Mykiea Russell: Don’t Believe the Height (Part 2)

Russell became Mykiea to me last year, as I had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit. And Mykiea had an amazing senior year playing for the Washington Prep Generals.

Buoyed by their success the previous year, the team came out strong and immediately started racking up victories. Their only real opponents in the Marine League were Narbonne, back from suspension and fully loaded with five Division I-level seniors.

In addition to her incredible quickness, Mykiea is an expert at handling and distributing the ball. If she wasn’t finding the perfect Washington player for the assist, she was taking the ball to the rack herself – at 5-foot-nothing – and scoring. In fact, Mykiea was the leading scorer on her team last year, despite being the shortest by far.

On an offensive set, the ball always seemed to come back to Mykiea. Such a natural point guard I have hardly witnessed. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, racing around the top of the key with the ball, head slightly forward, like a vulture waiting to pounce.

She gave opponents fits.

I told Mykiea recently that at least one opposing coach last year admonished her team at a timeout to clamp down on Mykiea, because she said “the offense runs through her.” Mykiea seemed surprised.

“Noooo, it didn’t!” she protested.

I told her, “but it seemed like it did.”

Mykiea had a career-high 10 assists and scored 16 points in a Jan. 11 game against King-Drew, and posted 12 steals and collected four boards against Gardena Jan. 23. In the Jan. 16 Carson game, she had seven rebounds, eight steals and 11 points.

Here’s a highlight reel to show what the girl can do:

In Washington’s first matchup with rival Narbonne on Jan. 18, Mykiea poured in a season-high 25 points as her team came close to upsetting the Gauchos at home. The Generals hadn’t beaten that team in 12 years, but it felt like they were getting close; Washington was visibly hungry. As the players went through the hand-slap line after the game, I felt a sense of foreboding.

On Feb. 6, Narbonne traveled to Washington for the second meeting. This is where I fully understood the uniqueness of that school.

Washington Prep High School stands in the heart of one of the roughest areas of South Central Los Angeles. It is in “Crip” gang territory. Two years ago there was a shooting on campus; last spring there was another one.

Yet, the school has tremendous pride in its athletics programs, among other things. The night of the Narbonne game, the Washington gym had a healthy crowd that was loud, as usual. A group of boys ran the pre-game warmup music, including D4L and the Pop It Off Boyz – hardcore selections. The crowd stood fully behind its girls team, and cheered every basket like it was the national championship winner.

The Prep girls also had fun on their team. When shooting free throws pre-game, they had a ritual they always performed: once the shooter shot, the rest of the team would chant “Preeeep!” while they simultaneously slid over one to the left. Once they got to their new spot, they’d pick up their left knees and do a little “uh uh” dance bop thing. They always turned heads when they did that. And when I took my basketball girls from the school where I teach to see Prep play last December, I think they wished they were on that squad.

So in the February rematch game, Narbonne started out with a small lead, and by the second and third quarters, it had grown to as much as 10. Prep shrunk it to five and then the Gauchos blew it back up to 10, twice. But in the fourth quarter, the Generals clawed back and caught up. A free throw put the score even, at 44 points.

It wasn’t any specific play that lead to the outcome, but a series of circumstances that kept repeating themselves. Narbonne couldn’t rebound much, and they weren’t boxing out. In fact, Mykeia out-rebounded the two Gaucho posts twice. The entire Washington squad seemed to be rebounding machines, and they made brilliant passes. They finished their plays and scored, while the Gaucho defense lagged.

It was a Mykeia three-pointer from the top of the key that put them up 47-44. A play later they had another girl at the FT line, and she sunk one shot: 48-44. Narbonne’s Reiko Thomas unleashed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was too late: 48-47. The Gaucho era was over.

It was a monumental accomplishment for Washington to wipe out a 12-year-old losing streak to Narbonne. But they showed their class by calmly and stoically going through the handshake line while their fans were screaming and jumping around. Whatever celebration the team might have had, it was in the locker room.

Two weeks later the two teams faced each other yet again – ironically, for the same right to play for the city championship that Washington had played Dorsey for the previous year. It was the same flippin game. And this time it was at Washington, because they’d been seeded higher than their opponents.

Narbonne came out strong and took an early lead, which was a switch from the two previous games against Washington where they’d been slow out of the gate. The Gauchos built a 14-point halftime lead, but the Generals came out blazing in the third and went on a 10-0 run. Narbonne also got in foul trouble. Prep was behind by four, and things were scary for the Gauchos for a bit.

Then Narbonne turned on the gas and started to build some more points. It went up to a 10-point lead, which Washington cut to 6 a couple times. The Generals were relentless. But after a Gaucho timeout, the team held on to win by eight.

Mykiea was calm and relaxed after the game; no sign of the flower-banging aggravation of the previous year. She said she wanted to play ball and study film in college, as those were her two main passions in life. She also wanted to get out of the ‘hood.

“It’s just so negative,” Mykiea said wistfully, but added that maybe someday, she’d like to come back and help out the area somehow.

She didn’t know where she was going to college yet; there was a lot of uncertainty there. As if to mitigate such feelings, Mykiea smiled and said, “well, I’ve had a great high school career.”

A week later, Washington again lost in the first round of the state playoffs. For the second year in a row, Mykiea was named to the all-city first team (she had made second team as a sophomore) – a tremendous accomplishment in a city the size of Los Angeles.

I provided a couple names of college coaches I knew that might be interested in Mykiea. Every time I talked to the Washington Athletic Director, I asked her if Mykiea had found a school yet. The answer was always no.

Why wouldn’t a school be interested in someone like Mykiea, with more heart than an organ bank and the skills to match? I was truly puzzled.

In August I again talked to the AD, who informed me that Mykiea was going to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR. And she was going there “blind” – not having taken a visit first. I was dumbfounded.

Why was a player like Mykiea going to a junior college instead of Division I? Why a small town in Oregon? And why didn’t she take a visit there?

Three months later, I discovered the answers to these questions.