was no shock. She once scored 113 points in a high school game, went on to play for Rutgers and now competes for the WNBA's Chicago Sky.
On the other side was Christ the King's 6-4 center Tina Charles, who went on to win two national titles at Connecticut and now stars for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun.
On that "classic" night, Charles scored 31 points, grabbed 24 rebounds and made the winning layup at the buzzer.
"From what I could remember at that age, it seemed like they both scored 50 points that night," Calhoun said. "It left a big impression on me because it was the first time I could really understand what was possible in the game if I worked hard.
"It was inspirational to see girls play at such a high level."
Time has passed, and now it's Calhoun who serves as an inspiration for the next generation of young players.
The 6-foot Christ the King wing is the country's 10th-best prospect in the class of 2014, and she has narrowed her college choices to national powers Duke, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Tennessee.
Her brother, Omar, who was in the seventh grade the night of that game, is now a 6-5 guard and a rising star at Connecticut. As a freshman last season, he started 29 games and averaged 11.1 points for the 20-10 Huskies.
As the only two children of Omar Sr. and Semara Calhoun, Sierra and Omar are very close.
But to assume Connecticut has Sierra locked up because of that relationship would be a mistake.
"He made the best decision for himself," Sierra said. "I'm looking to make the best decision for myself."
Omar said he is very proud of his little sister.
"She's a big guard who can shoot, handle the ball, rebound and defend [multiple] positions," said Omar, who was New York's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and finished his career as Christ the King's all-time leading scorer with 1,770 points.
I didn’t take it that easy on her because I knew she could play. There was lots of pushing -- we’d end up arguing.Omar Calhoun, on sister Sierra
"[Sierra] is a great learner -- picks up things quick. There's really nothing she can't do."
Omar said his sister is very competitive, which is why their father had to eventually forbid them from playing each other one-on-one.
"I didn't take it that easy on her because I knew she could play," said Omar, who added that the games stopped before he started high school. "There was lots of pushing -- we'd end up arguing."
Now that those one-on-one battles have ceased, their bond has grown even tighter.
"She's my best friend," Omar said. "We do everything together."
Omar is also a Christ the King graduate, which means Sierra followed some basketball legends when she enrolled at the school as a freshman.
Not only is Christ the King the alma mater of Omar and Charles, it's also where Chamique Holdsclaw first came to prominence. She's now retired, but as a 6-2 forward, she helped Tennessee win three straight national titles, won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics and was a six-time WNBA All-Star.
Charles was the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2010, an all-star in 2011 and the league MVP in 2012. She already has won three league rebounding titles.
Sierra said she has met Holdsclaw and Charles, but just in passing.
However, Sierra played for one season with ex-Christ the King star Bria Smith, a 5-10 guard who became an immediate starter as a Louisville freshman. As a sophomore, Smith helped the Cardinals make a stunning run to the NCAA championship game, where they lost to Connecticut.
Sierra already has posted some impressive numbers of her own. As a sophomore, she averaged 22 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 steals. During her junior season, she passed 1,000 career points and averaged 21.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
"She can shoot the lights out," said Bob Mackey, who is heading into his 15th season as Christ the King's head coach. "My goal is to make her better in other aspects like rebounding. She has the potential to be a major player."
Mackey said he thinks Sierra will be even better in college than she is in high school because she will be playing with other elite players.
"Her size and quickness are really suited to the college game," he said. "Right now, she creates mismatches. But in college, she will create more because she sees the floor well and understands the game.
"She's becoming a lockdown defender. She's done it, but she needs to do it more consistently because she should be a double-double every night in points and rebounds or assists."
The only thing missing, Mackey and Sierra agree, is a state title.
Smith won one as a junior. Charles won one as a senior. And Holdsclaw won an impressive four in row.
Christ the King made it to the state semifinals in each of the past two years, giving Sierra one final chance to join her legendary predecessors.
"She has to fulfill that legacy," said Mackey, who returns four starters from last season. "The other girls have set the standard, and she is capable to be ranked in that group."