Living the Dream

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Syracuse Athletics

Kayla Alexander used to sit front of the TV and imagine herself all grown up, competing in the WNBA, like one of the players on the screen. She enjoyed the rhythm and flow of a magical game, and watched in the company of her father, 6-foot-5 Joseph Alexander.

In the family home in Milton, Ontario, father and daughter would observe and discuss the skills of standout players. Young Kayla, already 6-feet-0 in seventh grade, studied the post moves of WNBA bigs, such as Lisa Leslie. But she also loved the panache of one particular guard, an undersized player who could drive and dish, knock down the three, find a crease and finish at the rim.

How did she do it at 5-foot-6? The years passed. Kayla followed the guard from her home in Canada and kept watching at Syracuse and then came the call Monday night. The Silver Stars had drafted Kayla with the eighth pick in the first round, and -- OMG! -- that meant she would become teammates with Becky Hammon.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Kayla says. “She’s an incredible talent I’ve enjoyed watching for so long. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to play with her and learn from her.”

Kayla Alexander brings height (6-4) and muscle and a strong post game to the Silver Stars. She also brings a story: The all-time leader at Syracuse in points (2,024) and blocks (356) loved art before she loved basketball.

Her father played in college. Kayla’s mother Audrey played ball and other sports in high school. The athletic genes ran deep. Kayla swam and ran track in elementary school. But she immersed herself in painting and drawing until a friend asked her to play ball in seventh grade.

“You’re tall,” the friend said. “You need to come tryout with me.”

Kayla obliged and stumbled. She couldn’t dribble. Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t play defense. “I didn’t understand the sport,” she says. “I didn’t know the rules. Nothing. I barely touched the ball. And when I did, I didn’t know what to do with it.”

The coach kept Kayla but not because she could play. “You’re here,” she was told, “because I can’t coach height.”

The 6-foot-0 seventh-grader became a project. Kayla learned the game slowly under her middle school coach and her father. She felt the sting of honest criticism.

“I used to hate car rides home after I first started playing,” she says. “If my dad felt I wasn’t working hard enough, he let me know. He’d say, ‘Ok, you clearly weren’t going after rebounds. You weren’t moving your feet.’ Or, ‘You weren’t going up strong enough. You weren’t being aggressive. You’ve got to be willing to get physical.’ Back then I didn’t want to hear that. But now I really appreciate it.”

She outgrew her clumsiness and started to dominate. In ninth grade, Kayla received her first college letter. Vanderbilt made her feel special, and her mind began to race. College ball. Pro ball. Maybe she could go all the way. ...

Syracuse loved her. Kayla received lots of letters and calls from the school. Coach Quentin Hillsman attended many of her high school games. “We developed a rapport,” she says.

Her growth at Syracuse transcended basketball. As a freshman, she shuddered at the idea of speaking in public. But before long, she became a confident university tour guide. “I wanted to get over that fear of speaking,” Kayla says, “so what better way than to give tours?”

Volunteering is a passion. At Syracuse, Kayla meets with prospective students and parents, answers questions and shares personal stories about campus life. She plays a leadership role in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She helps elementary and high school students as a volunteer speech teacher. “I love giving back to the community,” Kayla says.

She gave a lot to the basketball program. As a senior, Kayla led Syracuse to the NCAA Tournament, its best record in history, 24-8, and a regular season victory over NCAA runner-up Louisville. She became the third Syracuse player to earn All-America honors. And her class set a school record with 96 victories in four years.

When the Silver Stars made her the eighth overall pick, Kayla became the first woman from Syracuse selected in the first round. “Honestly, it’s surreal,” she says.

The little girl who used to love art continues to paint. Alone, away from the court, Kayle pulls out a brush and recreates pictures she sees or faces that intrigue. “It’s peaceful and calming,” she says. “I paint just because I enjoy it.”

In her youth, Kayla could have painted her future. Ball in hand. Driving to the basket. She could have painted a dream. Joining a team with Becky Hammon. But now she gets to live it.

“Becky can shoot and she’s an incredible passer,” Kayla says. “She’s very encouraging of her teammates and tries to help them on the floor. It’s an incredible feeling to be on the same team with her. I’m still trying to process it.”