by March 13, 2012

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

Kim Prahalis has no trouble remembering the day that she realized her little girl was going to be a big deal.

It was at an otherwise average CYO girls game in Long Island, NY, when Samantha, Kim’s youngest daughter, put on an unforgettable performance. It’s unclear how many points and steals the precocious PG guard had that day, but the quality  of those long-lost stats is still very clear.

From the game’s outset, when the opposing guard attempted to bring the ball upcourt, Sammy, as most people refer to her, easily stripped her and went the other way for a layup. The opposition would then inbound the ball, and the sequence would repeat itself. Inbound, steal, layup. Inbound, steal, layup. Inbound, steal, layup.

Sammy’s performance that day was pretty much par for her childhood course. The referee’s reaction, though, was a first for her family.

Says Kim, between bursts of part-amazed, part-proud laughter: “The ref came up to Sammy and said, ‘I know you’re going to be famous one day, so can I have your autograph?’

“She was only in fourth grade!”

The daughter of two athletic parents—her mom’s brother was a professional-level baseball player; her father, John, grew up playing football and now coaches in the Commack, NY, Police Athletic League—Samantha excelled at multiple sports from an early age. Ultimately, though, she chose to focus on roundball because of how crowds reacted to her.

“I didn’t know basketball could take me all these places,” Sammy, a six-year varsity player in high school, McDonald’s All-American and current star point guard at Ohio State, says. “But I knew when I threw a no-look pass people would go crazy. And I liked that.”

Little wonder then, that years after she devoted herself to Naismith’s game and to strenuous workout sessions with renowned trainer Jerry Powell, Sammy currently has the most crowd-pleasing game in all of college basketball.

Sammy isn’t just a four-year starter at Ohio State, isn’t just the Big Ten’s all-time assist leader, isn’t just the sum of her senior-year numbers of 20.1 ppg, 6.4 apg and 2.2 spg. She’s the most unique point guard in the entire nation, the one with the best handles, the best court vision. The one who dreams like Joseph, creates like Jobs and celebrates like Cruz. The one worthy of her own SportsCenter highlight hour, but who settles for her own friend-created YouTube page. The one who, over the course of her collegiate career, has done for the behind-the-back and no-look pass what Baylor’s Brittney Griner has simultaneously done for the block and dunk.

For the most part, Sammy’s game is worthy of the hyperbole it inspires. An important few, or so it seems, are less receptive to the new-age talent. The Columbus Dispatch theorized that, prior to her senior season, Prahalis was left off the Wade Trophy watch list because of a “style issue.” The author also notes that this is probably the same reason why she was not named First-Team All-Big 10 by Conference coaches as a junior.

“Some of the coaches in the Big 10 aren’t crazy about her,” affirms Sammy’s dad, John. “I’m not knocking them, but if you ask me, they’re a little bit behind the times. To me—and I know I’m her father—nobody has her skill set. She’s flashy but she also does the little things. She’s a hustler who’s not afraid to go to the ground and get dirty. She’s good for the game.

“She doesn’t always march to the beat of everyone else, but that’s her, and I’m happy for it.”

Sammy, who along with backcourt mate Tayler Hill, has led an Ohio State team that was unranked in the preseason to a 25-6 record and No. 17 spot in the ESPN/USA Today poll, doesn’t dwell on individual awards. She’s too focused on those who recognize and appreciate her emotive style of play.

“There are lists out there, All-American, All-Conference, but  being loved by fans is such a great feeling,” Sammy, recently named a Wooden Award finalist, says. “Like, you play basketball to make people feel happy. You play to excite them. That’s a real feeling.”

There is a very real downside as well, though. People pay to watch her dazzle them with razzle, often at the cost of observing the 5-7 dynamo’s all-around effort and hustle.

“That frustrates me a little bit,” Sammy offers in a thick Strong Island accent that hints heavily at her Commack, NY, upbringing. “They just perceive me as someone who’s flashy and that kind of overshadows the whole picture. Even with the flashy, there’s a reason behind everything I do. Like, in high school some people would call me ‘The Show.’ But I ain’t no circus—I’m a basketball player.”

Long before she arrived at OSU, before Powell took her game from “point A to point C,” an adolescent Prahalis had a few sessions with a different trainer. In one of her first—and last—workouts with him, a fellow trainee mishandled one of Sammy’s no-look rifle passes.

“He stopped the whole thing,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You can’t do that. You cannot play that way. Blah, blah, blah.’ That was the last time I went to him.”

Knowing all she knows now, in retrospect, does Sammy regret not toning down her game at his behest?

“This ain’t the ’50s no more,” she answers succinctly.

After all, big deals like Sammy Prahalis are used to seeing past small minds.