Burnaby's Roberts to play at Pepperdine

Burnaby's Alisha Roberts is taking her basketball to the land of a different kind of surfing; she's got a scholarship to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, California in September.

Alisha Roberts has a basketball in her hand as she gets up to greet her interviewer. When it’s suggested she was born dribbling those round orange objects she doesn’t dispute the notion, she just smiles and says, “I was. I really was.”

Although hoops is in her DNA, she has taken her talent and combined it with a lot of hard work to convert it into a NCAA Division I full-ride scholarship to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and a possible spot on the Canadian under-18 women’s basketball squad.

Her father, Norm, grew up a basketball player in his native Zimbabwe. He’d come home from his engineering job and take Alisha and her sisters, Lisa and Norma—both of whom are several years older than her—to the Eastburn Community Centre to teach them basketball.

“I fell in love with it from an early age,” recalls Roberts, 17. “I honestly remember being three years old, maybe going on four, being at Eastburn sitting on the sidelines and my father would come over and he taught me the right-handed layup, the left-handed layup, all the footwork sequences. It took me awhile but I got it.”

Boy did she get it. When she was still in elementary school, she’d tag along with Norma to New Westminster Hyacks senior girls practices and games. While her dad helped to coach, Roberts would be right in there doing all the drills during practice as well as in warmups prior to games. Her silky smooth layups were superior to many of those executed by the senior girls players, even though they were up to six years older than Roberts.

In Grade 6 she went to a basketball camp at SFU where she learned a quote that sticks with her. It’s still on her bedroom wall: “Good, better best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.”

She says, “I’ve always just wanted to be better than I can be. It’s never good to be content with where you are. It’s pushing yourself to the next level.”

One of her basketball friends at that time was Abby Maan, who had been attending York House. Maan’s parents told the Roberts’ about the scholarship opportunities the private girls school in Vancouver could provide.

So instead of following in her sisters’ sneakers and going to NWSS or down the street to Byrne Creek secondary, she opted for York House because she believed it was a chance to develop herself as an athlete and a person.

It was a tough decision, but one she doesn’t regret despite some long, grueling days, especially during basketball season. She would be on SkyTrain by 6 a.m. which was followed by a bus ride to be at York House in time for her to do her personal workouts before school. After classes finished she’d do homework until practice started at 7 p.m. Finally, at 9 p.m., she’d do the long journey home.

“There were definitely times when I was just sleeping (on transit),” said Roberts. “But if you want to make yourself a better player you don’t have an option.”

Roberts made the senior team in Grade 9 with the Tigers losing the AA provincial final to the Kalamalka Lakers from Vernon. But then York House won the next two provincial championships.

Coach Winston Brown approached the team about taking on the ultimate challenge for a girls basketball team in B.C., chasing a provincial AAA championship. Although York House has only about 300 high school students, it would mean taking on schools with up to eight times the enrolment.

“We talked about it for about 20 minutes and we all wanted it. We were not being content with where we were,” says Roberts. “I’ve never been so close to a group of girls. We really are family.”

That family made it all the way to the AAA provincial final before bowing in the dying seconds 62-61 to the South Kamloops Titans. In the last 10 seconds, the 5-foot-7 Roberts and teammate Cherub Lum both drove to the net in an attempt to score the winning points but were denied by the Titans’ 6-foot-5, Grade 11 centre Emma Wolfram, a provincial teammate of both Roberts and Lum.

“It was heartbreaking. Getting to the final was amazing, and I’m so proud of us for doing that. It was really tough to have that last shot and to miss it,” says Roberts.

There have been a lot of eyes on Roberts every time she steps on the hardwood to play hoops. Some were scouts from Canadian schools. Both of her older sisters played basketball for Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. (Norma has moved on to take a masters degree in occupational therapy at Dalhousie in Halifax.) Other eyes, however, were American. She would come back from tournaments in the U.S. and there would be phone messages from schools down there.

North of the border the choice came between UBC, Victoria and Windsor. South it was between Southern Utah and Pepperdine, a small school of about 3,000 students with a picturesque campus on the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, Calif.

In early November, she visited the campus and its stunning views along the Pacific Coast Highway

“Oh, my goodness, it was breathtaking. It was beautiful. Obviously, that was one of the things that attracted me,” says Roberts.

But she also was drawn to its small class sizes and academic strengths—she hopes to take sciences so she can become a physiotherapist or occupational therapist. She also says the team’s starting point guard is going into her senior season so it should mean one year of tutelage and then a chance to take over.

“It just felt right,” says Roberts, who can’t wait to get to Pepperdine in September. “I know that it’s the next step to getting where I want to go.”

And that desired destination is the national women’s team.

Ever since Teresa Kleindienst of Mission, who for years was Canada’s national team point guard, came to speak to an elite camp when Roberts was in Grade 8, she has wanted to wear the maple leaf on the court.

“I couldn’t believe how amazing [Kleindienst] was. My dream has always been to represent Canada on a national team,” says Roberts.

She came close last year to being on the national junior team, but that opportunity was lost when a rib punctured one of her lungs.

“I was invited back for tryouts. It killed me, but I wasn’t able to go back,” says Roberts.

This past weekend she returned to Toronto for another set of tryouts and is awaiting word to see if she’ll be chosen for the under-18 team. That squad will play a world championship qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico this summer. If it succeeds, Canada will advance to the 2013 under-19 world championship.

“I’m definitely nervous, but excited,” says Roberts of her chances.

So since the 2012 Olympics are in London, does Roberts have any plans for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil four years from now for the next summer Olympiad?

“Maybe,” says Roberts with a sly smile. “Maybe.”

It would seem to be a good place for a girl born with a basketball in her hand to end up.

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