SB Nation

Lindsay Brauner | June 4, 2013

The Best Player Who Never Played

She made her way across the field with the same reserved yet alert saunter I'd seen for the first time when we were twelve years old. Her steps weren't hurried; there was no superfluity of motion. She moved at a deceptively considerable pace. Within a few seconds, I could clearly see that the silhouette I had barely spotted from the opposite side of UC Berkeley's Evans track belonged to my former teammate, a girl who had made her name nationally known within basketball circles as one of the undisputed top players in the country, who had then tragically broken through the realm of specialized notoriety as her story transcended her talent and instead exploded in her heartbreak.

Since I'd seen Tierra, caught up with her, it had been awhile. And the last time we were on a basketball court together seemed like it was several years, losses, changes ago. But I could see that her smile had remained a constant as she approached and called out across the remaining stretch of grass.

"It's been forever."

"Shoot, T!" The fervor of the command drew my attention to its source on the sidelines as I jogged the length of the Mission Recreation Center basketball court. He sat courtside in baggy pants splashed with chipping streaks of paint, one enormous arm with which he bolstered himself upright propped onto the glossy wooden bleachers behind him, the other occasionally illustrating in elaborate gestures his directions for the single player on the court who was tearing her opposition to shreds.

Terrell Rogers' reclined posture hardly matched the intensity of his gaze. Breaking occasionally to crack a joke or maybe talk a little trash to the other parents, he fixated on the player who was both younger and better than anyone else in the gym.

Although it was my first day at Mission Rec, it would have been tough to miss the connection between the two—this huge, paint-covered man, and the girl who would look right at him every time she scored—which was often—or made a mistake—which was seldom.

Tierra's play broke the boundaries of anything I had ever seen a girl my age do. She pushed and exploded spatial limitations that everyone else saw. Maybe she didn't see them at all.

Anyone who looked at Tierra could immediately ascertain that she was a standout among standouts. MRC was home to some of the best players in the state. I had never seen a more condensed concentration of basketball talent in my life. About sixty girls peppered the single full-length court, propelling themselves higher into the air than I'd ever seen anyone my age jump, pounding quick, evasive dribbles into the well-worn wooden planks beneath their Jordans (Why was I wearing New Balance? Why?), gleefully taunting their momentarily-foisted opponents as they contorted their bodies mid-leap to finish lightning quick layups, and swishing the ball through the net across impossibly long shot-trajectories. Holding court among these basketball elites, Tierra reigned supreme.

Her hair was woven into a long braid, composed of hundreds of tiny braids that covered her head—all a bright hue of shining gold. She was tall—but not too tall—thin—but strong enough to outrebound girls twice her weight—quick, coordinated, thoughtful, agile. Her first step was so fast, so unanticipated, that even the quickest defenders were left in the dust—from the dribble. Before I watched Tierra play, I'd thought there were two directions you could go off the dribble—right, or left. Depending on where your defender was forcing you, or whether they were playing you straight, you could choose between making informed, cautious, or risky decisions about your drive. (My solution was usually to pass.) Tierra's play broke the boundaries of anything I had ever seen a girl my age do. She pushed and exploded spatial limitations that everyone else saw. Maybe she didn't see them at all.

While any club would have welcomed her with open arms, she stayed at Mission Rec—an environment somewhat akin to a sort of adolescent daycare, an inclusionary safehouse in a neighborhood where safety was a rarity.

The storied coach-mafioso culture of AAU basketball found no resonance in Oscar Jimenez, a man who would accept nothing but constant, unfaltering effort from his girls. He was cutthroat to an extreme. Wins were an afterthought, a byproduct, a banality to the point of being never discussed. If we blew a team out by sixty—which was not unusual—Oscar was typically unsatisfied. Even with players like Tierra, the few who excelled to what most spectators internalized as ostensibly unreachable lengths, Oscar could critique their game. He knew what to do with a player who might appear untouchable in her perceived perfection to many coaches. Oscar made the most elite players even better.

This is not to say that every player on Oscar's roster was a superstar. He had girls who couldn't play at all. This always puzzled me—what was a girl doing on an elite team who could barely get up and down the court?

When I ask T about Oscar, she immediately replies in a way that undoubtedly echoes the sentiments of most—if not all—of his former players: "He was like a second father to me."

One day, I asked one of my teammates about a specific player who exemplified what I saw as this utter lack of logic. The girl in question was out of shape, had no shot or defensive abilities, and as far as I was concerned added nothing to the team. But she was always in the gym. My cheeks flushed as my teammate laughed at what I quickly realized had been a rather obtuse observation. Still smiling, she softly explained to me that this girl had no parents.

I felt my chest deflate in shame for having questioned her right to a place in the program. But I still wondered how she had found herself here, in a basketball gym. Was Oscar her godfather or something? My teammate shook her head. Oscar had "kinda taken her in." She had just needed a place to go.

The more time I spent at Mission Rec, the more I heard about Oscar "taking people in." Many young girls had lost parents. Some were in gangs. Oscar offered them a space that was off the streets, outside of any violence, where they could feel protected, and where he instilled a sense of order, purpose, and discipline. Unlike other club teams, MRC collected no dues from its members. Oscar made MRC a unique dichotomy of widespread inclusion and elite play. How Oscar found these girls who needed MRC so badly, or they him, I never quite figured out.

When I ask T about Oscar, she immediately replies in a way that undoubtedly echoes the sentiments of most—if not all—of his former players: "He was like a second father to me."

Tierra Rogers & Mission Rec

In 2005, we amassed a catalogue of talent on our U14 team that featured several key players, and most prominently, Tierra. Oscar disliked taking teams to Nationals. Many families could not afford it. Furthermore, because playing for MRC was free, the organization had no means to offer scholarships for travel expenses. Oscar vehemently subscribed to the idea that his players could get almost the exposure at a fraction of the cost by frequenting local tournaments.

The talent level of our team became progressively clearer with each weekend blowout. As the contents of the trophy display in the downstairs of MRC spilled over into the storage room behind the coaching office, Oscar proposed what we had assumed to be impossible. He wanted to take us to Virginia to play against the highest competition in the United States. The assent from the team's parents was resounding and unanimous.

Our team crossed the hot concrete expanse outside the gym in Salem. Some of us excitedly chattered, others silently watched as thousands of girls our age from across the nation congregated in bright clumps of uniformly jewel-toned polyester. Tierra stepped noiselessly at the back of our group, slightly hunched at the shoulders, unassumingly surveying the influx of players, coaches, and parents streaming through the sets of glass double doors.

Her father had coasted by the gym entrance in his silver PT Cruiser rental, impossibly managing to at once control the car, scan the length of the concourse to assess his daughter's competition, and —apparently having found nothing of concern—deeply recline in the driver's seat. He parked right near the entrance, and even in the swampy Virginia humidity, leaned against the car door and brushed the spark wheel on his lighter. Answering the muggy heat with an upward trajectory of dry cigarette smoke, he watched as our team assembled across the street. Wherever he was, Tierra was the constant subject of his focus. Even if it appeared that he had left—dropped her off, stepped out for a cigarette—he always seemed to have one eye on her.

As Tierra played her first game in Round 1 of the National Championships, the fixation of every spectator in the gym mirrored her father's focus. They knew they were watching an unstoppable force. They understood that this girl was going to be one of the best college and probably professional players in the country one day. They might have even known that she was the youngest player in the tournament.

Forget silver—Tierra had built her own platter out of the community support she and her father rallied around her athletic ability.

They didn't know that she had raised the money herself to get there. They had no idea that she and her father would make bets on her shooting ability at the park in Hunter's Point, would take advantage of the unexpected combination of a lanky young girl and an ice cold shooting touch that found itself in her. As spectators watched her dominate game after game, they couldn't have known about the graffiti'ed concrete, the unpredictable violence, the dilapidated housing structures she had driven through on her way to the airport. They didn't understand that her hotel room, her flight, and the PT Cruiser outside were enabled by the donations she amassed at community gatherings based on her displays of basketball aptitude. Fifty cents, twenty-five cents, anything you could give per basket made.

Forget silver—Tierra had built her own platter out of the community support she and her father rallied around her athletic ability.

This was a girl who would never complain to any referees, regardless of how badly an opponent was trying to beat up on her. It usually took teams a span of a couple minutes, around the same time it took for Tierra's quick accrual of double-digit statistics across the board, to understand that she was the player to stop. The brutality with which triple-teams typically accosted her had no effect on her game. She worked with what she was given. If that included hometown referees or an entire team working to break her, she would find a way around them, above them, beyond them, pressing into spaces that they could never have seen or anticipated, spaces she created on the court that were available only to her, spaces that allowed her to realize her goals irrespective of adversity or opposition.

She might have been the only point guard in the entire nation who also jumped at tip-off.

During U14 Nationals, MRC blew out opponents in the first few rounds, but as an unknown 16-seed, we faced the number one team in the nation in the Sweet 16. The Nike-sponsored Texas squad had won back-to-back-... to-back... National Championships. I watched T step onto the court filled with girls between one and two years her seniors, and calmly make her way to the center. The team full of reigning National Champions might have seen a lot of wins, but they had assuredly never seen anything like Tierra.

She might have been the only point guard in the entire nation who also jumped at tip-off. Probably to the surprise of the sleek, Nike-sporting Texans, she easily won the tip over her considerably larger opponent, and wasted no time streaking to the basket past an entire team of the most elite players in the country for an easy two points.

They couldn't stop her then, and they never would. The normally stagnant scout-filled stands buzzed with an unanticipated exhilaration at the spectacle they were witnessing. Hushed phone conversations began as they held their phones to their ears, spreading the news of the gangly 13-year-old who was single-handedly demolishing the best high school players in the United States.

Not only did Tierra lead our obscure inner-city club to a victory over the Nike-endorsed Goliaths we faced, she sent a message to the national women's basketball community by ensuring a whopping 15-point score differential.

Neither Oscar nor Terrell could contain their smiles that day. They had watched the victory with similar demeanors of concerted attempts at suppressing their jubilance. At the same time, Tierra's demolition of her opposition—at any level—had always been a clear expectation in the eyes of both of these men. Now, Tierra had made the entire country share their perspective.

Tierra continued to be on the national radar as a top prospect throughout her high school career, leading Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep to State Championships her freshman and sophomore years. By her junior year, they were the number one-ranked team in the country.

One night during a home game on January 12, 2008, Tierra received the news that her father had been shot as he had left the gymnasium for his usual halftime smoke. In the same space where he had constantly nurtured and guided his daughter to unmatched levels of success, Terrell Rogers had been murdered.

Tierra was immobilized. She questioned whether she would continue to play at all. He had been on the sidelines, in that front row, throughout her life and athletic career. Imagining her place on a court where he no longer had a place was an impossibility, a painful paralysis. But she didn't stop. She led Sacred Heart to a third State Championship just months after her father's murder. And she returned the following year, finishing her last high school season and committing to play basketball for the University of California, Berkeley.

During the fall of her freshman year at Cal, after a particularly grueling session in Haas Pavilion, Tierra started to feel dizzy. She lost consciousness on the floor where she had been running just moments before. Although she had yet to play in any games, her effort and exertion were proving her worth on the court. But she seemed to have pushed herself too far this time. After medical teams revived her, she underwent a series of examinations to determine what had caused the episode. The answer was unthinkable: she had a rare heart condition that was found in athletes and the elderly, and her life was at risk each time her heart rate surpassed a certain threshold. This meant no sprinting or exertion would be safe for her—ever. One of the nation's top prospects would never play in a collegiate basketball contest.

With almost incomprehensible grace and fortitude, Tierra responded how she responds bestwith unfaltering resolve and strength of a magnitude that seems to crush any means of measuring it. Rendered unable to physically participate, Tierra did the opposite of what many players might have done in her position. She created a position for herself that I doubt can be found on any other national D1 roster. When I ask her to describe her role and her job, she tells me that she is a coaching assistant and a mentor for her teammates. Not unlike her innovative style of playing basketball, out of what seemed like less than nothing, Tierra carved a space for her own development and progress.

Oscar Jimenez passed away unexpectedly not long after T discovered her heart condition. He had been Tierra's coach and mentor for school and club basketball since she was in middle school.

As I watch Tierra throw perfectly aimed passes and direct critiques at her teammates in layup lines, I see the best qualities of Terrell Rogers and Oscar Jimenez revivifying. The vigilance, the focus, the knowledge, combined with a pervasive love—of the game, but mostly of the people who played it and the opportunity to help their growth.

[She] is collected and calm, but seasoned by a fortitude that she has nurtured in herself, a cultivation that impossibly bloomed from the barren space of repeated tragedy.

She will continue to see new spaces where before there were none. She will set the example that she embodied throughout her playing career: She never cared who she faced, or how flashy their shoes were. Besides, her father had been there to care on her behalf—sitting as close to physically on the court as he could get, repeatedly vocalizing his pride, reveling in his daughter's understated showiness as she coolly left defender after defender in the dust. All the while, Terrell Rogers fixed that same gaze on his daughter as she, in turn, would calmly stare, then obliterate her opposition.

This is the same expression she still wears today, after the murder of her father, the death of her mentor, the loss of her game. It is collected and calm, but seasoned by a fortitude that she has nurtured in herself, a cultivation that impossibly bloomed from the barren space of repeated tragedy. It is an unlikely pairing of tranquility and fervor that I saw for the first time when I was twelve years old on the sidelines of an inner-city gymnasium. It is an unassuming intensity I know I will continue to see in my friend.

It is the demeanor of someone who might recline, relax, someone who might disregard any paint splashed on their clothes or their neighborhood walls. It is the gaze of someone who, amidst noise, violence, or conflict, pushes beyond and maintains a capacity to assess a chaotic panorama in a matter of seconds, someone who puts an unbreakable vision to work.

I ask about Tierra's relationship to basketball now—a game that could understandably be perceived as an inextricable element of many iterations of both emotional and somaticized heartbreak. Her answer resoundingly eradicates any speculations of such painful indelibility: "I think basketball saved me in a big way."

To start, had she collapsed anywhere outside of Haas Pavilion, she may not have gotten the urgent medical attention that was integral in saving her life. Ever unselfish (to a fault sometimes, in the eyes of mentors like her father and coaches), Tierra attributes her perseverance to her teammates and their support. She explains that basketball has given her an education, a support system, a family. And at the same time, the role she has had in relation to the game at a college level has given her the opportunity to look around outside of its intensity, its demands that she explains "can consume you."

She smiles and takes a moment after she says this. Maybe she is remembering this state of being consumed by the game, of being enveloped in a sort of bittersweet addiction. Or maybe she is reflecting on the self-discoveries she has made outside the realm of playing, all that her game has enabled her to learn and to pursue. Her gaze is directed upward, past the camera, past the track, fleetingly fixated somewhere in the stratospheric blue. She turns back to me and tells me that after college she will mentor, coach, guide—the things she has already done for her teammates, who proved to be some of the best players in the country. She has a mentoring opportunity with low-income kids on the East Coast. She has been offered a head-coaching job in San Francisco. She will assuredly continue to use the same skills that made her one of the best basketball players in the country—the uncanny ability to create space where no space existed, to find a way to achieve the unreachable—in the service of children who need that kind of imagination and guidance more than anything.

Watching Tierra play basketball was the paradoxical witnessing of a spectacle of grace, poise, finesse, and the methodical deconstruction of opposition. She was the kind of player who could truly divert and capture attention—away from the score, from the progression of the game, from past mistakes or future anxieties—through an osmosis, an absorption of the energy and unavoidable fixation of the crowd upon her almost hypnotic capacity to move the basketball however or wherever she wanted it to go. Watching Tierra play basketball was a meditation on the present, on the journey, on capability, on a beautifully unparalleled path.

She has transformed her greatest wounds into not only her own innovation and success, but into a larger gift—that of her story.

I think the biggest mistake possible in examining the trajectory of Tierra's life is to look at it as a story replete with loss. Tierra lost her father, her coach, her game; yes—events which are assuredly undermined in their traumatic reality by any attempt to put their occurrence into words, incomprehensible and indescribable in their tragedy. But Tierra has found a way to describe and understand her life—and has given her teammates, her coaches, her classmates, her supporters a new means of understanding what can be the dizzying convolution of despair. Tierra has created strength time and again from places of despondency, trauma, and heartbreak. She has transformed her greatest wounds into not only her own innovation and success, but into a larger gift—that of her example, and of her story. And those of us who were lucky enough to have seen her play basketball are given memories of a pure, inventive, loving form on the court.

As I finish interviewing Tierra, I have one last question for her. I know that it's been many years since she has been back to the gym that used to be filled with the reverberations of her father's unfettered critiques, commands, and cheers, the place where she found a second father in the hard-nosed mentoring of Oscar Jimenez, the court where she grew into herself and her ability. Although I asked if she would go with me, I almost can't imagine who in her position would even be capable of revisiting such a place.

She smiles and replies softly.

"Of course."

Produced and edited by Avinash Kunnath
Thanks to Chris Mottram and Josh Laincz
Photos courtesy of Derick Hingle & James Snook of USA Today, Lindsay Brauner and Cal Women's Basketball

About the Author

Hey, I'm Lindsay.

I like to read, write, and play basketball. My favorite athlete is my little sister.

I have a business called The Treasury Media. We write grants, campaigns, proposals, stories, app language, articles, bios, you get the idea -- for cause-related projects. We work with clients who make it their mission to improve people's lives.