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Fitness

She's Got Game

On the court and off, All-Army basketball player and Specialist Kenyatta Sears is constantly driving
Photos by Willis Bretz
Photos by Willis Bretz

Specialist Kenyatta Sears started playing basketball when she was 8. She liked to play with her older cousins, all of whom were boys, and she spent much of that time trying to prove she belonged—a theme she would return to often in life. “Everybody looked down on me, first because I was female, and second because I was so small. Nobody thought I could play basketball,” Sears says. “I always tried to play somebody bigger than me, so when I did go against someone my age or my size, it would come easier.”

She played Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ball, in church leagues, on her high school team—for any club that would have her. From a very early age, she envisioned a life in which basketball would take her places she couldn’t otherwise go. “Let me tell you how she mapped her life out,” says her mom, Rhonda Myers. “At 8 years old, she had goals. She wrote them down. She said, ‘Mom, this is what I want to do.’ ”

Of course, Sears couldn’t have imagined then the goals in front of her now, as a member of the District of Columbia Army National Guard’s 273rd Military Police Company and as a guard on the All-Army women’s basketball team. She wants to soak up every last bit the Army has to offer—benefits, knowledge, experiences. In fact, Sergeant First Class Norrelle Combest, readiness NCO of Sears’ unit, foresees a future that Sears would have scoffed at even two years ago, let alone when she was 8. 

“Sears could literally be anything she wants to be, whether it’s on the civilian side or the Army side,” Combest says. “She could be Command Sergeant Major Sears one day. She could be Colonel Sears or General Sears, if she wants to go that path.” 

And that’s all thanks to a dedication to hard work that started when she was a little girl on a basketball court.

 


 

Known to friends and family as “Kiki,” Sears played other sports growing up in Hampton, VA—field hockey, softball, cross-country—but it was basketball to which she dedicated herself. “She went to the gym every day,” Myers says. “She could have been a postwoman—snow, rain, sleet or hail, she was at the gym.”

Sears did more than dream up her childhood goals—she achieved them. “Every time she accomplished one of those goals, she checked it off her list,” Myers says. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be a professional basketball player; I just want to play well enough to get a full scholarship.’ Check! That’s what she did. I didn’t have to say anything.”

While she never needed to speak up much to keep her daughter upbeat about her blossoming basketball career, Myers had plenty to say during games … much of it loudly. “Me? Be quiet?” she jokes. 

Her daughter laughs at that today. She knows why she encourages her own teammates now—it’s because her mom did the same thing for her when she was young. “Kiki’s teammates loved me, because I didn’t only cheer for her, I cheered for the team,” Myers says. “I was a team mom.”

Off the court, those years weren’t easy. Myers was raising Sears and her older sister on her own, and Sears looks back with admiration at the hard work and sacrifices her mom made to make ends meet. Their Christian faith was a cornerstone of the household, especially when times were tough. “Even when we didn’t have [much], she would always try to provide,” Sears says. “Being a single mom, it was hard at times. Through it all, she kept her faith. We just kept our eyes on the prize.”

As her high school graduation approached, Sears’ coach organized a tour of colleges in New York, Virginia and North Carolina for her. Sears traveled to those three states, showcasing her ability to various teams. It was almost like she was that little girl again, attempting to prove she belonged with the big kids. She received multiple scholarship offers, ultimately accepting an invitation to play for Long Island University Post, a Division II school in Greenvale, NY.

Sears struggled with the transition from high school to college. Balancing the demands of being on the basketball team and life as a college student was overwhelming for her. “I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough,” she says now. “Especially in the preseason, I always came up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do it versus why I could or should.”

At the end of her freshman season, she wanted to quit. But conversations with assistant coach Basimah Thompson convinced her to keep pushing. “[She] was like, ‘Who else is going to do it for you? You can’t go through life thinking people are going to do it for
you,’ ” she says. That lit, or perhaps rekindled, a fire in Sears. “It was, ‘Let me be the person I know I can be. Let me prove to everybody around me that [last season] was a fluke. I can be so much stronger and work so much harder.’That’s what I ended up doing.”

When she returned to campus as a sophomore, she did so with a different mindset. “I went in like, ‘I’m going to kill it this year,’ ” she says. 

For the next three years, she was ferocious with her on-ball defense, motivating her teammates with her aggressive play.

After graduating from LIU Post in 2014, Sears hoped to play basketball overseas. But the style of play that makes her a valuable part of any team—in-your-face defense—doesn’t translate onto a stat sheet. Without gaudy offensive numbers, she was unable to find a pro team willing to give her a chance. So she signed instead to play semipro ball with the Virginia Lady Stallions, and after doing that for a while, eventually decided it was time to start pursuing a career outside of the sport.

Armed with a degree in criminal justice from LIU Post, she went to a job fair at a Washington, DC, armory. A National Guard recruiter called her over. Sears had never considered a military career and admits she initially had no interest in joining, but she listened to the pitch anyway. And the more she heard about the education, career and leadership opportunities the Guard had to offer, the better it sounded.

Among the first people she talked to after leaving the job fair was her mentor, Martine Francis. The two had met when Sears was a freshman in high school. Francis worked with a program to assist students who would be the first in their families to go to college. Once a month or so, she took Sears on a field trip—to hear a speaker or to tour a college campus. 

The two became so close that Sears even lived with Francis for a while during and after college, and Francis calls her an “integral part of our family.” Francis’ father had been career Air Force, so she understood the valuable life experiences and career opportunities the military could provide Sears. Still, she didn’t want her enthusiasm for the idea to sway her protege. She wanted to teach Sears how to make good decisions for herself. “Don’t do it because I’m telling you it’s a great idea,” she told Sears. “You need to do it because you’re focused on your future.”

Sears consulted other people with military backgrounds to see what they thought. Everything she heard convinced her it was the right choice.

Not until after she enlisted did she learn that—on top of all the personal and professional growth opportunities it offered—the Guard would also provide an avenue for her to continue playing the sport she loved. 

 


 

Asked to reflect on the high points of her basketball career thus far, Sears names two. The first came when she was a junior in college. She made seven 3-pointers in a single game to help LIU Post advance to the Sweet 16 in the 2013–14 NCAA Division II Tournament.

The second came this summer. And as unlikely as it may sound, she was on the bench for it—as a member of the All-Army women’s basketball team. Sears had learned about the team from DC Guard Staff Sergeant Ashley Bowman, a former All-Army player herself. Bowman helped guide Sears through the application process, and she successfully tried out not long after enlisting. The All-Army team plays in a variety of tournaments each year, and the highlight is always the one against the other military branches.

As the clock ticked toward zero in the gold medal game of the Armed Forces Women’s Basketball Championship in San Antonio, TX, on July 7, Sears’ teammate, Active Army Specialist Vanessa Lamison, had the ball. She fired up a 3-pointer for the win at the buzzer, and when it dropped through the bottom of the net, Sears exploded with excitement—just like her mom always had. Not only had her team just won, but she got to share that joy with Lamison, her roommate and friend, which made the dramatic victory that much sweeter.

As Sears and Lamison had gotten to know each other playing on the team over the last year or so, they discovered that their colleges had played one another (though they attended at different times) and they had mutual friends. All the parallels in their lives—being female Soldiers, playing basketball and having friends in common—served to form an instant bond between the two. “Her spirit was so welcoming,” Lamison says. “Right when we met, we clicked.”

Top left: SPC Kenyatta Sears (right) and her All-Army women’s basketball teammate, Active Army SPC Vanessa Lamison, show off the gold medals they won after their team went undefeated at the Armed Forces Women’s Basketball Championship in San Antonio, TX, in July.

Sears plays the same role for the All-Army team as she did in high school and college. Standing 5 feet, 5 inches tall, she starts when the matchups call for it, alternates between point guard and shooting guard, and brings energy on defense. “She is an unselfish player. Her defense is outstanding,” Lamison says. “She likes to work hard, and everybody on the team wants to work hard off of her energy. She doesn’t give up, and that carries the team as well.”

The first word people use to describe Sears’ style of play is aggressive. She delights in getting right up in the ballhandler’s face. “Coaches would always tell me, ‘If you play defense, offense will come easy,’ ” Sears says. “That’s always in the back of my mind. If I play defense as hard as I can, I’ll get easy layups.”

That’s proven true, as she gets offense the easy way by playing defense the hard way. That selfless defensive style is a manifestation of lessons Francis taught her. “My mentor is like, ‘All I ask is for you to help somebody else.’ That’s been drilled into my head,” Sears says. “It’s always about bringing a friend along. You’re going hard for yourself, but you can bring someone else along.” 

 


 

For some athletes, their on-court demeanor is a direct reflection of their off-court personality. That’s only partially true for Sears. She’s aggressive off the court, too, but it’s more measured. Francis describes Sears as a “quiet storm.” Like any good baller, she talks trash now and then, like when a first sergeant recently said he would dunk on her. She invited him to bring it on, suggesting that his age might be an issue if he tried to throw one down. 

She is never shy about seeking advice and, with a combination of warmth and determination, seems to show up at the armory for no reason other than to throw questions at anyone who might be able to answer them. 

“The first thing you notice about Sears is her dimples. She has this smile that is contagious,” says Combest. But behind that smile is a fire to succeed. Sears is not content simply to get automatic promotions. She wants to experience the growth that makes performance-based promotions possible. Combest finds Sears’ earnest desire to become a better Soldier refreshing. 

For Sears, Combest says, “It’s, ‘What do I need to do to be smarter? What do I need to do so I don’t make this mistake I saw someone else make? What are some things you did that made a difference so you could become a good leader?’ Sears didn’t do anything but exactly what she was supposed to do, times 10.”

In the two-plus years since Sears joined the DC Guard, her attributes and experiences have come together just as if her 8-year-old self had planned it this way. Years of endless workouts, drills and practices prepared her for the rigorous, continual training of the Guard. Her ambition and desire to improve herself align perfectly with what the Army is looking for in young Soldiers. And her civilian and military aspirations to work in law enforcement sync perfectly, too: Her MOS is military police, and in November, she left for a police academy in Georgia to train to be a police officer at the Pentagon.

Her decision to enlist in the National Guard—which evolved from a hard no into a maybe and then an enthusiastic yes—has changed her life completely. “It’s one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Sears says. “It has opened up so many doors of opportunities to go down different paths. I love being in the Army.”

Sears’ personal growth in that short amount of time has been nothing short of astonishing to those close to her. She’s more confident and driven than ever. Even little things—how she walks and talks, for example—show evidence of her progress. Her daughter’s transformation has left Myers in awe. “I’m like, ‘Kiki, did you grow up overnight?’ ” she says. “ ‘You are really not my baby anymore.’ ” 

Francis offers a similar analysis when considering who her protege was before the Guard and who she is now. “She’s very determined,” she says. “I say this with a lot of emotion … .” Here, Francis pauses to collect herself. “She’s proven the American dream. She came from nothing and yet sees no limitations for herself now. You want to recruit people for the National Guard? She’s the poster person.


 

SLAM-DUNK DIET

Basketball’s stop-and-go nature places unique stressors on the body. The sport requires a nutrition regimen that provides sustainable energy during aerobic periods and the ability to kick in on demand. Also crucial are nutrients that promote connective tissue health. These tips from GX’s fitness expert can help you excel:

Everyday Rules of Play
Build stores of muscle glycogen with complex whole-food carbs like sweet potatoes, rice and a rainbow of veggies—while avoiding added sugars. Daily carbohydrate demand ranges from 1 to 6 grams per pound of body weight based on training load; obviously, consume fewer carbs on recovery or light training days.  

Promote muscle repair postworkout by pairing carbs with protein. A 2-to-1 ratio is recommended after hard workouts. For example, make a shake with 60 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein, using bananas, chia seeds, berries and peanut butter. After less intense routines, shoot for a 1-to-1 ratio.  

Reduce inflammation and boost recovery by including fats such as a fish oil supplement, cuts of grass-fed beef and butter from grass-fed cows.  

Fortify tendons, cartilage, bones and joints with restorative collagen powder. Its unique combination of amino acids helps these structures stand up to the force of basketball movements.

On Game Day
Promote nutrient digestion and absorption by following your normal breakfast and lunch routine, then switching to fluids one to two hours before the game. Try a high-calorie smoothie of protein powder, banana, greens, nuts or nut butter, and ground flax seeds.  

Keep energy and fluid levels optimal during the game with a carb-protein hydration mix like Accelerade. 

– CPT Holly Di Giovine


 

IN TOP FORM

Day after day in her four-year college basketball career at Long Island University Post, SPC Kenyatta Sears performed the same conditioning and shooting drill with a teammate. Although keeping score was never the point, Sears’ competitive nature compelled her to mentally track it. 

“You always want to do better than the person you’re working out with,” she says.

Like many athletic drills, this one has a strong military parallel. A key component of any Guard training is to teach a Soldier how to maintain proper form under physical or emotional duress. 

“We’d be exhausted doing this drill, and we’d get frustrated, too,” Sears says. “When you get tired, you change up your shooting style and use different muscles than in the beginning. You have to have the right technique, the right form. This helps you stay focused on technique.”

Ready to put your endurance to the test? Perform all five steps below from one side of the court, then repeat all steps from the opposite side. After each step, your partner does the same thing.

  1. Warm up with form shooting (executing the same technique repeatedly) from the side paint.
  2. Take 12 shots from the "elbow" (where the free throw line meets the lane line), then one free throw. Then 12 more shots, followed by two free throws.
  3. Take 12 shots from behind the 3-point line, then one free throw. Then 12 more shots from deep, followed by two free throws.
  4. Take 12 shots off the dribble from just outside the paint, then one free throw. Then 12 more shots from the same spot, followed by two free throws.
  5. Take 12 shots off the dribble (layups and jumpshots), then one free throw. Then 12 more shots off the dribble, followed by two free throws.