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.”