Nobody in her family had ever gone to college, but Ta'Kierra Gibbs still dreamed of playing Division I ball.
Talking to teachers made her nervous, and Gibbs didn't have anyone around her to explain how to get into a college. Never mind how to balance academics and athletics once she got there. She started at a junior college, Central Georgia Technical College, and earned All-America honorable mention. Just as Gibbs reached her dream -- signing to play at Division I basketball at Western Carolina -- she lost it. She didn't qualify academically, unable to pass an English class.
Gibbs was crushed, convinced she didn't have a future in college. She sat out an entire year, worked at Walmart, shot hoops when she could. But she didn't give up on herself; she completed the English course at her juco. And that's when Troy coach Chanda Rigby offered Gibbs a spot on her Division I team. Rigby saw fire in Gibbs -- a player hungry to play, to win, who just needed an opportunity.
Since, Gibbs has gained confidence in taking tests and approaching professors, pouring her energy into her major, social science. She's also a spark that ignites Troy (19-10, 12-6) on the court.
"I'm really thankful because if it wasn't for juco, I could be done with basketball," Gibbs said. "If it wasn't for this second chance, if it wasn't for Coach Rigby, I wouldn't be here."
Sweeping the floors
The plaques glimmer across the walls in Rigby's office at Troy. There is a framed newspaper clipping from 2011 when she guided her previous team, Pensacola State College, to the junior college nationals for the first time since 1985.
When Rigby looks, she sees more than wins.
She sees her former players, beaming and screaming, raising fists to the sky. Women whose ankles she taped, whose uniforms she washed, whose English papers she glanced over. Women she told day after day: You will become a college graduate. Women who eventually became four-year graduates. Division I players. Teachers. Pro ballers. Social workers. Coaches.
"There have been ups and downs, but they persisted," said Rigby, who guided Troy to the NCAA tournament last season for the second time in school history and regularly recruits juco players. "A lot were first in their family to get a college degree."
Many women have thrived from juco. Danielle Adams (Jefferson College) led Texas A&M to a national title and played for the San Antonio Silver Stars; former Mystics guard Shannon Bobbitt (Trinity Valley) helped Tennessee to two national titles. Legends like Yolanda Griffith (Palm Beach State), Sheryl Swoopes (South Plains College) and Saudia Roundtree (Kilgore College) all starred in the pros.
But an alternate image, one of the troubled juco player, flawed academically or behaviorally, is often the one that permeates.
Rigby coached one such player. She could dunk. She was tall, speedy and commanding. She was a future D-I star. But she was dealt a rough upbringing and had anger management issues. Bouncing to four jucos, she feared success. One step forward yielded two back, as poor decisions halted her momentum. Her D-I dream eventually dissolved.
Those struggles stick with Rigby, but so do the successes less told.
"It's important that we show people they're wrong. They don't understand that we're not dumb. We're not stupid. We can read and write." Roonie Scovel
"There are stereotypes," Rigby said. "I'm proud to be associated with junior college. It can change a person's future and their kids' future. It improves people every day."
That starts with the coaches, who have poured their hearts into programs despite limited resources.
During the 1970s, at the dawn of Title IX, Gary Ashlock's team at Henderson County Junior College (Texas), now Trinity Valley, shared a gym with 100 cheerleaders, P.E. classes, volleyball and badminton. Court lines were barely visible. Players showered and dressed in dorms.
Ashlock, who retired from coaching in 1997, was also a full-time outside linebacker coach for the football team. "Tend to the girls when you can," Ashlock, an eventual Hall of Famer, was told of his priorities.
"The athletic director really didn't feel like women were warriors," Ashlock said. "[Women] were taking away space, budget and so on. It was the argument that many successful athletic directors, coaches and administrators used for decades to keep women on the backburner."
But Ashlock's team defied expectations, winning five conference championships, three regional titles and three national tournament berths. It now boasts eight national championships.
Other programs also blossomed, like Roonie Scovel's Gulf Coast State College (Florida), which owns four national titles; and Jim Littell's Seward County Community College (Kansas), a team that won 87 percent of its games over 14 years. Littell is now head coach at Oklahoma State.
Without the resources of their four-year counterparts, juco coaches drove team vans, swept gym floors and taped knees. Many still do.
"You had your kids help you take your own stats," said Kim Muhl, in his 28th season as coach of Kirkwood Community College (Iowa). The Hall of Famer owns six national titles. "They'd sub in and somebody else would stat the game."
When Dave Kragel began coaching at Walters State Community College (Tennessee) 40 years ago, he sold ads to raise money for uniforms. His players still hustle through every defensive drill, regardless of the brand of sneakers on their feet.
"I find the best kids I can in my scholarship budget. We work extremely hard," said Kragel, a Hall of Famer who owns 16 state titles and more than 900 wins.
There are financial disparities between jucos, which are split into Divisions I, II, and III. D-I's may offer full athletic scholarships; D-II's are limited to providing tuition, fees, course-related books and other expenses; D-III's do not offer any athletically related financial assistance.
"It will fire people up or it will tell you to go be an accountant because you can't fake it in junior college." Jeff Osterman
Yet there is common ground. "The least thing we do is coach basketball -- and we coach a lot of basketball," said Scovel, in her 19th season at defending national champion Gulf Coast State. She has guided the program to four national crowns and 15 conference championships.
"At the juco level, you don't have the academic advisor -- we're it. You don't have the strength and conditioning coach -- we're it," said Scovel, who played her college ball at Florida. "You're in the grind with those kids."
Jeff Osterman, associate head coach at South Florida and former coach at Central Florida Community College, once frantically called New York hotel after hotel to track down a 6-foot-5 post from Mali caught in the confusion of Sept. 11, 2001. Finding her, losing her, then finding her again, he realized this level isn't for everybody.
"It will fire people up or it will tell you to go be an accountant," Osterman said, "because you can't fake it in junior college."
Many former juco coaches, like UTEP head coach Keitha Adams, formerly of Independence Community College (Kansas), recruit juco players to Division I. "They bring experience," Adams said. "It's a way that you can recruit to fill a need for your team. If you need a great rebounder, a scorer, a point guard, a shooter -- if there's a piece you need, you can find it there."
A different path
That was a juco move. Roonie Scovel froze in her living room when she heard the broadcaster's words while watching her former Gulf Coast State player's Division I game.
"I'd like to have come out of my recliner," said Scovel, whose former player had fumbled the ball. "Thank God I don't tweet because I would have definitely been stupid enough to say something."
Juco coaches and players are accustomed to the stigma that follows them, no matter if they fumble or fly. "Juco" can become a euphemism for "baggage," "bad grades" or "bad attitude." Is she really "that good"? How will her game "translate"? Should we "take a chance" on her?
"There is definitely a stigma that us juco people have to fight every day," Scovel said. "It's important that we show people they're wrong. They don't understand that we're not dumb. We're not stupid. We can read and write."
"Parents are willing to accept and look at the option and say, 'My Johnny or my Mary could really benefit from a junior college.'" Susan Summons
Many players do choose juco for academic reasons. Nearly every Division I program is waiting to see which route Namiko Adams, floor general for West Campus High School (Sacramento, California) and a top 2017 prospect, will take. It's unclear if Adams will qualify academically. West Campus coach John Langston said Adams is keeping her options open, talking to both Division I and juco coaches.
"She has goals and aspirations," Langston said, "but if she has to go to juco to get there, then that's exactly what she will do."
But juco rosters are also filled with academic qualifiers, players who boast top scores on college-entrance exams.
"As a juco coach for the past 17 years," said Brian Crichlow of Mt. San Antonio College [California], "we've encompassed valedictorians to kids that barely made it out of high school to kids that passed through with a GED."
"It's all based on where you are mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually."
Susan Summons, head coach at Miami Dade College, has spent 35 years at the juco level as both a coach and educator. She said stereotypes have lessened in recent years, partially due to the NCAA upping juco transfer requirements in 2013, such as requiring a 2.5 GPA rather than a 2.0.
"People are a little bit more open, a little more flexible. Parents are willing to accept and look at the option and say, 'My Johnny or my Mary could really benefit from a junior college,'" said Summons, a five-time Hall of Fame honor inductee who has led Miami Dade to 22 trips to the Florida State Community College Athletic Association State/Regional Championships.
Some choose juco for more structure, more time to mature, more offers. Troy University guard Amanda Mendoza, who drained six 3-pointers in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference championship last season to defeat No. 1 Arkansas State, earned a 3.7 GPA in high school and thrived in advanced classes. But standing 5-3, she didn't receive the Division I interest she craved. She played for St. Petersburg College to put herself back on the market.
"I wanted to prove everybody wrong," Mendoza said. "The only way I was going to play D-I was going to juco, working my butt off and getting the opportunity."
Shae Kelley, then a top high school star in Denver, signed with the University of Colorado. Then the coaching staff was fired. Kelley tried to stick it out but didn't feel it was the right fit. She became a juco All-American at Northwest Florida State, eventually playing for Old Dominion, Minnesota and in the WNBA. She now plays in Israel.
"It taught me that just because I went to a juco [it] didn't make me any less of a basketball player or person," Kelley said. "I just had a different path, and that was OK."
Juco enabled Kelley to play immediately without sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. That's what brought sharpshooter Taylor Emery to No. 3 Gulf Coast State this season.
Emery shined for Tulane last season, making the AAC all-freshman team (alongside UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier). But few knew she was miserable, isolating herself in her dorm room. She missed home. She didn't mesh well with the team's half-court style. Taylor, seriously? You're too good to go juco., she heard. But she knew she needed a fresh start.
Now she is happy, free on the court.
"It's not a big deal to go juco because it can actually help better your game in the end," said Emery, Gulf Coast State's top scorer. "This is the best decision I've ever made so far in my life."