Last winter was a rough time for Ariya Crook-Williams.
Her father died of cancer in November and she suffered an on-court concussion that wound up sidelining her for two months. When both blows fell in the span of a month, it was enough to make the 15-year-old think about quitting the sport she loves.
"I know he wanted me to keep going and not stop, so I actually did it for him," said Crook-Williams about how her father was the reason she kept playing basketball after his death. "My concussion, that stopped me big-time. Once I recovered, I was a little off when I came back, but I got it back together."
The 5-foot-7 point guard struggled at times on the court last season, but a spring full of practices helped get her back on track.
In July, the Long Beach, Calif., native finally looked like herself again, eight months after one of the toughest times in her life. Earlier this week, Crook-Williams was ranked No. 20 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Super 60 for the Class of 2011.
When she joined coach Elbert Kinnebrew's Cal Sparks program as an eighth-grader, she was known as Ariya Williams, a compact and fiery point guard with enough skills to play on the top team immediately. During this time, she reconnected with her father, Willie Crook. He loved watching her play basketball and went to as many of her games as he could. About a year later, Ariya told her coach that her last name needed to be changed to Crook-Williams in programs.
"She was really happy that he was back and involved," Kinnebrew said. "I met him at a game and Ariya just had this beaming look about her."
Then last fall, Crook missed some games. The cancer he'd been battling since Ariya was in elementary school was back. He died Nov. 14, 2008. Crook-Williams took the day off from basketball.
His death made her reconsider basketball, but her mother and aunt reminded her that her father would have wanted her to keep playing. Crook was proud of her basketball abilities.
"Prior to that, I don't think she had any fear," said her mother, Angie Williams. "Nothing bothered or fazed her. Now, I think she understands [death]."
Three weeks later, Crook-Williams and her Long Beach Poly teammates were battling Marlborough in the semifinal of the Inglewood Holiday Tipoff. Late in the game, the scrappy point guard was under the hoop, battling for a rebound. An errant elbow caught her head, and when she went down, her head hit the court.
Crook-Williams was unconscious.
She was rushed to the hospital. It was her first diagnosed concussion, and the doctor told her she wouldn't play for a month. Just a short time after she'd struggled with returning to the court, she was forced to take a break.
"It was the first time I had to sit out for a concussion," Crook-Williams said. "It was really hard; I almost cried. But I realized my future has many more games to be played."
She didn't make an immediate return to the court, or to her old self. Crook-Williams was cleared to play Jan. 9, 2009, but sat out one more game. It also took time for the laughter and energy to return to her game.
Readjusting was a slow process that took most of the high school season. But just as she did before her father's death and her injury, Crook-Williams put in the time on the court and, at the same time, her smiling personality came back. Long Beach Poly won another California Division I title, and in May, Crook-Williams was invited to Colorado for the USA Basketball U16 trials. When July and the club season arrived, she was once again operating on all cylinders.
"When she is focused on what we're trying to do and getting everyone involved, there is no better talent at the guard position," Kinnebrew said in July. "She's so strong and fast and she can shoot. For a while, we didn't see the make-everybody-better part, and that's what I saw today. We've talked about it before, and I want to see her get back to that. She used to love to come down the floor and make a great pass.
"When she's moving the ball, that's when she's at her best."
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Mindi Rice is a National High School/ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at The (Tacoma) News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.