Dads and daughters rule
In a back gym at the Boo Williams Sports Complex in Hampton, Va., last April, Curtis Ekmark was fit to be fried.
"I'm so mad at Boo," Ekmark said of the tournament director, albeit in a gentle tone most reserve for, say, conversations with a loved one. "He promised we'd be in the elite division."
Ekmark runs a firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., specializing in real-estate law, but he is learning the harsh realities of the girls' club-basketball circuit. The previous year, Ekmark brought his Arizona Warriors, an upstart team of underclassmen, including a sharp-shooting eighth grader named Courtney (his daughter), and they came within an eyelash of taking down the host team, which featured its usual constellation of stars. That feat earned Ekmark's team placement this year in the second-highest division and the outer gyms.
Except for the perceived indignity, this is not a major setback for the Warriors. After yet-another victory for his team, during which it ran what essentially is a freelance offense with precision and verve, Ekmark is detained by a parade of admiring college coaches. "I love the way they play," said one head coach from the West. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment about the Arizona Warriors.
Over on the other coast, a similar scenario is playing out: Basketball-playing father has a daughter, starts coaching and develops an upstart club team that gains notoriety.
About four years ago, this road had Antonio Davis staring at a fork he never wanted to encounter. In Virginia, his daughter, Kaela, was playing in an AAU Nationals championship game for a team he coached. In Minnesota, her twin brother, A.J., was playing in the boys' AAU final four for a team Davis helped coached as an assistant. The boys' head coach had to go home, and Antonio Davis was summoned.
"I'm a wreck," recalled Davis, who played in the NBA for Chicago, Indiana, New York and Toronto. "I'm crying. I don't know what to do."
What Davis did do was fly to Minnesota, where his son's team finished fourth. His daughter’s won the national title. He says he has no regrets. "I made a decision based on where I was needed most," Davis said.
Basketball-playing fathers going where they're needed most is a growing trend that is fueling the growth of girls' and women's basketball in the size-skill quotient. Kaela Davis is a 6-foot-2 guard with explosive athleticism and basketball savvy who recently was named by ESPN HoopGurlz as the No. 1 prospect in the 2013 class. Courtney Ekmark is a 6-foot sharp-shooter who, despite being in the 2014 class, already is a highly sought-after fixture on the club circuit.
Davis and Ekmark are not alone among elite prospects. Xylina McDaniel of Columbia, S.C, is the daughter of former NBA player Xavier McDaniel and ranked No. 25 in the 2012 class. Diamond DeShields of Norcross, Ga., whose father Delino played Major League Baseball but also was an accomplished basketball player, is ranked right behind Davis at No. 2 in the 2013 class. Alexis Brown of Suwanee, Ga., whose father Dee also played in the NBA, is ranked No. 13 in the 2013 class and plays for Davis' Georgia ICE club team.
These are just a handful of examples in a fast-growing sector of the sport. Antonio Davis and Curtis Ekmark have upped the ante by helping develop other prospects as well. Both will field teams this summer that will be in contention to win championships in every tournament they're entered and which will attract college coaches like magnets.
In addition to Davis and Brown, who is pledged to Maryland, the ICE have Andraya Carter of Flowery Branch, Ga., ranked No. 18 in the 2012 class, Kristina Nelson of Norcross, Ga., ranked No. 20 in the 2013 class, and Taryn Griffey of Orlando, Fla., a highly regarded 2014 point guard who is the daughter of future MLB Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. DeShields and Ashley Santos, a Marquette commit ranked No. 86 in the 2012 class, are recent ICE alums. Joining Ekmark on the Warriors are Courtnee Walton of Surprise, Ariz., ranked No. 40 in the 2012 class; Shilpa Tummala of Phoenix, a four-star guard in the 2012 class, and a handful of other Division I prospects.
If his team were just about his own daughter, Ekmark said, he would not have added so many other great players. The same goes with Davis and the ICE. "I think the key to coaching your own kid is not treating her like everybody else," Ekmark said. "It's treating all the kids like your own kid."
Ekmark played at Marquette for Rick Majerus and Bob Duquette, but says he had "a body for law school" and "zero coaching experience and zero coaching aspirations." The night before Courtney was born his wife Meg, who played tennis at Marquette, told him, "If we have a daughter and she wants to play sports, you can't ignore her." Ekmark took that to heart and years later, when drafting players for an 8-year-old league, he took all the girls, explaining, "I picked all the kids I wanted my daughter to be friends with." A year later, the team won the AAU 9U national championship and would make the national championship game the next two years after that.
Nearly four years ago, Ekmark received a call of desperation from St. Mary's High School, which had a long history of success in girls' basketball. Its head coach left in mid-season. He agreed to take over. In their third straight trip under Ekmark to the Arizona 5A1 championship game, the Rams, with essentially the same team that competes in the spring and summer as the Warriors, won it all in 2011.
Ekmark's teams are marked not only by a disciplined, pure approach to the game, but their coach's unconventional approach. The Warriors run few offensive sets, the better to learn how to play basketball and not merely follow an Xs and Os choreography. He also has an SAT word of the day his players are expected to know come the next day's practice. Before road trips, Ekmark has his players make oral presentations about the region they're about to visit, to hone their research and speaking skills.
In spite of his team's success, Ekmark said, "I was really concerned they wouldn't be recruited. We don't really have a star. We have a bunch of low-maintenance kids who defend, rebound and play unselfishly, and it turns out colleges like those kind of players. I am pleasantly surprised to see how it's all unfolded."
Because his team became somewhat of a haven for daughters of former professional athletes, Davis did not have the same concerns about exposure and recruitment of his players. It was, rather, the lack of emphasis on fundamentals in youth sports that fueled his concern.
"When I was coming to the end of my (NBA) career, I started watching how kids were being coached," Davis said. "I felt helpless. At one point I had to either step up and do something about it, or keep my mouth shut."
A former president of the NBA Players Association, Davis is not accustomed to keeping quiet, so he formed ICE, which stands for Illinois Central Elite, because the Davises were living in the Chicago area at the time. Emphasis was placed on the basics -- ballhandling, shooting, passing. The team won three straight national AAU championships, one while based in Illinois and two after moving to Georgia.
At 6-9 1/2, Davis works not to loom too much over his players. He also isn't much of a screamer. Like most men, he's had to adjust to coaching girls, but says the differences have been pleasurable.
"Boys want you to prove you know what you're talking about," Davis said. "Girls want you to teach."
Davis' girls want to learn how to win a big tournament such as Nike Nationals, considered the plum of the summer season. Though Kaela Davis already is committed to Tennessee (the ICE colors, incidentally, were orange and baby blue before the verbal), she conceivably has this summer and the next to fulfill her club-ball goals. Then what?
When Kaela stops playing, Antonio Davis said, "I'll sit down and have some decisions to make."
Curtis Ekmark has even one more season beyond with Courtney. He's not really had to think about whether he'll continue the team after she's moved on.
"It all depends on the parents and kids," Ekmark said. "If it's still fulfilling and fun and keeps making a difference in lives, I'll keep doing it."
Ekmark has a younger son, Andrew. So maybe it's the boys' circuit that ought to start fretting.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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