Imani Boyette is ready to lead the Longhorns on a deep tournament run. But it's her courage to share her experiences as a victim of abuse and her struggles with depression that are truly inspiring
SHE WANTS to tell this story. She needs to tell this story. She knows that telling this story can save lives.
Imani Boyette understands all that now—but that hasn't made it any easier. "Talking about it, it's healthy and it's important," she says, "but it's still hard, you know?" It's the last week in February, and Boyette is sitting on a couch just outside the Texas women's basketball locker room. Her shoulders slouch and her voice goes soft as she talks about how broken she was when she arrived in Austin in the fall of 2012.
Her basketball gifts were obvious: She was 6'7", with impossibly long arms that hung at her side as she sprinted up and down the court. But instead of the gawkiness you'd expect from the second-tallest player in Texas women's basketball history, her game could be powerful, controlled and, at times, even elegant. "Most [players] her size don't have the strength, but she is innately strong," says Longhorns coach Karen Aston, "which allows her to do things others can't in an almost graceful way." There were her famous basketball genes too: Imani's mother, Pamela McGee, was a two-time NCAA champion (at USC) and a 1984 Olympic gold medalist; her brother is 7-foot Mavericks center JaVale McGee; and her father, Kevin Stafford, played professionally overseas.
In 2012--13, when her name was Imani McGee-Stafford (Boyette is her married name), she started 23 games, leading Texas in rebounds and field goal percentage and setting a school freshman record for blocks (75) en route to being named Big 12 fresh-man of the year. But Texas was suffering through what would be the worst season in program history (12--18), and its young star's behavior made her teammates and coaches even more miserable. It wasn't just her late arrivals at meetings, her mood swings and her mental lapses during games and practices. "I thought she was lazy and rude," says 6'1" forward Nneka Enemkpali, who graduated from Texas last year. "Like she was never familiar with the concept of team. It was just strange how she didn't seem to care about anything."
To her teammates, then, it seemed unthinkable that Boyette would emerge as one of the country's most dominant centers, the leader of a national championship contender and a projected top 10 pick in the 2016 WNBA draft. Four years ago she felt lost and hopeless. "I never saw a future," Boyette says. "I never planned a future. The truth? I always thought I would die before I was 18."
Far too many have choked on truths
Been hung from the nooses of family secrets
Thought to be better left unmentioned
I have run out of places to hide
There are no more places to run from these things
—IMANI BOYETTE, Untitled
SHE BEGINS with the nightmares. They started her senior year of high school, as she was beginning a relationship with a boyfriend. While sharing a bed with him at night she began having vivid dreams. The images kept returning, and every night they filled her with dread. "That's when I started to figure out what had been going on," she says.
The trauma had built during a childhood frayed by her parents' divorce when she was three. She remembers feeling anger and isolation. Flying, often alone, between her father's home in Los Angeles and her mother's in Michigan, during her parents' prolonged custody battle. Staying home by herself while her father, a pastor, worked at the church. Listening to promises of visits from her mother, only to be left waiting time and time again. Fighting with her father's second wife. Feeling ostracized—"like the black sheep," she says.
One afternoon when Imani was 10, she was home alone, sorting through a stack of mail, when she came across her parents' divorce papers. She saw documents indicating that she had been sexually abused by her paternal grandfather when she was three. (He was never charged with abuse.) While she has no memory of the abuse, she felt confused, angry and betrayed when she saw her name in the middle of her parents' dispute.
A short time later, Imani locked herself in the bathroom and swallowed pills from a bottle she found there. By that time she was again being molested, by a different family member. These episodes lasted from ages eight to 13 and were so traumatic that she couldn't speak about it to anyone. She attempted suicide twice more when she was 15, the last time ending up in the ER and spending two weeks in a treatment center. Still, she told no one the reason for her despair.
Basketball provided a refuge, to an extent. As long as she could remember, she was the tallest player on the court, and at The Windward School in L.A. she led her team to a state championship as a junior and was a McDonald's All-American. Within the L.A. hoops scene, everyone knew Imani as Pamela's baby and JaVale's kid sister. (JaVale is seven years older than Imani and has a different father.) Few people knew that while she had a solid relationship with her dad when she was young, Boyette and her mother rarely talked—just once every few months over the phone, a handful of visits through the years. "People think you don't want to see your child," Pamela McGee says, "but sometimes the relationship [with a former partner] is so toxic, all you can do is wait and say, I've done all I can do."
Even fewer knew that Imani suffered from depression. "I was a walking cry for help," Boyette says. "I was invisible. I've always been tall—everyone saw me, but no one really saw me. Basketball was the only time I got real attention. Other than that, I had nothing, really."
That began to change one day when she was 16 and visiting her then boyfriend's high school in L.A. She saw a long line outside a venue called Da Poetry Lounge, next to the school. Curious, she joined the crowd that was waiting for the doors to open. Imani had been writing poetry since she was young. "It always calmed me down and got me out of a terrible mood," she says. When she walked into Da Poetry Lounge, it was as if a world of like-minded outcasts and misfits had been revealed to her. After a few visits she decided to get on stage herself. She remembers that she was terrified, her hands shaking at the mike, but afterward she felt exhilarated, released. People told her, "I feel that way too!" She began taking the bus across town to this place that was her new refuge.
Her senior year she received scholarship offers from top programs around the country: North Carolina, Princeton, Texas, USC. Most of her family and friends expected her to become a Trojan, to stay close to family, to follow in her mother's footsteps. But since her relationship with both her parents had become strained—in high school she began to drift apart from her father—she knew that to save herself, she had to get away from everything she knew.
To face this world with open palms
That is true strength
LIVING despite whatever and whoever tried to break you
—IMANI BOYETTE, For Girls Like Me
THE ROOM outside the Texas women's basketball locker room is a shrine to one of the country's proudest programs. There are glossy photos and glistening trophies commemorating the school's three national players of the year, 12 conference championships and 1986 national title. Aston was hired to turn things around, and while Boyette was the centerpiece of the coach's first recruiting class, her behavior as a freshman did not inspire confidence that she could lead the Longhorns back to glory. "Imani was in survivor mode, just doing the bare minimum to get through the day," says associate head coach Travis Mays.
Throughout her freshman year she suffered from terrible insomnia. ("The silver lining: I had great grades, because I couldn't sleep," Boyette says.) She was standoffish not only with team-mates but also with fellow freshmen who tried to befriend her. The soft-spoken freshman defensive end living down the hall from her was the one person she talked to. To hear Imani tell it, with Paul Boyette it was not exactly love at first sight—a few months after they met, Paul said, "I love you," and Imani replied, "You're psycho." But Paul was persistent, and the two explored Austin on long walks. One night they were watching TV, and Paul asked her an innocuous question about her childhood. Imani was evasive. Paul pressed, and Imani broke down. After telling him her life story, she thought, There goes another one.
Instead of pulling back, though, a tearful Paul gave Imani a hug. Paul's mother, it turned out, was a victim of abuse and suffered from depression when she was Imani's age. "With Paul, it was stability and consistency, something I've never had from anyone in my family," Imani says. That's not to say things were perfect: the couple slept in separate beds because Imani would kick him violently, her body acting out in her dreams.
A door had cracked open, though. Imani began to let others in: some friends, close relatives and, eventually, her coaches and teammates. Last year she invited the team to one of her poetry readings in Austin. "We didn't even know she wrote poetry," says Enemkpali. "We'd learned bits and pieces about what she'd gone through, but this was her really letting us in. And us understanding that [she'd] gone through unimaginable things and somehow had made it to the other side."
You won't realize how far you've come until one day the pain won't be there anymore
It will be foreign
No longer comforting
It will be replaced with a smile
Or something more genuine
—IMANI BOYETTE, Healing
IMANI'S GROWTH mirrors the growth of [her] class: the resilience, the fight, the hanging through the bad times to get to where we are now," says Aston, whose Longhorns have steadily improved. After a 24--11 record and a Sweet 16 appearance last year, Texas finished 2015--16 with the program's best record (28--4) in 28 seasons. Boyette has been in the middle of the resurgence: After battling back and lower leg injuries her first three seasons, she leads Texas in rebounds (8.9 per game) and was named Big 12 co-defensive player of the year. She is the first player in Texas history to have more than 1,000 points and rebounds plus 200 blocked shots. Paul proposed on Jan. 17, 2015, and they were married last July in Austin. "What I see in her the most now is the ability to bounce back from things that go wrong," says Aston. "That's where she had an issue when she was young."
The woman teammates thought was a problem has become their inspiration, an ebullient presence. During a recent practice she playfully pushed around a ball boy; between drills her shoulders bounced to a silent beat. "She's got a great, colorful personality," says Enemkpali, a 2015 WNBA third-round pick who has been working with the Longhorns on her way back from an ACL tear. "It's not that she's just there in practice—it's that she's the one picking other people up. She's empowered me to not let adversity get me down."
The girl who once saw no future has so much she wants to do. There's basketball—the WNBA, the possibility of playing in the 2020 Olympics—but there's also her poetry (she and Paul have talked about getting her poems published) and her career after basketball (an accounting major, she wants to become a wealth management adviser). "She even wants to go to culinary school," says Paul. "She wants to be on Chopped."
More than anything else, she wants to tell her story to the world, to reach as many people as possible. A few months ago she went to Philadelphia for a poetry slam, and Imani is still hearing from people in the audience who were touched by her words. She has spoken at gatherings for victims of abuse—in Oregon last year she took a special interest in a nine-year-old girl who reminded her of herself. "If you're mad, be mad," Imani told the girl. "It's O.K. not to be happy all the time. Just feel it, talk about it."
She tells victims that opening up to others is just the beginning of the long process of healing. That she still has nightmares but eight months into her marriage she is finally able to sleep in the same bed with her husband. For most of her life, she says, she had only hate for her mother, but she has learned to forgive. In recent months she has been talking to her mother regularly.
Boyette tells victims that when she arrived in Austin four years ago she was alone and adrift. Now she has a strong sense of self: She's a basketball player, yes, but she's also a poet, a daughter, a wife, a survivor. Her story is not easy to tell, but now there is a purpose with the pain. "Not just a desire to live," Boyette says, "but a feeling of wanting to do something. I wish I could grab everyone who's at that place where I was and say, Wait. It's going to turn around. I promise you."
"I was a walking cry for help," Boyette says. "I was invisible. I've always been tall—everyone saw me, BUT NO ONE REALLY SAW ME.
"This was her really letting us in," says Enemkpali, "and us understanding that [she'd] gone through unimaginable things and somehow had MADE IT TO THE OTHER SIDE."
Photograph by Greg Nelson For Sports Illustrated
POETRY IN MOTION The 6'7" Boyette has used her length and strength to become one of the top centers in the country and a likely high pick in April's WNBA draft.
Photographs by Greg Nelson For Sports Illustrated
WRITER'S BLOCK Boyette's willingness to open up to her teammates has led to even more success on the court, where she has rejected 295 shots for the Longhorns, the second most in program history.
Photograph by Greg Nelson For Sports Illustrated
COURTESY OF IMANI BOYETTE
HAPPY DAYS Eight months after marrying Paul (with Imani, left), Boyette is looking ahead to a future that includes professional basketball, a career in wealth management and, she hopes, an appearance on Chopped.