This just doesn’t happen. A painfully shy, impoverished girl from the McClure Projects in Pahokee doesn’t wind up featured on ESPN SportsCenter.
But that is exactly where Riquna “Bay Bay’’ Williams, the former University of Miami women’s basketball star, found herself Monday afternoon, a day after setting a WNBA scoring record with 51 points in the Tulsa Shock’s 98-65 win over the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Though it was just a phone interview, her face and stats were prominently displayed on the screen, and she was a nervous wreck as she waited to go live.
“I’ve spent my whole life watching all the greats on SportsCenter, watching highlights of famous athletes hitting milestones, and all of a sudden they want to talk to me, this girl people said had no chance of getting out of Pahokee, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it really happened, I made it,’ ’’ Williams told the Miami Herald on Tuesday by phone from Tulsa.
Williams, 23, said doing that interview was harder than making eight three-pointers a day earlier.
“I’m really camera shy, and even though nobody could see me, I felt like there were a million eyes in the room with me when I went live, and I didn’t want to mess up because I knew all my friends, family, and fans were watching,’’ she said.
She has not yet had “that perfect quiet moment to take it all in,’’ but she is beginning to appreciate it.
“It is slowly hitting me that I’m in the record books, and I’m finally being recognized for something positive because I didn’t have a great ending to my collegiate career and that is not how I wanted to be remembered,’’ she said, referring to being suspended by UM coaches for the 2012 NCAA Tournament for “conduct detrimental to the team.’’
Details have never been revealed about what Williams did, but the rift between UM coach Katie Meier and Williams has been repaired. Meier was one of the first to congratulate Williams on Sunday.
“It’s like when you’re mad at a family member, it doesn’t last forever,’’ Williams said. “At some point, someone says, ‘OK, this is crazy. We have too much time invested, too many emotions shared to keep being angry.’ Coach Katie taught me a lot about life. She built me up as a person. She’d say, ‘Bay, why are you so shy? Let people hear your voice. You have so much to say.’ I am so happy to have her back in my life, and to know that when I go home, she’s looking forward to seeing me.’’
Williams said after setting the record, she thought back to her childhood in Pahokee, when she regularly hid under her bed and covered her ears to block out the sound of gunshots.
She vowed in ninth grade to get out of Pahokee one day. She would not get pregnant, drop out of school and end up on welfare, she told her friends. She would go to college on an athletic scholarship, land a good job and travel the world.
Her friends laughed at her farfetched dreams. Williams responded by getting a tattoo on her right forearm that says: “Laugh Now, Cry Later.’’
“I told them, you can laugh now, I’m going to make it, and then you’ll be cryin’.’’
As it turns out, it was Williams shedding tears on Sunday, as a crowd of 6,650 at San Antonio’s AT&T Center (more people than live in Pahokee) cheered as she hit two free throws to reach 51 points. The previous record was 47 by Diana Taurasi in 2006 and Lauren Jackson in 2007.
“I was crying tears of joy,’’ Williams said. “I was thinking back to Pahokee, and all the negativity, and saying ‘thank you’ to anyone who doubted me because those people pushed me to this limit. I’d say to any kids out there in a similar place to use those gunshots as motivation, as a meal ticket. Listen to your Moms and Grandmas cry about how hard it is to pay the bills and go make something of yourself so you never have to live that way.’’
Williams is visiting Pahokee next week to give school speeches before heading to Italy to play the winter season. Last year, she played in Slovakia and Israel.
“I get homesick, but every time I go back to Pahokee, it’s like hitting a reset button, a reminder of how I don’t want to live, and I’m ready to leave after two hours,’’ she said. “I’m making a living doing what I love, and even though I’m not making millions, I can help my Mom pay for medicine or help my Grandma with that bus fare.’’
Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg was “not that surprised’’ with Williams’ feat. “That was a game of the ages, but we’ve seen her do that for shorter periods of time. She is one of the best athletes in the league, and her upside is tremendous.’’
Meier was watching the NFL on two TV screens and the WNBA game on her iPad. Williams’ UM teammate, Shenise Johnson, plays for San Antonio, so Meier was particularly interested in the matchup. (Johnson scored 18 points.)
“When Bay hit 36, I started Tweeting, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Bay’s got that look, we’ve seen this before,’ ’’ Meier said. “I saw her score 55 in a high school game. ... I’m so proud of her. She’s very special. This is a celebration of all the learning and growing she’s done since that suspension. And this is just the start.’’