- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
It's easy to see what makes Keisha Hampton one of the most gifted basketball players in the nation. Like an approaching avalanche, it's the part about stopping the DePaul senior that gets tricky.
Just listen to someone who played against the Blue Demons' star for the past three seasons and spent the summer playing alongside her with Team USA in the World University Games.
"She's an unbelievable scorer," Notre Dame senior Natalie Novosel said. "She can score in a variety of ways, a very versatile player. She's very hard to guard. If you put somebody small on her, she'll post them up and shoot over them. If you try and put a post, a forward, on her, she'll just drive right by you."
The Fighting Irish know that devilish dilemma well. Hampton scored 31 points against them in a game last season, more than any player who wasn't Maya Moore. Three teams didn't reach 31 points against Notre Dame last season. And the Irish were in good company. Hampton put up 27 points in 23 minutes in a win against Stanford in the regular season and 26 points in a second-round NCAA tournament victory against Penn State on that team's court in State College, Pa.
But to understand how the 6-foot-2 Hampton ended up a German accent away from being the Dirk Nowitzki of the women's game, go back to a moment when she was far from the best player on the court.
She grew up in Philadelphia with basketball as the currency of conversation in her house. Her father, John Hampton ("Showboat" to the city's basketball community), played for John Chaney at Cheyney State and coached both Keisha and her older brother, John Jr., in addition to numerous other youth teams. And wherever her dad and brother went, Keisha followed.
"It seemed like I was always around it," Hampton said of basketball. "My dad would take me to the games with him and I would sit on the bench -- I'd just be the only girl sitting on the end of the bench watching the game."
With the notable exception of the time she didn't stay on the bench. Coaching a 21-and-under men's team in the city's Hank Gathers league, where the competition at the time included the likes of future NBA players Kyle Lowry and Sean Singletary, Hampton's dad found himself short a player to start a game one day.
In went Keisha, all of 14 years old at the time.
"I tried to set a screen and [the target of the screen] almost killed me," Hampton recalled. "My dad said, 'Keish, you OK.' The guy must have forgot I was there, he just ran right through me."
But if what stands out in her mind now are the lumps she took, others took something else away from the effort at the time. John Jr. wasn't in the gym that day but heard soon after from a friend who was on the court and marveled at how Keisha held her own. Her dad relayed the blow-by-blow recap in appropriately proud parental terms when he and Keisha got home that day, but John Jr. remembered that his sister didn't brag, just grinned a little and acknowledged, yeah, she might have hit a shot or two before the fifth player arrived and ended her impromptu performance.
Talking a big game never served much purpose for Hampton, especially growing up around her older brother. Five years his junior, she would follow John Jr. to a court, wanting to play. So began a script acted out as regularly as anything on Broadway. He would say no, worried about her safety and perhaps a little annoyed at his constant shadow. He would remind her she needed to listen to her elders.
She would heed none of it.
"We would argue back and forth, and I would make her cry, and then I would get in trouble with my mom and dad, and it was like a reoccurring trend," John Jr. said. "It was always obviously love, but it was that sibling rivalry. She always found her way on the court, always found her way to playing, even if guys were older, bigger, stronger. It didn't really matter. She would always find her way on the court.
"And after a while, I stopped saying, 'Hey, Keisha, get off the court, you can't play.' I just let her play."
She hasn't stopped playing or looking for a challenge. After starring at Philadelphia's High School of Engineering and Science, where she was ranked as high as No. 27 among recruits in her class, Hampton immediately claimed a place in the starting lineup for DePaul (she'll break the school record for games played if she stays healthy). The bigger the challenge, like setting that pick as a 14-year-old, the more she embraces it. In her first two months of college basketball, she never attempted more shots in a game than she did against Tennessee and Notre Dame, teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time.
There is still something in the way she plays reminiscent of a person trying to prove she belongs on the court, whether in the fearlessness with which she welcomes pressure moments as opportunities or in the stoic look she wears doing it. When you had to beg and plead to play with the older kids, you never let anyone think they got the best of you in the low moments and you act like you've been there before in the high moments.
She long ago convinced her brother she could hold her own with the boys. In fact, she convinced him he belonged among the girls.
After a standout career of his own at Division II Mansfield University, John Jr. went into coaching -- and much to his sister's surprise, coaching women's basketball. Just two years after he graduated from Mansfield, John Jr. was named head coach at Division II Clarkson, where he's entering his second season.
"It was completely influenced by her," said John Jr. about his decision to start coaching women's hoops. "I love basketball regardless; I love the game. But after growing up with my sister and being around her and seeing her development through basketball, watching how good she's become and watching what basketball has done for her, she definitely influenced me a lot."
The only thing left for Hampton to add to her game at the college level is to exert that kind of influence over her peers. A season ago, DePaul's roster was the perfect fit for a quiet, if not silent, assassin. Led by very vocal point guard Sam Quigley, a player coach Doug Bruno often talks about as the best leader he has ever coached, and the example set by senior Felicia Chester and sixth-year study in perseverance Deirdre Naughton, the Blue Demons just needed Hampton to be the best player she could be.
Now they need her to show a host of freshmen and sophomores how to be the best players they can be.
"This team is searching for a verbal leader," Bruno said. "And I don't know that it's [Hampton's] makeup to be like Sam -- it's hard to be what Sam Quigley was from a verbal leadership point of view. But I've seen some instances already where she's not been afraid to grab some of our multiple freshmen and get in their face, get in their ear about how we do things."
Hampton said Bruno brings up her Philadelphia roots more than she does, needling her from time to time by reminding her she's supposed to be a tough kid. But there is a lot of Philadelphia in her game, from the mid-range jumper she picked up from her brother to the basketball brain fed by hours of listening to conversations about the game at home.
The final step will be to show how much of the Windy City she has in her.
"I never knew that I was going to be a part of something bigger than women's basketball," Hampton said. "That's what DePaul is, it's more than women's basketball. It's everything, helping in the community, everything. It's more than our basketball team; it's a big family. It's being part of a big family."
Family and basketball is a mix that has worked pretty well for her.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
To understand how Keisha Hampton ended up a German accent away from being the Dirk Nowitzki of the women's game, go back to a moment when she was far from the best player on the court.