Glimpses of greatness and a promise of more from McDonald's All American Rellah Boothe
Rellah Boothe's shoulders are getting a workout, and it's not from lifting weights.
The 6-foot-3 senior forward, one of the most intriguing basketball recruits in the country, is digging into a large salad at IMG Academy's cafeteria when she gets a tap on her back. A few minutes later, a teacher grabbing a tray stops what he's doing to put his arm around Boothe. Later, on the way to her dorm room, a fellow basketball player greets her with a shoulder pat.
"That's the next LeBron James!" he proclaims.
Even among some of the globe's most elite athletes on this 540-acre renowned sports academy in Bradenton, Florida, the 17-year-old Boothe occupies a rare space. Her big smile is always at the ready.
On Wednesday, some 1,200 miles away at Chicago's United Center, she'll become the first girl from IMG to play in the McDonald's All American Games. "I really appreciate [McDonald's] picking me to play," the Texas Longhorns recruit says. "They see something in me."
What most everyone sees in Boothe, the No. 3 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100, is a supreme talent. She averaged 27.5 points and 9.8 rebounds this past season. She has a smooth game -- a soft touch on her lefty jumper and impressive dribbling skills with both hands. She can, and has, taken over games. Her potential is unquestioned.
But an internal battle seems stuck in a stalemate. One moment she's humble, the next brash. One moment she's passionate, the next indifferent. Consistency is consistently just out of reach.
Boothe was with her team at a hotel in Maryland in January when her coach, Shell Dailey, told her to turn on the TV to see if she had made the McDonald's game. "I'm not the type to assume," Boothe says. "I know I'm great. ... I know I'm a good player. But I still have to develop, and there are other good players out there.
"I was on needles. When I found out, I freaked. 'Oh my God, did I really make it?' ''
Boothe has guaranteed Texas will win multiple national titles while she's on campus, a bold prediction given the stranglehold Connecticut has on the sport. She bristles at the mere mention of Megan Walker, a 6-1 Connecticut recruit at Monacan High School in Virginia who is the top-ranked prospect in the 2017 class.
Think that ranking bothers Boothe?
"It still does," Boothe says. "[Walker] knows that. No offense to her. She deserves it. But from ninth grade to senior year, you are No. 1? How's that possible? Come on."
Both Walker and Boothe were placed on the East squad for the McDonald's game, a bummer for Boothe. She was hoping to shut Walker down. The two have never played against each other; they teamed up to win a gold medal over the summer at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Boothe says they text.
"If you are supposed to be the main player on the opposing team, I'm going to guard you," Boothe says. "Nobody else ... I'm going to show you what's up."
(Walker, when reached for comment, said, "We are cool. We both like to compete. ... This is about business, and the reason I kept my ranking was because I took care of business.")
From Ocala to Jacksonville to Bradenton
A self-described country girl from Ocala, Florida, Boothe grew up playing street ball against boys. A lot of street ball against boys. She was just 12 when she spent her first summer in Jacksonville, 90 minutes from home. She stayed with her AAU coach, Tony Bannister, and his wife, Lurrice.
Two years later, Boothe left home full time, playing for Bannister at Jacksonville's Potter's House Christian Academy and living with the Bannisters.
"That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in life, is watch her leave home," said Gina Boothe, Rellah's mother, who plans to move to Austin when Rellah enrolls at Texas. "But Coach Bannister is an amazing man. He made it easier for me to let her go. I give him a lot of credit for Rellah mastering [her skills]."
Rellah Boothe scored 44 points in one game at Potter's House, and turned in a 37-point, 22-rebound performance against Tennessee powerhouse Blackman High School, whose roster featured Connecticut's Crystal Dangerfield. Potter's House won two Florida state titles in two years, compiling a 70-11 record Boothe's freshman and sophomore seasons. Despite the winning, the sports-first campus at IMG appealed to Boothe, who had a natural tie to what would become her new school.
Eric Dailey, who played pro basketball overseas, is Boothe's second cousin. And Eric's wife is Shell Dailey, the IMG coach.
That connection helped bring Boothe to IMG, which costs students $75,200 per year, although financial assistance is available. Boothe receives financial aid.
When Boothe told Bannister she was leaving for IMG, he took it hard. Boothe says they haven't spoken since.
"At Potter's House, I loved the coach," Boothe says. "If he were able to follow me, I would have brought him with me -- that's how much I loved the coach.
"But I felt that if I stayed there, I wouldn't be as prepared for college. I knew what they had [at IMG]. I had come here on a visit when I was in the eighth grade."
Would Boothe have been just as good a player had she stayed at Potter's House?
"No, sir. The things they have here they don't have at Potter's House -- mental programs, massages, healthy foods. I think differently now. We have a mental class that teaches us small things like breathing, thinking, don't overthink. I feel like I'm the leader-type now.
"Sometimes they have to talk to me because leaders mess up, too."
A different approach
It's 8 a.m., and Boothe and 37 other girls are in the gym, on the court running drills. Coach Dailey is mixing in all four IMG teams -- junior varsity, varsity, elite and postgraduate. Boothe, of course, is on the elite team. With a flick of her left wrist, she swishes a jumper. She repeats that motion again and again and again. This is the easy part, the natural part.
"One, two, three, IMG!" Practice over, players and coaches form a circle and discuss plans for a pizza party. "Four, five, six, family!" the girls yell as the huddle breaks up.
Boothe and her teammates walk about a half-mile to IMG's new weight room, which has only been open five months.
Her gray T-shirt soaked in sweat, Boothe stretches before heading to the bench press. This is nothing new; she's been lifting weights since her freshman year. At Potter's House, she had to sneak into the weight room to do it.
"They didn't want me [to weight-train] because they didn't want me to hurt myself," Boothe says. "They were like, 'Oh, you're a female.'" Here, several coaches supervise workouts, and computerized equipment tracks her progress.
Boothe does several reps on the bench press, working her way up to 140 pounds. She clears the weight five times, her arms wobbly toward the end, and gets a spot from strength and conditioning coach U.J. Johnson.
Then it's off to the leg press, which sits menacingly with several 50-pound weights on each side.
"Who is doing this?" Boothe asks, intimidated.
"You is," Johnson shoots back.
Boothe works her way up to 400 pounds on the leg press and then hobbles to two other stations.
From there, she and a teammate work with a heavy ball, bouncing it 20 times and then lying down and hoisting it up and down and then side to side. Finished, Boothe flings the ball away.
"I'm tired," she says, catching her breath. "But if I had to do it again, I would. ... No choice."
A simple plan
Boothe heads to her dorm room to shower before class.
The room she shares with a teammate is tiny and almost completely devoid of personal touches. There's a shoe closet with four shelves of sneakers at the entrance.
Two items speak to her basketball ability. One is a white cap that says "Longhorns" in burnt orange. The other is a framed collage of photos from her time with USA Basketball. The caption reads, "Boothe ... Congrats on Gold."
Her bed isn't quite long enough, Boothe says, to allow her to sleep with her legs fully extended. Either she sleeps curled up or her legs hang off. She doesn't complain.
There's also a bathroom, two dresser drawers and one TV, by the only window in the room. Boothe once stayed up until 4:30 a.m., watching three consecutive "scary movies" with a teammate. IMG lost that night.
After a short stop in her room, Boothe grabs a healthy lunch -- no burgers or sweets today, just a salad and chocolate milk. Coaches and friends have been known to snatch brownies or candy right out of her hands. But Boothe says she's been eating healthy of late and has lost 13 pounds, down to 222.
"Every time she comes back from Ocala, we have to detox her," Dailey says. "Then she leans out, and she becomes 'The Train.'"
"No one wants to step in front of 'The Train' on the court."
Next stop is a visit to athletic trainer Ben Wood. Her back is killing her; Boothe suspects a recent squats workout. "Please help me!" she begs him.
Boothe lies face down on a massage table, and Wood applies a heat pack.
"You know what?" Boothe says. "I'm fixing to call my teacher and tell her I may be five minutes late to class. This [heat pack] feels too good."
Boothe picks up her phone and texts her teacher. She has cell numbers for all of them. "I always try to make them my best friends," Boothe says with a smile. "But they know what I'm doing."
Unable to delay any longer, Boothe leaves the trainer's office and passes through the old weight room on her way to her law and society class. A coach spots her.
"It's money time," the coach shouts, referring to the McDonald's game. "Are you going to just show up?"
"No," she says. "I'm going to show out."