U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2007 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Ex-Baylor star walks away from basketball
Malcolm Moran, USA Today

Far from her family and the friends of a basketball life, removed from the Baylor University community where she helped win the 2005 NCAA women's championship, Emily Nkosi has taken a once unimaginable turn. At 21, as a student at the University of Massachusetts, she has not held a basketball since last fall, when she helped young children discover the value of a game she left behind.

Her name was Emily Niemann when her obsessive pursuit of a national championship required a daily commitment throughout her adolescence. But after playing an essential role in Baylor's NCAA championship victory against Michigan State, Nkosi chose a path that led her to leave the school, publicly acknowledge her life as a lesbian, give up the game and embrace a new identity.

"I really have not had the capacity to think about it," she said Sunday about the game. "I have had to work so hard doing life things that I haven't had the time or the energy to think about missing basketball, and I certainly haven't had the time to watch games.

"What I miss the most is the people."

Nkosi says she has not had time to follow Baylor, which has a 21-4 record and No. 14 ranking, or the University of California-Santa Barbara, where she transferred and practiced last season before choosing to leave last spring. UCSB, suddenly without its anticipated impact player, lost five of its first six games but has won 10 of the last 12 and is 14-10 overall (7-2 and second in the Big West Conference).

In a series of interviews since late June, Nkosi discussed for the first time at length her decision to leave Baylor because of the demands required to compete at the elite level of the game.

"You can't seriously pursue a whole lot else," she said.

Nkosi said she also feared losing her Baylor scholarship because of her evolving relationship with Ashley Taylor, then a graduate student and roommate and now her partner. The administration at Baylor, a Baptist school, says it does not revoke scholarships, including athletic scholarships, for homosexuality.

Nkosi believes there are players in women's college and pro basketball who feel a need to conceal their relationships or reveal them only to teammates and coaches because of pressures from alumni and other donors and sponsors to maintain an image of traditional role models.

"There is a lot of fear being driven into a lot of people," she said. "Not only is it sad (because of) the people who are saying, 'You can't do this because if you do this, this booster is going to pull out on me.' It's really sad because it's something you can hold over someone. If you come out or if people know about your relationship, you're going to suffer these repercussions."

Kim Mulkey, the Baylor coach, declined requests through athletics director Ian McCaw to discuss her former player or the departure. McCaw said he could not respond to any questions because of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Nkosi is completing her degree requirements at Massachusetts with a plan to become licensed as a teacher and progress toward a yet-to-be defined future in humanitarian work.

She and her partner were married Aug. 24 in Massachusetts. The women selected their new surname to honor Nkosi Johnson, a child from South Africa whose too-short life attracted international attention because he was born HIV-positive.

Championship unfulfilling

Emily Nkosi's path was created after an awakening experienced soon after the completion of Baylor's dream championship in her sophomore year. She remembers opening her eyes in an Indianapolis hotel room the morning after the title game.

"I had always imagined that would be the ultimate," she said of the triumph, "and that would be the moment that everything was worth it, and this feels so fulfilling and so full and real to me.

"And it didn't."

She had passionately pursued her dream each day since the fourth grade, when the NBA championships of her hometown Houston Rockets inspired her. Her basketball career would be defined by an intense, self-imposed drive to a college title.

In the NCAA final, her 19 points, including 5-for-8 three-point shooting, placed Niemann on the Final Four all-tournament team. The title completed an unusual double for her family. Her older brother, Jeff, had a 17-0 record as a pitcher for Rice's 2003 NCAA championship baseball team; the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made him the fourth player selected in the 2004 draft, and he is on their 40-man roster.

At 6-1, with a Baylor-record 45.1% career three-point percentage, Emily possessed the size and ability to succeed close to the basket and beyond the arc.

As the Lady Bears celebrated, no one could have known that game would mark the end of her career after her philosophical questions inspired a painful self appraisal.

Her fears were based upon the experience of James Matthew Bass, a former graduate student at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He had a partial scholarship from the Baptist General Convention of Texas that was withdrawn when he acknowledged his homosexuality, according to the school.

Dub Oliver, a vice president for student life at Baylor, said in an e-mail response to a question about university policy, "Baylor has not expelled any student for his or her sexual orientation, and no student or student-athlete has had a Baylor scholarship revoked for his or her sexual orientation."

The distinction, according to the school, is that Bass' scholarship was not a Baylor scholarship but a Baptist General Convention of Texas scholarship that comes with specific guidelines, including a proscription against homosexuality.

Bass left Baylor during Nkosi's freshman year. She had begun to struggle with a conflict between her finding other females attractive and a religious background that condemns homosexuality.

While at Baylor, Nkosi said, she had counseling off campus in an attempt to convince herself she was heterosexual. As her friendship with Taylor progressed during her sophomore season, the women carefully limited the time they spent together outside their apartment and did not tell their families about the relationship for months.

"At Baylor there was more of a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy implied," Emily Nkosi said. "I can't recall a specific meeting or team rule or anything like that. I can just say it was made very aware what was OK and what was not, and it was also made very aware the information that was not wanted. ...

"If you come out, you go away. You're out of your scholarship. You're surely out of a good percentage of the community and staff support."

The university's policy does not state a specific consequence for such a relationship, but its stance on such relationships is clear. The policy reads:

"Baylor University welcomes all students into a safe and supportive environment in which to discuss and learn about a variety of issues, including those of human sexuality. The university affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.

"Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching."

Changing priorities

Nkosi transferred to UCSB, where the women's team has gone to the NCAA tournament in nine of the last 10 seasons while undergoing a remarkable change. Coach Mark French, whose teams have won 410 games in his 20 seasons at UCSB, said his program once was accurately portrayed as predominantly white and Christian.

"That was fine," he said as he sat in the campus gymnasium in late June, "but I didn't think the learning that was really going on in our program was as good as it could be. I made a decision that we needed to take steps internally to make sure any woman of any race, religion, socioeconomic situation, sexual choice, whatever, could come here and feel comfortable."

The program offered everything Nkosi wanted. She felt she was in a more tolerant community, growing in a program that would use her versatility as a player. Her eagerness to fit in at UCSB led to polite but firm deflections of questions about her past. She made individualized Christmas ornaments as gifts for her new teammates.

She was voted an offseason captain, an unusual tribute to a transfer player, and French anticipated she would be a captain this season. The first hint of an issue developed in the spring, when French asked each player to write the priority values in her life. It was his attempt to establish how the context of basketball could help develop those values beyond their athletic careers.

"Emily came in with her list," French remembered, "and there wasn't much on there that actually could be, in her opinion, worked on here as a basketball player. Most of who she wanted to be, most of her values, were better served someplace else. ...

"It was apparent that there was the beginnings of a disconnect between what Emily really valued about herself and where she wanted to be and what our program and maybe any program could offer her in terms of her future growth."

Life without basketball

Nkosi was interested in humanitarian work overseas. She began to consider the daily obsession of her adolescence to be the pursuit of a childish dream.

In a series of conversations, some emotionally powerful, French challenged Nkosi to honor the commitment she had made to teammates and coaches. He thought one season as a Gaucho would be a fair compromise.

"I worry about the sporting culture giving anybody coaches or players the feeling that it's OK to say you're going to do something, and then because you change your mind or feel differently about it, it's OK to walk away," French said evenly. "In some cases, it may be the right decision to walk away.

"What I wanted Emily to do was really carefully carefully consider the fact that she had made a commitment to us. And how does that factor into the woman that she wants to be? If Emily is going to change the lives of people throughout the rest of her life, she's going to need to build trusting relationships with those people."

French is convinced she did what he asked.

"Short term, we probably would not have scheduled the schedule we have," French said this week, referring to a set of non-league opponents that included UCLA, Oregon, Louisville, North Carolina State, Maryland and Michigan State all of which defeated UCSB. "Long term, we're fine. We're feisty and competitive. I know it's going to work out for us. I hope it works out for Emily."

Nkosi's father, Steve Niemann, speaking for his family, wrote in an e-mail responding to questions about his daughter's decisions: "Playing basketball was an amazing experience for Emily, and we are proud of her accomplishments. Her heart is in another direction now, and the family supports her in her efforts to help others. We love her and stand by her as she pursues what is in her heart."

As Nkosi sat in her old apartment, not long before the midsummer move to Massachusetts, she stopped to think about her life without her game.

"This has been as good as any time I've had thus far in my life," she said, "to have the opportunity to realize if nobody writes another article about me, if I never score another point in any other game, if I never do anything that anyone considers significant, I am still a valid person and I'm still loved and I'm still a creation of God.

"Realizing those things, when you don't have those outside voices supporting you, has been really challenging."

Second place: Mike Waters, espn.com
Third place: Vahe Gregorian, St. Louis Post-Dispatch