by k. Neycha Herford
“Just be you. Be what you can be!”
It is a blessing to be inspired. So few things can fire up optimism on the instant like deeply listening to someone else talk about the piercing moments that have defined their personal “hero’s journey”.
Stories of breakdowns and breakthroughs. Setbacks and “re-dos”. Tales of ego-deflating losses followed by the juicy discovery that no matter how dark the night, or deep the fall, we are inclined to keep getting back up – to keep going for the win. It is inherent to our being, I believe.
It is this stubborn refusal to stay defeated that drove me out in near freezing conditions and magnificent winds last week despite being on the back end of a stubborn flu and the front end of a sinus infection. Aside from being a part of the press, I genuinely wanted to support and celebrate at Nickelodeon’s headquarters the pre-screening of Little Ballers Indiana – a visionary content collaboration between filmmaker and project creator, Crystal McCrary, WNBA All Star, Skylar Diggins and Executive Vice President of Teen Nick and Nicktoons, Keith Dawkins.
The three-part docu-series, set to premiere on Nicktoons, Friday, March 3, at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) and air over three consecutive nights during Nicktoons’ NickSports TV block, offers the triumphant story of six dynamic and diverse young female basketball players on Diggins’ Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, Sky Digg Ballers, as they set out to prove they are among the best basketball players in the country.
Less than three minutes in to Little Ballers Indiana and the electrifying message of this beautifully shot film is obvious: “teamwork makes the dream work” – – together we accomplish more.
Nowhere would this become more clear than when I sat with “Sky” – as she calls herself – for an unscripted and soulful conversation about community, basketball, the elements of success, her super-hero parents, inherited family, winning, self-esteem, body issues, and much more.
At the conclusion of our brief but delicious convo full of wonder, laughter and ease, I understood fully why I had felt drawn to defy good common sense and show up for the screening. Sky’s rich personality and striking transparency had reaffirmed what I’ve always believed: More than blood connects us, and when we gather around a common goal to which we feel called, success is born. The seemingly impossible is achieved. Those who bear witness benefit too.
Little Ballers Indiana is a testament of this, a moving portrait of going for the win. What does that mean to Skylar Diggins, a five-time USA Basketball gold medalist, two-time WNBA All Star starter, and 2015 ESPY Winner? What follows, drawn from excerpts of our interview, are her candid answers.
H&S: I want to commend you on your effort and commitment to Little Ballers Indiana. I’m so excited to see it. What inspired your commitment to this docu-series?
Diggins: Really it was Crystal McCrary. What she’d done with the first Little Ballers, when she’d told the story of her son and a few of his friends, and their AAU team. I just loved their story. That premiere is where I first met Crystal. So when she expressed to me a desire to do a film about young ladies, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be a great way to tell the story of Indiana basketball and women’s basketball through they eyes of the young ladies.
I think a lot of times we see the finished product, but we don’t necessarily get to see the process.
H&S: Talk to me about the process.
Diggins: You’ll see so many life lessons and basketball lessons that are taught throughout the documentary right on the spot. How to deal with losing, not fitting in, body image, self esteem, confidence. Disability, family make-up, different family backgrounds. It goes to show you that children, they don’t care about any of that stuff. They don’t care where you’re from. They don’t care what color you are. They don’t care how much money your family makes. They just know you are you. Just to see how these young ladies came together and their cohesiveness in their first year playing together as a team.
H&S: Wow. That’s magical.
Diggins: Yes, yes it is and to see just how organically it all happened. Being around these young ladies, you’d see their personalities just shine through. They weren’t afraid to be committed to the team and learn more about each other. I learned so much. I don’t know if the lesson that I thought I was going to learn was what actually came out.
H&S: What did you think you would learn?
Diggins: I think it was so much more than what I expected. I just give a hat’s off to Crystal and Nickelodeon for giving us this platform to tell this story. I think it’s so much deeper than basketball.
H&S: You mentioned body dynamics and self-esteem with women which is something so important to our readers. I don’t think we often enough hear from someone like you who’s in the WNBA and traditionally would have been “taller” than other girls at a young age. My cousin Lauren Carter, in fact a Skylar Scholar, who also plays AAU basketball had such confidence issues around her height before entering high school and it took a long time to convince her that her height was something beautiful.
I’m curious, do you think the film will help girls to feel more comfortable accepting their height, different body sizes, or any of the areas we shame ourselves? As a celebrated role model for the female athlete, I’d love to know what you would say to someone like Lauren or other young girls?
Diggins: Oh, man. Young girls, females, males, the film just showcases something relatable to everyone. Why I think it’s so important, though, for young women to hear these things is because you realize it’s not just you, it’s not just her. A lot of these thoughts cross all women’s minds.
No matter how you may look on the outside, you just never know what anybody’s personal battle may be. I think it’s good to hear somebody else say, “I struggle with confidence.”
I was teased in elementary school, about me preferring dirt over dolls and being a tomboy. You hear about a lot of young women that stop playing basketball because they feel like the associations with the game is not a look that they feel is “acceptable”.
I think the message is – the one we always say is, just be you! Be your best. Be what you can be.
What really helped me at a young age was my dad telling me what other people say about me is none of my business, and to stay out of other peoples’ business.
H&S: It’s true, isn’t it?
Diggins: Yes, although it’s such a hard lesson to learn. Even as a grown woman I still have moments. A lot of moments. I hurt my knee, for instance, and going through that injury, there was a lot of self-doubt and not a lot of confidence.
But I think having that support system made the difference. You’ll see in this film the role of my dad, and how many hats he wears for these young ladies – being not only a coach, but a motivational speaker and chauffeur.
The list goes on and on. I think just having somebody there that you can look at as a role model and reach out to and say, “I feel these feelings.” Understanding that you’re probably not the only one in the world that is feeling what you’re feeling. Sometimes by just expressing how you feel to someone else, you never know how much you can help another person.
H&S: Because I know you have your basketball camp, in addition to your AAU team featured in Little Ballers Indiana, I imagine you quite often see yourself reflected in the young girls. If I asked you to think back on young Sky, and recall one single moment that you believe is most responsible for inspiring your confidence to really believe you could make it to the WNBA, what would that moment be?
Diggins: I think the moment was … It was happening everyday, with practice and preparing.
And failing and having to go back to the drawing board. You’ll see in the film one of the young ladies having a moment. She says, “when I do this, I just go back to the court and I practice on my game. I just come right back out here.”
It’s so true. It’s like we’re forever evolving. I think everything happens for a reason, so every failure, every hour that I spent in the gym, it just made me who I am.
Do I have an aha moment? I really don’t, but I’ll say the people in my life that supported me made the difference. My parents. My mom and her confidence. Seeing her standing at five-foot-nothing. A small woman, but so mighty and strong. Having her as a role model, same with my dad.
My parents are remarried too, so just having so many sets of eyes on me. It definitely took a village.
H&S: I have to ask you this because as a professional athlete you can probably put this one to rest for me. I’m a life design coach and I do a personal growth badass bootcamp called The Crossfade. For years I’ve debated with others about this one question -do you think that the drive to get back up over and over after catastrophic failure or loss is teachable or something we have to be born with?
Diggins: I think it could be a little bit of both. I feel like a big part is personality, because I think it’s certain things that you’re good at and certain things that you’re passionate about. I don’t need any push for what I’m passionate about. The things that I struggle with may be where I’d need a little pat on the back. You know?
That’s a great question. I don’t know how else to answer it.
H&S:For instance, even with your previous injury, someone perhaps different from you would’ve said, “Ah, it’s a wrap. This is probably over.” But you obviously didn’t believe that.
Would you attribute your not giving up then to your innate personality or the fact that you had all those years with impactful mentors who reinforced your confidence?
Diggins: I think it was and is finding people that think like you, people that have been to where you’re trying to go. That’s where a lot of my confidence has come from because the trail was already blazed. It was already encrypted.
Again, that’s a great question. I definitely think it depends on who you are and what the situation is. I’ve always been competitive. I never needed motivation. I always felt self-motivated when it came to winning.
As long as there’s an opportunity to win something, I’m in.
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Little Ballers Indiana is executive produced by Diggins and the team behind the NAACP Image Award-nominated Little Ballers: Crystal McCrary, Lupe Fiasco and Amar’e Stoudemire. McCrary, creator of Little Ballers also serves as director.
Click to watch the trailer