Sending love to my mother from Nigeria
Even though I am having the time of my life in Nigeria and wish to inform you all of my recent happenings, I have a very different agenda for today. Let me start off with a story ...
My sister and I did not have the most graceful entrance into the world of basketball. Growing up, Nneka and I were like two peas in a pod. We slept in the same room, fought for the same toys, split snacks, helped each other with homework -- the list goes on and on. Believe it or not, Nneka was the daring, adventurous one, always plotting new ways for us to have fun -- and end up in trouble. I was the cautious, relaxed little sister who followed her like I was her tail. By the time our two younger sisters joined the ranks, our parents knew they had to find a way to channel away our energy.
After we were dubbed by our instructors "too tall for gymnastics," (Too Tall I and Too Tall II are inscribed on our high school lettermen jackets as homage) my mom was referred by one of her co-workers (shout out to Mrs. Browning) to put her kids in basketball.
Our first basketball practice with our one and only AAU program, Cy-Fair Shock, was a moment I will never forget, unfortunately. I was 9 at the time. Nneka and I wore our favorite embroidered jean shorts, tank top and squinted behind our chunky-framed glasses. We lined up to do a two-ball dribbling drill -- granted we never really held a basketball before. We felt the other girls’ -- with their Nike shoes, Sista Hoop T-shirts (yeah, that was the cool kind) and matching shorts -- eyes burn through us, chuckling as we failed miserably. I couldn't take it. I ran out of the gym saying I had to use the bathroom. I stayed there for the rest of practice.
Meanwhile, Nneka endured it all. Soon, she played her first game, and all I can remember from that is the muffed vision of it behind my hands, like how you watch a horror movie. But the next game was a little better because she listened to her teammates and coaches, and dang that girl can jump! My parents’ trick worked -- she became a very rich girl quickly by chasing rebounds.
But that didn't ease her hunger. She would reject those incentives because she wanted to become not only a good player, but a complete player. And I am so fortunate today that she wanted to share that ambition with me.
The best thing about my big sister is her selflessness. She does not have a greedy bone in her body. Every day after practice for that first year, she would teach me what she learned in the driveway. We would play games, but nothing too competitive. She was my first coach. She taught me and still teaches me to this day, all she knows.
But this story is not about Nneka. It's about a certain lady who I wish I could say sits in the stands at all of our games. If you know her really well, she actually quivers at that idea.
At my games at Stanford today, she has befriended Maples Pavilion guards, concession-stand workers and game-day staff. She probably can't tell you what the triangle offense is (only the offense my sister and I have been playing the past six years) or maybe even what a zone press is or a crack screen. Don't be fooled though, she knows the ins and outs of the game, from amateur to collegiate to professional level. She knows just what to say to get me prepared for any opponent. She is my mother.
I apologize, please let me continue my story ...
Thanks to Nneka, I was out of the driveway, confidently playing my first few years of AAU basketball with a team in my own age division team. Thanks to the tutelage of my sister, her teammates and our coaches, I was able to train with the "big girls," and it really helped me compete from a young age. My team had started making a name for itself, winning most of the local tournaments.
On this specific day, Nneka's team had played earlier so my mom and all my sisters were able to comfortably watch my game. Our team was en route to another win against a rival organization from across town. The other team was extremely frustrated to lose again to their rival, which is expected, and chose to resort to physicality, a ridiculous amount.
All my life, I have tried and failed countlessly (I will never quit) at being a point guard. Even to this date, Coach Tara keeps reminding me to that I better "make the right play" if I am going to take it coast to coast. That is just a very polite euphemism for "you better score or not turn it over or you're going to be sitting next to me." Nonetheless, this habit has been in my nature since I learned how to dribble a ball.
As I went for the layup, one of the other team's players, who was stronger than most her age, tackled me, using her arm to chop me at my neck with a punishing force, catapulting me into wall. It was a premeditated, high-velocity, life-threatening foul.
I am pretty sure I lost consciousness for a few seconds. I struggled to move. Nneka was down by my side in lightning time -- I am pretty sure my teammates hadn't even reached me yet.
During that time, my mother, whom I had no clue was even paying attention to the game, was in attack mode. She was storming down the bleachers, screaming at the other player, the other coach and -- how could I forget -- the other girl's parent. The only things holding her back were my little sisters and Nneka's teammates. They would not let her get too close to anybody because they knew it would be epic. Everyone in the gym knew that was a dirty move by a frustrated girl. She was kicked out of the gym, shoot, maybe even kicked out of the tournament.
If you try and envision my mom, she is a tiny woman (at least compared to the rest of my family). She is soft-spoken and pretty reserved in public, especially in basketball settings. She’s not a social bee at such events because she knows she is only coming to watch her daughters play and make sure they are taken care of. But how she transforms! It was like I was trapped under a car and that "mother’s adrenaline" allowed her to lift it and rain hell upon whoever treated her child with such disrespect. I could have most definitely been paralyzed or even killed by that foul, and she made everyone responsible in that moment remember that forever.
For this reason, I think my mom struggles sitting in the stands. Deep down I know she prefers watching from the cameraman's trailer or the concession stand corner because she knows if she sits in the stands, there is a high chance she will probably be on the court the minute there is a hard foul.
My mother is the strongest woman I have ever known. She did not teach me the game of basketball. She did not do the homework or pass the tests that provided me the opportunity to go to Stanford University. But she has protected me. She has always protected me and my sister's best interests with basketball, life and everything in between. She is the only one person in this world who is my mother, and she holds on to that with her life. She is tough when she needs to be, funny when she wants to be and caring all the time. She is my No. 1 fan.
So this is for all the moms out there who sit in gyms every weekend. The moms who chase their kids around the country from tournament to tournament. Even if they know their kids are probably not going to win the next game, they keep us positive, confident and hopeful. They always lend money to get those overpriced concession snacks. The moms who deal with sweaty jerseys and tired kids. The moms who cheer hard after wins and hug us harder after losses. The moms who see a superstar in all of us. To those moms, Happy Mother's Day!
From all the way in Nigeria, Mom, this is my Mother's Day gift to you! Love you to the moon and back!