Erica Wheeler was just doing what she always did -- playing pick-up at Bannerman Park -- when a kid she knew from around the way, James, asked her point blank: Why don't you play for the middle school team?
At the time, Wheeler didn't really see the value in organized hoops. It was more fun to play with the guys in her neighborhood. But James saw potential in Wheeler.
You know, you can go to college for playing
Wheeler had never really considered it. Less than a week later, James was gone. "He got sick and died," Wheeler says. And that made her consider the conversation in a whole new light.
"I was like, whoa, maybe that was the way of God telling me I need to take basketball seriously," she says. "He just sent it through somebody else."
Getting to college would be no small feat for Wheeler. To hear her tell it, no one expected the daughter of Eric Wheeler and Melissa Cooper to amount to much. She lived in her grandmother's five-bedroom house with a dozen other kids until she was 11, and that wasn't the only challenge.
"It wasn't no peaceful neighborhood," Wheeler says. "Bunch of gang-bangers, drug dealers. I think that's what pushed me to do well, to get my family out of that type of environment."
Wheeler, a 5-foot-7 senior at Parkway Academy (Miramar, Fla.), is still in Liberty City -- for now. But she's come a long way since that fateful conversation in middle school. Rated the nation's No. 5 point guard in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, Wheeler led Parkway to the Class 3A state title last year and has signed to play with women's college basketball powerhouse Rutgers next season.
Making that leap had more to do with the
maturation Wheeler underwent than any drastic changes in her game.
"Erica's confidence level has soared,"
Parkway coach Adam Hopkins says. "Her
basketball intelligence, her recognizing the
game -- everything's coming to her so easily now. She's like a coach on the floor."
But when she arrived at Parkway late in her freshman year as a transfer from Monsignor Pace, Wheeler wasn't so sure of herself. Hopkins tried to build her up, telling her she could create a tradition of excellence at the young charter school.
But the kid Hopkins says is "kind of to herself sometimes, always thinking" needed more
convincing. And in perfect contrast to Wheeler, Parkway's other star, classmate Bianca Thornton, was loud and confident.
Erica Wheeler's Favorites
TV: Anything on BET & ESPN
Movie: "Love & Basketball"
Actor: Brad Pitt
Musical Artists: Lil Wayne, Jennifer Hudson & Shirley Caesar
"Erica has a very quiet but deadly kind of
attitude," Hopkins says. "Bianca has the roar and the boom that you're going to feel."
The dynamic worked, however. With Wheeler's blazing speed and ability to get to the basket at will coupled with Thornton's tenacious defense and 3-point shooting, the Panthers made an
unexpected run to the state championship game during the 2006-07 season.
Just playing in the title game wasn't enough, though. Wheeler and Co. wanted to win it all, and last season they got some big help in the form of
6-foot-2 then-senior Chelsey Lee, another transfer from Pace. Lee, who earned McDonald's
All-American honors last year and is now a
freshman at Rutgers, gave Parkway a much-needed presence down low, dominating the glass and
protecting the paint on defense.
The Panthers breezed through the season,
dropping just one game and punching a ticket to Lakeland for their second consecutive Class 3A championship appearance. But there, for one of the first times all season, Parkway was challenged from the opening tip. Dunbar led by five at the break and by as many as seven in the second half.
That's when Wheeler took over, scoring six of her game-high 21 points in the final 2:18, including two free throws that would turn out to be the
difference in Parkway's 45-43 win.
"She's so elusive," Hopkins says. "Her first step is so quick, she can get to the basket on anybody. She knows when we need a basket, but she plays very unselfish and gets the whole team in the game. She could score 30, 40 points a game if she wanted to."
The ability to impose her will on a game made Wheeler a highly sought-after recruit. Initially, she had her sights set on South Carolina. But when the Gamecocks signed another point guard from the Class of 2009, she looked elsewhere. No shortage of schools entered the mix, notably LSU and Florida, and Wheeler was initially skeptical of considering Rutgers, with its logjam of talented guards.
But in talking to Lee and another former AAU teammate, Rutgers freshman April Sykes, Wheeler was convinced there might be a place for her with the Scarlet Knights. Any reservations she had were eliminated when she visited the school and fit right in during a pick-up game and a trip to New York City.
"When I went, I already felt like I was part of the team," Wheeler says. She teared up when she caught a glimpse of her future. "If I'm crying it means my heart knows this is where I'm meant to be. It was tears of joy."
But if anyone thinks Wheeler is content just to be a part of a talented team, they've got another thing coming. She intends to play.
"I know Erica's not going to let nobody keep her off the floor," Lee says. "She's a lady off the floor, but she's a dog on the floor. Erica's got one of the biggest bites from a point guard I've ever seen."
Having the confidence to sign with a top team with no shortage of elite guards is a marked change from the Erica Wheeler who arrived
at Parkway. The decision also marks the
culmination of a plan set into motion on the playground years ago.
And college is no longer the only place Wheeler thinks hoops could take her.
"I want to go as far as possible -- WNBA, overseas, whatever," she says. "I want to be big time."