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Basketball pro Griffin a hit at youth camp

Beth Bragg
At the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014, girls participate in an Alaska Lady Hoops basketball clinic, featuring Kelsey Griffin, a former Chugiak High student who now plays for the WNBA.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Former Chugiak student Kelsey Griffin cheers on girls at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin now plays professional basketball in the WNBA, and was on hand for a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Former Chugiak student Kelsey Griffin cheers on girls at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin now plays professional basketball in the WNBA, and was on hand for a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Former Chugiak student Kelsey Griffin cheers on girls at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin now plays professional basketball in the WNBA, and was on hand for a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Former Chugiak student Kelsey Griffin tells her success story to kids at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin now plays professional basketball in the WNBA, and was on hand for a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Former Chugiak student Kelsey Griffin tells her success story to kids at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin now plays professional basketball in the WNBA, and was on hand for a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Kids practice basketball during a day camp at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Girls practice basketball during a day camp at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Girls duke it out for top honors at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. They were participating in a day camp organized by the Alaska Lady Hoops which featured Kelsey Griffin, a former Chugiak High student who now plays for the WNBA.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Enthusiastic young basketball players, mostly girls, answer trivia questions about visiting WNBA player Kelsey Griffin, a former Chugiak High student, on Saturday, August 30, 2014 at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Kelsey Griffin signs a basketball for young day camp participants at the AT&T Sports Center in Palmer on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Griffin, a former Chugiak High student, now plays for the WNBA.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News

PALMER — Twelve-year-old Chasity Horn knew the basics about professional basketball player Kelsey Griffin even before she attended Saturday’s Alaska Lady Hoops camp, where Griffin was a guest speaker.

“I knew she was really good in the NBA, and she went to Chugiak, and that Coach Ryan helped coach her,” Horn said.

During three hours of drills at the AT&T Sports Center, Horn’s knowledge grew substantially. As she listened to Griffin tell the story of her career, she learned it’s important to believe in yourself and it’s important to find a balance between sports and other aspects of life. 

She also learned that hoop dreams aren’t the exclusive domain of boys.

“It’s good to know that a lot of girls are able to pursue their dream of basketball, instead of just men getting to pursue it,” Horn, a seventh grader at Mirror Lake Middle School, said.

Griffin is proof of that. A 6-foot-2 power forward, she is Alaska’s only pro in the women’s game. She recently ended her fifth WNBA season with the Connecticut Sun and later this month she is headed to Australia for her third season with the Bendigo Spirit, the team she has led to consecutive WNBL championships.

She is very much living the dream, so much so that at times she can’t believe the life she leads.

“I was floating in the Dead Sea once, and I had just ridden a camel, and I though, wow, basketball took me there,” Griffin said. “No way would I have been there without basketball. Israel, Krakow, the Sydney Harbor — all of that is basketball. As a little girl in Eagle River, I never imagined seeing those things.”

Basketball took Griffin, 27, from Chugiak High to the University of Nebraska — which earlier this year retired her jersey — and beyond. She’s eaten escargot in Paris, kangaroo in Australia and “mystery meat” in Hungary. 

Griffin was the No. 3 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft and has one more season on her contract with Connecticut, where she started about one-third of last season’s games and averaged 5.1 rebound and 4.4 points. Because the WNBA season is short and its salaries come nowhere close to matching those in the NBA, she also plays overseas, as do most women pros. After one season in Israel and one season in Hungary, she took her game to Australia, which she hopes to make her permanent home.

The MVP of the WNBL’s Grand Final two years in a row — she racked up 28 points and 15 rebounds in last season’s championship game — Griffin said she has applied for permanent residency.

“I feel like I’m home there,” she said.

Eagle River remains her true home, even though visits are rare and brief. She said she sees her family three or four weeks a year at the most, one of the sacrifices she has made in order to make a career out of basketball.

During a question-and-answer session Saturday with about 60 kids, almost all of them girls, Griffin declined to say how much she earns. She later said that her WNBL salary is significantly greater than her WNBA salary, plus she has a sponsorship with Peak Sport Australia, which wants her to help design a shoe when she returns next month. She currently wears a men’s size 10 Tony Parker made by Peak.

“Hopefully they’ll have a Kelsey Griffin shoe,” she said. “Fans love my red shoes, so I know they’ll be red.”

The red shoes are a holdover from her days at Nebraska, where she was the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2010. They go with Connecticut’s colors but stand out in Bendigo, whose colors are blue and gold. But as the only American and one of the biggest stars on the Spirit, Griffin would stand out in Bendigo regardless.

Griffin said she’s pretty well known in the city, an old gold-rush town of about 80,000. It’s small and it loves the Spirit, which Griffin said was struggling financial a few years ago before residents rallied to save it.

Griffin brought some gear from her teams to give away at Saturday’s camp, the first one she has ever worked at.

“I’m awestruck at the level of talent and dedication these girls have,” she said. “We had nothing like this when I was growing up. It really will propel the sport.”

The camp was organized by Alaska Lady Hoops, a competitive program whose alumni include Division I players Sylvia Bullock, Jenna Johnson and Anna Simmers and a number of UAA and UAF players. The club’s director is Chugiak High girls basketball coach Ryan Hales, who was an assistant at East back when Griffin was in high school.

“The goal is to give kids more opportunities and encourage them to come out and get better,” he said. “Our goal is to get them to Kelsey’s level, to college.”

Hales said he loved it when Griffin told the campers that she wishes she had spent more time as a kid working on her skills and drills. At the same time, he was happy to hear her stress the importance of balancing sports with family, friends, school and other interests.

At the end of the camp, Griffin was surrounded by girls asking her to autograph T-shirts, shoes and basketballs. Layla Beam, 13, got one of her Nikes signed.

“Very inspiring,” Beam said. “It made me think that I could be like her one day.”

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.