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Once homeless, Kimijah King finds niche with UAA women's basketball team

  • Author: Chris Lawrence
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published May 18, 2017

UAA’s Kimijah King brings talent, toughness and resiliency to the women’s basketball team. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

A classic Kimijah King moment came in the second round of the NCAA Division II women's basketball tournament in March, early in the second half of UAA's game against Simon Fraser.

King, a right-handed 5-foot-7 guard for the Seawolves, cut across the lane and sank the ball with her left hand, igniting an Alaska Airlines Center crowd of more than a thousand and bumping UAA's lead to 37-34.

King's layup that night was not enough. The Seawolves lost 80-70, a defeat that ended their season and a 26-game winning streak.

But King was undaunted. She's an expert at resilience.

Two years ago, she was living with her family in a 2011 Ford Flex in Seattle. Today, she's on scholarship at UAA, where coaches say she has the potential to help the Seawolves maintain their national prominence in the years to come.

"Basketball has been used as a tool to change her destiny," UAA coach Ryan McCarthy said. "She's been able to use basketball as a bridge to come to college and to do what she wants to do in life."

A crowded house

King, who will be a sophomore next season, is the oldest of DeQuenna King's six daughters. Over the years, she said, the family made its home in several places in Seattle and nearby Federal Way, Washington.

"We'd get evicted sometimes and have to switch, or the rent would go up and we'd have to switch," King said.

The family squeezed into two- or three-bedroom apartments, sometimes making room for additional relatives. King attended six different schools before she reached high school.

"It was really hard making friends because we were moving around so much," she said.

Her best friend became basketball. It offered the first anchor of stability in her life — and a diversion.

"I just didn't want to get reminded about all the stuff (at home)," she said. "I'd rather be in the gym getting better."

Juggling responsibilities

Growing up, King and her two oldest sisters often cooked meals while their mother worked. After dinner, they'd finish three to four hours of homework.

Paying rent often meant sacrifices elsewhere, King said, and sometimes food was hard to come by.

"You come home from school and you're really hungry and you want to eat something, and you're already tired and then you have to find motivation to do homework," she said.

King credits her mom with doing her best to support the family on her own. DeQuenna King was a patient advocate in charge of billing at the UW Medical Center, where she still works.

"She's really hard-working, she's always had a job (and) she's always wanted to provide for us," King said. "It always (broke) her heart when we (had) to be homeless."

King said the six sisters all earned "decent" grades in school. King was a 3.0 student in high school and is majoring in education at UAA.

"We just had to hold ourselves accountable and be like 'OK, I have to get good grades because I don't want to be in this situation when I'm older,' " King said. "I want to make sure I have a really good job and support my family the way I want to support my family."

Basketball provided Kimijah King with stability during a tumultuous period. (Skip Hickey / UAA)

Feeling alone

During middle school, King was encouraged by her teachers to apply to private high schools in the area. She was accepted at Lakeside High School, which provided her with financial aid.

Though she quickly earned a spot on the school's basketball team, it took her longer to adjust to the culture of her new school. While other students drove their own cars, King rode the bus for three hours each day.

"… Everybody was rich despite their ethnic background, which is why I struggled so much, like, connecting with those people who came from a lot and I came from nothing," King said. "The conversations were really different because they could talk about those things and I was, like, really shy and embarrassed."

By her sophomore year, King wanted to leave Lakeside and return to the public school near her family's home at the time. Her mother urged her to stay, so she did.

In the summer between King's junior and senior years, her family was kicked out of a relative's home and had nowhere to go but the Ford Flex.

"Three weeks we lived in the car, and we would sleep in parking lots and in parks," King said. "Sometimes the police would come and find us and tell us we had to leave."

Eventually, the family transitioned to motels and finally to an apartment. King, meanwhile, moved in with her boyfriend.

"That took a lot of stress off," she said. "My senior year was probably one of my better years because I just didn't have as much going on."

King credits the teachers at Lakeside, especially English instructor Mal Goss, for helping her through tough times.

"I think what I learned most about Kimijah," Goss said, "was that she wanted the teacher to see her as a capable young woman and acknowledge that she had struggles that she had to overcome that maybe her classmates didn't, but that shouldn't necessarily be something we focused on."

Kimijah King drives against Simon Fraser during the NCAA Division II West Regional Championships. (Skip Hickey / UAA)

Basketball ties it together

King's personal and academic life were on track. Her Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball coaches believed in her, which allowed her to improve on the court.

The coaches saw her potential for developing into an all-around solid player, and they understood her financial situation, she said. As a result, King was able to pay very little to play on some elite teams.

UAA coach Ryan McCarthy first saw King in the summer of 2015, when she was playing in an AAU tournament in southern California.

"I was down there just to try and find some kids down there in that area and watch a Bay Area team," McCarthy said. "And I saw there was a team from Seattle for one of the games that I had planned to watch. I stayed for that game as well … and the rest is history."

King graduated from Lakeside last spring, having already committed to UAA. She spent this school year living in the dorms on campus.

As a reserve guard for the basketball team, she averaged 6.5 points a game and tallied double figures eight times — all against league opponents.

McCarthy said King never complains about what she doesn't have or where she came from — in fact, she embraces it, he said.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," King said. "… Bad things happen to a lot of people, you just have to deal with it, I mean that's just life. I just let it motivate me and keep pushing."

When other players get tired, King can push past her fatigue, McCarthy said.

"I think Kimijah can go to places (in her mind) that a lot of people can't," he said, "and I think that makes her really tough."

King is working toward a degree in education in hopes of helping kids who face the kind of disadvantages she faced.

"I want to start a charter school for kids who come from and deal with that (situation) so I can help them through the education system in a way that's helpful," King said. "Because I know people helped me along the way."

Chris Lawrence is a freelancer writer from Anchorage.

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