Recee' Caldwell has pioneering spirit
When Recee' Caldwell was a sophomore, she paid a visit to UCLA, which hasn't been past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 1999. Later she visited UConn and took notice of all the national championship banners crammed into the rafters at Gampel Pavilion.
The choice was clear.
"I just wanted to become part of starting a legacy," the UCLA commit said. "I know I would have gone to UConn and been part of a legacy, but I want to start something -- like a trailblazer."
That pioneering spirit is nothing new for Caldwell, who has taken an unconventional path through high school. The 5-foot-9 point guard from San Antonio is the only home-schooled player selected to play in the McDonald's All American girls' game on Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPNU). Justin Jackson, who will play in the boys' game, also is home-schooled.
Caldwell, the No. 9 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2014 class, decided to quit playing high school ball at Lady Bird Johnson (San Antonio, Texas) in November of her junior year.
"We had 11 games within one month," Caldwell said. "So my body was already getting banged up and I wasn't getting better at all. I just knew I had many more years to play, so if I was banged up now, I wouldn't be effective in the long run."
Instead of playing high school basketball, Caldwell focused on training, doing what she calls "smart workouts" in place of things like suicide runs. Besides working with the former strength and conditioning coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Caldwell does yoga four times a week and swims, which causes less wear and tear on her body. And she takes time off when she feels like she needs it.
Still, it takes a lot of self-motivation to go the home-schooling route. Teenagers who can't push themselves could end up sitting at home all day and not getting better. It also means sacrificing the social scene around high school and the media attention that comes with playing prep sports.
But Caldwell said she doesn't mind being out of the spotlight. She turned down offers from multiple Nike programs with higher profiles in order to stay with her father Ray Caldwell's AAU team, San Antonio's Finest.
"My focus is just on getting better and stepping onto the UCLA campus ready to contribute," she said.
It also helped Caldwell to know that UCLA and her other two finalists, Connecticut and Duke, approved of her decision to give up high school basketball.
Current Connecticut sophomore Moriah Jefferson was also home-schooled coming out of Glenn Heights, Texas, and had a smooth transition into college basketball, earning All-Big East rookie honors as a freshman and starting every game for the Huskies this season. Another home-schooled player, Taber Spani, started 83 games for Tennessee before finishing her career in 2013.
Growing up in Southern California, Caldwell decided she wanted to play basketball for a living when she was 9 years old because of a detour she now calls "life-changing." She thought she was taking a family trip to Knott's Berry Farm, an amusement park outside Los Angeles. Instead, her dad took her to an L.A. Sparks WNBA game. Seeing Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw was all it took.
"At first I was mad," Caldwell said. "I was like, 'Really? I don't want to go to a basketball game; I want to go to an amusement park and have fun.' But by the end of the game, I told my dad this was my dream. I want to be a pro. It wasn't, 'I want to go to college.' It was like, 'I want to be a pro.' "
The next day, Ray woke Recee' up at 5 a.m. to work out. That went on for a couple of weeks, but after that it was Recee' who set the alarm.
"A lot of people talk about burnout and those things," Ray said. "This kid has been waking me up for years saying, 'More, more, more.'
"I believe that every kid in the top percentages of the country works extremely hard. You don't get to be elite without working hard. But she's just different. She thinks outside the box with that, and her work ethic is something that, as a father, I'm proud of."
Ray said that part of the reason he took Recee' to a Sparks game was because he thought Leslie was a smart, beautiful role model for young women. His plan worked -- when Caldwell was still 9, she wrote a school essay titled "I Am Lisa Leslie."
Then she went about working her way toward that goal.
"Her focus and passion for the game is just not normal for a young kid," Ray said. "A lot of people would be a lot more successful if they were as dedicated to their craft as she is."
Recee' quickly realized that she would never be as tall as Leslie. Instead, she studies film of versatile guards like Stephen Curry and Deron Williams, complete offensive players who also serve as leaders and facilitators on their NBA teams.
Caldwell made the USA Basketball women's U16 national team as a 14-year-old and capped her prep career with the selection to the McDonald's All American Games.
"I'm just so excited," she said. "It's just an honor to be a part of this whole experience because their alumni [list] is crazy, with Candace [Parker] and Maya Moore and Elena [Delle Donne] and Skylar Diggins. I mean, just to be part of that group is so cool."
While her pre-college route was uncommon, Caldwell said she would make the same decision again.
"I know I was in God's hands, and I knew I would prosper if I put prayer on it and just worked toward my goal," she said. "I was never really nervous about it. I know I took a lot of flak for it, but in the long run it was a blessing."