Windward High’s Imani Stafford getting big assists from Lisa Leslie
It had been raining all day and the gym floor was a bit moist, so Lisa Leslie mopped the hardwood while Imani Stafford, a high school junior, quickly laced up her basketball shoes.
The scene surprised three men on the other side of the basketball court, who stopped watching a pickup game and stared as Leslie, 6-5, and Imani, 6-7, began doing drills at a Los Angeles health club.
Shooting came first. Imani shuffled her feet as if she were running in place, caught the basketball and fired off a shot as quickly as she could.
Leslie smiled like a proud parent.
“I changed Imani’s shot,” she explained. “In high school, it takes them one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand to get their shot off. In the pros, it’s one one-thousand.”
They trained for an hour, Leslie prodding her to be more explosive and demonstrating how to effectively use her height and thin frame in the post. Staying low is the key, she explained, once telling the 16-year-old to write that phrase on her forehead when she popped up too soon.
It was only their third time training together, but Imani said she’s already learned “so much.”
A standout for her Windward High basketball team, Imani seemed born to play basketball.
Her mother, Pamela McGee, was the second overall pick in the 1997 WNBA draft after winning NCAA championships in 1983 and ’84 as an All-American at USC. Her brother, JaVale McGee, was selected 18th overall by the Washington Wizards in 2008. Her father, Kevin Stafford, played professionally overseas. Even two of her aunts have played basketball at the professional level.
Imani was 2-½ feet long at birth. Looking back, her father said, “The average dad would’ve stuck a ball in her hand as soon as she popped out.”
But Kevin Stafford, who eventually received custody of his daughter after his divorce from her mother in 1996, said, “I didn’t want to push her.”
“I knew it would cost her being a late bloomer,” he said, “but I’ve seen kids get burned out and I wanted it to be her desire – not her family’s desire for her.”
Imani didn’t have much interest in basketball as a child. She preferred reading, singing and acting. But in seventh grade, when she was already 6-2, she decided to try the family trade. She was awkward and struggled at first, her only claim that she could jump and touch the rim.
She went from averaging six points and six rebounds as a freshman at Windward to averaging 14 points and 16 rebounds last year. This year, though, she’s missed nine games – including a prestigious tournament in Arizona – because her father won’t allow her to play until her grade-point average improves from a 3.3 to a 3.5.
Kevin Stafford, a minister, acknowledges he’s strict. A few years ago, he made Imani fly home from a basketball tournament in Oklahoma four days early after she had promised she wouldn’t play on a sore ankle, but entered a game with half a second remaining to guard an inbound pass.
She may be learning discipline from her father, but her on-court improvement can, in part, be attributed to Leslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA MVP, who is helping her get to the next step.
“I saw myself in her,” said Leslie, a family friend who used to pray her feet would stop growing when she was 13 years old because she feared she wouldn’t be able to fit into shoes from department stores.
“Initially I was like, ‘Imani, stop by the house, I have some clothes for you,’” Leslie said.
Last year Imani asked for something else. She wanted to get serious about basketball. Leslie vowed to help.
Their first workout together was last spring at Windward, as the boys’ and girls’ teams watched.
“She compared me to her in high school,” Imani said. “If I get that from Lisa Leslie, I know I’m doing something right.”
Windward Coach Steve Smith, who worked with Leslie as an assistant coach for the Sparks in 1998 and 2009, said those words gave Imani newfound confidence.
“When that type of caliber person gives their stamp of approval, oh my goodness, now you think you can jump up and touch the moon,” he said.
Imani hasn’t exactly been starved for positive attention, though.
She’s being recruited by top programs including, Connecticut, Duke, Rutgers, USC and Boston College.
And according to her father, the softball coach tried to encourage her to try out for the team by saying she could be “the next Olympian.” The track coach said, “She could make millions overseas.”
Last year Imani finished third in the Southern Section Division IV high jump even though she would just take three steps and jump while many of her competitors had technique-heavy 12 stride approaches.
This past summer, she made the U.S. under-17 national team that won a gold medal in France in July.
Now both Imani and her mother have gold medals. That’s a sore subject for JaVale, though, who was recently cut from the men’s national team.
Even though she has lived apart from her mother and brother for most of her life, they still engage in playful competition.
Imani said she and her brother were known as Pamela McGee’s children until JaVale was drafted. Then Pamela got a new title: JaVale’s mother.
But after being compared to Leslie, Imani threatens that another change is coming soon.
“I’m like, ‘You’re all going to be Imani Stafford’s mom and brother,’” she said.