It's A Date: Harper Birdsong And Hoops

Courtesy Janine DeMello

Harper Birdsong, who averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3.5 assists as a junior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, credits karate for making her tough.

The dress had been chosen -- a long and blue and gorgeous halter by designer Badgley Mischka.

Harper Birdsong's junior prom awaited.

Just one problem: Birdsong had AAU practice that night of April 11, and the choice between the two was really no choice at all.

"I'd rather go to practice than prom," said the 17-year-old Birdsong, who plays AAU ball for Boo Williams. "Any chance to go there and do well, I'm going to take it. There are so many great players on my team -- you have to fight for playing time."

The $200 spent on renting the dress would not be refunded, but that was OK, Birdsong said. Just consider it another investment in her basketball future.

Birdsong, a 5-foot-10 combo guard and George Washington recruit who will be a senior this fall at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy (Suffolk, Virginia), averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3.5 assists as a junior. She helped lead NSA to the Virginia Independent School Athletics Association Division II championship game for the first time in school history before it lost to Miller (Charlottesville) in the final. Despite the defeat, Birdsong was named the VISAA Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.

"I'm not exaggerating when I say there were six or seven games in which teams put three girls on her the whole game and were satisfied to have two players guard the other four," said NSA coach Kim Aston, a former player at Old Dominion University.

One of Birdsong's teammates, Madi Goldberg, said her friend is the best high school girls' basketball player she has ever seen.

"Everyone at school says she's a beast in basketball," Goldberg said. "When she's on the court, she kills it."

Finding her own way

Birdsong doesn't come from a basketball family. Her father, McLemore, still surfs, and her mother, Amy, played violin at the University of Virginia, where the couple met.

McLemore works for the family business -- Birdsong Corporation, one of the largest peanut shellers in the United States.

Harper, though, has a confession.

I'd rather go to practice than prom. Any chance to go there and do well, I'm going to take it. There are so many great players on my team -- you have to fight for playing time.
Harper Birdsong

"I don't like peanuts that much," she said. "It's just a job my dad has, honestly. My mom's job is much more interesting to me."

Amy Birdsong designs the floor plans for high-end motor homes that are often purchased by auto racing teams for their comfort as they travel to events around the country.

But despite her highly successful parents, Birdsong has not been complacent. On the contrary, she has been on the move since she started walking at 7 months.

Aston first noticed Birdsong when she was in third grade.

"It was my first year of teaching at NSA," Aston said. "I saw the girls were on the playground, and the boys played football. I watched this kid playing quarterback every day, throwing spirals, and I asked, 'Who's that?'

"They told me it was Harper Birdsong. So, for all of her third- and fourth-grade years, I thought Harper -- who had short, shaggy, blond hair at the time -- was [McLemore's] son."

In the summer of her third-grade year, Birdsong was introduced to basketball for the first time, attending a half-day camp.

"She came back doing crazy dribbling tricks," said Amy, who knew nothing about basketball at the time. "But we told her she could only do one sport at a time, and she was already in karate."

Birdsong said karate made her tough. Her instructors would make the kids do "knuckle push-ups" on concrete.

"It was pretty intense for 9-year-olds," she said.

Then something happened that changed everything -- Birdsong's karate school closed.

Filling the void, she joined a YMCA basketball league and immediately fell in love with the sport. Her parents put up a hoop in their driveway, and Birdsong practiced for hours every day.

"She was obsessed," Amy said. "She's always been athletic -- she picks things up quickly.

"The next year, she was putting up 28 points a game in a league that was 99 percent boys. And they were all jumpers -- no layups."

Bursting onto the scene

Birdsong made the NSA varsity as an eighth-grader. She played heavy minutes off the bench, Aston said, and there were games that season when she would score 25 points.

She became a starter as a freshman and has played just about every minute since then, leading her team to the state semifinals as a sophomore before this past season's near miss at a title.

Courtesy Amy Birdsong

Harper Birdsong hones her game on a court in her own backyard.

Birdsong is so dedicated to her sport that she reads books written by athletes, and watches video clips of her favorite players and then practices their moves, often in her backyard (when Harper was in seventh grade, her family moved into a house that had two hoops on an amazing court).

Neighborhood kids come to the Birdsong court all the time -- they simply grab a ball from the open garage and start balling.

If anything, Aston has to tell Birdsong to ease up on all the workouts, which can be as frequent as four times a day.

Hunter Brinkley, a 6-1 guard who starts for the NSA boys' team, usually matches up against Birdsong when she plays open gym at school.

"Harper likes a challenge," Brinkley said. "And I like a challenge, too. She's hard to guard. She's fast, she's aggressive and she can shoot really quickly.

"Her ballhandling is crazy, like no other girl I've ever seen. You can't steal it from her. I have to be on my A game against her."

Birdsong joined the Boo Williams team as a sophomore, and she soon started getting college scholarship offers. With a 3.7 GPA, Birdsong's combination of athletic and academic attributes sparked the interest of schools such as Princeton, Fordham, Old Dominion and William & Mary.

But once she visited GW, she knew that was home, and she committed this past November.

"Harper didn't care about big-name schools," Aston said. "Virginia wanted to recruit her, but they wanted two guards over 6 feet, and [Birdsong] was next on their list. That didn't mean anything to her.

"She was happy with GW."

Her only regret so far is not finding enough time to tan.

"She'll call me and say, 'Come on, let's go to the pool'," Goldberg said. "She'll say, 'I'm too white from being in the gym all the time. I look like a ghost.' "

Birdsong is not sure what she wants to study -- she likes to write and has considered journalism or perhaps business. She also is contemplating becoming a college coach.

But she knows for certain that going to school in Washington, D.C., suits her perfectly.

"I come from this rural area -- all fields -- but I like the hustle and bustle, riding the Metro," she said. "There's something appealing about playing in the nation's capital.

"My dad says I'm a country mouse, but I'm excited about becoming a city person."

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