Aerial Powers doesn’t remember exactly how old she was when she first went down to the courts in her Southwest Detroit neighborhood to play basketball with the guys. Maybe she was in fifth grade, maybe sixth. Certainly no more than seventh.
Her dad, Juan, went with her.
“She’s got next,” he informed those waiting to play.
And so she did.
It went on like this the next couple times they went, until finally her dad told her that she had to call next herself. She was terrified at the prospect; who was going to listen to her? But he insisted, and after considerable hemming and hawing she said it, in a voice so hushed that nobody could possibly hear.
Finally she talked her way onto a team that was short a player. And as on prior visits Juan demanded that the other ballers treat her as they would anyone else — that they knock her around, play her physically, challenge her. She had to prove herself, just as she had had to make her voice heard.
That, she managed to do.
“It didn’t take that much time,” she said, “because of the kind of player I was.”
Wasn’t too long before she didn’t even have to bother to call next when she showed up; somebody always wanted her on their team. That hasn’t changed since.
Michigan State wanted her in 2012, after she was twice chosen the state’s Class B Player of the Year at Detroit Country Day, and the redshirt junior forward has been named an All-Big Ten first-teamer the last two seasons. This year she is averaging 18.1 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Spartans, who are 7-2 heading into Friday’s game at Northeastern on ASN.
Team USA also wanted her for the World University Games over the summer, and she emerged as the top scorer, at 18 points a game, for a squad that won gold in South Korea.
And the WNBA figures to want her, too. She is eligible to enter the draft after this season, her fourth in East Lansing including the 2012-13 campaign, which she was forced to redshirt after tearing her left Achilles tendon in preseason drills.
She doesn’t know what she will do. All she knows is that there is always a next, and that’s never a bad thing.
Last year she set school records for points (678), rebounds (375) and scoring average (21.9), largely because she was forced to play extended minutes after a rash of injuries left the Spartans with just five healthy scholarship players. Guard Tori Janoska, the team’s other big scorer, was similarly overtaxed, and Sparty slipped from 23-10 in ’13-14 to 16-15.
This year the Spartans have a full roster, and higher expectations. They began the season ranked 23rd, but slipped out of the Top 25 after losing back-to-back games a few weeks back, to Baylor and Louisville.
As for Powers, she was an honorable mention preseason All-American, and believes she solidified her game in the competitive crucible of the World University Games.
“I took that and just tried to apply it to our team,” she said, “and help in every way that I learned.”
She sat out the season’s first two games with a sore Achilles, and late in the Dec. 3 loss to Louisville landed awkwardly on her left foot, giving rise to fears that she had again torn that tendon.
Turned out it was a charley horse in the Achilles — i.e., muscle spasms. It’s not serious, but neither is it any picnic. The tendon grew so tight that Powers’ toes curled up under her foot, and she was in considerable pain.
But it wasn’t a tear.
“It was more terrifying than anything,” she said.
An athletic trainer massaged out the kinks, and Powers sat out practice the next day. But she has played in all three games since, including a rout of Davidson in which she generated season highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds.
As always, she had next. Same as it ever was.
Above: Aerial Powers’ persistence on local courts helped build her into the player she is today. (Courtesy Matthew Mitchell)