Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

The D.C. region is known for producing basketball talent. For years, sportstalkers like WOL-AM’s Butch McAdams have suggested that the area’s reputation for quality youth basketball is a reason the Wizards have struggled to find a loyal fan base. Because local fans are used to seeing talented basketball players develop, they don’t want to watch bad basketball. 

“This area deserves good basketball. The basketball IQ here is so high from both players and fans,” McAdams says. “Look at the history.” 

McAdams references Hall of Fame players like Elgin Baylor, who played at Spingarn High School, and Adrian Dantley, who attended DeMatha Catholic High School. That tradition of basketball excellence is reflected on current NBA rosters, in D.C. area natives like Michael Beasley, Markelle Fultz, Quinn Cook, Victor Oladipo, and Kevin Durant

For a while, this conversation focused solely on the men. The recent triumphs of the Washington Mystics, who made their first WNBA Finals appearance earlier this month, have started to shift the focus toward the region’s talented female players.

“This area wants good basketball whether it’s men’s or women’s,” says McAdams, a D.C. native and former high school basketball coach.

Three current Mystics played basketball at area high schools: Monique Currie attended Bullis School in Potomac, Tianna Hawkins went to Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt played at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The local talent pool expands if you include Kristi Toliver of Harrisonburg, Virginia, whose legendary career at the University of Maryland includes the program’s only national championship title.

“We won championships the two years that I played [at Riverdale Baptist],” Hawkins says of her high school career. “Girls that I went to school with in high school, we all went Division I. There’s just a lot of competition here. A lot of players have come out of the area. … It’s just a lot of talent.”

While Hawkins was competing for Riverdale Baptist, her future teammate, Ruffin-Pratt, was establishing herself as a dominant force on the other side of the Beltway at T.C. Williams.

At that time, current Mystics game analyst Christy Winters Scott was an assistant coach at Georgetown. 

“I remember going to see Tierra play, sitting there with [former University of Virginia head coach] Debbie Ryan, [current University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill head coach] Sylvia Hatchell,” Winters Scott recalls. “She had 38 points in a junior varsity game.”

Winters Scott played basketball at South Lakes High School in Reston, and then for the University of Maryland. After her playing career ended, she held coaching positions at Maryland, Georgetown, and George Mason before starting as an analyst with the Mystics. The current South Lakes girls’ basketball coach has a unique perspective on the rise of women’s basketball in this area.

The talent “has always been here,” Winters Scott says. “Speaking as a recruiter in this area, I coached for 10 years on the college level. I didn’t want to leave the area. … There were just so many teams and now AAU teams.”

The rise of AAU basketball, an amateur league that many of the country’s elite young players compete in, and social media have given young female players a bigger platform.

Ruffin-Pratt spent much of her time on the AAU circuit with the renowned Boo Williams organization based in the Hampton, Virginia area. “I played with some of the top players that went Division I. Every player that played with Boo when I played went D1,” she says. “I played with Monica Wright, Kaili McLaren, Jessica Breland, Lynetta Kizer, Sugar Rodgers.”

Four of those five players are currently on WNBA rosters. Wright, who played for Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, and McLaren, who played for Our Lady of Good Counsel in Montgomery County, were both Washington Post All-Met selections in high school, a recognition given to the best athletes in the paper’s coverage area.

Other former All-Met selections on current WNBA rosters include Marissa Coleman of the New York Liberty, Lindsay Allen of the Las Vegas Aces, and Jasmine Thomas of the Connecticut Sun. This summer, three-time NBA champion Steph Curry invited two of the best girls’ high school basketball players to his camp. One of them, Azzi Fudd, is a sophomore at St. John’s College High School in Northwest D.C.

“You would be foolish not to recruit in this area,” says current Riverdale Baptist girls’ basketball coach Mike Bozeman. Former players and 2018 graduates Shakira Austin and Honesty Scott-Grayson were ranked in the Top 20 of the 2018 HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings on ESPN.com and are now student-athletes at Maryland and Baylor University, respectively. 

Kaylah Ivey, a junior guard at Riverdale Baptist, has followed the Mystics over the course of her basketball career and believes that their success will continue to influence the next generation of female basketball players. 

“That’s the highest level, the WNBA,” she says. “I feel like when girls watch them and see how well they play together and how good they are it will motivate us to want to be like them.”

Ivey, who is eyeing a Division I scholarship, believes that female basketball players are still underappreciated. She cites dunking as a reason why the boys’ game is more popular.

“People still don’t pay the girls as much attention as the boys,” she says. “I think right now it’s starting to change, to be more about the talent and competitiveness.”  

Social media has been a game changer for some of these girls, Bozeman says. There’s a much higher level of exposure now compared to when he was coaching at Bishop McNamara, a formidable girls’ basketball power in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, in the first decade of this century.

“The talent has always been here. When we were competing in the WCAC, we had some squads, I would even say the quality of player was higher then, but the game overall is on a higher level of exposure now because of social media,” he says. 

The WNBA has taken notice. In May 2017, the league announced a partnership with Twitter to live stream 20 games per season for the next three seasons. According to Forbes, WNBA viewership was up 36 percent in adults age 18 to 49 two months into the 2018 season compared to last year. 

But as powerful as social media may be in the larger picture of growing the game, Bozeman warns college coaches against falling into lazy recruiting practices, using various internet platforms as opposed to taking flights to find gems. 

He has a word of caution for players, too. “Social media is another avenue of exposure, but it’s also a distraction as well,” he says. “Athletes will spend more time trying to get things on their social media rather than go and watch players and improve.” 

Whether it’s on Twitter or at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, the Mystics are back on the map as a standard of high quality women’s basketball. When Ivey puts on her jersey, she knows that she’s playing in the same gyms where Ruffin-Pratt, Currie, Hawkins, and other local legends crafted their skills. This knowledge fuels her.

“I just think maybe one day I can be in the same position because they were in the same position as us,” she says. “Maybe one day I can be them.”

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.