Though she's only a freshman, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has already earned the respect of her UConn teammates. She struggled early in the season, but lately she's been finding her rhythm. Through it all, she's kept her cool, something her father, Khairi Ali, can take some credit for. "I always told her, if it's not working, you don't give up, you just try something different," he said. espnW caught up with Ali on Monday as he prepared to watch his daughter play against long-standing rival Stanford.
espnW: When did Kaleena first show interest in basketball?
Khairi Ali: She was about 5 years old. It wasn't our first choice -- I was a soccer player and her mom played softball. So first we tried to interest her in those sports, but she just didn't take to them. Then we tried basketball and she loved it. So it was a pretty simple decision to encourage her to play.
espnW: How involved were you in your daughter's training early on?
KA: Kaleena was always the motivator of her success. She just had such a passion for the game and a focus on improving. I was the support and the transportation to get her to wherever she was going for games and practices.
espnW: Did you coach her at all?
KA: Not really. We had one moment, when she was 8 years old and didn't make a team she wanted to make, where she came to me and asked what she needed to do to get better. And I worked with her -- took her to the gym with me, practiced with her -- for several months. We watched videos together of other players and games, just analyzing what they were doing. She saw early on that if she was disciplined in her training, she would make it pretty far.
espnW: Were you part of her college decision-making process?
KA: Both her mother and I told her it was her decision, and that we'd support her choice. When she was 15 years old, I took her on a trip to visit UConn, and that was it. She met the players, talked to the coaches, and said, "Dad, I want to commit." And I said, "Whoa, hold on, I think you need to call your mom." She got on the phone with her mother, and 15 minutes later, Kaleena told me, "OK, this is where I'm going." She just knew right away this was her school.
espnW: You were OK with that?
KA: Oh yeah. Her mom and I secretly wanted her to go to Connecticut. The women here -- not just the players -- they are strong, focused ladies, I knew Kaleena would be pushed to be her best. She's a great basketball player but she's also strong academically. And I thought at this school she would be pushed to be the best at both.
espnW: Is the Stanford game the first one you've come to?
KA: No, we were at her first game of the season, on Nov. 3, which also happened to be her 18th birthday.
espnW: Did you see a difference in her playing style since her high school games?
KA: Definitely. Her maturity as a player was so much more advanced. The team has given her more confidence, more focus. She's told me, "Dad, I can feel myself getting better."
espnW: Do you get anxious when she's playing?
KA: Oh, I always get nervous -- she's my baby! But ultimately, I just want her to have fun. I think a lot of people expect you to get caught up in, did they win? How many points did she score? I don't want that for Kaleena. I want it to be something she enjoys. She pushes herself as it is. She doesn't need someone else to push her.
espnW: What advice have you given her about her basketball career?
KA: I've always told her, the harder you work, the better you get. If you're struggling, you don't just give in. You try something different. Keep shooting, keep trying, and it will turn around eventually.
-- Julia Savacool