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Bashaara Graves: The fire within

Tennessee Lady Vols forward Bashaara Graves has overcome a lot to get to where she is now, but her journey to this point has given her all the ingredients to become an extraordinary player.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

People see Bashaara Graves' intense stare on the court, her ferocious play, and many just assume it’s a response to the heat of competition. Yet when you delve into her life, her journey, and the adversity that she’s had to overcome, you discover something much deeper.

What you find is that it’s a reaction, of something much greater than just basketball. It’s a reaction to what’s she’s been through and most importantly, what’s she’s overcome.

The meteoric rise of the 18-year-old freshman has stunned some. But Graves’ ascension to these heights is not a surprise when you discover the fire within her.

It’s actually quite simple.

"(Basketball) means everything to me," said Graves. "It’s my life! Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today."

The game that she adores, the game that she plays with such intensity, is her haven. See, Graves’ life was anything but easy, as a matter of fact; it was hard to say the least. Being raised by a single mother in Clarksville, Tennessee, they had their fair share of struggles. And seeing those strains gave her not only a burning desire to be great, but a fierce vision for her future

"I think it’s because I saw my mom go through so much," said Graves. "And (the) majority of my life it’s been me, my mom, my sisters and my brothers. [My mom] took care of us, she helped us for all of these years, and she struggled to take care of us. And I feel that every step I take closer to getting to a point where I can take care of her, that’s what I’m trying to do -- she means the world to me, she’s my best friend.

"I just go out there and play for her - I know she’s watching. I’m so reserved and so quiet off the court. (But) when I get on the court, it’s a whole different story."

Graves -- who is probably the most modest and kind-hearted athlete you could meet -- actually had an attitude growing up. And ironically, that same attitude -- now harnessed -- is what’s helped propel her to the success in the game she loves so much.

"Yeah, I had an attitude at one point," said a laughing Graves. "When I started playing basketball, a lot of people would’ve said that I had a little attitude problem. If I wouldn’t have started playing basketball, I probably would’ve gotten in a lot of trouble. Basketball was kind of an outlet; it kind of changed my personality a little bit.

"My AAU coaches weren’t feeling it. [They told me], if I was going to [be a great] basketball player, then I couldn’t be in trouble. I couldn’t do the same things that my friends were doing, going out or whatever."

So Graves had to make an important decision: stay with the status quo or change for the better. She chose the latter and from that point on in her life, her attitude determined her altitude.

It didn’t take long for the new found demeanor to yield results; she flourished into a dominant player early on in her basketball career. Graves was such a phenom that Tennessee started recruiting before she set one foot into high school.

"It was my eighth grade year," said Graves. "We had a little tournament after the regular season was over and it was in Springfield, TN. And [Lady Vols Assistant] Dean (Lockwood) came up to see me play and I’m amazed, I was like, ‘Wow, they’re here…they’re watching me?’ It was amazing; I had a lot of nerves at first."

Filled with jubilation and excitement that her dream school showed interest, the same rage that was her hindrance in life became her driving fuel. She continued to hone her craft, steadily improving as she revealed flashes of brilliance on the hardwood.

Already on cloud nine from those moments of success, she ascended to another state of euphoria once the summer of her freshman year hit. It was like things couldn’t get any better.

And then it happened.

"The first time Pat (Summitt) had seen me play was AAU Nationals in Clarksville going into my ninth grade year," said Graves. "I was so nervous playing in front of her but as the years went by; I got [comfortable with her at my games].

"It was just surreal; you have a legend watching you play, at your practice. Just to know how great she is and you’re in her presence."

Anyone that knows anything about Tennessee, their excellence and the like understands one thing: they don’t waste time. So for the Lady Vols to show such an interest in a young Graves, they knew that there was something special about her.

And right they were as her prep career was full of achievements -- the accolades just continued to flow for Graves: 3-time All-State player, three gold medals while playing for USA basketball, Gatorade State Player of the Year, McDonald’s All-American, Parade All-American and WBCA All-American.

With everything lining up so perfectly, there seemed to be nothing that could curtail the perfect dream that was now becoming her reality.

And then it happened.

On April 18, 2012, the woman who is the pillar of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball, Pat Summitt, retired.

Talk about a powerful salvo that rocked not only her world, but the world of all of college basketball. The living legend, a pioneer that changed the game was stepping down. Now this wasn’t just another coaching change, this was Coach Summitt. With this transpiring, most kids in today’s culture would have been surreptitiously looking at other options -- immediately.

Yet, the girl who was once the "kid with an attitude" showed a maturity well beyond her years -- she showed wisdom that transcended most normal youth’s thinking. Graves and the two other incoming recruits, Andraya Carter and Jasmine Jones, got together to talk about their future

They made a pact that embodied the true Lady Vol spirit, something that resembled the very foundation of the woman that was stepping down: "No matter the adversity, we are going to keep our word and honor our commitment."

In today’s culture, that’s unheard of for the most part; and yet Graves was resolute in the loyalty, love and allegiance to Tennessee.

"It was very important [to honor our commitment]," said Graves. "Tennessee was all three of our first choice, our dream school. All three of us were all diehard fans. So for us to stay and be committed to the program, it made a statement."

That type of devotion to the program would be rewarded early on, as she has started all but one game as a freshman. Not a feat that many can truly take claim to at the prestigious program in Knoxville. Even in their first game -- a disappointing loss to Tennessee-Chattanooga, Graves showed a promise that left the honest observer speechless.

She showed agility, power, grace and toughness that were reminiscent of Tennessee players of the past -- a true throwback. But many aficionados quickly tempered their euphoria as they wanted to see if it was a "flash in a pan", or was this a sign of things to come. Once again, the latter prevailed.

After the disappointing loss, the Lady Vols had to bounce back and travel to Georgia Tech -- which was ranked #20 at the time. The Yellow Jackets were opening up their new McCammish Pavilion, so one knew that Georgia Tech would ready.

But so was Graves.

Graves once again did things that as a freshman, she just wasn’t supposed to do. Graves single handedly out-hustled, outworked and out-toughed the bigger Yellow Jackets en route to a double-double (18 points and 12 rebounds). Her announcement to the rest of the college basketball world on the national stage was loud and clear.

That game was a precursor of things to come, as she has continued to play great throughout the season. Along the way, Graves has had some unreal performances -- garnering 4 SEC Freshman of the Week Awards in the process.

Graves has sent a potent message to her incredulous detractors -- she is for real.

"She is a primary reason that the Lady Vols are ranked in the top-15 nationally," said Inside Tennessee’s Maria M. Cornelius. "Guards typically can make the transition somewhat quicker from high school to college, if for no other reason than the perimeter is not as physical as the paint. Posts need time to develop and adjust to physicality and size that they didn't encounter in high school. Not Bashaara - she can finish through contact and power through double teams.

"The Tennessee coaches knew they got an outstanding player in Graves but even they didn't know she would be this good this soon. She has a lot of talent, but she also is coachable and gives tremendous effort in practice."

Her passion is unquestioned, her will is undeniable and her journey through life is inspirational. When you have all of these ingredients, you have the recipe for an extraordinary player -- a young lady that seems destined to be an all-time great at Tennessee.

All one has to do is hearken back to Graves’ own words:

"(Basketball) means everything to me, it’s my life!"