Tough-Minded Aimee McDaniel Is Battling Her Way to the Top : Brea Standout Develops Style of a Winner

Times Staff Writer

Aimee McDaniel is an angelic-looking 16-year-old junior at Brea-Olinda High School.

Once she starts playing on the school's worn basketball court, she does everything she can to skew the appearance.

Forget her benevolent-sounding first name--her mother named her for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. What you see is a confident, brash, determined player, one of the best in the state, if not the country.

"I'll do almost anything to win a basketball game," said McDaniel, a 5-foot 7-inch point guard. "I'll guard a 6-foot-4 girl. Whatever it takes to win."

McDaniel wheels, she deals, she shoots, she talks trash. Hers is a polished, poised, street-wise game, a mix of the fundamentally sound and the create-as-you-go-along.

It has suited her well since she was swept up by the sport as a seventh-grader.

McDaniel is a preseason honorable mention All-American, according to several national basketball magazines. Last season as a sophomore, she was The Times' Player of the Year in Orange County, the first of that class level to win the honor. She averaged a heady 21 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

But to understand why McDaniel is such a good basketball player, it's important to know something about her.

"The kid's a survivor," said Mark Trakh, her coach. "She's had to work for everything she's got. She's wise to the world."

As a freshman-to-be at Brea, McDaniel played in the summer L.A. Games against Carla Gladden, a flashy All-Southern Section guard from Morningside.

McDaniel, all of 13, gave no ground. Though Brea lost the game, McDaniel won a verbal sparring match with Gladden, then a junior.

"Shoot that, chick. You'll make it," McDaniel taunted.

Gladden missed.

"C'mon, dude. Drive on me," McDaniel teased.

Gladden did and threw the ball away.

McDaniel's barbs threw Gladden off her game, flustering her to the point that she wanted to pop McDaniel in the nose afterward.

McDaniel laughs it off now. It was but a minor skirmish, a valuable lesson for seasons and confrontations to come. It paled in comparison to the battles she fought growing up in an apartment complex off Imperial Highway and Puente in Fullerton.

That was hand-to-hand combat. As a young girl hanging with the neighborhood boys, she played rough-and-tumble games that required determination as much as skill.

Football, the traditional kind as well as the mud-hole variety; ditch-'em and "killer" dodge ball--McDaniel played them all.

"She could really tumble with the best of them," said Janice McDaniel, her mother.

The boys were faster, stronger and often meaner than she was. Still, she held her own and got in a few licks herself.

Once while playing in a football game with some older boys, McDaniel got tackled into a wooden fence by a 15-year-old. She bounced up with splinters jutting from her bruised face and gave a short little laugh. Then she round-housed the boy in the face. McDaniel was 8 at the time.

That, too, wasn't much of a fight. McDaniel learned real toughness at home.

McDaniel was an only child, raised by her mother. It has been just the two of them since Aimee's parents were divorced when she was 4.

"We give a lot to each other," Aimee said. "We're more like sisters. We know what the other is thinking. Who they like. What they're doing. She's my role model. She's a single parent who's made it. We've living comfortably."

Janice McDaniel is 36. Maybe the closeness in age is what draws them together. More likely it's because it's just the two of them. Whatever the reason, Janice has always set high standards for her daughter. She has always wanted the best for, and from, Aimee.

For example, Janice imposes her own grade checks. If Aimee doesn't get a 3.0 grade-point average--never mind the 2.0 the school requires--she doesn't play basketball.

"I don't think that it's stiff because I know she can do it," Janice said. "If I didn't, she'd try to skate by. That's not the way to do it. That's not the way I was raised. That, in turn, is not the way I'm raising her. She's got potential in some things, but she's just scratching the surface.

"Basketball has taken her farther than I've ever imagined. It's really allowed her to blossom."

The plan is for Aimee, who carries a 3.4 GPA, to keep her grades up and earn a college basketball scholarship.

"She's using basketball as a means to an end," Trakh said. "For a 16-year-old kid to have her head on that straight is something."

The McDaniels have known for some time that basketball would eventually bring rewards. They knew it almost the minute they stumbled upon the sport in the winter of 1985.

Until then, Aimee had been an accomplished soccer player. After a soccer game when she was in seventh grade, a teammate said, "Let's go see the Ladycats play tonight."

Aimee didn't know what a Ladycat was, that a Ladycat played a mean game of girls' basketball for Brea.

Brea was playing Riverside Poly in the semifinal round of the 3-A playoffs at Valencia High that night. The gym was packed to the rafters. The crowd roared for the Ladycats' every move and mobbed the players after they pulled out a last-minute victory.

It was quite an introduction, and mother and daughter were swept up in the fervor. A little more than a year later, the McDaniels moved from Fullerton to Brea.

McDaniel played basketball competitively for the first time in the eighth grade at Brea Junior High. She started at guard, along with current backcourt mate Tammy Blackburn, on a team that was 25-0. She also started at guard for a successful Brea club team called the Polecats.

"That team (the Polecats) really got me interested in basketball," McDaniel said. "It was the first thing that told me that I could really play."

Until then, McDaniel didn't think she was very good.

She couldn't shoot for one thing. She just drove to the basket and tried to will the ball in. She relied a great deal on athletic ability, which had been tried and tested in her neighborhood games.

"Half the stuff I do with the basketball, I don't really know what I did," McDaniel said, trying to describe her athletic play.

Whatever it was, it worked well enough to merit attention from Trakh, who asked her if she wanted to become a Ladycat.

McDaniel couldn't say no.

Since then, McDaniel has perfected her game. She has added a dose of playground flair and a extra dash of savvy.

And now she can shoot. In fact, she said she prefers shooting 3-point jumpers to those launched from inside the 19-foot 9-inch arc. At halftime of the Orange County All-Star game last summer, she won a 3-point shooting contest and had the Bren Center crowd cheering in amazement.

Her drives to the basket still have a playground edge. After all, that's been the foundation of her game.

"She's smart," said senior guard Joni Easterly of Katella, the sole contender to McDaniel's reign as the county's best player. "You never know what's she's going to do. She drives when she could shoot, and she shoots when she could pass."

The two last met in the championship game of the Brea tournament last week. Easterly outscored McDaniel, 26-22, but Brea won.

"She's just a winner," Trakh said. "I told her before the game that Joni was going to try to intimidate her, that she'd come out to prove she was the best player."

Neither the talk with Trakh nor Easterly's performance fazed McDaniel, though.

By now, she's a seasoned veteran.

"Aimee said, 'Give me the ball,' " Trakh said. "She wants the ball when games are close. She has the kind of attitude that she's going to put the ball in the basket no matter what."

The next challenge for McDaniel will take her to the Bronx, N.Y.

The Ladycats leave Monday to play in the prestigious Christ the King High School tournament, which starts Tuesday.

"She's the kind of person we need in New York," joked Trakh, a former resident of the Big, but not always shiny, Apple. "If we wind up getting mugged, she'd probably talk the guy out of his money."

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