Mykiea Russell is the new point guard for the Umpqua Community College women’s basketball team. She began showing what she was made of the moment she got there.
In a scrimmage against Linn-Benton CC a couple months ago, Mykiea scored 19 points and collected nine steals. As the team has begun their regular season, she has usually been the second-leading scorer.
Her coach, Dave Stricklin, wrote in her team profile that at 5’0″, Mykiea is the shortest player to ever don a Riverhawks uniform, but she might also be the quickest. He predicted she is “destined to be a UCC fan favorite.” Similarly, a reporter for the Roseburg News-Review noted her “knack for getting to the basket” in a recent story.
But why is Mykiea there? Because some coaches believed the height.
“As we talked to (college) coaches last year, some had an issue with my height,” Mykiea said. “They were worried about me getting posted up on defense.”
Her longtime club ball coach Michael Brox called up a well-respected coach he knew – Stricklin – and told him about Mykiea. Stricklin came to Los Angeles last March for a ceremony inducting him into the California JCC hall of fame (he coached there before going to Umpqua). During that trip, he paid Mykiea a visit at her home.
“We just hit it off right away,” Stricklin explained.
Right after Labor Day, Stricklin got a call from Mykiea.
“‘I’m coming up,'” Stricklin recalled her saying. “I said, ‘for a visit?’ and she said ‘no, I’m coming up to stay.'”
Mykiea arrived the first weekend in September, about three weeks before school was to start, and before any of her teammates. Stricklin did the only thing a coach could do: he put her up at his house with his family. And it wasn’t long before she “became part of the family.”
In fact, Mykiea fit in so well with Stricklin’s teenaged children that when he took her along when registering one for school, the secretary thought he was also enrolling Mykiea.
All last-minute notifications aside, to understand the sheer bravery involved in Mykiea’s move, first consider that the population of Roseburg is 20,117, and the number of people in Los Angeles is 9,948,081. Then, realize that the area where Mykiea went to high school is virtually all African-American and Hispanic, while Roseburg is 93.56 percent white and .3 percent African-American.
Unsurprisingly, Mykiea discounts those differences, and scoffs at the notion the she is brave.
“I don’t see it like that,” she said.
Indeed, Stricklin told her what to expect on his visit.
“I told Mykiea about the non-racial diversity, and she said ‘I don’t care,'” he said. “I also told her that Roseburg is not a party house. That if you’re looking for a wild atmosphere, this isn’t the place.”
Mykiea has adjusted the way any evolved inner-city kid would: she is jonesing for her Christmas visit home, but she likes where she is going to school, likes her team, and is cool with where she is right now.
“Roseburg is the most boring place on Earth, but on the other hand I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing, and there are no distractions,” she said.
Culturally, though, Mykiea has had to make some adjustments. Roseburg is populated with older people – many of whom are lifelong Roseburg residents. Mykiea said she has felt, at times, that some residents “have never seen a black girl in their lives.”
“I’ve had to answer questions – a lot of questions,” she said.
For her fortitude, Mykiea finds herself in one of the most successful junior college programs in the Northwest. Stricklin, with a 586-112 record in 21 years, has produced 12 regional championship teams. Every year the goal is the same: win another championship.
“Practice is so hard – oh my goodness,” Mykiea said. “The first practice he told us we were going to go as hard as Tennessee.
“He wants 100 percent the whole three hours, and nothing less. Even if you mess up, you have to mess up going hard.”
Stricklin said he and assistant coach Linda Stricklin – his wife – also keep player’s futures in mind.
“We work so hard to get them to the next level,” he said.
Mykiea said she might not have ever thought of a junior college as a possibility if it weren’t for one of the most famous graduates from JC ranks – Tennessee’s Shannon Bobbitt. Mykiea called Bobbitt, who is also infamously short, “my inspiration.”
While playing ball, Mykiea is taking a full class load and majoring in film – the other love of her life. Stricklen also set her up with a work-study job, so she has some extra money in her pocket. Life is good, although the weather is a little colder in Oregon than what the young baller is used to.
Mykiea doesn’t consider herself brave, but I am old enough to be her mother, and I know better. I teach high school in South Central Los Angeles, and not many kids there would pick up and go to a place they’ve never been to, that is so different from what they’ve known. Indeed, most only go as far as Southwest Community College, just down the road from Mykiea’s alma mater, Washington Prep High School.
And most kids with Mykiea’s skill level – who had made the LA All-City first team two years in a row – that couldn’t get to a D1 school simply because of their height, would be at least a little depressed or bitter.
Not Mykiea. She is positive, optimistic, hopeful. She laughs a lot. And she is working hard.
“I just finally, really got in shape,” she said last week. “So I’m going to stay in shape.”
I know she will. And I have no doubt that she is kicking ass at the Clackamas Tournament in Portland this weekend. I just wish JCCs got more love and it was easier to get scores and stats from up there.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep being a Mykiea fan. Stricklin said he’ll send me an Umpqua CC women’s basketball T-shirt and team poster when they’re ready, and I’ll happily wear the shirt around Los Angeles.
Go on with your bad self, young lady. You remind me why I’m a women’s basketball fan in the first place.