by Amy Whitesall, Published February 22, 2012
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Tavelyn James was named the 2012 recipient of the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, presented annually to the nation's outstanding female collegian 5-feet-8-inches and under who has excelled both athletically and academically. Read the full press release.
For once, Tavelyn James didn't feel like running.
James, a senior guard, is the fastest player on the Eastern Michigan women's basketball team. Even coasting she could finish the 3-mile conditioning run ahead of her teammates and under the team's target time of 24 minutes.
But not all of the players were so successful on one conditioning day; a half dozen or so didn't make the cutoff, and this did not go down well with EMU coach AnnMarie Gilbert. James, a co-captain, got an earful about it.
Two days later the team ran again. This time James logged a personal-best 21:19, and everyone else made the team goal.
"That's when I realized when you work hard and you pull the team, they follow," she said.
James is one of the most dominant basketball players ever to step onto the court for EMU. On December 11 she broke former EMU guard Laurie Byrd's career scoring record in a 38-point performance against the University of Michigan. In October she became the first Mid-American Conference women's basketball player to represent the United States in the Pan-American Games. The senior from Detroit (Mumford High School by way of Mackenzie, which closed after her junior year) is averaging 22.4 points a game.
But she's only recently come to understand the difference between being a leading scorer and being a leader.
"I've actually grown a lot as a person (since I've been at Eastern), more than as a player," James said. "Basketball for me is just something I was born to do. I don't think basketball is hard for me, but when it comes to being a better person, (Gilbert) has to coach me on that."
After graduating six seniors from a team that played into the third round of the Women's Postseason NIT, these young Eagles have-much to just about everyone's surprise-already beaten Michigan and taken Michigan State into overtime. The Eagles are 20-7 overall and 12-2 in the MAC with two conference games remaining. They have talent and grit. What they needed from James is something she's never had to give before.
"She'll be the first to tell you, 'I didn't want to be the example,'" Gilbert said. "It was kind of like, 'I'm giving you 20 points a game, what more do you want?' But leadership is so much more than just points. When you're a leader, you're going to have to sacrifice."
Gilbert was asking for those little off-court things-setting aside social plans to host a recruit, pushing hard in the off-season when it seems like no one is looking. Then a few weeks after that conditioning run-the coach walked into her office and found a note on her desk. It was from James, and it said, "I think I'm ready. I think you know what I'm talking about."
"I just felt like I knew this team would follow me," James said. "I realized everything I do, they're watching, and I came to the conclusion that it was my time, and I was ready. I was ready for the pressure and everything else."
Not long afterward, USA Basketball called and James spent two weeks representing the U.S. in Guadalajara, Mexico - a well-timed bit of positive reinforcement. The USA coaches played James-a 5-foot-7 off-guard in EMU's lineup-at point guard. She started every game.
James is working on a degree in health administration, a choice driven by her family's struggles to get help for her older sister Tawana Edwards, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 25. But she also has a real shot at a professional basketball career.
"It feels like this is a dream," she says. "I would never ever have thought that me being the size I am and coming from where I came from, I might have the opportunity to play professionally." James picked up a basketball for the first time when she was nine years old. She stood out right away, Edwards says, even though at first she was playing with boys. The game was so much fun when she was younger, James says. Only when she got to EMU did she find out it could also be so much work.
Long practices, intense workouts. This obligation to help teammates rise to the challenge. At first she didn't really understand what Gilbert was asking of her. Now she gets it.
"Tavelyn has come a long way since her freshman year," Gilbert said. "She wasn't coming from a program where she had to learn to be part of a system. She had to learn how to be part of something larger than herself."
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Eastern magazine.