Napheesa Collier packing a punch
It was an hour before tipoff at an out-of-state tournament when Napheesa Collier realized something was missing.
"My parents were pretty mad," said the 17-year-old, who hopped in the car with her dad and rushed to a store to get a new pair, managing to make it back to the gym in time for the game.
On another occasion, she forgot her uniform, and her mom had to go get it and meet her halfway at a gas station to deliver the gear.
And that's not all that Collier forgets.
"She's the one kid whose purse I know by heart because I'm always picking it up," said Dan Rolfes, her coach at Incarnate Word Academy (St. Louis, Mo.).
That's Collier. Forgetful? Yes. Forgettable? Not even close.
The 6-foot-1 junior forward is the No. 7 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2015 class. She was Missouri's Gatorade Player of the Year last season after leading Incarnate Word, now ranked No. 2 in the espnW 25 Power Rankings, to a state championship.
Collier has been recruited since before she even played a high school game, and the intense battle for her college admission has just now reached the next level. Her five finalists are Missouri, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Kentucky and Maryland.
But basketball is just part of Collier's rich backstory. Her paternal grandfather was an ambassador who helped Sierra Leone gain its independence from Great Britain -- there is a photo of him in the Collier home with former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
In addition, Napheesa Collier has a connection to WNBA star Maya Moore. And Collier has many interesting hobbies -- including boxing.
Collier never met her grandfather, Gershon Collier, who passed away in 1994 after suffering a stroke. But she is proud of her heritage, which, on her father's side, includes Sierra Leone's struggle for independence and peace.
Collier's father, Gamal, came to the United States in 1993 after civil war broke out in Sierra Leone.
Gamal found his way to Missouri at age 23 and began working at a nursing home, where he met the woman who would be his wife, Sarah. She was 19.
They eventually had two children -- Napheesa, whose name means "precious one" or "princess" -- and a younger brother, Kai.
Collier played her freshman season at Jefferson City (Mo.), which is where she met Moore.
The two basketball players share the same hometown. Unfortunately for Jefferson City, both of their families moved out of town. Moore's family moved to Georgia when she was in fifth grade.
The Collier family moved to St. Louis after her mother, a nurse by trade and now working in hospital administration, was transferred to the bigger city.
It was a big blow for the Jefferson City girls' athletic program. After all, as a freshman, Collier averaged 17.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 3.6 steals and 1.9 blocks.
A natural athlete, she also starred at the state track meet that year, even though she had very little training in the sport.
Shane Meyer, who coached her at Jefferson City, said just as impressive as her length and athleticism were her other traits, such as her selflessness.
Meyer said there is also a certain innocence to Collier, who has a 4.0 GPA.
"She can be gullible," Meyer said with a laugh. "I have a sarcastic side, and 95 percent of the girls on the team would get it, but Napheesa would buy it hook, line and sinker.
"I think it goes back to her nature. She is willing to buy in and do whatever her coach asks."
Meyer started getting calls from college coaches in the summer before Collier enrolled. Life wasn't the same after she left.
"There was a ripple effect in which we didn't get invited to the same tournaments and not as many college coaches would come to our games," Meyer said. "But bigger than that, our kids really missed hanging out with her. She was well liked."
Finding ways to improve
When Collier arrived at Incarnate Word, she was expecting the worst.
"I had every bad stereotype about an all-girls Catholic school that you can think of," Collier said.
Collier admitted she thought there would be nuns who would hit her with rulers. She also thought she wouldn't relate to the girls.
Point guard Nakiah Bell, a 5-6 senior and an Iowa State recruit, said the girls on the team liked Collier immediately.
"She was quiet at first," Bell said. "I think she thought we were weird because we go to an all-girls school. But no, we're human."
Once that was settled, Collier focused in on basketball. With no time for track, Collier was even more dominant in her primary sport, averaging 24.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 4.0 steals and 2.5 blocks.
She shot 77 percent from the foul line and 71 percent from the floor.
Reggie Middlebrook, who is her AAU coach on the star-studded Missouri Phenom, said he knew Collier would be special when she was in seventh grade.
"She has a desire to be great more than anyone else I have ever been around," he said.
Rolfes, her high school coach, raves about her defensive ability to guard anyone and her offensive ability to play inside or on the perimeter.
Collier last season only took two 3-pointers -- she made one -- but that was mostly because few players could stop her from getting to the rim. There was really no need to take 3s.
"She shoots the ball extremely well," Rolfes said. "She's done a lot to improve her range."
But as good as she is, Collier is still looking to improve. She takes yoga classes to help with her flexibility. And she has started taking boxing lessons from her father -- who had five pro fights in his younger days -- to sharpen her footwork.
"My dad has taught me and my brother the basics," Collier said. "I can't wait to spar."
Rolfes said he has no problems with Collier boxing -- as long as she doesn't get injured.
"She's a tough, hard-nosed kid," he said. "It's not like something small would keep her out."
Something the size of her sneakers? Well, that's another story.