Myisha Hines-Allen grows up on and off the court for Louisville

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For most high school recruits, the full-court press from college coaches typically comes before they commit the next four or five years of their lives to the school. But it was after Myisha Hines-Allen signed with Louisville that she couldn't go a day without talking to Cardinals assistant Sam Purcell. Whether by phone call or text, the New Jersey high schooler checked in. It wasn't optional. A few too many missed classes settled that.

"Me and Coach Sam were best friends," Hines-Allen wryly reminisced. "Every morning, Coach Sam, he needed to make sure I was going to class and make sure I was doing what I needed to do. Because I wasn't really focused on school -- I was basketball, basketball."

Basketball took her a long way, to be sure. First to Louisville and now, as her senior season reaches its conclusion, the Final Four. The Cardinals wouldn't be in Columbus without her, without her 14.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Without her energy. Without the willingness to fit alongside Asia Durr, to go from the ACC Player of the Year in her own right during Durr's injury-plagued freshman season to the perfect complement to the star this season.

"She'll go down as one of the best players that's ever played here," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of Hines-Allen. "She had 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, and you're looking at Angel McCoughtry is the only other player to have done that [for the Cardinals]. When you're up there with her, that's pretty good company to be hanging with."

It's just that the trip up the mountain was more impressive than the view at the summit.

To reach her potential, Hines-Allen did more than work on an elbow jumper or post moves or rebounding. She grew up. A basketball team is better for it, but that's the least of it.

A few years ago, not long after the program made its second Final Four appearance and entrenched itself in the sport's upper echelon by upsetting Brittney Griner and Baylor along the way, Walz and his staff agreed that, in the words of associate coach Stephanie Norman, they weren't "doing crazy" anymore. No self-promoting parents, no headcase players. No Faustian bargain for some extra speed, height or skill at the expense of chemistry.

"The risks are way too much for the rewards," Norman said. "We don't have to do that anymore. We're looking for great people, and then obviously great players -- you can't just have a bunch of great kids and they're not talented. But we're really looking for those elite pieces. Frankly, that's what UConn does. They have the best of the best. I think all of us want to emulate that."

That doesn't mean they expect those who arrive on campus to be fully-formed adults, any more than they are fully-formed basketball players. While Walz made it clear to Hines-Allen before she arrived that her place in the program depended on her taking care of her grades and attendance, she wasn't the kind of problem recruit they sought to avoid. She was just a teenager who had always been pretty good at basketball and perhaps took for granted that she would always be the center of gravity in the world.

"As a freshman, she was more about herself," said Louisville guard Arica Carter, the only other member of that recruiting class still on the roster. "I've seen over the years -- obviously her game has grown, but as a person, she cares about her team, and she's always trying to do something to help her team. She's just a great person."

If there is a difference between being selfish and self-centered, it's in the distinction Carter drew. The difference between putting your own interests ahead of others, selfishness, and merely being oblivious to the bigger picture. It was the same reason there were concerns about the consistency of Hines-Allen's effort on the court, that she didn't always play hard. A McDonald's All American, she played as hard as she needed. That was always enough.

She still gets an earful from Walz when he thinks Hines-Allen can give more on the defensive end. Like everyone else, she still lands on the bench for a few minutes when he's really ticked off. He still talks about needing her best, noting more than once even this season that she can get a double-double without playing a great game. Walz doesn't really do gentle nudges. Or subtlety. Hines-Allen seeks structure, he's happy to provide it.

But the journey for Hines-Allen wasn't just about a coach or a coaching staff or even a basketball team. It's her. Early in her time on campus, a professor turned classroom teaching about children with disabilities into real-world volunteering with them.

"You want to give back to this person who is always happy but they have a disability," Hines-Allen said. "You can be mad about something that doesn't really matter, but they're happy all the time. That's one thing I love most about working with kids with disabilities is they're always happy. They always want to give you high-fives, they always want to talk to you."

That opportunity grew into more, helping kids with learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Others in the community. Whoever she could interact with whenever she had time. It wasn't just about basketball.

"Myisha is goofy," Louisville junior Jazmine Jones said. "She's a sweet person, though. She has a good heart. She cares about others, that's what I love about her most. She likes community service -- she loves community service. Myisha loves helping others."

And that has included her teammates. She was a freshman on a team that returned the core of the group that upset Baylor and reached the Final Four a year earlier, shielded from responsibility if not minutes. But from her sophomore year on, she was asked and expected to lead. She reacted the same way she did when challenged to get her studies in order after she signed. Norman said the staff knew that was a risk, that there was a chance Hines-Allen would tell them to shove it and go somewhere else. But not if she was who they thought she was.

"If you want to be great," Hines-Allen said, "if you want to compete for a national championship, if you want to play for a program that just went to a national championship [game] ... of course you're going to listen. If you're an actual player, you're going to listen to what the coaches have to say. I bought into it. And now we're here."

At the Final Four. An All American multiple times and an all-ACC academic selection.

It's a long way from checking in each morning with Purcell.

"For her at that point, it was just, 'Let's win the day, let's finish strong. You're special,'" Purcell said of the daily communication. "That's why it's awesome to see her having the senior year she is because we've always seen this. That's our goal, when we get a kid and she's at that level [of potential], we have a responsibility to make sure she achieves it."

She grew enough to become one of the best basketball players in program history. She also grew enough to become one of its best alumni whatever happens this weekend in Columbus.