True (Basketball) Religion
In a team sport like basketball, it's easy for a player's identity to become woven into her team's, her individuality to be minimized for the good of the collective.
Like the stitching on Kailee Johnson's favorite pair of True Religion jeans, her association with Team Concept has branded her on-court identity. Last summer, there wasn't a coach or scout who didn't hear about the Team Concept kids. The Portland, Ore.-based AAU program featured four of the nation's top players from the classes of 2013 and 2014.
But Johnson, despite being ranked No. 14 in the ESPNU HoopGurlz Super 60 for the Class of 2013, hasn't yet become a household name in recruiting circles like fellow junior Team Concept teammates Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell, or even sophomore sensation Jaime Nared. The reasons why don't have anything to do with talent, of which Johnson, a 6-foot-3 forward, has plenty.
Some of that perceived difference may have to do with Johnson's exclusion from the USA Basketball U16 National Team trials last May. Her birthday came after of the U16 cutoff, so while her three teammates headed to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Johnson missed out on a chance to play in the national spotlight.
Then, during the summer circuit of 2011, Johnson suffered a severe ankle sprain at the End of the Trail in Oregon City, Ore., her team's first event of the NCAA-certified viewing period. "I tried to recover in a couple of days," Johnson said. "I just felt like it was an important summer to play."
At times, the pain was severe enough that she couldn't fight back the tears but felt she needed to be out there with her teammates, many of whom she's played with since she was in the fourth grade.
Perhaps that sense of loyalty and camaraderie helped Johnson and her teammates deal with the sudden influx of hype surrounding a team that many expect will produce more McDonald's All-Americans from its current roster than the state of Oregon has produced since 2002, when the McDonald's girls' game started. Not to mention the attention garnered from Team Concept coach and director Michael Abraham, who was unable to coach his team during the NCAA-certified viewing periods because of a rule new to 2011 restricting any person convicted of a felony from coaching in certified events. (Abraham was arrested on Oct. 28, 1998, for drug trafficking. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 18 months.)
"This summer when we started getting attention nationally it started to sink in," Johnson said. "It's still weird. I've been playing with most of these kids a long time."
Johnson was courted by her Central Catholic High School (Portland, Ore.) volleyball coach as a freshman and joined the team, so while some of her basketball teammates have used the fall season to make unofficial visits and research their schools of interest, she hasn't been able to do as much of it while playing her other sport. To date Johnson has made just two unofficial visits, to Duke and USC.
She visited Los Angeles last weekend, and in true Team Concept fashion, Johnson brought a beloved teammate with her -- Reynolds, who transferred to Central Catholic from Jefferson (Portland, Ore.) this season to play alongside her friend. The bond between Johnson and her AAU teammates is evident when she talks about a trip she was unable to make this fall with Reynolds and Russell when they visited Washington. While the quartet isn't set on signing as a package with a particular school, it's still something Johnson said is a possibility.
Johnson is also planning to visit California, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington, but still she is open to other programs. She also expressed interest in a couple of Ivy League programs -- Harvard and Princeton.
A quick glance at the schools she's expressed some interest in visiting demonstrates the importance of academics in Johnson's decision. She plans to study business management or marketing in college.
But more important than distance from her Portland, Ore., home or playing time as a freshman is the social aspect for the admitted extrovert. "The No. 1 thing I'm looking for is how I fit in with my coaches and my team," Johnson said. "I really want a coach who will be there four years."
Johnson certainly knows how difficult it can be to find the right fit. Thanks to her 37-and-a-half inch inseam, "I haven't been able to wear normal jeans since the seventh grade," Johnson said.
After searching for something that suited both her personal style and those extra-long limbs, she finally found discovered her signature True Religion skinny jeans. Like her team, they're a perfect fit.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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