Ohio State senior point guard Sammy Prahalis is one of the most exciting players in college basketball, male or female, and her mission is as modest as her game: to make women's hoops as exciting as men's. She takes us back to her native New York to find the roots of her flashy game.
By Ben York
Harlem, spring 2005. Clutching a basketball in one hand and battered kicks in the other, Sammy Prahalis steps onto the fabled court at Rucker Park for the first time.
All she knows is that her AAU coach told her to be here at 3 p.m. for a tournament. No over-the-top entourage accompanies her, just her mom and a friend. At 15, Prahalis is the youngest player on the blacktop by a good three or four years. Unassuming. Skinny. Long, brown hair. No tattoos (yet). Quiet.
Nervous? Maybe a little. But her excitement trumps any jitters.
Nothing about this particular day is unusual. The weather couldn’t be more perfect for outdoor basketball; maybe 70 degrees with an insignificant breeze that barely bothers the nets. Ambient noises from the surrounding city cloak the Rucker. Prahalis hears nothing.
Time seems to slow down. Clarity. Focus. Once she laces ‘em up, a strange, unconscious thing happens—the teen-age girl known as Sammy Prahalis takes a temporary leave of absence.
The humble, exceedingly shy kid from Long Island becomes “Styles P,” her alter-ego (a label given to her after a particularly devastating crossover). But unlike the Hulk, Prahalis doesn't undergo a transformation when she gets angry; she goes all super hero when she picks up a basketball.
As the game ebbs and flows, Styles P waits patiently for her opportunity.
It’s her ball now. Top of the key. Open lane. Attack.
She dribbles to the left with a juke then crosses back over to her right. Sick. Her defender is already two steps behind her. Styles P sees the defense clogging the paint so she steps back. Her fade-away jumper from a foot beyond the three-point line drops effortlessly.
Time stops again. Silence.
Then a murmur ripples through the crowd and the rest of the players on the court. “Who is this girl?”
Styles P cracks a shy smile as the announcer at Rucker Park addresses her by her alter-ego over the loudspeaker. The crowd erupts in thunderous applause.
And, thus, the Sammy Prahalis Phenomenon—all-conference guard and single-season assists leader at Ohio State, the most galvanizing player in women's college hoops, and a likely 1st round WNBA pick—began.
Sammy Prahalis grew up in Commack, New York, a small suburb on Long Island about an hour from Manhattan. From the first time she picked up a ball, Prahalis knew she was different than other girls who played sports—not just because of her burning desire to win, but also in her preferred style of play. She recalls a moment during a rec game in middle school where she realized she didn’t ball like the other kids.
“We were on a break and I had the ball coming down the middle of the court,” she remembers. “The next thing I know, I threw a no-look pass to my teammate for the bucket. The crowd went wild. I wasn’t trying to be fancy or anything; I was just trying to fake out the defender and it happened naturally. I was like, ‘What did I just do?’ But then I heard the reaction from the crowd and I wanted to keep doing it. Not necessarily anything fancy, just exciting.”
From a young age, Prahalis has felt compelled not just to play and compete, but to be a pied piper for women's basketball, to show that her sport can be just as entertaining—and, yes, flashy—as the men's version.
“Not many girls buy the AND1 Mixtapeand then spend hours trying to perfect the moves,” says Prahalis, chuckling. “That’s what I’d do every single day growing up. I’d watch the tape, try it out, then rewind and watch it again until I perfected it. I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to bring excitement to women’s basketball.”
I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to bring excitement to women’s basketball.
Spend a few minutes talking with Sammy off the court, and it's hard to imagine her toting the rock at Rucker Park or the West 4th Street Courts in New York—two of the most famous, and famously competitive streetball meccas in the world. She’s shy by nature and doesn't call attention to herself off the court.
Still, the countless hours she spent honing her game at those iconic courts helped to solidify a commitment to the perceived “flashy” style of play for Prahalis. The difference, however, is that it came natural to her; it felt normal.
“Looking back, it is kind of surreal,” says Prahalis. “Playing at Rucker and West 4th made me know that this is what I want to do. I mean, not even every guy gets to play at the Rucker. I feel incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity and there’s no doubt it really helped my confidence in my game.”
Prahalis became a basketball legend at Commack High School while also playing AAU ball with the Manhattan-based Exodus. Commuting to the city from Long Island every day was never a chore; to Sammy, the city is “where basketball is” as she puts it. In fact, she took the city with her (in spirit) to Ohio State, where she brought a gritty, in-your-face style of play to the Buckeyes when she suited up as a freshman in the fall of 2008.
But in women’s basketball, that bravura isn’t always welcomed or appreciated. Her passion for not just competing, but winning with a little flair, has been mistaken for brashness or arrogance. (To be fair, when you have “Shhh...” tattooed on your finger and you hold it up after hitting big shots on the road, that probably is arrogant. But also badass.) She was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and a First Team conference selection as a sophomore. But her intense style of play has made her a polarizing figure in the women’s game. She was recently given a standing ovation while taking on the Cal Golden Bears in Berkeley; her reception at Big Ten arenas is markedly different though, including constant booing at Iowa, and, not at all surprisingly, reactions from Twitter losers.
And while there have been times where tempers have flared, it’s simply a part of the game of basketball to Prahalis. She isn’t one to let a cheap shot go—she’ll call you out on it. If she disagrees with a call the ref made, she’ll let him or her know.
If I were a guy, people might look at it in a more positive light or it may not even be an issue. But as a girl, I realize my intensity can rub people the wrong way.
“I’m kind of used to it now,” says Prahalis, matter-of-factly, of the dichotomy that is her reputation. “I think I’m a little misunderstood in that regard. I just want to win. I look at it like my alter-ego. I think that if I were a guy, people might look at it in a more positive light or it may not even be an issue. But as a girl, I realize my intensity can rub people the wrong way. I’m not the type of person that I can hit someone up on Twitter after a loss or go bake cookies with them and forget about it. That’s just not me; I want to win.”
After the game, Prahalis does her usual rounds with the media and hurries frantically to her phone.
She begins to type out a text message, not to her parents or her boyfriend, but to one of the three girls from her former AAU team, Exodus, whom she currently mentors. “Hey! How was your game??” she writes current Exodus player Brianna Butler, just moments after Prahalis herself had played one of the biggest and most important games of her career (one just a few months shy of the WNBA Draft to boot).
For Butler (committed to Syracuse, in orange jeans in photos above), Taylor Ford (also committed to Syracuse, in green shirt in photos above), and Lisa Blair (Ohio State, brown boots above), Prahalis is an invaluable resource and has been for many years. Call it whatever you want—a mentor, Big Sister, or simply “friend”—Prahalis has made an incredible impact on these young women not because she has to, but because she wants to.
“I care about these kids,” says Sammy of her relationship with Butler, Ford, and Blair. “I care about them having a big game more than me having a big game. They’re good kids and I kind of took them under my wing a little bit. They kind of opened up to me and I think they know I’m there for them in basketball and in life.”
Prahalis downplays her impact on these girls’ lives, but ask Butler, Ford, and Blair what Prahalis means to them and they don’t shy away from delivering tremendous praise.
“She has such a big heart,” Butler says, genuinely. “She really does care about us. We talk every day and she is always the first person to call me after I have a game. I know she’ll always be there for me.”
“Sammy helps me a lot, on and off the court,” echoes Blair, the future Buckeye. “I remember she sensed I was kind of shy when I was a freshman and she invited me to her house with a few of her other friends. We’ve been close ever since. That really meant a lot to me.”
Her mentorship of the girls might surprise those who see Prahalis as the hot-headed enfant terrible of the women’s game. In fact, Prahalis would rather not talk about it; her relationship with each young woman is uniquely special and meaningful. The modest Prahalis simply wants to be there for them in any capacity. She talks to Brianna, Taylor, and Lisa every single day encouraging them to finish strong in school and continue working hard at practice. If one of the girls needs a pep talk, Sammy is there to provide it. If one has a question about basketball, there’s no better resource than Prahalis and she is more than happy to help out at any time of the day or night.
“It’s not even a second-thought,” Taylor Ford says nonchalantly. “I know Sammy will have my back.”
Don’t ask her about the WNBA.
Not yet at least.
Prahalis is still too focused on finishing her career at Ohio State on a high note, and so far, all is going according to plan. Averaging 19.0 points and nearly seven assists, Prahalis has led the No. 11 ranked Buckeyes to a stellar 20-2 start to her senior season.
“All my heart and soul is focused on our season right now,” Prahalis says. “I don’t want to leave Ohio State wondering if I could have been more focused. That’s why I stayed this past summer to be with my team. I wanted to put everything I have into this season.”
Perhaps never before has a women’s basketball player effectively utilized a controlled, streetball type of approach to the women’s game to the degree Prahalis has. But it’s so much more than just electrifying the crowd; basketball is sacred to Styles P. There’s a subtle but apparent undertone of love and appreciation for the sport in everything she says and does.
Still, ever since she was a little girl perfecting her AND1 moves, playing professionally has been her goal.
I’ve always wanted to be a pro. At the same time, I’ve wanted to also make a statement. Change the game. The way I look at the game of basketball is probably different than most. I want to bring excitement to the game—excite and inspire people.
“I’d be lying if I said I never think about the draft,” Prahalis admits. “It’s a dream of mine. But I’m very much in the moment right now, living in the present. I mean, I’ve always wanted to be a pro. At the same time, I’ve wanted to also make a statement. Change the game. The way I look at the game of basketball is probably different than most. I want to bring excitement to the game—excite and inspire people.”
Could Sammy Prahalis change the women’s game? It’s a fair question. She has all the qualities that would be required to do so and there’s no denying she possesses the desire and motivation. As Ohio State’s season rages on, Prahalis is quickly solidifying herself as a first-round lock in the 2012 WNBA Draft.
Women’s basketball needs someone like Sammy. Someone who isn’t afraid of juking the status quo. Someone who can help women's basketball reach an entirely new demographic of fans.
“This ain’t the ‘50s anymore,” she says while shaking her head with a trademark, facetious smile.
Changing women's basketball is a lofty goal to say the least. But you tell Styles P she can't do it. Tell her she's too flashy. Tell her she doesn't have what it takes. See what happens.
But you might want to get the hell out of her way first.