Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
The Connecticut Sun selected Kamesha Hairston with the No. 12 pick.
CLEVELAND, April 4, 2007 -- It's 11 a.m. and in less than three hours, Kamesha Hairston is going to go from college senior to pro sports rookie.
In the same amount of time it takes to watch Lawrence of Arabia, all of the work that went into becoming A-10 Player of the Year at Temple University will be rewarded with a brand-new challenge of finding a niche on a WNBA roster.
As one of the 22 players invited by the league to the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel for the 2007 Draft, Hairston is all-but guaranteed a spot, but that fact doesn't stop her from fidgetting with her cell phone to try to pass the time. She's hardly alone, a quick scan around the room shows 10 of the 22 draftees on a cell phone, Sidekick or Blackberry.
"I was texting with my coach," Hairston said.
Her coach is WNBA legend Dawn Staley. Staley, who was drafted No. 9 by Charlotte in 1999, has been through this before as a player, and also as a coach. Last season the Chicago Sky selected Temple's Candice Dupree with the sixth pick and Dupree went on to become an All-Star in her first campaign.
"It’s very nice to have [Staley] here," Hairston said. "I feel better that I have her with me during this process, telling me not to be nervous and stuff like that."
While Staley is texting her player just a couple hours before the Draft starts at 1 p.m., Dupree started Hairston's day off with a text message of her own.
"[Dupree] texted me this morning telling me good luck," Hairston said. Dupree only offered up two words Wednesday morning, but the 6-foot Hairston says that Dupree has been there providing guidance throughout the year.
Hairston welcomes the distraction of a quick interview. As a native of Toledo, Ohio, going to Cleveland was a homecoming of sorts.
“I’ve been in Cleveland since Thursday," Hairston said. "Actually I went home to Toledo after the combine, but I’ve been in Ohio since Thursday.”
If Toledo is her first home, Philadelphia has become her second. In four years playing at Temple in North Philly, Hairston's numbers improved year by year -- from 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game as a freshman, to 12.5 and 6.1 as a sophomore, 12.8 and 6.1 as a junior (with Dupree as the No. 1 option) and finally 18.9 and 8.6 as a senior.
“Philadelphia took a while to grow on me. It was a tough city to adjust to. But now I like it. I’m going to miss it."
So with her first and second homes out of the picture (there are no WNBA teams in Ohio or Philadelphia), a third is on the horizon.
"I guess it’s all up in the air," Hairston says with a shrug. "Of course I want to stay East Coast/Midwest, but, you know, whoever is willing to take me, I’m happy to go there."
The only thing that has been weighing on her mind as much as the prospect of relocation is what to wear as she'll be live on ESPN for the whole country to see.
“I didn’t want to wear this outfit so I tried to find another one, but I really didn’t have time. It took a while. It took a day and a half to find.”
She could have done much worse. Hairston is in a grey suit with a pale pink silk blouse and black pumps. Her hair is styled and she has on dangly earrings that look like peacock feathers dipped in silver.
"I’m hoping that it goes smooth. You’re going to get nervous and everything, but I’m hoping that it goes smooth."
I leave her in the green room to go track down her parents and her coach. The plan is to check in with her again in about an hour, then right before the draft starts and finally, right after she's drafted to see how her mood changes.
The Draft invitees.
I find Anne and Ken Hairston up on the balcony with Staley overlooking the Draft floor. All of the parents and coaches in attendance are congregated and munching on finger foods and snacks as the clock ticks down till it's time for the Phoenix Mercury to make the No. 1 pick.
While Kamesha remains calm and collected, her mother is a different story. Anne Hairston is enjoying the moment, but ...
"I’m overwhelmed and totally in disbelief," Mrs. Hairston said. "I knew this is her dream but for it to actually happen and we’re here, I’m just in awe."
With the day giving Anne a chance to reflect on her daughter's beginnings as a player, it's almost hard to believe that Kamesha made it this far.
"My husband had a halfcourt made in the backyard, and at first she couldn’t play.
"I looked at her and I said, 'Why’s she doing that? She can’t play.' But my husband worked with her constantly and it developed as time went on and then I could see the potential and it just grew … and now we’re here! So, it took a lot of hard work, dedication and determination."
Her father, Ken, proud as ever, also remembers Kamesha's beginnings as a player. This wasn't the case of a natural born ball player.
"I’m very proud of her because I can look back and see the effort she put in, the time," Mr. Hairston said.
"When she first started out, she was in the fourth grade and playing on a fifth grade team and she went down for a layup. She was so tall, and the ball was bouncing hard, and I was so proud … but when she went up for a layup the ball bounced way back to halfcourt and I was like, 'Who hit at that?!' (Laughing) But she proved me wrong and she’s kept with it. She did not give up. She just stayed focused and that was her key to not let nobody influence her one way of the other. And she let me be her coach."
Another person she let be her coach was Staley. Staley says that Hairston has earned the right to put her feet up at this point, if only for a day.
On the phone.
"I think she should sit back and enjoy this particular day because she’s very fortunate," Staley said. "She put herself in this position to be drafted. But, this is kind of the one and only day she’ll have where she can relax. Every day after this it’s going to be a job for her and she’s going to have to work for it, and I’m quite sure she’s up for the challenge of working and having some longevity in the league."
Kamesha was fortunate enough to have her dad help out as a coach, and her coach help out as a parent.
"She’s almost like my daughter where we can talk about pretty much anything." Staley said. "I like to think that she can tell me exactly what she’s feeling when she’s feeling it and that’s what you want. You want your players to be able to trust you with those inner-most feelings and I think we have that type of relationship."
I get back to the green room and Hairston is sitting in the same spot near the front of the room, giving her a full view of what's going on as the other 21 invitees mill around, get hair and makeup done and lounge out in four black leather couches surrounding a flat screen TV.
Just as Hairston's physical location hasn't changed, neither has her demeanor.
"Everybody seems relaxed, so that’s good," Kamesha said.
I tell her where she'll be sitting. Her table is front and center of the stage, only a few feet leading up to the podium where President Donna Orender will present her with the jersey of the team she'll trade in her maroon and white of the Owls for.
This makes her smile. "Good, I won’t fall on my heels."
I ask her what it was like to go from Scottie to Michael at Temple once Dupree was drafted.
"It was my turn to lead. I was capable of doing those things in the past but when you have another great player, you’re not asked to do as much. This year I tried to lead in every category and I tried my best. We made it to the second round [of the NCAA Tournament], which is good, considering the fact that nobody expected us to be there."
Hairston has settled down into her front-and-center table with her parents and coach joining her for support.
"I’m ready. I’m not nervous. I’m surprised actually. I thought I’d be more nervous. It’s a proud moment for me. I feel like I worked hard for it."
Finally, Hairston's name is called.
"With the 12th pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft, the Connecticut Sun select Kamesha Hairston," Orender announces to the crowd.
And there it is.
She'll be experiencing more new things over the next couple weeks than somebody waking up from a decade-long coma: A new home. A new team. A new coach. A new role. A new uniform. A new fan base. A new job.
All just like that.
Hairston is whisked away for a photo shoot backstage to pose with her new uniform. I chase her down to see if anything frazzled her poised demeanor.
Finally, she admits to cracking a little bit.
Behind the scenes.
"It was stressful when it came to picks No. 9, 10, 11 …" a relieved Hairston said. "I figured I was going to Connecticut anyway. They really, really wanted me, so, I was just awaiting my turn. They came through, so I’m happy."
"I can learn from the best," she said. "I’m all about learning, especially my rookie year. I just want to learn how to get better. It’s a great coaching staff. They know how to win championships so that’s what I want to be a part of on this team."
As for her home No. 3, "It’s on the East Coast, somewhere around Philadelphia, so I’ll be alright."
Now that the wait is over, I take the time to tell her about the trash talk her dad told me earlier about her first game in fourth grade.
"That thing went to halfcourt," Hairston said as she fought back laughter. "I was horrible. I would not have imagined I’d be in this position. It’s a blessing. I really thank God for this opportunity."
Most of her friends are younger than her and she is the first one in her group to go through the post-college job search. Her "search" is far different than her friends' will be with job fairs and resume polishing.
"There was a sigh of release like ‘phew.’ Then I hugged my parents and my coach."
As Hairston fulfills her first official repsonsibilities as a member of the Connecicut Sun, her parents and Coach Staley watch the second and third rounds of the Draft play out from their table.
Her mother is happy it all worked out.
"I like it," says Mrs. Hairston. "We can always drive [to Connecticut]. We can get there."
And what did you feel when your daughter's name was called?
Signing one of her first autographs as a WNBA player.
"I was excited. I was relieved because I was sitting here on pins and needles like, 'Is she going to go?'"
From a basketball perspective, Staley is pleased for her player.
"I think it’s a perfect fit for her," Staley says. They’re already an established team. They’ve been to The Finals. ‘Mesha is going to learn at the very highest level in the league.
"Lindsay is going to make ‘Mesha’s life very easy. We have never had a point guard the caliber of Linsday Whalen. Wait till she sees what it’s like to play with an All-Star WNBA point guard. Her life is going to be a lot easier."
I would hope her life would get a lot easier after Draft day. It's not every day that your whole life gets turned around in three hours.