Meeting WNBA heroes inspires poetry from young female athletes

Victoria Will for ESPN

Kiah Stokes poses with student Jakeema James.

Women show up for one another. They cheer in the stands. They make jokes, split massive bags of popcorn and nachos. They take endless selfies. They dance. They rock when the beat drops and break out new moves when it counts. They show up for basketball games, poetry slams, gigs and gatherings. They motivate and bless, encourage and bolster. They calm and soothe when it matters, and rally and instigate -- they make one another better.

This is what friendship among women looks and feels like.

We get to witness all of this at the New York Liberty vs. Phoenix Mercury game on June 4. A Liberty game is a celebration. It's a multicultural crowd of young and old descending upon Madison Square Garden. The WNBA is a reminder of what women have always been capable of -- championship.  

I get the chance to watch these players work as a collective with a group of students whom I've witnessed exhibiting that same strength and companionship over the past several years.

Although not an athlete myself, I've been the director of the poetry program at the DreamYard Project in the Bronx, New York. Partnering with Global Writes, I direct the BronxWrites poetry slam program for elementary and middle school students, so I know about competition, and what it means to work hard toward something you want and something you love. 

I'm here with the young girls: Eliah Yode, Aylin Almonte, Jakeema James and Latavya Hinton, who are not only the superstar poets, but are also the starting basketball players for their middle school team. They are also best friends, and it has been clear over the past few years how much they love and carry each other through every competition -- whether with words or baskets.

Our students are amped up and ready for the game. They talk about their favorite players and show off the basketballs they brought, hoping to get them signed. Throughout the game, they talk about their futures, playing college ball, getting drafted or writing a collection of poetry. They talk about the state math test they will be taking in June and their performance for the Bronx Arts Festival.

We all love watching Kiah Stokes score a career-high 23 points and Shavonte Zellous sink a 3-pointer in the third quarter. We get giddy seeing Tina Charles lead the charge for her team and new Liberty player Bria Hartley make her mark as part of the new guard.

During the game, the Liberty block and pass, hold one another up when they win -- they charge, sink, high-five, dribble and laugh. They work seamlessly as a team, and everywhere on the court you can see their admiration and love for one another.

In the locker room, our students celebrate by posing in front of the camera -- strutting and stunting with newly signed basketballs. They are 13 and 14 -- fresh, with their whole lives stretching out before them.

Young basketball-playing poets who root for one another, who celebrate and honor one another -- they are sidekicks, classmates and best friends.

When Charles, Zellous, Stokes and Hartley walk in, we are all in awe. They are just as cool and mind-blowing in person as they are on the court. They pose with the students, ask them what position they play and thank us all for being witness to their work and win.

It is clear to all of us that these women relish life together -- both on and off the court. They stand up for one another and the issues they believe in, wearing #BlackLivesMatter shirts last summer and supporting the LGBTQ community with #OrlandoUnited after the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida.

They do not shy away from what they care about -- they are not silent. They speak out, and in doing so they carry one another. Our students follow their lead, with poems about the myth of beauty and identity, and writing about where they come from. They watch the women of the New York Liberty, and they see what it means to be a proud, radiant woman, and they are stepping right up.

These poems honor their mentors. This is what they mean to them. 

Ellen Hagan is a Kentucky-born writer, performer and educator. Her latest collection of poetry, "Hemisphere," was published by Northwestern University Press, Spring 2015. Ellen's performance work has been showcased at The New York International Fringe and Los Angeles Women's Theater Festival. She is the recipient of the 2013 NoMAA Creative Arts Grant and received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts. 

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Victoria Will for ESPN

Kiah Stokes poses with student Jakeema James.

Kiah Stokes: Warrior Woman

By Jakeema James     

Watching

warrior women

fly down the court

like nothing else matters,

representing all

the little girls and teens

that love ball--

how women can play

both parts,

showing them boys that ball

is not only for men.

Kiah Stokes drove down

the court, got that good

assist from her teammate

and made the points,

made her foul shots

like straight water. Kiah had

21 points because

her team had

them slick passes--

just good at what they do.

Jakeema James is a student at MS 328: New Millennium Business Academy in the Bronx. She is a starter for her basketball team and a BronxWrites slam poet.

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Victoria Will for ESPN

Tina Charles poses with student Latavya Hinton.

Tina Charles: Rethinking the Game

By Latavya Hinton

Your passion

on the courts is

a different perspective

and then

meeting you in person--

you're a player

playing a game of

communication with

the other girls

on your team.

I've seen you play

so many times

and I like your

Focus on the courts.

Me meeting you

was very scary but

what I loved most was that

you are Funny--

a sense of humor

beyond magnificent laugher.  

You made me think

of basketball

in a different way.

What I mean is that my team

is never communicating, listening,

being patient enough.

Us watching your team play

Together

Is the reason to write

my poem of leadership.

Latavya Hinton is a student at MS 328: New Millennium Business Academy in the Bronx. She is a starter for her basketball team and loves writing poetry for her slam team.

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Victoria Will for ESPN

Bria Hartley poses with student Aylin Almonte.

Bria Hartley: Game of Hartley

By Aylin Almonte

Bria Hartley

traded to the Liberty this year,

making a great change

to her basketball career.

Hartley

drafted in the first round in 2014.

This June Sunday

With 7 points and an assist

She remained focused

On the defense

To take a win

With the team,

With her whole heart  

out there

in the game.

A player, only 5-foot-8

and determined

and this is why I play.

She understands the hustle, the courage,

the effort

it takes to play the game, to win

and succeed

Seeing her play ball was

the highlight of my heart.

Aylin Almonte is a student at MS 328: New Millennium Business Academy in the Bronx. She is a starter for her basketball team, a star poet and the middle school valedictorian.

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Victoria Will for ESPN

New York Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous poses with student Eliah Yode.

Shavonte Zellous: New Mindset

By Eliah Yode

She releases the ball

Making the net sing "Swish."

She's the composer to the orchestra behind her,

Playing for the city that never sleeps.

The rhythm is never different:

Sleep. Eat. Play. repeat.

Won ten awards for the evolution of her skills.

She expresses love to everyone around her

With just her youthful smile,

Until it's game time.

The court is her home base,

Executing any team

Who dares to march into her courts.

She can rapidly take your ankles

And give them right back to you.

Her team eliminates the thought that:

Girls can't play ball.

Eliah Yode is a student at MS 328: New Millennium Business Academy in the Bronx. She is a starter for her basketball team and was a finalist in the BronxWrites Spring Slam in June.

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