LADY Braves import LaSondra Barrett learned the cut-throat nature of competitive basketball from a very young age.
At just 14, she found herself embroiled in a drawn-out court battle over her right to shoot hoops for William B. Murrah High School in her home city of Jackson, Mississippi.
Rules preventing schools from recruiting players from outside their zoning area forced the rising star to miss her first season while the legal tussle played out.
“I didn’t live in the district I went to school in, and that’s pretty big in the States with recruiting,” Barrett says of the drama.
“But we went to court because I grew up attending a performing art school, and that high school was the only one in Jackson that had the art program for me to continue on with.
“I’d been involved in that program (drawing, painting and sculpture) since fourth grade - since before I was even a basketballer. It was so frustrating.
“We eventually won, but the whole season was over when the case came to its conclusion.”
While the court finally ruled Barrett could consider William B. Murrah her home school because of her art links and she could therefore be part of its basketball team, she says sitting on the sidelines as a teenager listening to legal jargon about her playing future was surreal.
The fight proved worthwhile, as Barrett helped her school make the state final the next season then led them to two consecutive championship wins in her junior and senior years.
The 24-year-old comes to Bendigo after an outstanding career at Louisiana State University, a WNBA season with Washington Mystics, time in the Israeli league, and a taste of the WNBL after joining Sydney Uni Flames in December.
Lady Brave Lauren King and Bendigo Spirit star Kelsey Griffin were instrumental in her decision to venture to central Victoria for the 2014 SEABL season.
“Kingy was my team-mate in Sydney and she asked what I was doing for the winter. She was telling me about Bendigo and how she plays for the Lady Braves and told me to check it out.
“I also knew Kelsey through a friend and we’d played against each other in college, so I rang her and asked about the insides of the town. She said it was all good.
“I guess you could say Kingy brought the idea to me and Kelsey helped seal the deal.”
Barrett visited Bendigo in February, chatted to coach Jonathan Goodman, and toured “downtown” with Griffin before returning briefly to the US to consider her options.
She decided signing with the Lady Braves was the right move.
“I never heard a bad comment about Bendigo,” she says. “Every- thing worked out great and so far, it has been pretty good for me.”
It is like a sisterhood almost... and it helps your team when you have that closeness.
Barrett was born into a family where football ruled - her father and uncles played grid iron and her cousin Jason Campbell is an NFL quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Women can’t play football,” she says, “or they can, but it’s not a prosperous sport for them.
“But that’s where the athletic genes came from. My dad also refereed college and high school basketball and I used to go to games with him when I was real small and just picked it up.”
She was about eight when she began playing organised games at the local YMCA - though she was the tall, awkward girl whose talent took some time to blossom.
“I remember my first practice - I was the tallest kid there and I just started crying,” she says.
“All the girls knew each other and I was the new kid on the block and didn’t know anybody so I had to grow up pretty fast. I still have a team picture from that day of me crying and everyone else smiling. I get teased about it a lot by my family to this day.”
Barrett is extremely close to her family and says being apart from them is about the only drawback of playing professional basketball in Australia, half a world away.
Mum Cassandra is a teacher, dad David works at a post office and the pair raised their two daughters to have a strong work ethic and sound moral principles.
“They taught us just to be a good person and treat people right – it’s about being mannerable and respectful and that’s the tone that was set in our house,” she says.
“When you have a teacher as a parent it is almost understood that you are supposed to get good grades and from day one, there was no basketball if my school work wasn’t done.
“Having good work ethics, I know it will transition well to whatever career I choose after I’ve finished playing. My parents are my role models and the reason why I am playing basketball and they set the tone for me and my sister from a young age to do all those things right.”
Barrett was a stand-out at LSU, both on the boards and in the classroom, where she was a regular on the academic honour roll as she majored in sports administration and commerce.
She is rated one of the most versatile players in the college’s history, having played all five positions and amassing more than 1500 points, 200 assists, 800 rebounds and 100 steals.
But after being drafted with pick 10 by the Washington Mystics, she found it tough going in the WNBA.
“The experience was not what I thought it would be,” she says. “The pace of basketball was much faster than college, but it was also tough in terms of coming from being the big man on campus to being just a rookie; being a role player instead of a go-to player.
“Your goal growing up is to play WNBA but looking back, I think my best days were in college. It’s much more of a business when you turn professional and it works for some people, but I really like the camaraderie and companionship of team-mates and it being more of a team effort than an individual thing. But I enjoyed it and learned a lot, and I wouldn’t take that back for anything.”
One reason Barrett loves playing ball in Australia is that while the standard is very high and the game is taken seriously, there’s still time to hang out with your team-mates.
“You develop relationships when you play team sport. It is like a sisterhood almost – I don’t want to sound cliché but it really is, and it helps your team when you have that closeness.
“Some places you play, you don’t get that because it’s like, ‘this is a job, job, job’. But in Australia, it doesn’t feel like just a job that you have to get up and go to every day.
“When it feels like that, I wouldn’t want to play any more.”
Barrett has stayed in touch with her Flames team-mates and, though her contract in Sydney is up, she’s made no secret of the fact she’d love to keep playing WNBL.
She now shares a house in Bendigo with Lady Braves Alex Bunton, Rosie Fadljevic and Chantella Perera.
She’s mastering the local lingo - “I know to ask for aluminium foil, not aluminum” - and is keen to get to some AFL games, though she hasn’t chosen a team to follow.
“I am learning as I watch it on TV because when I go, I want to know what I’m talking about.
“I need to pick a team, but there is one team they tell me everybody hates and if I go for any team it should not be that one!” (Collingwood, one presumes.)
Barrett is still getting used to hearing people here use her full Christian name, as most friends and family back home simply call her Sondra, or “Son”.
“I feel like I am in trouble when people call me by my full name, LaSondra. I’m like, that’s my government name!”
She’s also known by the unusual nickname of “Boogie” in the US.
“I used to go camping with my family and we had these walkie talkies and we’d use code names. ‘L-Boogie’ was my code name for the walkie talkies,” she laughs.
“Some of my high school team mates got a hold of that and it grew from there.”
With high school and college success behind her, Barrett is now keen to add to her trophy cabinet and believes the Lady Braves could be the team to do that.
“Professionally, I would just love to be able to look back at a season and a team that has won a championship... and hopefully this season will be it,” she says.
“The championship is our goal because we are talented enough to win it, but we have to take it game by game and continue to get better every day.”