by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14

Years before this summer almost past, when she went with the Cal women’s basketball team to China and recreated her nightly habit of scratching up against triple-doubles, years before she helped lead the Bears to the first Final Four in program history, basketball wasn’t even Brittany Boyd’s best sport.

It was soccer, actually.

DeShawn Boyd, Brittany’s father, says she averaged three goals a game growing up, flummoxing defenses with her breathtaking blend of speed and power on fields across Richmond, CA, her East Bay Area home.

Boyd played soccer until the seventh grade, when her focus turned toward basketball. Two years before, a father of a friend had asked Boyd to try out for a local traveling team. She quickly began playing a year up in competition.

Whenever basketball is involved, Boyd has always gone all-in.

Fast-forward to the ’13-14 college basketball preseason, when Boyd is one of 25 players named to the Wade Trophy Watch List, and one of 30 to the Wooden Award list (Boyd’s Bears teammate Gennifer Brandon was also named to both.)

The 5-9 junior guard flies down the court, ghosting past defenders with a syncopated arrangement of dribbles and feints before whipping pinpoint passes with either hand. These breathtaking bursts call to mind action sequences from a Zack Snyder film, the hero in consummate control while her foes go flying helplessly past her. Sometimes, this game can be made to look frighteningly easy.

In China, Boyd’s skill made her something of a celebrity. Players from the professional teams the Bears faced asked her for pictures after the final whistle had gone. Local papers did write-ups. “It was pretty fun,” Boyd says. “It was a blessing. They’d never seen me a day in their life, and all of a sudden they’re cheering, taking pictures.”

Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb had the option to take an overseas tour the previous summer, but she realized that the Bears ’13-14 team, which loses four seniors and includes an influx of newcomers (four freshmen, two transfers are eligible to play) would benefit more fully from the additional time spent together.

Ten practices and a slew of games—the NCAA-allotted gift package that accompanies an overseas tour—can go a long way, even in August. Navigating a different country, and culture, forced Cal’s players to step outside their comfort zones. It put Boyd in a situation where she was required to lead.

During those three games in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Boyd played at a more powerful pace than the Cal staff had ever seen from her. Neither Cal nor its opponents had the benefit of scouting reports to help prepare for the contests—a common theme on overseas trips—so on the first couple of possessions, the Chinese opponents tested out some full court pressure on Boyd.

After she’d blown by it several times, they quickly abandoned that ploy.

The Bears coaching staff believes Boyd is ready to take the reigns in the backcourt. She should easily surpass her ’12-13 averages of 12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.6 steals.

During open gym games this summer, Boyd worked on absorbing contact and finishing strong at the rim. Control was always paramount. China pace has become a staple of the program.

The other day during a practice, a freshman post was on the weak side of an offensive set. Junior Bears forward Justine Hartman was off to the side, watching the play unfold alongside Cal associate head coach Charmin Smith.

Hartman saw Boyd blast into the key, and she yelled to the post, “Get your hands up!” Seconds later, a no-look pass from out of nowhere fell sweetly for the forward. “Her teammates love that about Brittany,” says Smith. “You always have to be ready. When you talk about the go-to play at the end of a game, Brittany can make that play by scoring or by dumping a pass off.”

Gottlieb may have hit the nail most resoundingly on the head when she said that Boyd possesses “a creative genius on the court.”

What a fitting choice basketball has turned out to be.

***

“Growing up and having all those male cousins to play with, that has helped me and shaped me. It’s shaped my confidence, my ability and my strength. If I get knocked down, I’m going to get right back up because it has happened before. It’s given me…I guess…an extra edge off somebody who didn’t do that growing up.”

Boyd remembers those early days in Richmond, playing games with her cousins in the street in front of her house. They had a hoop, and even though it wasn’t quite 10 feet, it was more than enough. They’d play ’til the sky turned a darker shade of blue and stars settled in.

DeShawn remembers those days, and those games, fondly—in large part, he says, because he often played in them. “We played everything,” he says. “In flag football, you’d guard [Brittany] like you’d guard a guy. She scored touchdowns. Her cousins always bragged about her and picked her for their teams. Everything she touched, sports-wise, she was good at.”

Boyd played a little bit of everything as a kid, her interests divided between soccer, baseball and flag football (she was the only girl on the team at her school). She picked basketball, and she started running.

People often ask DeShawn where Brittany developed her impeccable balance and poise—did she get it from him? “I want to say it was me,” he says, chuckling. “But that’s all her. I played basketball, and I still consider myself to be pretty good. But her drive—she’s just on the court, doing it.”

The next years played out like one of Boyd’s blurred drives. She thrived on the travel circuit and starred for three years at Berkeley (CA) High, situated a couple blocks down the street from her future college. (She transferred from Hercules High, 11 miles up from Richmond on I-80, after her freshman year.)

Recruiting rankings and services waxed about her ability to play the game at a breakneck pace. “Explosive” became a go-to descriptor. Fearless, too.

It was the type of game synonymous with Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers star currently with the New York Liberty. Boyd first became aware of Pondexter in middle school, and quickly became a devoted fan. “I just want to meet Cappie Pondexter” is etched on Boyd’s Twitter bio, a picture of Pondexter, arms outstretched, providing a background blanket behind them.

They two players share a swagger and a zest for making the spectacular play. That’s not by accident. Before Boyd decided on Cal, she’d wanted to play for C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, just as Cappie had done. “I looked at [Cappie] and thought, ‘She’s real.’ I really, really respected her game and respected her as a person.”

Boyd eventually committed to Cal, but wavered after former Bears coach Joanne Boyle left for the job at Virginia in 2011, Boyd’s senior year of high school. As the story goes, Gottlieb was in the car on her way to her first press conference as the new Cal head coach when she pulled out her phone to make one of her first official calls in her new position. (It was to Boyd.)

Boyd calls her decision to stick with Cal, and Gottlieb, one of the best she’s made in her life.

***

Sometimes I feel like I have to be perfect.

The first two years at Cal have were full of fun and frustration. Gottlieb handed Boyd the reigns to the offense as a freshman in ’11-12, a season that doubled both their debuts. (Gottlieb had been an assistant coach at Cal from ’05-07, and the associate head coach in ’07-08.)

Gottlieb knew that Boyd would take her lumps as she adjusted to the pace and physicality of the Pac-12, but given Boyd’s vast potential, she reasoned it was a risk worth taking.

The learning curve has been steep. Last season, there were 106 turnovers. As former Bear Layshia Clarendon put it, Boyd is often faster dribbling the ball than most players are running without it. Sometimes, her mind simply fires a few clips faster than her hands.

“It’s amazing how much you can grow in two seasons,” Boyd says. “But I want to continue to set high standards and meet those standards. Exceed them.”

Teams attempted to stifle Boyd in much the same way they have Cal: taking her out of transition and forcing her to make decisions in the half court while facing quick, savvy perimeter defense. The link there is not accidental. Take away what Boyd does best, and you cripple the Bears.

Ever the perfectionist, when she made mistakes in the past, they affected subsequent possessions. Now, if Boyd turns the ball over, she flies back on defense and works to force a turnover. Then, it’s back to the races.

This summer, the Cal staff spoke to Boyd about taking the next step in her game. Leadership and improved shooting were the two biggest points. “We said, ‘OK, what’s going to be different next year?’” says Smith, who’s also Boyd’s position coach. “What are you going to do to take that next step? And one of the big things for her was knocking down outside shots consistently.”

Boyd hit just 37 percent of her field goals in ’12-13, and just 28 percent of her threes. She slogged to 61 percent at the free-throw line.

So this summer, in quintessentially proactive form, Boyd hit the gym. Sometimes she’d use a shooting machine, working her way around the perimeter as she alternated between spot-up looks and shots off the bounce. More often than not, Smith joined her. She’d challenge Boyd to hit five shots in a row while keeping her form consistent and her motion true.

“She put a lot of time into becoming a more dangerous threat on the perimeter,” says Smith. “Opponents are really going to have to pick their poison with her, because I think she’s the best in the country in terms of pace and how fast she can move with the basketball. You can’t stop her from getting to the rim unless you completely sag off. And now she’s going to make you pay if you sag off.”

***

“Part of the learning experience is understanding when it’s your turn and when it’s not. One game they might need me to dish to get my teammates involved. One game they might need me to score. It all depends on the feel of the game, but whatever Coach Lindsay and the staff needs me to do, I’m willing to do to help my teammates win.”

When Boyd picked up those second and third fouls, before a minute passed to start the second half of last spring’s Elite Eight game against Georgia, there was reason to worry. It could have been Notre Dame all over again.

The previous year, Cal bowed out to the Fighting Irish in the tournament’s second round. Boyd was plagued by foul trouble, and slumped to a poor performance. As the game got away from the Bears, she remembered looking over at Notre Dame’s star point guard, Skylar Diggins. There was a player in supreme command of her team, Boyd mused. Diggins never seemed to rattle.

DeShawn Boyd remembers watching the Georgia game and thinking, watch the fouls…you need to stay on the court. Brittany didn’t return until just 10 minutes remained in regulation, but she’d already shown she was locked in. On the bench, she waved her towel, imploring the Bears to come back against the gritty Lady Bulldogs, who held Cal to just 21 first-half points. At one point, Boyd spun that towel so furiously, it flew onto the court.

When she returned, she wasn’t perfect, but she was more measured. Effective. “When I got that third foul I just sat down and calmed myself down,” Boyd would say after the game. “I was just telling myself to play basketball. I’ve done this before; I’m just on a bigger stage. Nerves were getting the best of me, but I just had to focus in and play for my teammates and the people who helped me.”

With a minute and a half remaining in regulation, she drew the fifth and final foul on Georgia star point guard Jasmine James. Boyd hit her subsequent free throws. (During Cal’s shootaround the day before, she spent 20 minutes practicing at the line steeling herself for such an occasion.)

After Georgia hit a three to open the scoring in overtime, Boyd got a steal on the Bears’ next defensive possession and converted a layup to give Cal a lead it would not relinquish.

The day before that Georgia game, during Cal’s press conference in the NCAA-licensed interview room tucked away in a corner of the Spokane Arena, Boyd was asked what the Bears would say to each other before they headed out onto the court, that historic first Final Four within their grasp.

She leaned into her microphone, and without a moment’s hesitation, offered this:

“Just be us. Embrace the moment. Be happy that we are here, but don’t be satisfied. Want more for this team, want more for our program, our school, and do something that Cal has never done before. And I think that just gives us chills itself and makes us want to go out and just think we can dunk or something, you know. So just be us. Play Cal basketball.”

For Gottlieb, who was sitting beside Boyd on the podium, that message epitomized everything she hoped to achieve through coaching. This was an empowered young woman, ready to achieve her goals.

“You could tape record Brittany, and play that. That’s what I’d tell my team in the locker room,” Gottlieb said.

There are decisive moments in a career. There are turning points in a life. Boyd is coming ever closer to realizing her full potential, because she has learned to accept her mistakes. That, in turn, has allowed her to thrive.

For the rest of college basketball, two words might be in order: Watch out.

***

My passing usually comes from a gut feeling, but I also believe in my teammates, and I believe that they are going to catch the ball. It’s just me trusting in them and them trusting in me. There’s a connection that we’ve built over time. They know I’m going to make ‘that’ pass.

Charmin Smith thinks this season, Boyd is going to surprise a lot of people.

Cal can no longer rely upon Clarendon to take the ball with the shot clock winding down and the game on the line and produce a moment of brilliance. This season, you feel that mantle might pass to Boyd.

She’ll help shepherd a team that, come March, has a chance to be even more dangerous than the ’12-13 bunch. The newcomers include 6-3 wing Courtney Range and 5-10 sharpshooter Mercedes Jefflo, both of whom enter their first year in Berkeley. Boyd will likely find herself on the court with three freshmen this season. “We’re going to keep running,” Boyd says. “This is a new group, and it’s a new story, but the mentality hasn’t changed.”

There were times during practices last season where you couldn’t get more than five words out of Boyd. She wasn’t closed off; she was simply processing everything internally while delegating leadership to the seniors, who were renowned as a talkative bunch. Now, Smith says, the situation has unlocked that wealth of material.

Boyd will pull the freshmen aside and offer encouragement, as Clarendon once did for her. She oozes that same positivity. She’ll give frosh guard Hind Ben Abdelkader pointers on running the point. She’ll tell frosh post KC Waters where she wants her on a pick and roll, she’ll sidle over to Range and tell her to shrug off a missed shot. “She talks throughout the whole practice now,” says Smith.

There is a tight-knit culture within this program, exemplified by a refreshing dynamic between coach and player. Boyd appreciated early on that this staff made a sincere effort to get to know each player as a person—what drove them, motivated them, and everything in between. She knows that Gottlieb, or Smith, won’t let her settle for anything less than excellence on and off the court. “Not a lot of people have that person to challenge them,” Boyd says. “I really respect [them] for that.”

That familiarity allows coach and player to take turns ribbing each other. Boyd will frequently refer to Gottlieb as “Felicia,” an inside joke between the two.

After the Bears’ Sweet 16 win over LSU last spring, Boyd came to the edge of a Spokane Arena locker room for an interview, the raucous and buoyant sound of victory filling the space behind her. Seconds later, Gottlieb came into the room, face aglow. The coach took one glance at the interview taking place, and without a moment’s hesitation, leaned in to give Boyd a little nudge on the cheek and a muss of the hair before sweeping past. Boyd brushed it off it in jocular stride.

When Smith enters Haas Pavilion on a sunny day in fall, as Boyd is making to leave, she wraps the guard in a hug. “Or should we do a ‘Boyd hug’?” Smith asks, a coy smile crossing her face before she proceeds to give the guard a quick double-pat on the shoulders. Both break into laughter.

Boyd leaves that court with a bit of a limp, the vestigial remains of a high ankle sprain suffered after she returned from China. But she is still practicing with the team, and she’ll be ready in time for the November 8 season opener against Coppin State.

DeShawn will be there, sitting in his normal seat at Haas Pavilion. He’s become something of a local celebrity, frequently referred to as “Brittany’s dad.”

Last season, he brought Brittany’s grandmother to a game. After they settled into their seats, they picked out Brittany, who was sitting with her teammates. “Are you going to say anything to her?” DeShawn recalls being asked. He turned toward his daughter, and saw that look in her eye, the undivided focus that is fueling a career fit to burst with promise.

“No,” he said. “I like her to keep her head in the game.

“I’ll just let her do what she do.”