On the morning of May 19, Danielle Ballard had awakened at approxiately 7 o’clock, three hours before she was to make her to way to the Cook Covention Center in downtown Memphis for her high school graduation.
Ballard was seemingly flabbergasted that a day in which she had long awaited since she enrolled at Central High four years ago had finally arrived.
Among the first things the former Lady Warrior star point guard did was jump out of bed and put on her green graduation gown.
She then rushed to her parents’ bedroom, where she began orchestrating a vigorous celebration with the two individuals who have followed her hoops prowess since she first began dribbling a basketball at the age of five.
Of course, Ballard’s parents didn’t seem fazed that their daughter was unknowingly disturbing the peace shortly after sunrise.
“I was just excited to graduate,” said Ballard, who actually wore her gown to her graduation ceremony. “I was ready that morning when I first woke up. I was dancing and playing with my parents, and I told them it was time to get out the house. But my mama always say you’re not grown until you’re 25 because she don’t want us to leave.”
Fortunately for the 18-year-old Ballard, whom various recruiting analysts rated as one of the most sought-after prospects in the country for a majority of her prep career for nationally-ranked Central, she will be vacating her parents’ home for all the right reasons Sunday morning.
Ballard, who signed with LSU during the early signing period in November after averaging 13 points, 3.3 assists, and 3.8 steals per game as a junior, will pack up and head to Baton Rouge, La., where she will enroll in summer classes as she prepares to suit up for the Lady Tigers of the Southeastern Conference this fall.
“I’m excited, knowing that I’m about to embrace the college experience and to get used to the atmosphere,” Ballard said.
For Ballard, she is hopeful that leaving for LSU eight days after being awarded her high school diploma will prove beneficial in terms becoming acclimated with her surroundings, let alone the pressures and obstacles that college life often generates.
Ballard, in fact, appears destined to relish the challenge of what undoubtedly will be a major turning point in her young life, in large part because of the maturation process she had to endure for much of her senior campaign.
Hours after the reigning Tennessee Class AAA state champion Lady Warriors had returned home from a holiday tournament in Mufreesboro, Tenn., Central coach Niki Bray dismissed Ballard from the team for what she deemed repeated violations of team rules.
The news of Ballard’s dismissal came as a shock not only to those affiliated with the team, but to the four-star player and nation’s 25th overall prospect. Bray felt that Ballard was ingenuous in that she did not believe her coach would discipline her so harshly.
“It was constant disruptions that kept building up,” said Bray, explaining the events surrounding Ballard’s expulsion. “I said, ‘Obviously, being apart of this team is not what you want to do, so we’re going to let you do what you want to do.’ She was at a point in her life, where she wanted to do what she wanted to do.”
However, it didn’t take long for reality set it for Ballard, a speedy 5-foot-9 prospect who burst on the national scene when she was only a freshman. Six months after embracing the gold ball on Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Arena court in celebration of Central’s first state title in 89 years, Ballard found herself kicked off the area’s top-ranked team that, at the time, was also ranked No. 11 nationally in the ESPN FAB Top 50 poll.
“It was heart-breaking,” Ballard recalls. “Basketball is my life. And not being able to play basketball for three months was damaging to my heart, to my spirit. Sometimes, I wanted to give up. But I had my family and friends to tell me I still had a future.”
Luckily for Ballard, who was invited to compete for Team USA in the U17 Trials last summer in Colorado Springs, Co., her good behavior ultimately led to her earning a spot back on the team. However, her reinstatement didn’t come until after Bray performed what essentially was a background check, of sorts, on the player she first began following when Ballard attended nearby Snowden Middle School.
“At the beginning of February, it was nonstop,” Bray said. “She was like, ‘Please, please, please, I wanna come back.’ After the city championship loss to Overton, she became relentless. So I called four teachers one night and they gave me overwhelming news about her productivity in class. Everybody loves her. Nobody wanted her off the team.”
Central’s team captain Nina Davis, a four-star recruit who is currently rated as the nation’s No. 58 prospect by ESPN for the class of 2013, was among those lobbying for Bray to put Ballard back on the team.
“My team leader came to me and she was like, ‘Coach, this is (Ballard’s) senior season, and maybe she needs the opportunity to prove she’s changed. It was really a disbelief for her. She didn’t think I was serious. It took our team time to find their rhythm. We had to learn to live without Danielle.”
It wasn’t, however, until days before the start of the District 16-AAA tournament that, Ballard — who chose LSU over Auburn, Ole Miss, UCLA, Duke, and Rutgers — had convinced Bray that she had indeed changed and was capable of abiding by her rules.
Still, Ballard’s rejoining the Lady Warriors wasn’t enough to help them defend their state title. Central was eliminated by Clarksville in the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
However, for Ballard, who turns 19 in November, the biggest concern now is whether the rigorous lessons of having basketball temporarily taken away will inspire her to make discreet off-the-court decisions once she sets foot on the LSU campus.
“Only time will tell,” Bray said. “I honestly believe that if Danielle goes in there and focus, she could very well be SEC Freshman of the Year. Her desire is to play in the WNBA. And I believe she has what it takes to accomplish that. I’m looking for her to do some great things and be the talk of the nation.”
Much like she was for nationally-ranked Central.
Andre Johnson is a regular contributor for MemphiSport. Follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.