- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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PRINCETON, N.J. -- It isn't often that Princeton, basically a brand name for academia since about the time it opened its doors back when George Washington was a teenager, finds itself cast in the role of time-share condominium trolling for buyers. But when it came to her recruiting visit to the great state of New Jersey, Niveen Rasheed figured listening to a sales pitch was a small price to pay for a trip across the country with one of her best friends.
Sights set on Stanford or a similar established basketball program on the same side of the country as her California roots, she boarded a flight with AAU teammate Lauren Polansky possessed of, shall we say, modest expectations.
"I kind of looked at it more as a fun vacation for a weekend with LP at a random school," Rasheed admitted.
Needless to say, as Rasheed begins the final season of one of the most successful careers in not only the history of Princeton basketball but the Ivy League, she felt differently by the time she boarded the flight home. The culture of the campus got her attention. So, too, did the culture of a basketball program that seemed to have far more camaraderie and confidence than might have been expected at a school that had never been to the NCAA tournament and compiled a 144-186 record between 1995 and Courtney Banghart's arrival as a 29-year-old first-time head coach in 2007.
Banghart got her franchise player (she also got a fixture at point guard and two-time conference defensive player of the year in Polansky out of that trip). Women's college basketball got the best-kept secret of the 2012-13 season.
There is no uncertainty as to the identity of the best player beyond the confines of the traditional power conferences, not when Delaware's Elena Delle Donne is perhaps the only player on any campus who can legitimately challenge Baylor's Brittney Griner for individual accolades. But it doesn't require much of a drive north from Delaware to come across a player who should be next on that list, much as Green Bay All-American Julie Wojta was a season ago.
Just ask someone familiar with Rasheed after guarding her in two of the past three seasons.
"She's a great player," Delle Donne said. "She's versatile, that's something I really liked about her game was the versatility because that's something I have also. She's really athletic, too; she can jump, she can play good defense, she can rebound -- she's hard to keep off the boards. But her versatility was definitely the most impressive thing about her game that I saw."
As a junior, coming back from a torn ACL that cost her the final 17 games of her sophomore season, Rasheed led Princeton in points, rebounds and assists and tied Polansky for the lead in steals. She swept the same categories when she was a freshman, only with an outright lead in steals in that instance. She's a 6-foot forward who spends much of her time attacking the basket or angling for rebounds, but she led the Tigers in assists in each of the two seasons she completed. For all that she is asked to do with the ball, she has yet to finish a season with more turnovers than assists.
When coaches and teammates rave about someone's "motor," it's often a tacit acknowledgement that there is something lacking in the proverbial chassis. With Rasheed, it's just one more piece of the puzzle.
"That kid has not taken one play off in four years, and that includes in practice, in shootarounds or in games," Banghart said. "There's just nothing but everything she's got in every possession. I think that's why she's so good. And I think that's what is going to make the next-level coaches so happy, is it's just a kid who is low-maintenance, that will give you everything she has and will work to improve her game. She just takes nothing off."
Embracing her culture, breaking stereotypes
Games this season against Delaware, DePaul, Hofstra, Marist, Rutgers and UCLA will provide opportunities for Rasheed to boost her profile. A fourth consecutive berth in the NCAA tournament would offer another. For basketball reasons, it's a shame fans haven't had more chances to watch her play. She is, to put it simply, worth the price of admission. But it's also unfortunate because there is more to see than just a variety of basketball skills.
A first-generation Palestinian-American, Rasheed was born and raised in the Bay Area to parents who emigrated from Palestine. Many members of her extended family still live in the occupied territories that sit at the center of strife and heartache for so many people on both sides of the conflict, most pointedly those in close proximity to the ongoing cycle of violence, but also radiating out through the Middle East and across the globe.
For Rasheed, the only clash of cultures in which she's engaged, and then only playfully, is between California mellow and the East Coast angst that now surrounds her in the Interstate 95 corridor. That is the product of the peace with which she grew up. But the place her family came from, the people she sees when she goes to visit and the lives of everyday routine they try to lead amidst unending political turmoil -- not to mention the lessons learned from a mother who is an active advocate for Palestine and a sister who works in a diplomatic capacity for the United Nations -- all shape a broader perspective.
There are more than a few Californians among the elite in college basketball. There aren't many Palestinian-Americans. There aren't many Muslims.
"I'm definitely proud of my culture, proud of where I'm from," Rasheed said. "So I take that on with full responsibility and am just excited to represent something bigger than just basketball. I definitely love that.
"It's cool having my family back in Palestine be like, 'Oh wow, you're really good; I didn't know you were that good at basketball.' They love the fact that I'm still representing Palestine and not losing sight of my culture. I definitely embrace it and I'll take it on."
As a freshman at Princeton, Rasheed struck up a pen-pal correspondence with a young girl in the area, a fan who surely appreciated the skills that made Rasheed arguably the Ivy League's best player from the moment she arrived in New Jersey, but also someone who looked up to her for other reasons. Rasheed later learned through the girl's teacher that her father, who had initially disapproved of his Muslim daughter playing basketball, had changed his mind. The reason? The example set by Rasheed, a young Muslim woman playing basketball as well as it can be played while attending one of the best universities in the world.
That the story is relayed by Polansky, Rasheed's longtime friend, partner on that fateful recruiting trip, classmate in a course on the politics of the Middle East and someone who happens to also be Jewish, is only one more facet.
Nothing about what Rasheed does on a basketball court will change the world, but it does suggest the world can change.
"It's pretty cool breaking that stereotype," Rasheed said. "A Palestinian, Muslim girl out playing basketball, family in full support."
And, she hopes, playing it for some time to come. While Princeton's other seniors have jobs lined up with companies like Barclays, Rasheed is keeping her options open, hoping to land work next summer in the WNBA. Wherever she ends up, she'll bring a game that speaks for itself and a mind that allows her to speak to much more.
"She loves the game of basketball, but that kid is incredibly balanced," Banghart said. "She loves a lot of things. She is not an eat, sleep, breathe basketball player; she is an eat, sleep, breathe competitor.
"For her, the game has her heart; I think her soul is more varied than that."
College basketball will miss her when she's gone, even if it is only just now figuring that out.