Among her favorite stories is one she doesn’t even remember: being three years old and touching a basketball for the first time. “They say I wouldn’t let go of it,” she says, flashing a big, toothy smile.
As she got older, Tyonna spent hours at the neighborhood courts watching the older boys play pickup games, begging to join in. When they told her she was too small, she would stand on the sidelines, arms crossed, studying how they moved up and down the court. “There was just something about the way it looked,” she says. “It was like I had this addiction to basketball.”
Ella Simmons, who took in her grandchildren after Cynthia left, signed Tyonna up for a summer league at her church, Ebenezer AME in Fort Washington. At age ten, Tyonna, small and skinny, was the starting point guard and the only girl on the church’s team. The games were physical, she says, but they helped her develop a thick skin. The other kids knew about her family problems and sometimes teased her, but rather than fight—her first instinct—she picked up a basketball.
The Riverdale program, she says, was a shock to the system. Unlike Lauren, who’d grown up attending Richardson’s summer basketball camps, Tyonna didn’t know much about her new coach, whom people called the Queen of the DMV—DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Practices were tough. Richardson, a former point guard, focused much of her energy on developing Lauren and Tyonna into leaders. “We cried after almost every practice,” Tyonna says.
Richardson was trying to break through Tyonna’s shell. She saw something in her. More than just a good ball player, she saw a kid with a firecracker temper, a kid who was hurting, a kid who needed direction, a goal.
Richardson saw herself.
Next: On the road with the Riverdale basketball team