- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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Nicole Parriski is a sophomore at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. She is 6-feet tall and plays forward for the girls' basketball team. She plays plenty of roles for that team, but one in particular is unique.
Parriski is Life Center's only American-born starter.
"It's kind of cool," Parriski said.
Still, being singular also can be daunting, especially at Life Center. Crystal Simmons is the team's starting point guard. She happens to be its only Spaniard.
Simmons also is the only Life Center Academy starter for whom English is not her native language.
"At first I was scared," said Simmons, who is from Madrid but also has U.S. citizenship because of her father. "I was scared I was not going to understand anything. I was scared I was not going to have any friends. I was going to be by myself."
But then she met Parriski and now they are BFFs -- as well as the only non-Nigerian starters on what is becoming a hoopin' United Nations just across the Delaware River from Pennsylvania.
The internationalization of Life Center began at a good place, with Sandra Udobi, ranked nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz as No. 74 among senior prospects. A native of Abuja, Nigeria, Udobi is 6-2, mobile and powerful. She was referred to Life Center coach Ron Kessler by Mike Flynn, of Blue Star Basketball, who spotted two other players, Bose Aiyalogbe and Elo Edeforioka, at a clinic in Bayelsa, Nigeria.
Kessler saw only video of Udobi before agreeing to take her on at the independent Christian school.
"I went on faith," he said.
Kessler did the same with juniors Aiyalogbe, a wiry, 6-foot athletic wing from Lagos, Nigeria, and Edeforioka, a granite-like, 6-3 post from Warri, Nigeria. Both originally went to Mount Zion Christian Academy (Durham, N.C.), but the school discontinued its girls' basketball program last year.
The three Nigerians, plus Simmons, live with host families. The biggest issue with all four is homesickness. Which means Skype calls or, in the case of Edeforioka, lots of Facebook chats.
"I always dreamed to come to the States, even before I started playing basketball," Edeforioka said. "But I am missing my family back home. It's difficult to stay all alone. I have my teammates and my coach, and that makes things easier. But I can't wait to go home in the summer."
Simmons' father, Douglas, scoured the Internet, looking for somewhere in the U.S. to place his daughter, whose talent at an early age intrigued him. After considering a school in Georgia, he chose Life Center Academy on the advice of one of his contacts, because it is close to family in the New York area. Simmons was a great get for LCA because, although just a sophomore, she has experience in the Spanish club system and, at 6-feet, excellent size at the point.
Communication on the team is not an issue even though Simmons' English was, "at first a little iffy," according to Parriski. English is the national language in Nigeria. And there's the unmistakable language of experienced basketball that takes over.
The Life Center players just returned this past weekend from a Christian community service mission in Panama. The trip forced them to miss a national championship tournament staged by the National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA), won by Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.), which is ranked No. 7 in the POWERADE FAB 50. LCA started this week at 27-3 and ranked fourth nationally among Christian schools by another organization, the National Christian School Athletic Association (NCSAA), behind Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.), Potter's House Christian Academy (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Wesleyan School (Norcross, Ga.).
And the future looks bright. Life Center Academy loses Udobi to St. John's, but Kessler says his team's success with international players is attracting more local talent.
However Life Center Academy ends up, this season has, at the confluence of basketball and culture, provided elusive learning experiences.
To wit, Parriski said she has learned that, "Spanish girls, when they're playing basketball, are really relaxed."
Which is a wonder, given what Simmons says is the difference in basketball between here and in Spain.
"Here, the girls play like boys," she said. "In Spain, the girls play like girls."
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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 email@example.com.
The girls' basketball team at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. features a starting lineup that includes one American-born player, three players who were born in Nigeria and one Spaniard.