This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Kia Vaughn will never forget her basketball coming-out party. Or maybe it's better to say she'll never live it down.
It was the summer after eighth grade and she'd mustered the courage to play in a Brooklyn outdoor tournament at Tillary Park. The courts there overlook the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which, as Vaughn explains it, is a detail that pretty much makes the story.
"I was underneath the basket and I missed a layup," says Vaughn, a 6-foot-4 senior center at St. Michael's Academy and a SchoolSports All-American. "So I got the rebound and I put it back up. At least I thought I put it back up. But I threw it over the backboard, over the fence and down onto the highway. At those courts, there's only a high gate that separates the court from the BQE. We all just stood there and looked like, ‘What just happened?' I was just thinking, ‘I'm never going to get this game. It's so hard.'"
It may be hard, but Vaughn gets it now. Recruiting Web site Blue Star Basketball rates her the No. 4 girls' hoop player in the entire nation. And she was one of the most aggressively recruited ballers in the country this past summer before committing to Rutgers in early November.
As a junior, Vaughn averaged 15.5 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game while leading St. Michael's to a 20-4 record. She then spent most of this past summer in Colorado playing in the USA Basketball Women's Youth Development Festival in June and participating in the USA Women's Junior National Team trials in July.
But St. Michael's assistant coach Atache Taschall, who tutors the team's low-post players, says the magic of Vaughn's game isn't in her numbers. It's in the shadow she casts upon every trip up the floor by opponents.
"She's a female version of Bill Russell," says Taschall. "She can dominate a game taking only five shots. She's the quickest, most athletic post player ever to come out of New York City. She's a throwback. She takes over games defensively. Our goal was to make her the best defensive player in the country so she brought something different to the table. That's how she's separated herself."
It didn't hurt that, in the process, Vaughn transformed herself from a person strong-armed into playing basketball ("My mom and my aunt told me I had to do something with my height," she says) to a person who can't live without it.
And it took a broken bone to drive that point home.
"I started to enjoy the game my sophomore year, but it wasn't until last season that I came to love it," says Vaughn, who missed the last three games of the regular season and the entire postseason last year after suffering a stress fracture in her lower left leg. "My injury last year helped me realize basketball is a part of my life. I came to learn I can never give it up and never let anyone take it away from me."
Playful, good-natured and exceedingly articulate, Vaughn predictably found more than one silver lining in the dark clouds that closed out her junior season. For starters, she learned a lot more about the game from her vantage point on the bench.
"I can tell you I look at the game a lot differently now," explains Vaughn, who will turn 18 on Jan. 24. "I learned how to read people. Like when this guard moves that way, she usually does this. I also learned about taking care of my body more so I won't get hurt again."
Another byproduct of the injury became an even bigger milestone for Vaughn: She learned how to swim. In a sink-or-swim sort of way.
Required to rehab in the pool at Manhattan's Hansborough Recreation Center, Vaughn was forced into the water by her trainer despite being petrified. She was, however, permitted to wear flotation assistance.
"Well, there I was, I put everything they had available on," says Vaughn, who owns career highs of 19 points, 34 rebounds and 11 blocks. "Life vest. Waist belt. Arm floats. Well, after two days, they got me in the water, then the staff there just stripped the floats off me. I went under and, well, I was just forced to come up. Now I love swimming. It's very relaxing."
Don't be fooled by the rap, though. Vaughn may be serene and sensible off the court, but she's a ruthless, unforgiving competitor on the court.
And she knows it.
"The court is a place for business," she says. "It's a time to be cool and a time to be serious. If you put my mother out there against me, I'm going to go at her with everything I have. And if you make a nice play against me, you're going to regret ever trying to beat me. Afterwards, I'm a nice person again."
Being hardcore on the hardcourt is a trait Vaughn demonstrated early on.
"I knew when she was a freshman that we had something special," says St. Michael's ninth-year head coach Jennifer Maxon. "We were losing a postseason game because our guards were having an awful night, and there's Kia on the court just demanding the ball. Not every freshman is going to step up in that situation. It was clear then that we didn't have just a player — we had a leader."
That's a part of Vaughn's game that Maxon is certain will be just as prominent the next time Vaughn becomes a freshman — about nine months from now.
"Kia's quickness is going to surprise anyone who steps on the court with her for the first time at the next level," says Maxon. "But what will make her an instant impact player is her AAU, Team USA and international experience. There is no good collegiate post player in the country, with the exception of a few college seniors, that Kia hasn't played with or against already. She's not going to be a doe in the headlights. That will put her in an incredible position to succeed."
And a long way from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.