There's Something About Sammy

By Ben York, PhoenixMercury.com

One doesn't need to elaborate on the notion that no two individuals are alike. No two snowflakes in winter, no two drops of rain from the sky match precisely.

Yet, as humans, there is a common tendency to look awry those who differ from most other people, especially those who are at peace in their uniqueness. In today's society, the ways in which an individual differs from others may very well be his/her most valued possession; they should be treasured rather than frowned upon.

Over the past few months, rookie Sammy Prahalis has infiltrated the hearts of Mercury and WNBA fans across the country (most recently evidenced by being selected as WNBA Rookie of the Month for June).

Admittedly, Prahalis' appeal has a lot to do with the way she plays the game of basketball (and rightfully so). For example, in a home game against the Los Angeles Sparks a few weeks back, Prahalis made a behind-the-back, no-look pass on a fast break look like child's play – like something typically seen in an AND1 Mixtape. Indeed, the crowd at US Airways Center erupted as it's not something seen in women's basketball every day.

But while her basketball talents certainly compliment Prahalis' likeability, they're not what define her. Neither do her tattoos, her jet-black hair, the fact that she played at Rucker Park, or her fiery mentality (on the court). Those are just labels.

So what does define Sammy, you ask?

Easy – her individuality.

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It happened for years, but she experienced the worst of it in high school.

"Around that time, people would talk a lot about me on message boards," Prahalis said, looking back at her legendary career at Commack High School in New York. "That was the big thing then. Word would spread and people would ask me all the time if I heard what someone wrote on the boards. I never really looked but I'd hear about it. Some of it was pretty bad. Parents and players on the other team would boo and heckle me a lot. I mean, I think it's because of how I played but also how I am on the court. I have my teammate's backs 100 percent. I think it's also because I'm different and people just didn't understand me."

(Prahalis had some fun with it though – she'd often wear a shirt with a picture of a stop sign that said, "Stop the Hate.")

Much of the negativity from others stemmed from Prahalis' style of play and emotion on the court. And when Prahalis refers to some of the things written about her as "pretty bad," she's putting it mildly. Very mildly. In fact, I can't repeat 90 percent of what was said. Furthermore, people would often cross the line and take personal shots at her that had nothing to do with basketball.

And while trials and tribulations like these can cause some to break, they made Prahalis, and the belief she had in herself, stronger.

"Sometimes, it got to be too much," Prahalis said. "But I used it as fuel and motivation to keep being myself and play harder."

The ironic part is if you spend any amount of time around Sammy, it's exceedingly difficult to imagine anyone wanting to treat her that way. Sammy is genuinely kind, funny, and definitely not as shy as people seem to think.

But here's the key: Instead of caving in and conforming to societal pressure, Prahalis became that much more solidified in the person and player she is.

At Ohio State, it's well documented that Prahalis finished as one of only two Division I players to record more than 2,000 points and 900 assists during her college career. But it was more than how she played the game; it was the uniqueness she brought to it that separated her from others.

"The hustle, energy, passion and swagger she had on the court made me want to come back and support her and the team," said Sarah Wynn, Block "O" Director of Basketball/Buckeye NutHouse Operations. "I created an extension of the Buckeye NutHouse, the official basketball student section of Ohio State, for women's basketball solely because of the excitement Sammy brought to the court. Before every game I would write the 'Shhh…' on multiple students' index fingers. We had a giant head of her made and people would ask to pose with it; it became a fixture at games. She brought something new and exciting to the women's games that not many students, nor myself, knew could exist."

In speaking to numerous individuals who attended Ohio State during Prahalis' time there, each one said that Prahalis was equally as renowned for the extra time she spent with her droves of fans after games taking pictures and signing autographs. There was a quiet humbleness that Prahalis displayed that many young women could relate and identify with.

(Being easy to talk to was a bonus.)

"I've never seen her deny a fan an autograph or a picture even if she's not in basketball clothing," Wynn added. "Over the last year, I've gotten to know Sammy the person versus Sammy the player – it's like night and day. Sammy the player is intense and in your face. Sammy the person is quiet (until you get to know her) and loyal."

As a member of the Phoenix Mercury, the pressure Prahalis has faced as a first round pick on a team in need of a point guard has been lofty, to say the least. Any transition to the WNBA is difficult, but playing without 3-4 starters at any given time makes it more so.

But Prahalis doesn't play like a typical rookie and the hardship she's faced has prepared her perfectly for times like these.

Whether she consciously knows it or not, Prahalis is communicating a bold (and powerful) message to young women everywhere who play basketball at any level.

The message? Be yourself; nobody can do it better.