A healthy appetite for life, basketball
When Quanli Li looks at her 16-year-old daughter, she almost can't believe things have turned out so well.
Considering that Quanli played pro basketball in China for a decade, it's not all that surprising that Natalie Chou is representing Team USA at the FIBA U17 World Championship and is one of the top prospects in the nation.
The surprise is that Chou is still alive.
When Chou was just a week old, she stopped breathing.
Quanli and her husband, Joseph Chou, had only recently arrived in Texas, where he was studying at Lamar University. Not knowing the local doctors or even how to contact one, Quanli frantically reached for the phone book and found a nearby clinic.
"When we got there, Natalie had no pulse," Quanli said. "The nurses immediately put an oxygen mask on her and rushed her to the hospital next door."
Chou was revived and diagnosed with Human Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, a condition she no longer suffers from.
Still, since Chou had spent an unknown amount of time without a pulse, there was grave concern that she could have permanent brain damage.
But Chou didn't just survive her near-death experience, she has flourished.
Academically, she is doing very well -- all A's and B's as a rising junior at Plano West (Plano, Texas).
Athletically, the 6-foot-1 undeclared wing is the No. 20 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2016 class. And on May 26, Chou made the United States' U17 team that features other top prospects in the nation, including 2015 stars and UConn recruits Katie Lou Samuelson and De'Janae Boykin. A total of 145 girls tried out for the team, and 12 made the cut. Team USA is off to a 4-0 start in the Czech Republic and plays Canada in the quarterfinals Friday. Chou is averaging 2.3 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.
"It's an honor -- indescribable," Chou said when asked what it felt like to be on Team USA. "I get to meet these amazing people. And the coaches are incredible. It's a blessing."
NBA guard Jason Terry, who met Chou five years ago, is not at all surprised she has reached this elite level.
Terry, who coached her from sixth through ninth grades on the Lady Jets AAU team, said he thought Chou was the best player in the country for her age when he met her and believes she has remained at that level due to her extraordinary work ethic.
"A lot of kids come in and put up shots and think that's a workout," said Terry, 36, who recently finished his 15th season in the NBA. "But I watched Natalie as a sixth-grader, and she worked on her footwork, shot layups with each hand. ... She was in the sixth grade, and yet she was doing stuff I was doing in the NBA."
Kristen Perry, who coaches Chou at Plano West, is also a big fan of this rising star.
Perry said Chou has grown about three inches in the past two years and has gotten much stronger -- from about 135 pounds to her current weight of 160.
As a freshman, Chou averaged double figures in scoring off the bench, helping Plano West compile a 36-4 record before getting upset in the regional semifinals.
Last season, which was Perry's first as head coach, Plano West went 30-6 and made it to the Class 5A state semifinals. Chou averaged 17 points and was named first-team All-State in her first season as a starter.
"She did a lot of maturing from the beginning of season to the end," Perry said. "People tend to forget how young she is -- she doesn't even drive yet."
That maturation took many forms.
For one, even though Chou has an excellent work ethic and does all those drills to improve her skills, Perry said her conditioning early last season was not where it needed to be.
"It would be the first quarter, and she would have her hands on her knees [out of breath]," Perry said. "She couldn't run a mile."
That has since been addressed, and Chou has grown in other ways, too.
Before, she was shy and nervous and would not want to talk to the media. Now she accepts that as part of her role as a team leader.
There were other lessons, too.
"Early on, it was harder for her to understand that people were looking at her to carry the team," Perry said. "She shunned away from that a little bit.
"She has now learned that if she is not hitting her shots, there are other ways she can help the team. But she really takes losses hard and personally."
Chou, who wears No. 23 at Plano West in honor of her favorite player, Michael Jordan, said she has several scholarship offers but no list of finalists yet.
She said the factors she will consider most when choosing a college will be "education, location, the coaches and the players."
Perry said it wouldn't hurt if that school also had some great places to eat near campus, because that is Chou's favorite activity other than basketball.
"One time, I asked her, 'Natalie, what motivates you?'" Perry said. "She said it was food. So I told her, 'Natalie, every time you get a double-double, I will bring you breakfast.'
"But really, she's always eating. It's not protein bars -- it's just whatever she can get her hands on. In our [coaches'] office, we usually keep doughnuts, sausage biscuits or Chick-fil-A -- those are her favorites."
Besides food and basketball, Chou also loves to sing for fun and aspires to be a sports broadcaster, and would even consider doing that in China.
She and her parents and older sister visit family in Beijing every summer, and Chou loves it there.
Last week in the Czech Republic, Chou came off the bench and helped the U.S. beat China 69-41.
"I was curious how they played since my mom played [for China]," said Chou, who scored two points in 12 minutes.
"My mom pushes me, and I do whatever she wants me to do. I learned everything from her. Everything I do on the court is because of her. Also, I learned from her to be strong."
That strength is just as evident now as it was when she was a week old, fighting for her life in what her mother describes as a "miracle."
Chou doesn't remember that, of course, but she has heard the stories.
"My parents told me I had turned purple and blue, and I couldn't breathe," Chou said. "The nurses and doctors said it was almost impossible to save me.
"It's all God. It's just amazing."