Brought down by neither betrayal nor violence, Aijha Blackwell soars on the basketball court
Aijha Blackwell wore her hair down, over her forehead, sometimes covering part of her eyes.
It wasn't a style choice; it was a shield.
Blackwell, then in eighth grade, already was an exceptional basketball talent. So good, in fact, that some of her teammates' parents -- upset by her dominance -- demanded to see her birth certificate.
"It was ridiculous," said her mother, Amy Blackwell, a freshman English teacher at Normandy High in St. Louis, Missouri. "Girls on her team were envious. ... She just wanted to hide."
Four players left coach Will Holloway's Team St. Louis AAU program that year, and four -- including Blackwell -- remained.
"That's something I will never forget," Aijha said. "I was taller than everyone else, and it looked like I didn't belong in that age group. It was heartbreaking to hear my own teammates' parents judging me. I felt judged that whole year. I didn't want to play basketball anymore because I didn't want people to hate me. ... I was confused. I was just trying to play the sport I love."
Blackwell, now 17, still hears the occasional heckler at her games. But she has stopped hiding.
She has grown into a 6-foot shooting guard at Whitfield (St. Louis) School and is the No. 22 player in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2019 class.
She has led Whitfield in scoring three straight years, averaging 24.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals as a junior. What's more, she'll play alongside Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and NaLyssa Smith for Team USA Aug. 1-7 at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Mexico City.
"She had a different passion for the game," said Holloway, who met Blackwell when she was in sixth grade and has become a father figure. "She played with so much intensity that it was hard for her teammates to match, and that's still the case today."
That energy, many say, is a trait she got from her dad, a former University of Missouri running back who died in 2004.
A family tragedy
Blackwell hadn't yet celebrated her fourth birthday when her father, who was drafted two spots in front of Pat Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL draft, died at the age of 29.
In the final minutes of his life, Ernest Blackwell inflicted scars that will never heal. Not for his family. Not for his St. Louis neighborhood.
It was an August evening when Ernest Blackwell allegedly shot his 9-year-old step-daughter in the chest and beat a 14-year-old neighbor and her mother before he was subdued by up to a dozen police officers who shot him twice with a Taser. Paramedics sedated Blackwell, who was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. An autopsy reportedly shed little light on the cause of his death. The three victims survived.
The weight of what happened on that day -- Aijha was in the house when her father shot his step-daughter but she does not remember it -- has grown heavier for Aijha over the years.
"It's been hard," she said. "I've let it settle in my mind that he won't be at my graduation. The least I can do is play basketball and keep his memory alive. Basketball has been my outlet to a happy place. I no longer live in a dark, angry place."
Some who remember her dad on the football field say Aijha brings a similar style to the basketball court.
"You can see she misses her dad -- that's as plain as can be," Whitfield coach Mike Slater said. "She has seen him on film playing football at Mizzou, and she reminds people of him because she plays with such aggression. I think she wears that as a badge of honor.
"She works as hard as she does because she wants to make him proud and make her mom proud, too. I'm happy she's able to chase her dream."
Blackwell, a 3.0 student, dreams of majoring in early education. For years, she practiced for her profession by using stuffed animals, lining them up for fire drills and handing them lesson plans that she Scotch-taped to the walls of her bedroom.
"I used to talk to myself a lot, basically," she joked.
These days, she baby-sits her two sisters, 2-year-old Steevey and 1-year old Sevyn.
But they are a lot harder to keep in line than stuffed animals, Blackwell said, adding: "Steevey is really difficult to handle."
Up, up, up
Three years ago, Blackwell was cut from Team USA trials, beset by nerves.
Slater said Blackwell has improved greatly since then, and he's told that often in unsolicited remarks from rival coaches, players and even referees.
Blackwell's scoring average has gone up every year in high school. Ditto for her field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage. She's also a strong rebounder, especially for her position, and an effective and unselfish passer.
She has recently made advancements in the weight room, a place she would previously only venture "kicking and screaming." Now she revels in her newfound muscles, has gotten in better condition, and college coaches have taken notice.
Holloway said he fields phone calls about Blackwell on an hourly basis. She has "narrowed" her list of finalists down to 12 teams, including Missouri and reigning champion Notre Dame.
Blackwell is hoping to decide by September so she can concentrate on her two goals as a senior -- beating Strafford (Missouri) and winning the state championship. And it's likely she can't accomplish one without the other because Strafford has eliminated Whitfield in the state semifinals two consecutive years, including 67-50 on March 9.
In this year's game, Blackwell scored 25 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, making 9-of-17 shots from the floor. But she was outdone by Strafford junior Hayley Frank, a 6-foot-1 wing who had 32 points and 10 rebounds. Frank, who has committed to Missouri, is the key player on a Strafford team that has won 82 straight games and three consecutive state titles.
Blackwell said she would've loved the opportunity to guard Frank -- the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri -- but that wasn't the best matchup in Slater's opinion.
Four Whitfield starters, including Blackwell, fouled out in that game. Blackwell said Strafford is the opponent she thinks about all year, every day, and she also admitted to having great respect for Frank.
"She's an amazing player," Blackwell said. "I love how she gets hyped. It's very similar to me.
"Her and I haven't really talked a lot. I knew there was going to be this tension between us because we are fighting for the same state title. But I would really like to know her as a person.
"I love everyone. I don't have any hate toward anyone."