Dawn Turner Trice
March 11, 2013
Jaleesa Armstrong grew up with the sound of her three older brothers constantly bouncing their basketballs throughout the family's Englewood neighborhood home.
The sound — which was different on the living room carpeting; different on the kitchen tiles; and different on the basement's concrete floor — often jolted her awake in the morning. It sometimes lulled her to sleep at night. She didn't like it at first. And neither did her mother.
"She was always yelling, 'Stop bouncing that ball,'" said Armstrong, 19, laughing. "It was like it was in their blood."
It turns out that it was in Armstrong's as well. When she was in the first grade, she joined her brothers in playing and loving basketball.
Now, at 5 feet 4 inches tall, she's used to people looking at her in disbelief when she tells them she's a point guard for Malcolm X College's Lady Hawks women's basketball team. But watch her on the court, and you become a believer.
On March 4, she scored 42 of the team's 84 points to help the Lady Hawks win the National Junior College Athletic Association's regional championship game. On Saturday, she put up 28 points during the association's division game against the Lady Tetons of Williston State College.
Although the Lady Hawks lost 74-66, Armstrong has had a year that's allowed her to prove her mettle on and off the court.
She stepped up when the team's leading scorer tore her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and couldn't play in the finals. Another player was sidelined by a kidney infection. And while it's standard to have 15 players on a roster, the Lady Hawks played much of the postseason with seven.
"That meant everybody had to ... play more minutes because we didn't have the luxury of a bench," Lady Hawks coach Kimberly McQuarter said. "We were fortunate to have Jaleesa. As soon as she stepped in the door this year, she made a difference in our program."
Armstrong came to Malcolm X College in the fall after spending her freshman year at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She returned home for her sophomore year to be closer to her mother, who has had health problems.
"My mother, she's the only person that I have and love and care about," Armstrong said. "Since I started playing basketball, she's been very supportive. She comes to my games, and if she can't make it, she'll make sure she calls me before the game and pump me up and give me coaching tips."
Armstrong said she knew early in life that her path was going to be different in a sport in which height often rules.
"My mother would take me to the doctor, and I'd ask if I was going to grow some more," Armstrong said. "I wanted to grow taller. But after a while I figured out I wasn't going to, so I had to deal with the height."
She dealt with it by growing in other ways.
During pickup games in the park with her brothers, she developed her outside shot. In the family's backyard, she worked on her speed and quick hands.
And on the occasion when she happened upon a game of scrimmage with players who didn't know her and balked at her attempts to join a game, she honed that attribute known as persistence.
By third grade, she said the coach at Chicago's Hartigan Elementary School got permission from the principal to allow her to play with fifth- and sixth-graders on the school's girls' basketball team. She eventually landed at Bogan High Schooland helped the team win two regional championships.
McQuarter said Armstrong has an impressive three-point shot for a point guard.
"But she also has the type of leadership skills that you can't teach as a coach," McQuarter said. "She's really smart and has been one of the top players in the region and across the country as far as with scoring and assists."
McQuarter said several NCAA Division I coaches, including from DePaul and Northwestern, have visited the Lady Hawks' gym this year. She said she's proud that her players have strong academic records and have gone on to Holy Cross College in Indiana, Lamar University in Texas and the University of New Orleans.
This spring, Armstrong will graduate from Malcolm X with an associate's degree in general studies. She said she's being courted by several universities but doesn't want to reveal which ones until she makes her final choice. She wants to earn a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and become a coach. But she also hopes to continue playing basketball, maybe in the WNBA or for a team overseas.
(Her brothers, two of whom have graduated college and one remains in college, have not pursued professional basketball careers.)
I asked Armstrong about a tattoo, the word "LIMITLESS," that's on her chest and peek out of the "V" in her jersey. She said she got it as a reminder to not allow anyone to try to cap her talent.
"No matter the obstacles, nothing can stop me but myself," she said. "And I wanted that message placed close to my heart."