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From foster care to Maryland women’s basketball, Ieshia Small has come a long way

The senior guard has overcome plenty. Now she hopes to end her college career on a high note.

ieshia small Sammi Silber / Testudo Times

As reporters buzz around the floor of Xfinity Center at Maryland women’s basketball media day, Ieshia Small inconspicuously gets up from her seat. The senior guard creeps toward the adjacent table, where junior forward Brianna Fraser is doing an on-camera interview.

Small has decided to crash it.

She sneaks up behind Fraser and attacks with a bear hug of sorts. It’s a prank, sure, but the genuine teammate affection is clear to see.

ieshia small brianna fraser @umdwbb on Twitter

“I’m just more of an outgoing person. I like to see people smile,” Small says, back at her table. “I always like to have a good time, and I want people around me to have a good time. So I’ll try to brighten the mood or do little things that just make people smirk or something.”

Kimberly Davis Powell, who coaches Essence Girls Basketball on the AAU circuit, first met Small during the fall of her sophomore year in high school. The coach had been recruiting the Miami native to play for Essence (based in Tallahassee) since eighth grade, and the five-star prospect would ultimately join the team in the spring. But her exuberance was on display immediately.

“She walked into the room with her mom, behind her mom with these big old glasses with no lenses in them,” Davis Powell told Testudo Times, “and I’m just looking at her like, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s just how she is.”

Small remembers the encounter with a laugh. “It was a phase I was going through during that time,” she says. “I was very young.”

That personality, miraculously, hasn’t changed since then. Small’s life off the court (and on it, to a lesser extent) has been battered with turmoil and tragedy. She doesn’t show the effects of it, at least not visibly.

There’s a tattoo on Small’s left wrist. You’d have to look at it to notice it. Her mom’s name, Michelle Robinson, is written just above the day she was born and March 1, 2011—the day she died.

Since that day, Small has battled instability both as a person and a basketball player. She and her brother Marvin (who’s a year and a half younger) found adoptive parents in a different part of the state after almost a year in foster care. Small found Maryland in 2015 after an unsuccessful stint at Baylor. She’s grown into a senior leader for the No. 15 Terps, and her final college season begins Friday night. It’s been an incredible journey to here.

Basketball was the easy part.

Small didn’t get seriously into basketball until middle school. She still doesn’t know why; she was “just a regular student” before then. As Small took up the game, it didn’t take long for her natural ability to draw attention.

“She was a kid that always had a nice powerful body, quicker than everybody, [more] powerful than everybody,” Davis Powell said. “Couldn’t shoot worth you-know-what, couldn’t shoot a jumper—had to teach her that—but could get to the hole and she could bully people because she was so much bigger than everyone else.”

College and AAU coaches (like Davis Powell) started calling before long. Small started from day one as a freshman at Dr. Michael Krop High School in Miami, and as a sophomore she led the Lightning to the state semifinals. She would play her first game for Davis Powell and Essence that spring.

Small’s rapid rise was a product of hard work and support from her mom, who made sure Small had the opportunities to succeed and access to the best coaches and trainers possible. Robinson was a high-level player who could reportedly dunk before injuries cut her career short; she was going to give her daughter the chance to become a star.

“Every team I played for, she was the team mom and got us fruits and Gatorades and waters for the games during halftime and stuff like that,” Small said.

And then, suddenly, she was gone.

March 1, 2011, started as a normal day. Basketball season had just finished. Ieshia and Marvin Small woke up, got dressed and left for school as usual. Robinson was on the phone when she dropped them off.

Around lunch time, though, the siblings were called into the principal’s office and told their mom had been hospitalized. They waited there into the late evening. Just before 9:00 p.m., their older brother and uncle came to get them, drive them home and break the news that Robinson had died of a heart attack. She was 48.

It was a total shock. There hadn’t been any prior scares or reasons to worry. Davis Powell had talked to her that morning, and was excited to see her when Ieshia joined Essence in April.

“We were setting up for our first weekend of practice,” Davis Powell recalled. “So that morning we actually talked to each other, and then that afternoon I got a phone call said she was gone.

“I was at work, mouth wide open, and I was just like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now.’”

In a flash, Small’s entire life was thrust into uncertainty. She had lost her dad at age 13, and while he was never much of a visible presence, Robinson’s passing left Ieshia and Marvin without both of their birth parents. They were without a place to call home.

They first stayed with older brother Torrey Washington, but he wasn’t able to hold down a place and moved around the area instead. It wasn’t the environment Ieshia and Marvin needed. So for the rest of Small’s sophomore year, she and her younger brother bounced from one temporary residence to another. “I would stay with one teammate for one week and the next teammate the next week, and we’d jump around,” Small said.

During the summer, when Small spent most of her time playing AAU basketball, she and Marvin stayed with Davis Powell, her husband Kelvin and their son in Tallahassee. The Powells had offered to let them stay there long-term, but the Smalls were hesitant to completely leave Miami and all they had grown up knowing. When the next school year began, the siblings were in a Miami foster care facility. Ieshia and Marvin were actually placed in different group homes, although they were on the same block.

The facility was 45 minutes from Krop, which was already enough of a hassle. For Small to leave the city or state for a tournament, everything had to be court-ordered. Twice a month during that year, though, Davis Powell would either catch a bus or drive seven hours down from Tallahassee to make it happen.

“She would drive down and would have to go to court, and she would have to have a list of all the places that we’ll be at, all the places that we’ll be staying, and it’d have to be approved by the judge to see if I can go or not,” Small said. “Thank God everything got approved and I didn’t have an issue with that.

“When something came up last-minute, it was always hard because you would have to go through all this paperwork and go through court and all that stuff.”

During Christmas break, the siblings accepted Davis Powell’s offer. However, because they were in the middle of the school year and basketball season, they didn’t move in for good until that June. In between, Small led Krop to the state title game; she averaged 24 points per game that season. She played for Essence again that summer and at Florida State High School her senior season; Davis Powell coached both teams.

Small was the No. 19 overall player and No. 3 wing in the 2013 class, per ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings. The attention that always comes with that status was simultaneous with Small’s turbulent personal life, so everything was a whirlwind.

“Everybody wanted a piece of me, and that’s why it took me so long just to tell [Davis Powell] I was willing to go stay with her,” Small said. “There was so many people that was like, ‘Hey, you can come stay with me.’ I don’t think they meant any harm by it, but it was only because of Ieshia the basketball player. They didn’t think about Ieshia the person. And a lot of them didn’t even know I had a baby brother, so that was even more crazy to me.”

Davis Powell’s legal adoption of the Small siblings was another lengthy process, but finally finished at the end of Ieshia’s senior year. The family remains close: Davis Powell is saved in Small’s contacts as “Mama Kim,” and the two talk almost every day.

Not long after Small settled into her new home, though, it was time to decide where to play college basketball. She was the 2013 class’ last top-20 prospect to commit, but on April 3, 2013, she chose Baylor over South Carolina. Two of Small’s Essence teammates—point guard Niya Johnson and wing Alexis Prince—had already committed and signed with Baylor, which presented a chance at continuity during a time when Small needed that. It was off to Waco.

Baylor worked out in some regards; Small speaks of the university and her teammates and the facilities with reverence. But she struggled to find a role in a backcourt loaded with All-American talents and established veterans. “Everything was great,” she said. “It just wasn’t a good fit for me—Ieshia the basketball player.” Small played 65 games for the Lady Bears, averaging 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per contest.

After her sophomore season, a recipe of limited playing time and homesickness prompted a decision to transfer. “I was just like, ‘I want to stay close to home, I need to be around my family, it’s been a tough two years,’” Small said. She was intent on staying in the Southeast, and named Texas A&M and Mississippi State as programs who called. Small also visited a handful of Florida schools.

Then Maryland swooped in. College Park is nowhere near Small’s home, but the Terps’ coaching staff had long-standing ties with Davis Powell. Assistant coach Shay Robinson was previously a trainer at the EDGE Training Facility in Orlando, where Essence held camps. Another assistant, Bett Shelby, recruited out of the program when she was on the staff at Stetson. Ultimately, being on campus swayed Small, who committed to Maryland in June 2015.

“I came here, took a visit, and I loved the place and it was exciting and I wanted to be here,” Small said.

“They were so caring and loving here, and I loved that. I didn’t experience that before, and I think that’s what made me realize that this was the best place for me.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: Connecticut at Maryland
Small with teammate Brionna Jones in 2016-17.
Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, who wasn’t far removed from recruiting Small as a prospect, needed another backcourt option. The Terps had just lost Lexie Brown, the team’s star point guard and second-leading scorer in 2014-15, to transfer (she’s a senior at Duke now). Small, while not a natural point guard and requiring a redshirt year, proved to be the right fit.

Frese also knew how important a family atmosphere would be to Small, given what she’d been through. That’s a phrase thrown around all too frequently at team media sessions, but there’s truth at its core. The players, coaches and staff members were all welcoming.

Still, Small’s adjustment took time. She was at another new school in another new state with a new batch of teammates, and for the first time since her basketball career began, she had to miss a full season. During her redshirt year, Small practiced regularly with the scout team, but as the Terps racked up 31 wins without her, it was easy to feel forgotten.

“You kind of have that ‘left-out’ feeling [as a redshirt],” junior forward Aja Ellison said, “but she had to keep her mind on, ‘You’re a part of the team, and even though you’re not on the court playing, you still have a role.’ You can be vocal, hold your teammates accountable.”

The redshirt year also allowed Small to adjust to the new school and focus on classes and other off-court endeavors. From the moment she transferred, she knew what she was getting into, and that it was on her to make the most of it.

“I think when you grow as a person, the other stuff starts to follow along, and the basketball also started to grow,” she said. “And my determination and just getting my head back into the reason why I was playing this game, it just made me feel even better.”

Small’s official Maryland debut came on Nov. 13, 2016, in the season opener against UMass-Lowell. She tallied 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting; her high at Baylor was 10 points. Two games later, Small upped the standard to 14 points, a figure she’d match twice in 2016-17.

Her numbers for the season—5.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in 14.7 minutes—don’t show a massive leap from her production at Baylor, but Small was one of Maryland’s most explosive bench options last season. She was mainly playing point guard for the first time, which is always an adjustment.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Frese said. “We’ve been trying to find her strengths, and I love the fact that she has been so willing and open to try the new positions that each team lends itself to.”

Now, with Maryland’s top three scorers from last season all departed and only nine players eligible to start the season, Small will finally get a chance to be a scoring threat. But it’s her versatility that has impressed teammates and coaches. She’s shifted back off the ball, and her 6’0 frame makes her a viable option at four positions—she’s even been playing power forward in some of Frese’s smaller lineups.

“She never really complains about having to play a different position,” said sophomore guard Sarah Myers, who also shifted from the wing to point guard in college. “Coach B even has her at the four a lot now. So just having her be able to play every position and how versatile she is, and leading by example without having complaints about it, has definitely helped me out too.”

Maryland Athletics

Small isn’t putting too much pressure on herself to put up numbers in her final season and vindicate the top-20 recruiting ranking. But there’s a natural expectation for a senior to fill a leadership role, and Small has made strides in that area. She credits Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones, who led the way last year, for guiding her through that process.

There will be two emotional pinnacles in Small’s senior season. The first will come during Thanksgiving weekend, when Maryland travels to Miami’s campus for a weekend tournament. The Terps will have dinner as a team at Small’s family’s house; Small hasn’t lived in Miami since attending Krop, and says she hasn’t been back to the city at all in a couple years. Three months later, it’ll be senior day in College Park. The Powell family will make the trip up and escort Small through the ceremonies, as will Marvin, who’s currently serving in the army and stationed in Qatar.

“I think that emotion will be different,” Davis Powell said. “It’ll be emotions of gratitude and emotions of ‘I’ve made it’ and ‘I’m proud of myself.’ So I think those will be different types of emotions than Miami.”

Small, who graduated in May with a degree in communications, doesn’t know what the future holds beyond this season; she’ll go “wherever God takes me.” No matter where that is, she’s equipped with oversized glasses, a versatile basketball skill set and lessons learned from a roller coaster of a life.

“I think I’m more excited about recognizing and seeing the woman I have become compared to my freshman year to now, and I’m just excited about who I am now and who I will become in the future,” Small said, “and it’s just amazing to be playing with these girls right here because I love them to death.

“I’m just happy and ready for the season to start.”