Archdeacon: The resilience of Wright State’s Makira 'Bunny' Webster

FAIRBORN — She was sitting on the Wright State bench all game Wednesday night, but with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter and the Raiders up by just two on Robert Morris, Makira “Bunny” Webster knew it was finally time for her to perform.

She had been the standout point guard of a 25-3 Fairmont High team a few years back and then a stalwart with the national junior college powerhouse, Wabash Valley. And she’s the only Raider who played for the team two seasons ago.

But when she hopped up this time, instead of heading to the scorer’s table, she turned the other way and promptly walked off the court and straight out of the Nutter Center door.

Once Webster was known for dishing out passes to her Raiders’ teammates.

Now she passes out dishes to them.

As the rest of the team was holding off the Colonials for a 76-68 victory Wednesday, Webster hurried to a nearby eatery — this time it was the Tropical Smoothie Café, other times, it might be Piada or Chipotle — to pick up the postgame meals she’d preordered for them.

It’s one of the many duties the 22-year-old redshirt junior is delegated to handle at WSU since she has been forced to give up playing basketball — the sport that over the years offered her the only respite in a life filled with devastating losses and abuses — because of recuring concussions.

She sustained her last one after two inadvertent blows to the head by teammates in spirited drills just before the start of last season. She figures it was at least the fifth concussion in her hoops career and this one, she said, temporarily resulted in lingering headaches, trouble with her balance and mood swings.

Although she said she’s since been cleared by a neurologist she saw, she said the Raiders’ team doctor felt returning to the court was too risky and would not sign off on her return. And so the 5-foot-7 guard has not played the past two seasons.

“I still feel like I can play, and I want to play — I’m willing to take the risk, I mean life is a risk — but if the university considers me a risk, they are going to protect themselves,” she said.

Most importantly, they are protecting her, a point she reflected on once she permitted prudence to go one-on-one with her passion.

“It’s been really hard for me to take, but I started to realize that there were other ways I could stay around basketball and impact the game without playing,” she said.

Still on scholarship, she does whatever she can to aid the Raiders during their practices and games.

She works the clock at practice, will rebound for teammates and sometimes takes part in a non-contact drills. During games she sits on the bench in street clothes and cheers her teammates. During time outs, she offers them towels and water. After games, she hands out the meals.

“I know there’s nothing she’d rather do than be out there playing — she has a real love of the game — but she just can’t for fear of getting hit again,” Hoffman said. “And that just pains all of us. We know what basketball means to her.”

‘I’m just so proud of her’

The game, the court — they always have been her sanctuary and that’s not hyperbole.

She talked about that publicly the first time when she was a senior at Fairmont and addressed the student body as part of the school’s annual HumanKind Day just before Thanksgiving in 2019.

Standing on the edge of the basketball court, she took hold of the microphone, looked up into the crowd and said:

“Some of the things I experienced are:

“I was sexually assaulted at age 10.

“I lost my mom – she was my best friend – on October 2, 2017.

“I lost my boyfriend, as you probably know ( he was a popular Fairmont athlete who committed suicide) last school year on March 4.

“And I was sexually assaulted again this year on September 14th.”

Some of the students gasped at her revelations. Others shifted uncomfortably. One boy sitting in the top of the stands began to weep.

The only person she’d ever shared all this with was her best friend and teammate, Maddy Westbeld — the star of the Fairmont team and a McDonald’s All-American — who is now an All-Atlantic Coast Conference player at Notre Dame who has scored 1,394 points.

The day before she opened up to her fellow Fairmont students, Webster sat with me after a Firebirds’ practice and shared some of what she was planning to say.

“I believe you can’t hold these things in,” she said. “You’ve got to get them out and deal with them.”

A few days ago, she looked back on those public admissions in 2019: “It felt good to get it off my chest, but it also was important because other people were impacted by it. I had 40 or 50 people come up to me afterward to get contact information so we could communicate, and they could share what was happening with them.”

Afterward, Fairmont teachers and administrators lauded her for her willingness to put herself out there to help others.

Now her WSU teammates and coaches do the same, in part because there is not another Raiders player like her.

Along with her team duties, she also works a full-time, off-campus job that begins at 6 a.m. each day, and she’s a full-time student whose grades are now “through the roof,” Hoffman said.

Webster also trains players at the Brandie Hoskins Basketball Academy in Dayton. This summer she’ll coach the eighth-grade team there.

Last Saturday she put on her Raiders’ uniform for the final time and celebrated Senior Day before the game with Northern Kentucky.

She walked onto the court accompanied by her older sister, Jasmine Hicks, and Jasmine’s young daughter, Marley, who carried a treasured photograph.

“That’s one of my favorite pictures. It’s me as a little girl with my mom,” Webster said. “It was a sensitive moment. I was with my sister, my niece, my mom … and my team. It was emotional.”

Hoffman understood what the moment meant to Webster:

“She’s been through more in her 22 years than most people have, but she keeps that huge smile on her face, and she presses on. She’s had to find a way her entire life and she continues to do that. She’s resilient and everyone around her sees that strength.

I’m just so proud of her.”

‘I miss my mom’

“I’ve been called Bunny since I was a young’un,” Webster said with a smile. “My dad gave me that name because I kept hopping out of the crib when I was young.

“And that trait stayed with me because I’ve always had the highest vertical jump wherever I was.”

She put it to good use once Jasmine — who played at Troy High School — put a basketball in her hands at the age of three.

As she got better and better at the sport, it also became an escape for her when someone the family knew began sexually abusing her at age 10. She never told her mother then and later, when her mom was diagnosed with colon cancer, she didn’t bring it up because she didn’t want to add to the pain.

Instead, she did whatever she could with her mom, including their impromptu dance sessions.

One video of that became popular on social media because it showed her mom, Nicole, in her gray house dress — “she had just gotten sick from her chemo and was real weak, but she wanted to dance,” Webster said — mixing old school moves with dabbing as she performed alongside Bunny to Rolex by Ayo & Teo.

“She was my best friend and still is, I still feel her in spirit,” Webster said. “My best moments ever in basketball came when my mom was there, and I could hear her call my name.

“Since I’ve been at Wright State it’s been great and I’ve had great support, except that one piece — the main piece — has been missing.

“I miss my mom.”

She has a tattoo on her inner left wrist that reminds her of her mom, and she also had a dove inked to her rib cage. That also signifies her mom: “She goes with me wherever I go.”

After high school, Webster drew interest from Alabama A & M, but ended up first at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri. She transferred to Wabash Valley in Mount Carmel, Illinois, before the season started and played there a year.

She was set to return to her junior college for the 2021-22 season when John Leonzo — the top assistant to Hoffman, who had just taken over the Wright State program — reached out to her.

The Raiders needed players after coach Katrina Merriweather left for Memphis and several players departed from the roster.

“I hadn’t planned to come back home,” Webster said. “But when an opportunity like that presents itself — when a Division I school offers you a full-ride scholarship and you’re a juco player — you come running.”

‘She has flourished’

“I came in here so light-hearted, so excited,” she remembered. “I really didn’t know that much about the staff, and I didn’t know the girls on the team either.”

As it turned out, a lot of the leftover players didn’t want to play for a new coach with a new system and there was a lot of strife and even more losses. And it happened against the backdrop of COVID, which, at times, crippled the team, which had many of the players unvaccinated and saw several games forfeited or cancelled.

Webster was caught in the middle and said she wanted to lead, but some of the players didn’t want to listen to an underclassman, especially one who had just transferred in and had never played at the D-I level before:

“To them it was a slap in the face for someone who just came in to try to tell them how to act, how to behave.

“But it was bigger than just our team. I thought about all the little girls who come to watch our games and who look up to us.

“For them to see antics where you’re upset about a play and say whatever you want and do whatever you want, that’s not what kids should experience.”

Webster played in most of the games in that 4-23 season and was in the lineup a lot by year’s end.

“She was resilient again there, too,” Hoffman said. “She stepped up and tried to do the right. She was everything we needed her to be. "

The only other player still around from that season is starting guard Kacee Baumhower, who transferred to WSU in December of 2021 from St. Bonaventure and had to sit out the rest of the season to meet NCAA rules.

“I have a special place in my heart for Bunny,” Baumhower said. “She lost her mom. I lost my dad. We kind of relate on stuff like that.

“I’ve known her through some pretty low parts of her life and my life. That’s given us a connection, a respect for each other.

“Having basketball taken away from her like it has been, she’s handled it better than I could ever imagine. She has flourished.

“This year she’s taken on a more servant leadership role with our team.

“I just think it’s really shaping who she is now and who she will continue to be.”

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