ALBANY—Several thousand young fans crowded into SEFCU Arena on a Thursday afternoon to watch Shereesha Richards and the University of Albany women’s basketball team on Education Day.
After the America East dynasty rolled over University of New Hampshire, Richards and the other Albany players walked into the crowd.
Shirts and posters were proffered for autographs. Richards posed for selfies. But so did the other Great Danes. There wasn’t an understanding among the fans assembled that the pairing of Richards with Albany is something unique—a surefire WNBA player at a mid-major school.
“I don’t know her entire situation—I know she’s from Jamaica, late bloomer, didn’t pick up the game until late, and I think that just happens,” New Hampshire assistant coach Brendan Copes said of Richards, standing in the hallway following the game. “One of those magic, once-in-a-lifetime kids. She’s special. You’re not going to see a player like that in the league too often.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, Albany head coach and builder of a minor dynasty: Albany’s won four straight America East titles, and has every chance at a fifth this year. Her aspirations are hardly limited—she said she wants Albany to be the next UConn. But even so, a player like Shereesha Richards isn’t coming along again anytime soon.
“Recruiting’s a monster,” Abrahamson-Henderson said Thursday afternoon, reflecting in the interview room after the win over New Hampshire. Her husband, the collegiate star and former Harlem Globetrotter Michael Henderson, sat by the door waiting for her, watching attentively. “It’s different than when [UConn coach Geno Auriemma] was doing it back then. So can we ever get another Shereesha Richards? I don’t know. Because it’s too hard, with all the new rules coming out. Now you can pay the kids at the BCS level. I mean, I’d go where I could get paid, too.”
How Richards got to Albany is new, if familiar: a combination of late development, the keen scouting eye of Abrahamson-Henderson and a dose of cultural know-how.
“So we weren’t very good at all,” Abrahamson-Henderson recalled about the first time she saw Richards play. “And she was under the radar, she wasn’t nearly as good as she is. What I saw: she was super-athletic. She was playing hard all the time. She was in this AAU program, and she didn’t make a basket—not one! You could tell she was kind of gangly, and nobody had taught her anything besides net ball, where there’s no contact. So for her—she was a little overwhelmed by the whole game of basketball.”
Her net ball experience dated back to her experience growing up in Jamaica, and it was Abrahamson-Henderson’s husband, also Jamaican, who suggested his wife call Richards’ mother—that she would be the key to Richards’ collegiate decision. The results brought Richards to the Albany campus, where she immediately picked up some of the intricacies of her adopted sport, scoring 10.2 points per game, grabbing 5.9 rebounds, and most notably, adding 2.1 steals per contest. She was a disruptive force from the start.
But from her sophomore year on, she’s averaged virtually a double-double, putting up 20 points per game in each of her next three seasons, despite endless double-teams and game plans geared around stopping her.
“I’m always getting double- and triple-teamed,” Richards said, smiling, her hair up, still in uniform after a 26-point, four-steal performance against New Hampshire. “So it’s instinctive, if I see the open move, I quickly take it before they come. I really don’t think about it at any moment. When I feel it, I turn and I do it.”
To watch Richards on the offensive end is to enjoy a kind of brute force. There’s a simplicity to the way she catches and shoots, finding the right spot on the low blocks, an effortless quickness to her finishing.
In terms of the next level, though, at just 6’1”, there are limits to what that interior game alone will provide to a WNBA team.
It is defensively where the Day One skills that will make Richards an immediate WNBA contributor are exhibited. She plays free safety in the Albany press, a consistent feature of Abrahamson-Henderson’s Albany teams that have the Great Danes 17th in the country in defensive points per possession this season. Her ability to force steals and convert them will provide her next team with the fuel that has propelled Albany to league title after league title—easy baskets in the open floor.
“At the next level, she can guard a 2, a 3, a 4, a 5,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “I don’t care how big, she’s quick enough, she’s fast enough, and I just think she’ll need people talking to her. I think she’s a transition nightmare. She can outrun everybody, and she can keep going.”
Richards says that she’s heard the WNBA talk, but she prefers to focus on her senior season. It’s quite a transition for someone who planned to parlay her degree in sociology, with a minor in criminal justice, into graduate school, or better still, a trip to culinary school to master the art of Jamaican cooking, another passion of hers.
It is easy to envision a WNBA city falling in love with Richards’ game, her preternatural selflessness, a career followed by an arena restaurant nearby—though unlike many athletes who merely lend their names to the enterprise, Richards would insist on kitchen input, she says.
But first comes basketball, something Richards acknowledged she hopes puts off the restaurant dream for a while. She’s working hard at the things that will raise her offensive game to match her defensive skills at the 3, likely the best position at the next level for her size and speed. She pointed out the crossover dribble she’d deployed during a fastbreak in the New Hampshire game, part of an expansion of her ball-handling skills her coach cited as well. She’s improved from mid-range, and she’s taking more threes—33 this season, but 50 a day in practice—with an eye on becoming a threat from anywhere on the court.
“I want to just be well-rounded, threes, pull-up jumpers, solid on the block,” Richards said. “More 15-footer, high post, free throw line, around there. And I’ve seen improvement everywhere I’ve worked with Coach, in terms of how many shots I can make. It’s gotten better. I see it in practice with the three, too. And that’s why I’ll sometimes get frustrated when I miss, because I know I’ll knock this down on a daily basis in practice.”
As for Abrahamson-Henderson, this season is about getting the Great Danes back to the NCAA tournament—not just because that’s always the goal, or because the team is eager to finish what it nearly pulled off last season as a 13 seed, taking four seed Duke to the final seconds before Rebecca Greenwell’s three ended the upset bid, 54-52—but simply to make sure everybody gets a chance to watch Richards play.
“It’s not guaranteed,” Abrahamson-Richardson said of the NCAA trip. “And that’s why we played a lot of big schools on a big stage. It’s why we played in the USC tournament. That’s why we played Tennessee. Because I needed people to see her. And if we don’t make the NCAA tournament, when are people going to see her? They’re not going to see her. So I had to get her on stages where people can see her play. Out in California, so people on the West Coast get to see her. Tennessee, so some of the southern scouts can see her. The coaches saw her. The people who are voting for awards are the coaches.
“[UNC head coach] Sylvia Hatchell was like, ‘This kid is for real.’ I said ‘I know, I know. Please help me get her name out there.’ I need people to know about her.”
As if to underscore Abrahamson-Richardson’s point, Albany went up to Maine on Sunday and lost, 65-53. The two teams are tied for first in the America East, in what is almost certainly a one-bid NCAA tournament league.
Richards says she thinks about that game against Duke often, the sounds, how she had to strain to hear her coach call out the plays. Fatigue never factored in, just lost in the moment, so close to victory.
“Just wanting to win so bad,” Richards remembered. “Being so close, and then that last-second shot, everything is so exciting, and then—obviously we didn’t win, which was very sad. But it was still something we will take away from the game. And then you think about everything you could’ve done, should’ve done, would’ve done. But you have to look at it as having an opportunity, because a lot of teams didn’t get a chance to make it.”
I asked Richards if, considering what an outlier she is in terms of UAlbany talent—the program has enjoyed a great deal of success, and produced many impressive players and teams, but Richards is at another level—she views it as her responsibility to get that NCAA tournament win for her school.
“No, I don’t think it’s my responsibility,” she said. “I would love to, but I don’t think about it as a responsibility to win it. I do think anything can happen. And if by some chance we can win, it would be just wonderful to know that this year was the year that it started—to win a game in the NCAA, to move onto the next round. But I don’t want to say it’s my responsibility to do that.”
Whether Shereesha Richards’ career at Albany ends with that elusive NCAA victory, or somewhere short of it, there’s little chance the school will see another like her again. Richards laughed at the notion that all the kids I asked didn’t know she was about to play in the WNBA.
“Maybe later on when they grow up, they’ll be like ‘Hey, we went to UAlbany and saw her play!’” Richards said. “But in the moment right now, they’re probably not thinking about it.”
But her coach certainly is, as the Shereesha Richards Era ticks down to a final few games. The bond between player and coach is notable. Richards is family—as the coach’s husband Henderson put it, “That girl has a room in our house for the rest of her life.”
“We got lucky,” Abrahamson-Richardson said. “It’s like Jackie Stiles who played at Missouri State.
Mid-major programs, we don’t get players like her. And I don’t know if we ever will again. There are players, 15, 14, 13, 12, and they never play at the major schools. And they don’t get the opportunity she’s gotten, because it was never about the limelight for her. And thank goodness it wasn’t.”