Friday, February 06, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Devil lives rebounding

Leader sports editor

Tragic, and unexpected life changes often force people to make important decisions they are not ready to make. Such was the case for Jacksonville senior basketball player Jerika Lynn Hardaway.

From the time of her parents divorce at 12-years old, until Oct. 26 of last year, Hardaway’s home life was just she and her mother. But in early October of 2014, her mother, Mable Hardaway, told her she was dying, and four weeks later was gone. Jerika was alone, 17 years old and left to make some of the most important decisions of her life.

Her options were to move in with her older brother in Little Rock, or stay in Jacksonville and move in with her father, whom she’d had little relationship with in recent years.

Wanting to finish school and her basketball career as a Red Devil, she chose to move in with her father, and it’s been a blessed decision.

“It was a very hard transition because I had not had much of a relationship with him,” Hardaway said. “Me and my mom were real close, it was just the two of us.”

Making responsible decisions wasn’t new for Hardaway. When her mother told Hardaway that she was dying, the news was tragic, but not a complete shock. She had been ill with liver disease for many years, and Hardaway was her primary caretaker. On top of that, she went to school, participated in extra curriculars of basketball and ROTC and held down a steady job at the Burger King in Sherwood.

She still does all those things, only this year; she does them even better than before. She was an average student through high school, but has made all A’s and B’s in her senior year. She has also stepped up her game on the basketball court.

JHS head coach William Rountree calls her the hardest worker on the team, but you don’t have to take his word for it. You just have to watch the Lady Red Devils play. At around 5-foot-5, smaller than many guards in the league, Hardaway, who doesn’t have great ball handling or shooting skills, battles inside and averages almost 15 rebounds per game.

“It used to be something that just happened because I was playing hard,” Hardaway said of her rebounding totals. “But now, I like rebounding. When the ball goes up in the air, I just have that mindset that it’s mine.”

Hardaway, along with all the other Lady Red Devils, went through a transition when Rountree took over the program last season. It was a transition some players struggled with. He brought an entirely different coaching style than what players were used to. But Jerika flourished.

“I liked that when he got there it was a clean slate and everybody got a chance to prove themselves,” she said. “Some of the players didn’t like him too much. He didn’t really change the plays or style we play. He just yelled a lot. He’s going to yell regardless, but when we do what he says, things usually go pretty good. I like playing for him.”

Rountree also likes having her on his team, especially those rebounding totals and the maturity she brings to the team.

“That tells you what you need to know about Jerika right there,” said Rountree. “So much of rebounding is effort, and she goes so hard. For someone so undersized to be doing that, it tells you a lot about her as a person. She’s a determined young lady. It shows in her basketball stats and it shows off the court. She’s gone through a tremendous maturing process in the two years I’ve gotten to know her, and she’s been a pleasure to coach.”

And about that blessed decision; it wasn’t so much that Jerika made the right choice, but that her father, Jerry Hardaway, for whom Jerika is named, stepped up and made it the right choice.

When asked about the major life change of moving in with her father, the long pause and huge smile said everything anyone needs to know about how important a father is to a young lady. But she finally uttered a response.

“It’s gone real good,” she said. “I can say he’s been very supportive. He comes to all my games and he’s been a big support. It’s actually been real good. We’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been.”

Without the right skill set to play guard, and too small to play post in college, Hardaway knows her basketball career ends this season, but she’s prepared to make it as long of a season as possible, and prepared for when it’s over.

She likes working on cars. She’s in her second year of auto shop at JHS, and plans to enroll in Pulaski Tech’s automotive technician program.

For now, she’s still working hard and focused on having a great senior year. She still misses her mother, and there’s always a measure of guilt for feeling happy in light of such a loss. But Jerika made the right decisions, the responsible decisions, which are almost always the hard decisions. And she did it at a very young age. She’s still making the right decisions and behaving responsibly. As soon as last night’s game ended, she changed clothes and raced off to begin her shift at Burger King.

But she’s experienced a sort of role reversal from caretaker to being cared for, and there’s a lightness to her step now.

“I’m actually having fun,” she said. “I’m getting to know my teammates, my classmates, coach Rountree. It’s just fun.”

In other words, she’s done what only the hard-working, strong-minded do after tragedy. She rebounded.