She already has dunked and dominated, but Laeticia Amihere may be stronger than ever
Laeticia Amihere glanced up at her opponent. Way up.
The 6-foot-3 forward was representing Canada at the 2017 U19 World Cup in Italy, and she had drawn the assignment of defending China's 6-9 star center, Xu Han. There was reason to believe that, despite the height difference, Amihere was up to the task. Months earlier, Amihere got credit for being the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game. The video of the 15-year-old slamming it down on a fast break went viral.
Here, in the FIBA bronze-medal game against China, Xu rose for a putback, only to get denied when Amihere sent her shot back with an emphatic block.
"I just remember the excitement on my face and on the faces of my teammates," said Amihere, who is now 17. "It was a great feeling to get the stop. [Xu] is not only tall, but she has a huge wingspan, too. Every time she goes up, you have to work your butt off to get the ball back."
Amihere, one of the youngest players at the tournament, averaged 11.7 points and 7.4 rebounds and led Canada to its first World Cup podium. She was one of five players -- joining Americans Tyasha Harris of South Carolina and Chennedy Carter of Texas A&M -- to make the all-tournament team. Versatile and athletic on both sides of the ball, Amihere had emerged as a global star.
"What has always stood out with Laeticia is her athleticism and length," Canada coach Carly Clarke said. "She's always been one of the youngest players on our teams, but she's willing to be coached, and her skills are starting to catch up to her physical attributes."
Three months after making that World Cup splash, on Oct. 27, 2017, Amihere tore the ACL in her left knee while going for a layup for her high school team, King's Christian Collegiate (Oakville, Ontario).
"I heard a pop, and I knew that wasn't a good sign," said Amihere, who was the No. 2 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2019 class at the time. "I had never been injured in my life."
Amihere cried -- in part because of the pain but largely out of frustration.
"The trainer said there was nothing wrong," Amihere said. "But I realized I was hurt."
Amihere, who has two older brothers, is the only daughter of Georgette, who is 5-7 and from the Ivory Coast, and Anthony, who is 5-11 and from Ghana.
Although she was born in Canada, Amihere has embraced her African roots and goes by the nickname "The Black Queen," which was given to her by some friends. Her Twitter handle is @_TheBlackQueen_.
She can be one of the best players in the world, guaranteed. I will sign my name to that anytime.Zelimir Stevanovic
"My mom is big into our culture," Amihere said. "The nickname is just being proud of my culture and feeling like a queen -- feeling confident and embracing who I am and my background.
"When I was younger, I went to the Ivory Coast a couple of times. My mom has 14 siblings, and I just remember a lot of people in the house and a lot of love."
Amihere is taller than everyone in her immediate family except for her oldest brother, Kofi, who is 6-5. Still, she was rarely allowed to play in the family's pickup games in the driveway.
She didn't start playing organized basketball until sixth grade, competing in a "house" league every Sunday. Already taller than all her classmates, Amihere could tell she had potential, but she also knew that one game a week would not be enough to grow her game. Problem was, her family didn't have the $1,000 needed to join a travel team.
That's when coach Kenny Manning recognized her skills, waived the fee and allowed her to join his team.
"He changed my life," Amihere said. "Being so tall and skinny, I didn't feel comfortable with my body. Basketball was the first time I could use my height to my advantage. It allowed me to fit in to a community of athletes who were all in the same boat."
Two days after the 2017 surgery to repair her ACL, Amihere was in the weight room, working her upper body. Always considered too skinny, Amihere has added 60 pounds to her bench press since hurting her knee. She now weighs 177 pounds -- up from 159 -- and she feels more powerful than ever.
"Getting hurt was a blessing in disguise," she said. "There were no more excuses. I couldn't play basketball, so I had to get stronger."
King's Christian coach Zelimir Stevanovic said Amihere spent her rehab tirelessly watching video and attending every practice and game, demanding 100 percent from her teammates.
"She has the maturity of a 25-year-old woman," said Stevanovic, a former guard at the University of Pittsburgh. "She had a setback with the injury, but her body is better than ever. I think she's going to come back twice as strong."
Doctors have cleared Amihere to play her senior season, and she has been scrimmaging at full speed. She hopes to make her return to game action soon for King's Christian, possibly at a Toronto tournament that begins Oct. 27.
Amihere, now ranked 10th in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100, has narrowed her college choices to three schools: Kentucky, Louisville and South Carolina. Fluent in French and English, Amihere wants to study sports management in college and aspires to be a coach after her playing career ends.
She already has visited the Kentucky and Louisville campuses and will tour South Carolina this weekend.
Amihere plans to announce her decision on Nov. 14 -- after she finds her strongest connection with a coaching staff, great academics and a basketball program she can help lead to a national championship.
"She's looking past now," said Mide Oriyomi, one of Amihere's high school teammates. "She's looking to the future. Part of the reason why she's so motivated is because she has high goals for herself."
Stevanovic, who is set to begin his third season working with Amihere, knows he has somebody special.
"She can be one of the best players in the world, guaranteed," he said. "I will sign my name to that anytime."