She remembers the coach just rolling his eyes.
“It was an intramural basketball league for little kids — around 5 and 6 years old — and there was a rule that girls could be on the team, too,” Kesha Ward remembered. “The first day I brought Brittany to the gym and walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, this is my daughter and she wants to be on your team.’
“He rolled his eyes because he was irritated. He was being stuck with a girl.”
She said he already had a team of little boys who showed real promise. In fact, today those boys have grown into something of a Who’s Who of NCAA Division I athletes.
“I think out of the 10 boys, seven are playing D-I,” Kesha said as she recalled some of the roster:
Kris Wilkes became a McDonald’s All-American and now plays at UCLA
Edon Gordon, whose brother Eric plays for the Houston Rockets, was an Adidas All-American and now plays for Seton Hall.
Jordan Walker is the second-leading scorer on the Morehead State team this season and Darrin Kirkland Jr., was a prep All-American who now is a University of Tennessee linebacker.
“Back then, at 5 years old, Brittany was bigger than every boy on that team and she was better,” Kesha chuckled. “She was the best player on the team.”
Today her daughter joins a new team again.
But this time there’s no rolling of the eyes.
Shauna Green, the University of Dayton women’s coach whose team hosts James Madison today at 2 p.m. at UD Arena, knows all about Brittany Ward, the 6-foot-1 transfer from Butler University with the impressive resume and pedigree:
• Mentored many years by Indiana hoops legend Damon Bailey.
• Ranked the No. 34 recruit in the nation (by ESPN’s HoopGurlz) coming out of Pike High School in Indianapolis.
• Offers from dozens of major college programs including Michigan, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, DePaul, Marquette, St. John’s, West Virginia and N.C. State.
• Big East preseason freshman of the year.
• A starter in all 31 games her first season at Butler.
But before all that, it started with Kesha, who once starred at the same Pike High where her daughter would later shine.
Known as Kesha Turner then, she was a 5-foot-4 point guard who led the school to its first girls sectional title. An All-County, All-Region player, she also made a name for herself playing AAU ball for an Indianapolis- based team known as The Family. Interestingly, that team was coached by Kevin Merriweather, the former Purdue player who is the father of Wright State women’s coach Katrina Merriweather.
“I’ve known Katrina since she was a little girl,” Kesha said. “She grew up in the gym.”
As for Kesha, her name is immortalized in the Pike High gymnasium.
“She’s up on the wall there,” Brittany said. “She was a pretty good ballplayer.”
Brittany, who is the eldest of the four children Kesha and her husband Dohn have, may have gotten her height from her dad. But it was her mom who lent the basketball chops.
From the time she was little, Brittany said she would play H-O-R-S-E against her mom and sometimes go one-on-one. Those mother-daughter duels were infused with competitive fervor, plenty of trash talk and, in Brittany’s case, some ever-evolving basketball skills.
But before you jump to conclusions, those give-no-quarter confrontations are not the source of that faint scar on Brittany’s forehead.
“I use to do gymnastics,” she said, shaking her head. “When I was 4 or 5, I was doing cartwheels in the house. I hit my head on the corner of the wall, busted my forehead open and needed to get stitches. My mom had told me to stop, but I didn’t listen.”
She tried to turn a deaf ear when her mom talked smack on the court as well, but she had a tougher time with that.
“My mom’s the ultimate trash talker,” Brittany laughed. “She reminds you of Reggie Miller. And if she starts beating you, she just stays on you: ‘Ohhh! Ohhh! Don’t choke!’
“She’s something else. She really had a way to get in your head. We’re all really competitive in my family, whether it’s playing UNO or even tying your shoe.”
Although she’s 44 now and does social work for the state of Indiana, Kesha said she and Brittany still get out on the court together:
“When it comes to the running and the jumping, she can get me now. But if we go out there and there’s no defense, I can still compete. Shooting was my thing and I can still shoot better than her. Our youngest daughter (13-year-old Brooklyn) plays AAU ball, so I’m still in the gym a lot. I can still shoot.”
Brittany swatted away such talk: “I can shoot, too. I’m not saying I’m on her level, but add in everything else and I’m the better one. Definitely the better one. One-on-one she wouldn’t score on me.”
Mike Peterson, that first intramural coach, eventually put together a travel team of boys and Brittany and they played in various cities, Kesha said.
In 2005, he launched a now much-trumpeted AAU program — Indy Hoosiers — but the sanctioning body didn’t allow coed teams, so he started a girls AAU team, too.
“They played 9-U and made it to the Final Four of the AAU Nationals,” Kesha said. “But because his other programs kept getting bigger, he didn’t have the time to focus on the girls so my husband and I started our own team.
“We called it the Future Lady Stars. They were a group of girls Brittany would end up going to high school with and a few other kids and we traveled all over the country. We made the Final Four two years in a row.”
Eventually they played another AAU team coached by Damon Bailey.
“My mom was like, ‘Hey, that’s Damon Bailey!’ ” Brittany said. “And I go, ‘Aaaah OK? Who’s Damon Bailey?’
“She said he was really good and told me all about him and how he committed to IU in the eighth grade. And then I looked him up and watched some YouTube videos and said, ‘Hmmm, he is pretty good.’ ”
The consensus top high school basketball player in the nation in 1990, Bailey ended up Indiana’s all-time prep scorer and then a four-year starter at IU, where he was the Big Ten freshman of the year and later got All-America honors.
With Kesha and Dohn’s blessing, Brittany joined Bailey’s team as a sixth-grader and stayed associated with him through high school. And she became good friends with his daughter Alexa.
Meanwhile, at Pike High, she won all-state honors three years in a row and finished as the school’s all-time No 2 scorer (1,498 points) and No. 1 rebounder (1,000).
Back then, she said her hoops idols were Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi and Allen Iverson.
“They had a little edge to them, like ‘Ain’t nobody gonna mess with me today,’ ” she said. “They had that fire about them. I loved it and have tried to have it, too.”
Several college coaches liked what they saw in her and offered scholarships, including UD, then coached by Jim Jabir.
Brittany visited the Dayton campus as a junior and liked it, her mom said. But when she wouldn’t commit right away, she said the relationship with Jabir cooled some.
By then Bailey had become an assistant at Butler and Brittany and her family thought it made sense for her to go there.
She had flourished under his system and his daughter Alexa was joining the Bulldogs, too. Plus Butler was now in the Big East Conference and because the school was in Indianapolis it would be easy for her family to catch all her home games.
She joined the Bulldogs as the program’s highest-ranked recruit ever and in her college debut against Valparaiso, she had 16 points and 13 rebounds. She would start every game in that 2015-16 season and she had several other big outings, including 19 points against Green Bay and DePaul and 17 rebounds against Marquette.
But during the season she got moved into the post by Bulldogs coach Kurt Godlevske.
“The biggest lesson she learned that season was that the assistant coach isn’t the head coach,” Kesha said. “She was undersized and although she presented a mismatch in the post, I think she kinda got wasted in there.”
After averaging 28.3 minutes, 9.8 points, and 7.5 rebounds as a freshman, she then was sidelined by injuries. During the summer she tore the right plantar fascia, the ligament that connects the heel to the bone. She missed the first six weeks of last season, then came back in mid-December and, in just her second game — against Indiana State — rolled her ankle.
“I just remember being on the bench crying,” she said. “I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t walk.”
She said she tore three ligaments and suffered “three or four” stress fractures.
Over Christmas break she made a decision.
She met with her parents and said she wanted to transfer. When she gave them a well-thought-out list of reasons, Kesha said she told her: “’If you want to do this I’ll support you. It’s the first adult decision you’ll have to make.’
“It was tough for her. She loved Butler. All her friends were there and it was close to home. But she wasn’t happy basketball-wise.”
Butler granted her release — today neither Bailey nor his daughter are at the school either — and she said she quickly had offers from the likes of Penn State, Michigan, Vanderbilt and IU.
But once again she thought of Dayton. Contact was made and Green — who took over the program last season when Jabir left — invited her for an early-January visit.
This time, before she left campus, she committed.
A few butterflies
“It just felt different here,” Brittany said. “There’s more of a family feel to the program and I felt like I fit in.
“I really think it’s bigger than basketball here. They care about you as a person, not just for what you do on the court. The chemistry you see between the lines is the same outside the lines.
“No matter who we add to the program or who leaves we are always family, we’re sisters and like all sisters, you might fight or disagree but we talk it out. We’re honest and open and, boom, it’s over. It feels good to be a part of that.”
Brittany enrolled in school last January and had to sit out a school year to meet NCAA transfer requirements. Much of that time was spent recovering from her ankle injury, but in the process she immersed herself into the daily fabric of the team.
“It’s crazy how she blended in as fast as she did,” Green said. “After a few weeks here you’d have thought she’d been here a year or two. She felt very comfortable and she was very vocal in practice, even when she couldn’t get on the floor.
“She has some real leadership qualities and now that she can play again, she brings a versatility and a toughness to us. She’s not the biggest kid, but she plays really, really hard and she’s not afraid to get in there and bang.”
Green noted she hasn’t played in a year, so she doesn’t expect her to “pick up right where she left off.” But Brittany said she is drawing on some valuable experience:
“She does have a season under her belt at the highest level and she put up some pretty good numbers that year. She knows what it takes to succeed against the best.”
Today will be the first time Brittany has been in a UD uniform, and if her professors post her semester grades before game time, she’ll play. Otherwise, she’ll debut Wednesday against South Florida at the two-day New Orleans Shootout.
“I’ve got mixed emotions,” Brittany said. “I’m excited and ready to get back playing, but I’ve got butterflies a little bit, too.
“I haven’t played in a long time. And I never played in UD Arena before and have never played an actual game for Coach Green. So I keep asking myself if I remember what I’m doing.”
As she quieted a moment, the fears seemed to quickly evaporate.
“I’m pretty sure it’ll all come back,” she finally said. “The first time up and down the court, it’ll click.”
And with that she snapped her fingers and started to laugh.
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