From Texas with Toughness
Khaliyah "Lili" Thompson will soon be a freshman at Stanford playing for Tara VanDerveer's powerhouse women's basketball program. But as a child, Thompson honed her skills playing against the boys.
"I've always played with the guys and I'm always the smallest person," Thompson said. "In the gym I'd have a pink ball that I would play with and the guys would see me with the pink ball and they would not think much of me. They would pick me last, which was expected, and I would get a chance to prove myself."
Tracy Thompson watched her daughter take on the boys from a young age.
"She's always played against boys," Tracy Thompson said. "My husband started coaching her at 3 years old. I don't think she played on an all-girls team until high school. She's played on mixed teams and was usually the only girl there. She's done really well against boys. It's helped her physicality when she plays girls."
Eventually the battles of the sexes on the court helped her become a player of such quality at Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas that Stanford felt she fit on a roster of All American players.
"You have to trust the coaches because if they have the trust in their abilities [to evaluate talent] to recruit you then you shouldn't doubt yourself," Lili Thompson said. "If Coach VanDerveer thinks I can play there then I shouldn't doubt myself. As long as I'm willing to work as hard as I can then that's good enough."
Thompson's "good enough" would appear to be better than most based on the synopsis of her skills from Kit Martin, her coach during her senior season.
"She's an extremely powerful athlete," Martin said. "Even though she's 5-foot-8 inches tall, she can get to the basket. Her athletic prowess stands out. She can shoot. She can attack the rim. She has really worked on her game. Her skill set is higher than your typical Division I guard."
Lili Thompson agreed her strength is a plus and elaborated on her game.
"I have a good mid-range pull up game," Lili Thompson said. "I like to get in the paint and disrupt the defense."
Such a glowing description from a coach might beg the question of why teams across the country weren't beating down Thompson's door. Part of the answer may be that the door moved around a bit.
Tracy and Gregory Thompson are retired from the Army. Tracy Thompson said the family lived in Hawaii for about eight years. Lili Thompson actually attended the prestigious Punahou School freshman year.
"Maybe because I was moving so much I wasn't recruited a lot," Lili Thompson said. "Once I got in, Stanford was the best choice. It's a top program. Nothing could top it."
Tracy Thompson said her daughter was evaluated early in her development, but rarely, if ever, afterwards by the major recruiting services. ESPN's last evaluation of Thompson was posted in May 2010 and while complimentary of her athletic ability, led to a modest three star rating.
"The coaches at Stanford rely on their own evaluation," Tracy Thompson said. "I think it's a good thing she's underrated. There isn't any pressure. She can go up there and do what she does."
What she does is use her physical nature to muscle past defenders to start the offense, Martin said.
"She's our go-to on breaking the press," Martin said. "She's got shoulders - she looks like a power lifter or something. She uses her body really well. With her ability to explode and her change of speed, all those things together create a difficult matchup for folks in press situations."
Martin added that Thompson establishes the intensity of the unit on defense.
"She's a kid whose individual defensive play increases your entire defensive production," Martin said. "She understands team defense, not just individual defense. She has that innate ability to lift everybody defensively."
In Thompson's opinion, communication on and off the court is key to good defense. She understands she needs to improve to succeed at the next level.
"I think I have a lot of passion and that helps you on defense," Lili Thompson said. "You're getting down and dirty and helping the team. Defense shows the cohesiveness of the team. Stanford has a great defense and that shows the team is close. I hope I can become really good friends and sisters with the girls and I hope our off-court relationship shows on the court."
Her mother said she sometimes wishes Lili wasn't quite so willing to throw her body around for the team.
"There's a lot of cringing on my part and her dad's part," Tracy Thompson said. "We don't want her to get injured but she's a very passionate player. She's either going after it with everything she has or resting on the bench. There's no in between. It's a focused recklessness. You can tell she's a ball of energy."
Tracy Thompson said her daughter's high school teammates appreciated her passion. Building a relationship with Stanford players she'll be sacrificing her body for might be helped by having grown up in a family of academic overachievers.
She said the soon-to-be Stanford freshman is the youngest of six and four of her older siblings are in graduate school and the fifth will be soon. She added that her youngest isn't even the first to be accepted into Stanford but will be the first to attend.
"She has tough acts to follow," Tracy Thompson said. "She has not yet earned her college bragging rights. She's earned athletic bragging rights."
That is high praise considering the rest of her family is not a group of academic shut-ins who fear sweat.
"Sports are a major part of our lives," Tracy Thompson said. "Lili's dad is a Division III referee. He also played basketball in college. His father is a hall of fame high school coach. All of our kids played sports; one was a state champion hurdler. We can't even put all the trophies up. I'd like to put up some of my husband's, but it's all our children's."
Though nearly three weeks remain before she will begin her college career, Lili Thompson has already started to prepare for life on The Farm.
"I've actually started packing," she said about her June 22 arrival date at Stanford. "That makes it a little bit more real. I've talked to coaches and my teammates that are already there and the freshmen. I think it will be a great experience."
Lili Thompson will be leaving an area that is well traveled by Stanford coaches. Stepfan Taylor went to Mansfield High School, Timberview High School's rival. Brandon Simmons, the talented 2014 safety verbally committed to Stanford, attends Timberview High School. It's a small Stanford recruiting world.
"He's one of my good friends," Lili Thompson said of Simmons. "There are two more girls -- twins -- on the track team at Stanford [Kaitlyn and Kristyn Williams]. They're amazing track stars. When I got to Timberview I met them and I was shell shocked. Here are two older girls going to Stanford. You have people from your area who love it there."
When asked if Thompson would share some advice with Simmons on how to navigate the school's admissions process, she was quick to point out he wouldn't need it.
"Brandon is a brilliant guy," Lili Thompson said. "I have him in a few classes. Aside from loaning him a few SAT books, he's got it covered. He'd be a great addition."
Stanford fans won't have to wait that long for the next great academic and athletic fit from that high school.
"She's highly intelligent on the court and in the classroom," Martin said. "To be as athletically gifted as she is and work as hard as she does is always fun to watch. That's what you think of with Stanford type players."