Doing work inside and out

Times Staff Writer

Bright stage lights rained down on Moniquee Alexander, leaving her tear-stained cheeks nowhere to hide. The college film crew turned away from the camera and milled about in the shadows, trying to act busy as Alexander attempted to compose herself.

Alexander, a 6-foot-6 sophomore on the UCLA women's basketball team, was filming a public-service announcement to promote breast cancer awareness. Simultaneously, she was revealing a side of her life that, in the past, had been too difficult to put on display.

Alexander's mother, Paulette Prince, died of breast cancer when Moniquee was 11. Alexander's sister, Raven, was 3 at the time. The disease robbed the sisters of their only parent and forced them to live with relatives. The experience was especially life-changing for Moniquee, who was old enough to realize her mother's health was deteriorating and death was inevitable.

"My mom's death is like a box," Alexander said. "I don't open it a lot to people."

As part of the Women's Basketball Coaches Assn.'s campaign to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research, Alexander and her teammates will wear customized uniforms with pink trim during a nationally televised Pacific 10 Conference game Sunday against visiting Washington. The uniforms will later be auctioned.

"Even if I play well, or play bad, that's my game to her," said Alexander, her eyes welling up again. "To wear pink, it's like she's there."

During the game, Alexander's public-service announcement will be shown on big screens inside the arena. She hopes it might influence somebody to get screened, or take action to better their chances against the disease. Despite her doctor's recommendation, Alexander's mother decided against a mastectomy when she was first diagnosed. Instead, she chose to fight the disease on her terms.

Over the next few months, Alexander watched her mother's movement and appetite decrease. Soon, she could no longer speak and needed an oxygen mask to breathe.

One morning, Alexander awoke for school and headed to the bathroom in her mother's bedroom. She was cut off at the doorway by her uncle, Chris Lewis, and immediately knew her mother had died during the night. The ensuing days were some of the most emotional of her life.

"I think the worst part was the funeral," Alexander said. "To be that young and know that the person in that casket is your mom."

Alexander and her sister were taken in by Lewis and their grandmother, Flaxie Lewis, who gave them love and support. Alexander, however, still had a chip on her shoulder and a bigger hole in her heart. It didn't help that she was the biggest girl in her class, leaving her a target of ridicule, taunting and occasional physical confrontations.

"I went through a time where I was just so angry," Alexander said. "I didn't understand why this happened."

Alexander played two years for Harbor City Narbonne High, helping the Gauchos to a City Section title in 2003. However, she began falling behind in academics and was forced to enroll in night school to stay on course to graduate.

"My uncle sat me down and asked, 'Is this how you want to live?' " Alexander remembers.

Finally, after a disagreement with her coach at Narbonne, which she said stemmed from her participation in an off-season tournament, Alexander accepted an offer from the principal at IMG Academy in Florida to attend the sports training facility, which houses athletes from various disciplines.

Alexander was able to repeat her junior year, play for a local public high school and improve her academics enough that she received a full athletic scholarship from her dream school, UCLA. Two years later, Alexander is the team's starting center.

"I'm so happy, so thankful that I got a chance to come to this school," Alexander said. "There were so many times when people would tell me I'm not going to make it."

Going into the weekend, Alexander had started 14 of 21 games, averaging 4.1 points and 3.6 rebounds. She sat out last Saturday's loss at Stanford after suffering a possible concussion two days earlier at California but came off the bench Friday against visiting Washington State, totaling six points and three rebounds in 10 minutes.

"Every day she's improving," said UCLA Coach Kathy Olivier. "I told her, 'You are this close to breaking out, just an inch away.' "

It's in the moments after a game, when teammates are hugging their mothers and trading pecks on the cheek, that Alexander often feels most affected by her loss. When she scored a career-high 11 points on five-for-five shooting from the field Dec. 19 against visiting Tennessee, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time, Alexander was especially aware of her mother's absence.

"I was so happy I had a good game," Alexander said. "I just wish, you know, that my mom could have been there."

That's why she can't wait to wear pink on Sunday.

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dan.arritt@latimes.com

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