AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Poetry, Imani McGee-Stafford says, saved her life.
She was still in middle school when she began putting the words rumbling through her head down on paper, filling notebook after notebook in search of a voice to break free of the depression that was choking her.
After being sexually abused as a child, the promising young basketball player attempted suicide three times by age 17. But she kept writing as part of her daily “dogfight” of emotions.
Eventually, that writing pulled her out of depression. She found her voice when she arrived at the University of Texas, at slam poetry competitions where she could stand up and use poetry to tell her story.
With her mind and personal life now getting more settled every day, McGee-Stafford’s game on the court is on the rise. The 6-foot-7 former high-school All-American has been a driving force in the postseason for the No. 5-seed Longhorns (24-10), carrying them to a Sweet 16 matchup Saturday against No. 1 Connecticut (34-1) on Saturday in Albany, N.Y.
But while basketball is in the spotlight, it’s the healing words and performance of her poetry that have pushed her this far.
“I don’t want to die (now),” McGee-Stafford said this week, beaming a broad, braces-filled smile as she talked about poetry, her recent engagement and advancing toward a degree.
“I can live. I can be OK. I can cope now,” she said.
McGee-Stafford always faced big expectations on and off the basketball court. Her mother is Pamela McGee, the former second-overall pick in the first WNBA draft. Her father, Kevin Stafford, is high-profile minister in the Los Angeles area. Her brother, JaVale McGee, plays in the NBA.
All that left her searching for her own identity.
“I love doing poetry because it’s fun to be nobody,” McGee-Stafford said. “My dad’s a pastor, he’s big in the religious world. My mom is Pam McGee. But with poetry, everyone is in there telling their story, being vulnerable and giving their story to the world.
“It was like the only way I could get people to listen to me. I was always really tall, but no one really noticed me … I had so much to say, but no one would listen,” she said.
McGee-Stafford said she’s still got notebooks stuffed with the dark words of a child trying to sort out her emotions. She rarely looks back at what she wrote.
“It’s kind of scary I was that low,” she said.
A major step in breaking out was leaving her California home and going to Texas, something her family was reluctant for her to do. McGee-Stafford had already committed to Texas when Longhorns coach Gail Goestenkors quit in 2012 and Karen Aston was hired.
Aston flew to California to meet with McGee-Stafford and her family and re-recruit them all over again.
“I come with a lot of baggage. She fought through them. It wasn’t easy to get me to come here and I’m sure there were easier kids to recruit,” McGee-Stafford said. “I told her everything.”
All of it was a revelation for Aston, who took a deep breath and saw a talented basketball player who would need help and patience along the way.
Aston said she’d had experience coaching other players with abuse and depression in their background.
“I’ve dealt with those things. There are days that just aren’t good. You just hope as they grow older and are willing to accept help, they become fewer,” Aston said. “As a coach, you have to accept that there are bad days.”
McGee-Stafford got help, through medication, therapy and slam poetry.
She discovered slam poetry almost by accident at an international poetry festival in Austin her freshman year. Enthralled by the rapid-fire delivery, she soon began participating and eventually joined They Speak, a local youth poetry organization. Last year, she went with the group to compete in an international competition in Philadelphia.
A big struggle was opening up to teammates who may not have understood her mood swings or days she clearly wanted to be somewhere other than the basketball court.
“Imani, she was a tough cookie. It was kind of hard to get close to her,” said senior Nneka Enemkpali who roomed with McGee-Stafford on road trips.
“Once she became comfortable around me, she felt safe enough to be vulnerable and share those kind of stories. She told me her freshman year what she had been through,” Enemkpali said.
On the court, McGee-Stafford was the Big 12 freshman of the year in 2013 but has struggled to stay healthy. The worst physical setback came when she needed surgery to reinforce the tibia in her left leg and was forced to miss the first eight games of this season.
And Texas needed her to step up when scoring leader Enemkpali was lost for the year with a knee injury. McGee-Stafford has averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds in the postseason, with her best games in NCAA Tournament wins over Western Kentucky and California.
The on-court burst came after McGee-Stafford shared her story for a feature on ESPN, which elicited messages of support from around the country. And she’s embracing a new role as an ambassador for survivors of abuse and depression.
“Parents are looking at their kids a second time. They are listening to their kids. That’s cool with me,” she said. “It would be selfish to say ‘I made it’ and now show everybody that it was a dogfight.”
She wants to show others that she’s not just surviving but thriving. In January, she got engaged to Longhorns football player Paul Boyette, Jr.
And she plans to keep performing slam poetry.
“What’s cool is that my poetry is maturing as I do. It’s not so much about me anymore, which is nice,” she said. “I guess since I’m in this lovey-dovey stage, it’s about love now.”
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