Jia Perkins was 21, was a homegrown Texan, a star guard on a Texas Tech women’s basketball team with NCAA championship aspirations. Then, in an instant, her life changed. She learned early in her senior season that she was pregnant. Scared is probably not a strong enough word.
“It was a mix of emotions,” Perkins said. “First, of course, sadness. Not knowing what I was going to do. I had told one teammate. And, of course, the father. But I just didn’t know what I was going to do.’’
Twelve years removed from that time — from having to walk away from college basketball and perhaps, she thought, a pro career — Perkins can smile.
Perkins, 34, is about to start her 13th WNBA season with the Lynx, her fourth team. Acquired in a draft-day deal with San Antonio, Perkins is a former All-Star who was obtained to provide veteran depth at guard for a Lynx team that wants to repeat as league champion but is determined not to wear out its star players doing it.
Perkins brings a defensive presence, a knack for getting into passing lanes. She brings a threat as a good shooter, both from midrange and behind the three-point line.
And she brings maturity, the kind learned from more than a decade as a single mother. Her daughter, Aalirah, will turn 12 in June. It won’t be long before school’s out and the Lynx’s newest fan will be heading north from Texas to join her mom.
“This could not have worked out better,” Perkins said Monday, during a busy Lynx media day. “Without having her, I don’t know where I’d be.”
College career ends
But 12 years ago there were more questions than answers. Perkins, who grew up in the Dallas area, was at Texas Tech, a team she had helped lead into the NCAA tournament three straight times, reaching the Elite Eight in her junior year.
Afraid to broach the subject of her pregnancy with either her parents or her coach, Perkins was afraid if she stopped playing basketball she would lose her scholarship.
“I’d heard that if you make it to a certain point of the season you get to keep your full scholarship,” she said. “So I kept playing until the cutoff date I had set in my mind.”
Tech had a game with Baylor that was going to be on national TV on a Saturday in mid-January. Perkins, four months pregnant, had a plan. She’d play in the game, then tell her parents and her coach.
It didn’t work out that way. Perkins had confided in her favorite uncle, the brother of her mother, Debra. Perkins called him on Thursday. He called her parents on Friday. By Saturday Johnny and Debra Perkins were in Lubbock.
Her college career was over.
Perkins’ parents wanted her to come right home. But she wanted to stay. Already believing she might not play basketball again, she knew she needed to get her degree. So she stayed in school.
Needing six summer school credits to finish, Perkins brought Aalirah with her to classes that summer, finally finishing with a business degree. But, just before finishing, she got a call.
She’d been drafted by the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, in the third round.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was an assistant with the Sting. She remembers when the decision was made to draft Perkins. It wasn’t a tough call.
“She would have been a first-round pick,” Reeve said. “And you have a chance to get her in the third round, and just have to wait? In our evaluation of her she seemed a mature, grounded individual. We had no reservations whatsoever.”
But they did have patience. Perkins played in only a handful of games late in that first season. The transition is tough for any rookie, more so for a new mom.
“But they waited for me,” Perkins said.
So in April, when Reeve and the Lynx made the deal to bring Perkins to the Lynx, it was only fitting. “Things have kind of come full circle,” she said.
Top of her game
The rest is pretty much happy history. Perkins went from Charlotte to Chicago, where she blossomed into an All-Star, to San Antonio. She has played 12 WNBA seasons. She has played overseas in Poland, Israel, Turkey and Dubai.
Aalirah has been there for all of it. Perkins can remember their first trip overseas; her team had to buy only one ticket because Aalirah sat in her lap. And the year she played in Israel and a young Aalirah quickly learned Hebrew and was better at communicating with Perkins’ teammates than she was.
It wasn’t always easy. Her mom has often helped; She is with Aalirah now in Texas. Perkins brought her best friend with her on the first trip overseas to help watch Aalirah. Other foreign teams have provided day care.
It helps that Aalirah “grew up fast,’’ her mother said. “She was self-sufficient early.”
So did Perkins.
This past winter Perkins didn’t play overseas. She wanted her daughter to be able to stay in her school. She’s fresh and ready for the upcoming season. And she can’t wait for Aalirah to join her. They’ve taken every step together.
“She has completed me in ways I can’t even explain,” Perkins said. “I’ve always had someone to come home to that loved me unconditionally. So I’ve enjoyed life.’’