Archdeacon: ‘An exceptional young lady’ continues a Central State legacy

Laila Christmon, freshman basketball plaer at Central State University in Beacom Lewis Gym. (Photo by Nick Novy/Central State)

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Laila Christmon, freshman basketball plaer at Central State University in Beacom Lewis Gym. (Photo by Nick Novy/Central State)

WILBERFORCE – It was an unexpected sight in one of her first Central State math classes, one that surprised her enough that she told her parents back home in Cincinnati about it.

“Some boy pulls out a calculator and starts using it,” said 18-year-old CSU freshman basketball player Laila Christmon. “That really blew my mind.

“In high school I never saw any boy pull out a calculator and be ready to learn like that.”

Jonathan Christmon – like his wife Nicoele, an educator in the Cincinnati Public Schools system – got a kick out his daughter’s call:

“I tried to explain, when you step up to the next level – when you go to college – people are there to learn. When you’re going to a university with like-minded people and you’re getting into your major, you’ll see more people like that young man with the calculator.

“They’re all striving for the same goal as you.”

The sight reinforced in Laila why she came to CSU out of Gamble Montessori High in Cincinnati.

»And it was not because she would be one of the freshmen building blocks that Cathy Parson, the Marauders’ new, but storied women’s basketball coach has assembled to restore a program that in the past three years had two losing seasons and saw last year’s campaign canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

» And it was not just that she would continue, in her dad’s words, “our family’s long tradition with Central State University.”

»It was about something bigger than all that, Laila said:

“I came to Central State because I wanted to be surrounded by people who looked just like me and were chasing the same goals as I was and were just as hungry to get their degrees. I love seeing that.”

It meant so much to her that she turned down academic offers to go to the University of Michigan, Xavier, the University of Cincinnati and Tennessee State, another historic black college.

And then there was the time she said she hung up on the president of the University of Kentucky.

“He actually called me, but I didn’t think it really was him so I just clicked the phone on him,” she said with shake of the head, then a smile. “But by then I’d already received my full ride from Central and I’d made my mind up.”

Schools were interested in her because of the type of student athlete she is.

“Laila is the best thing going around here in this city,” Gamble Montessori football coach Rob Rachel told WCPO reporter Mike Dyer last year. “She’s a great role model for younger kids. If there are any parents that want to see what a student athlete is they should use Laila all day long.”

And yes, Laila was one of Rachel’s football players.

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Laila Christmon, the All Conference kicker for Gamble Montessori High, on her Senior Night (Contributed Photo)

Laila Christmon, the All Conference kicker for Gamble Montessori High, on her Senior Night (Contributed Photo)

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Laila Christmon, the All Conference kicker for Gamble Montessori High, on her Senior Night (Contributed Photo)

Following in the footsteps of her older sister and role model, Simone, she spent two seasons as the Gators’ productive place kicker.

She won all-conference honors, was a team captain and, most importantly, was dubbed a “Mud Brother” by her male teammates.

“They all supported her and considered her one of the guys,” her dad said.

She also played basketball, volleyball and softball at Gamble.

Graduating with a 4.75 grade point average – thanks to academically-weighed, advanced placement courses – she was her class valedictorian.

“She’s had straight A’s since kindergarten,” her dad said.

Five years ago that perfection got her a letter of commendation from President Barack Obama.

Before high school she learned to speak German and Korean at a language school in Clifton, her dad said. And she’s now gotten a Presidential Scholarship to Central State.

Laila came to Central State as a “legacy student,” as they call those whose family is intertwined with the school.

Her grandmother, Kathleen Christmon, spent a year at Ohio State, then transferred to Central State from which she graduated in 1958.

Her parents met at CSU the first week of their freshman year, became college sweethearts, graduated in 1993 and married a year later.

She also had an uncle and some cousins graduate from CSU. Her older brother, Jonathan, went briefly to Wright State and this winter plans to enroll for online CSU courses.

And her sister, Simone, is a junior at CSU, was a redshirt basketball player for the Marauders two years ago and hopes to make the team again.

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Laila Christmon in her prom dress with the balls of all four sports she played at Gamble Montessori High (Contributed Photo)

Laila Christmon in her prom dress with the balls of all four sports she played at Gamble Montessori High (Contributed Photo)

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Laila Christmon in her prom dress with the balls of all four sports she played at Gamble Montessori High (Contributed Photo)

In high school, Simone was a five-sport athlete. She was a 1,000 point scorer in basketball and she started playing football when a gym teacher took her out on the practice field and had her try a field goal.

“He started her at 10 yards and when she made that, he moved her back to the 20 and then the 30 and the 40,” her dad said. “The football coach was watching and he asked her to join the team and she suited up.” Simone’s two years of football ended with her graduation, but then Laila stepped up.

“I was like, ‘I can’t just let the Christmon name die for girl kickers in Cincinnati!’” she said with a laugh.

As a parent, that’s been quite a unique experience, Jonathan said:

“I never thought I’d be standing on a football field beneath the Friday night lights with my daughter wearing pads and a helmet for Senior Night.”

College sweethearts

“I wanted to go into the Marine Corps, but I was too young to sign up and my mom literally pushed me toward college,” Jonathan said. “I was a hard-headed guy and didn’t want to do it, but she insisted I try Central State.

“But once I got involved in my engineering major and saw like-minded people trying to achieve the same goal, I fell in love with the idea of graduating from college.”

But that wasn’t the real romance of college for him.

Nicoele Gaston – at her mother’s insistence she attend an HBCU – had come to the rural campus in Greene County from Detroit.

“Central State was the closest HBCU,” she said.

And yet it was nothing close to what she knew.

“I grew up in the city,” she said. “We lived next to a hospital, so I was used to hearing ambulances and helicopters coming in. I was used to noise at night.

“Let’s just say it took me a while to get used to campus. It was real quiet. There were just crickets and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble here.’ At first I couldn’t sleep.”

Those first days on campus were part of Pirate Week, when all the freshmen come in.

“I was sitting outside with my roommate and these two boys came up and started talking,” she said. “I wasn’t really paying any attention and the one kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re the tough one!’ “I said, ‘No, I’m just not interested in you.’”

She stated to laugh: “We became college sweethearts and now we’ve been married 27 years.” Jonathan said having a girlfriend actually helped his grades: “I found myself pushing to keep up with her academically. And I’ll tell you, my time at Central paid off. It made me who I am today.”

He works as the Information Technology (IT) coordinator at Woodward High in Cincinnati and his wife is a travelling advancement placement teacher in biology and environmental science at three Cincinnati Public Schools.

Over the years, they’ve returned to campus with their children for Homecoming and other gatherings and Jonathan always makes one stop.

“In one of my senior engineering projects we built a windmill for a village in Africa,” he said. “The prototype we built first is still up. It’s next to the power plant in an old lot. And every time we’re back I say, ‘Let’s go look at Dad’s windmill!’

“We worked on a Space Shuttle arm, too. We built a prototype for NASA and the next year they took it down to Cape Canaveral.

“Whoever thought a little guy from Cincinnati would get to work with NASA? CSU transitioned me into the global world. And that’s what I hope our kids get, too. The school will nurture them and build a foundation and help them see what the bigger world has to offer.”

He and his wife stressed to both of their daughters that they, first and foremost, were students, then athletes.

“For Lalia, basketball is just the icing on the cake now,” her dad said. “The real thing is getting her education. Her brain will take her to the places sports will not.”

Regardless, Laila said in high school she often was the class clown:

“But I was the smart class clown. I had my homework done first.

“And at college now, it’s the same. I might finish classes a 11 in the morning or noon. I’ll have lunch with my sister, but I’m not like some other kids who go back to their room for a power nap. Naps throw me off. I go to the library and work until 6 or whenever practice starts.”

‘She’s just a wonderful kid’

When Parson took over the CSU women’s basketball program late last year, she brought along quite a hoops resume.

She had been the first woman to earn an athletic scholarship at West Virginia University and she ended up the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,128 points. In 1996 she became the first woman enshrined in the WVU Sports Hall of Fame.

Her coaching career began 36 years ago as an assistant at Providence College. She spent a decade as the head coach at NCAA Division III Christian Newport University, where six of her teams went to the NCAA tournament and she was twice voted the conference coach of the year.

She won two more MEAC Coach of the Year awards when she led Howard University’s program from 2000-2008. She also was an assistant at Richmond and the head coach at Frostburg State and Stratford University. She served as the interim head coach of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and coached in high school, too.

She kept four players from last year’s mothballed CSU team, just one of them a senior, and added a massive freshman class of 15.

“I went out and got the kind of athletes – the kind of students – that will build the kind of program we want and be successful here,” Parson said.

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Laila Christmon (left) and her older sister Simone when both were basketball players at Gamble Montessori High in Cincinnati (Contributed Photo).

Laila Christmon (left) and her older sister Simone when both were basketball players at Gamble Montessori High in Cincinnati (Contributed Photo).

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Laila Christmon (left) and her older sister Simone when both were basketball players at Gamble Montessori High in Cincinnati (Contributed Photo).

And no one fills that bill better than Laila, even though, as Parson put it, “she’s a tweener” as a 5-foot-9 power forward.

“She’s an exceptional young lady,” Parson said. “She’s one of the most cerebral kids I’ve ever met in terms of understanding what you want and then doing it precisely the way you asked.

“She’s just a wonderful kid, a phenom who’s a great fit here. She’s a leader.”

“If she continues to do what has been instilled by her parents, Laila will be one of the all-time greats to come out of the CSU program for her accomplishments on and off the court.”

Laila doesn’t wilt under such lofty assent.

She said she’s already talked to CSU advisors about positioning herself to one day become a Truman or Rhodes Scholar.

“I’d also like it if I could be one of the speakers here at my college graduation,” she said with teenage enthusiasm. “Just like I did in high school.

“And the other day at practice I saw a lady’s name up on the wall of the gym. She’s in the Hall of Fame. Now I want to become one of the top rebounders Central State has ever had and hopefully get my name up there on the wall. too.”

It would add to the family legacy.

And on their returns to campus, it would give everyone something to look at besides Dad’s old windmill.

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