U.S.E. Basketball Family Reunion prepares young players for college hoops

The Reunion started as a way to reconnect with former teammates, but it has grown in scope.

As the mother of a 10-year-old girls basketball player, Makeda Scott wanted to learn more about the recruiting process when the two arrived at the U.S.E. Basketball Family Reunion Sunday morning at Baltimore City Community College.

Her daughter, Niahlah Mingo, was among the players in the Reunion's baby ballers game for fourth through sixth graders and with Mingo starting to get more serious about the game, Scott soaked up the information provided by a panel of coaches, former players and recruiting experts.

Mingo plays with the Maryland Lady Tigers, so Scott said the Reunion, "was a place to come to to learn more about where she could progress to… She's now driving it, like 'I want to play more. I want to be on more teams. I want to get more exposure,' and she's like, 'Where can I go with basketball?' That's where this is a great opportunity and also for me as a parent, because I know nothing about that."

That was the intention of Reunion founders Briana "Breezi" Hutchen and Tyra Hawkes, former St. Frances teammates who went on to play college basketball and are still involved with the game. Hutchen is director of basketball operations for the women's program at Iona College and Hawkes is heading to Spain this week for a pro tryout.

While they first thought of the Reunion as a way to reconnect with former teammates and other players from the Baltimore area through alumni games, Hutchen and Hawkes wanted to give back at the same time, so they combined the expert panel discussion with a day of games for players from fourth grade to post-college.

The U.S.E. in the Family Reunion title has a double meaning, according to Hutchen, the 2010 All-Metro Player of the Year who went on to play at Rutgers and Alabama.

"I came up with U.S.E. because I wanted it to be 'Use basketball,' but I wanted to have three words that I thought really could, I guess you could say, label, what we are, because I think we are United, Strong and Empowered young women of our community and … that's what we preach through the entire panel – use basketball to get to wherever you want to go, not just to be a pro athlete."

Still, most of the young players and their parents were most interested in the college recruiting process. They listened to AAU coaches Sam Walker and Holly Ismail, Bowie State assistant coach Chris Burley and recruiting adviser Tink Butler give their insight while BCCC coach Arthur Fitzhugh addressed junior college opportunities.

They also heard from two other former players, Archbishop Spalding graduate Maggie Morrison, who played on last year's Syracuse Final Four team, and Poly graduate Melanie Williamson, who retained her scholarship at Wagner despite being diagnosed with a heart ailment that forced her to stop playing.

Walker, an educational consultant who has tutored such Baltimore phenoms as Tavon Austin, Carmello Anthony and Charles Tapper, warned the players that they need to get serious about academics in the eight grade so they can meet the NCAA standards. He said he knows a lot of players who should be playing top-level college basketball, but they couldn't get the required combination of GPA and SAT score.

"Understand that the academics of this is so important," Walker said. "If a girl is not on point academically, they don't get in. If you look like coach Holly (6-foot-4), you've got a shot, but if you're small, no shot at all."

Scott said she learned a lot from Walker.

"I had no idea – eight grade, that's when you have to start worrying about grades.I had no idea there's an NCAA website that can help a parent work through these things. I also didn't know that some classes you take at private schools can infringe on the courses you need to be eligible (to play NCAA college basketball) and I'd rather hear that now with her going into fifth grade than to hear it when she's going into eighth or ninth grade."

Burley, who has been an assistant high school coach at several schools including Western and St. Frances, has seen the recruiting process from both sides. He said college coaches look for five "elements of basketball" – dribbling, passing, shooting, defense and character.

He also warned that a parent can cost his daughter a scholarship. If a parent is intrusive or trying to coach over the high school or AAU coach, a college coach likely won't want to deal with that.

Ismail and Butler, who have helped their own children through the Division I basketball recruiting process, also advised parents not to overwhelm their children with well-intentioned advice when they're off the court.

"I heard something one time that really, really spoke to me, because I'm a coach but I'm a mom first," Ismail said. "I coached my own daughter [Qalea Ismail, now playing at Princeton] so I kind of deal with a lot of different angles with it: Ultimately, your kid wants to know that you enjoy watching them play and that's it."

Vanessa Locke, former coach at Woodlawn High School, knows the recruiting process and has stressed the importance of academics and hard work to her daughter Paris, 12, but she wanted Paris to hear if from women who have been there.

"I wanted her to hear different perspectives," Locke said. "With myself and my husband both coaching girls basketball, we tell her stuff every day, but we wanted her to hear it from players current and past. Different people are going to have different perspectives on what we tell her, the expectations for college, high school, etc."

Morrison, the 2011 All-Metro Player of the Year, talked about the long hours in the gym. She spent two years at Vanderbilt, tearing an ACL her freshman year and riding the bench her sophomore year, so she transferred to Syracuse and ended up playing 20 minutes at the Final Four.

"Once you get to college, those are all the top players," Morrison said, "so when you're stepping in, if you're not willing to work and improve your game, you're going to stay at the same level while everybody else is passing you… If you come in as a freshman your first year and don't play, do not be discouraged. You've just got to stay in the gym, keep working hard and your day will come."

Williamson has a different story, but she certainly used basketball to get where she is today. After passing out at practice and being diagnosed with an enlarged aorta, she had to stop playing the sport. Depressed, she dropped 28 pounds and didn’t know what to do because she was not academically inclined.

But the Wagner coaches kept her on scholarship as a manager and later as a student coach. She earned a degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. After that she stayed on as director of operations and earned a Master’s in health care administration.

Although it took her a while to pull through the depression, Williamson ended up using basketball in a way she never imagined.

“I got two degrees, six years of school and that was nice, but I still would have liked to touch the college floor," she said. "It was a really hard transition for me from being a player to thinking, like Breezi said earlier, basketball is not your life. I didn’t have that mentality going into college. When things were spinning out of control, they had to make me realize basketball is just part of your life.”

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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