Men and women dressed in camouflage dot the stands inside Christl Arena, the cavernous gym at West Point, as Kelsey Minato, a pitiless scoring machine for Army, turns in time to intercept a pass beneath her basket against first-place American.
She takes a quick look at her troops in transition, and then advances the ball, deking a defender with an inside-out dribble beyond midcourt. She toys with her counterpart, taking her right before whipping the ball left behind her back. Her finish comes with her right hand, a twisting, reverse layup to the left as she crashes to the floor, sliding on her back. Superintendent Robert Caslen, chest dappled with decorations, sits three rows above her, near Brigadier General Timothy Trainor. Both nod approval and applaud.
“Sometimes us coaches just sit on the bench and say, ‘we have Kelsey and you don’t,’ ” Army associate coach Colleen Mullen says. “She has moves you don’t see anymore.”
Minato, 20, is the show at the military academy. At 5-feet-6, she is slight of build yet practiced in sleight of hand, manipulating defenses with misdirection and timing tricks as she spies open space.
In negotiating paths past defenders instructed to ambush her, she counters with hip turns and head fakes before flicking floaters — the ball often arcing over out-reached arms — to rank among the nation’s top 10 scorers with 22.3 points per game.
Targeted by defenses as the two-time reigning Patriot League player of the year, she rarely emotes, relishing her role as a stoical sharpshooter who once scored 49 points in a game, an academy record. Prior to tipoff, she offers a warning. When her name and No. 5 are announced, she runs on court to embrace reserve guard Brigette Ocran at the end of a gauntlet. Minato subtly mimes slitting her throat with her fingers doubling as knives. She smiles.
“She loves all the military stuff that we do,” forward Brianna Johnson says. “Some of us will want to complain, but she will be all positive, going, ‘That was awesome.’ We’re like, ‘You want to go Infantry, don’t you?’”
Not particularly. Minato is classified as a “cow,” a corps term for third-year student. She ranks as a Cadet Sergeant in C-4, a company branded with a Cowboy logo featuring a hollow skull, red bandana around the neck and two crisscrossing pistols beneath a Cowboy hat.
Her future is yet to be determined in a unique time. Her class — graduating in May of 2016 — is scheduled to be the first in academy history to be commissioned into a U.S. Army with combat positions open to qualifying women. She currently eyes future placement in the Quartermaster branch, handling logistical issues, and will shadow an officer at Fort Lewis in Washington State this summer. She has proven proficient in arms, disassembling and assembling an M4 rifle and M240 machine gun in less than a minute. She considers the possibility of serving in a combat branch “scary,” and notes “nervousness and anxiety” among some women. “I don’t want to think about it,” she says, “but I think it’s a good step. I know there are definitely women who are qualified, who can keep up. It will probably be met with some backlash, some people not accepting them, but it will be interesting to see which females pave the way.”
Her focus is currently trained on leading the cadets into the league tournament now that they rallied out of a 1-3 tailspin at the start of conference play and into an 11-game winning streak to secure the No. 2 seed.
She says the early losses were depressing and left her sleepless, but little satisfies her. She considers the 20-something pushups she completed in a test as a plebe — first-year student — “pretty pathetic,” and refers to the 49-point effort in a loss as “bittersweet.”
In that game, she hit all 26 of her free throws, an NCAA record; she later claimed another column in academy annals when she knocked down eight 3-pointers against Boston University. Barbara Sherer, the first female to be assigned the position of academy chaplain, calls Minato “Money,” and Minato’s face is the Fathead in the crowd. Her legend grows by word of mouth mainly. As Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri prepared her players to face Army in the season opener, she informed them of Minato’s touch.
“I hate to make an opposing player come to life, to make them human, so I usually just stick to numbers when referring to them,” Fabbri says. “But for months, all my girls heard was ‘Minato! Minato! Minato!’ When our kids hit a tough shot in practice now, we yell, ‘Minato!’ It’s part comic relief, but it is mainly out of respect.”
These are heady times for the unassuming cadet. During summer training, she rides in Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, challenging her fear of heights. Back at Christl last August, she stared down Team USA marksman Stephen Curry in a three-point shootout. They used the regulation men’s ball, and Kyrie Irving fed her. National team coach Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point graduate, declared Minato the winner even though Curry had hit 15 shots first. Krzyzewski fudged that Curry stepped over the line five times. Players assigned her a code name: “49.”
More NBA run-ins came. Last fall, Minato, a Lakers fan, and teammates donning camouflage, dined with Knicks president Phil Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher at Washington Hall.
“I should have asked Derek if he could text Kobe to say hello for me,” she says.
There are few fairy-tale endings in fatigues, but Minato recognizes the marks within reach. During halftime against American, Melody Smith (’84), Julie Del Giorno (’86) and Katie Macfarlane (’04) see their jerseys retired to the rafters. Minato, already atop the academy’s career three-point shooting list with 208 triples made, eyes their records, having surpassed all but Macfarlane on the scoring list. She continues to gain ground, weaving her way up court with March and another full season ahead.
“You look at her and she’s this scrawny little thing,” American coach Megan Gebbia says. “But she’s a nightmare to cover. She has a lot on her shoulders.”
* * *
Minato’s parents, Rick and Dorothy, sit in a booth at Schade’s, a restaurant in Highland Falls, N.Y., two blocks from the academy’s Thayer Gate. Rick, a computer systems engineer from Oregon, and Dorothy, an accountant from Malaysia, raised Kelsey and her older brother, Brandon, inside a gated community one mile from the shore in Huntington Beach, Calif. They recall her tomboy tendencies, never wearing dresses, never owning a Barbie Doll. One year, she asked for a fingerprints kit. Another, her father raided her mom’s Girl Scout troop to fill her basketball team. They practiced at a park and then Huntington Beach High. Coach Russell McClurg remembers meeting Minato as a third grader. She wore a purple ribbon in her hair.
“She just stared at me,” he says. “She never said a word other than ‘hi’.”
Minato’s father taught her to take aim at all goals, both with basketballs in their driveway and BB guns farther inland. The family retreated to a co-worker’s cabin in Johnson Valley, Calif. There, they learned gun safety, eventually graduating to rifles, and she grew to be an aggressive markswoman on the court, too. Once she reached a level above her father’s teaching capabilities, he handed her over to Pablo Martinez, a former professional player in Mexico. Minato met with Martinez twice per week, one hour per session, at Village Bible Church in nearby Garden Grove, Calif. The court was carpeted, forcing her to dribble harder than usual, and it measured 94 feet by 50 feet. He also put a weighted vest on Minato to test her strength, instructing her to hold the ball one inch below her chin, one inch out from her chest. There were wooden backboards, but they served as little more than backdrops. She was a net tickler, the ball, spinning backward, rarely nicking the rim.
“I had to change the nets all the time,” Martinez says. “All the time.”
So it was that Mullen first came upon Minato in December of 2011. Army was in Tempe, Ariz. for a game against Arizona State, and Mullen, in the market for a point guard, attended Nike’s Tournament of Champions in Phoenix.
On the event’s second day, she eyed a few California kids, but took in a Huntington Beach game for no particular reason.
In four seasons, Minato had matured from a freshman whose father tied her sneaker laces just off the court before a summer-league game to the program’s all-time leading scorer. Mullen liked what she saw from Minato, who was undersized but effective. Mullen knew nothing else about her, and had to leave after watching Minato. She sent McClurg a long, inquiring e-mail in the days afterward.
“Shot in the dark,” Mullen says.
It connected. McClurg informed Mullen that Minato had the grades necessary for admission and was interested in learning more about West Point. There was interest from other schools, but no commitment from any. Coast-to-coast communication continued with head coach Dave Magarity calling Minato weekly as a priority recruit. After losing in the league tourney, he flew west for a home visit. He planned on attending a Huntington Beach playoff game against San Diego High, a team traditionally more powerful than Minato’s. Minato’s parents were concerned Magarity might lose interest if she happened to struggle. They tried to talk him out of attending, but he stayed, settling into a seat atop the bleachers. Minato knocked down one three-pointer, then two, then three, then four, then five. Magarity was “dumbfounded.” She kept shooting, hitting a sixth three, then seventh and eighth.
“I was like freaking out,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to hold her hand and walk her back to West Point.”
There were still steps to be taken. Minato’s father mentioned to his neighbor, Mike Rovere, that the family was trekking to West Point for an official visit. Rovere, an attorney then moonlighting in the martial arts, was already training the Minato siblings, but offered to introduce her to self-defense moves to let her know what it was like to fight someone off with her hands. He taught her MMA maneuvers such as the Muay Thai clinch and grappling; they worked with Pugil sticks and she wrestled her brother on a mat in Rovere’s garage on Saturday mornings. She absorbed it all.
“I’d set up scenarios where they would throw each other around,” Rovere says. “She rarely spoke. Sometimes I was wondering what was going through her head. Her eyes were burning a hole through my head. It was a focused effort.”
Minato felt confident, and enjoyed her visit to West Point. General Ann E. Dunwoody, the Army’s first female four-star general, happened to be on site that day, and Colonel Diane Ryan, taking Minato around campus, arranged for Minato to meet with her. Minato continued on to Connecticut afterward, where she visited Sacred Heart, but her affections were for West Point. There was no sure word from admissions for some time, though. Her parents started sweating the radio silence.
“What’s Plan B, Kels?” her father said.
“Oh, no, there’s no Plan B,” Minato said. “This will work out.”
She received clearance two weeks before basic training, better known as “Beast Barracks.” While she moved without hesitation, her father fought his nerves. She recited the oath on Reception Day, July 2, 2012, solemnly swearing to “maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States.”
Her father did not know when he would next hear from her as she said her goodbyes. He calls the interim period “excruciating.” One day went by, then two and three. He wondered what she faced, knowing the academy’s complicated past since women were first admitted in 1976.
“It’s bad enough for a guy,” he says. “Here’s my little girl. What the heck’s going on?”
His phone rang on Day 4. He was in line at a Greek restaurant with his wife when an unfamiliar number streamed across his cell-phone screen. He had set up his house line so that it would forward all incoming calls to his cell in case she called while they were out. He picked up, listening for any sounds of distress in her voice.
“I can’t describe the relief,” he says. “She expressed enthusiasm, happiness.”
Military life was new to Minato, but she had been around war relics — a compass, notebook and goggles — growing up. Her great-grandfather, Anselmo, was a Private in the U.S. Army’s 32nd Infantry Division during World War I, and fought in Germany and France. He was injured by gunfire, cut by bayonet during hand-to-hand combat and suffered mustard gas attacks. Her grandfather, Alfeo, served in the 721st Bomb Squadron during World War II. Rick sought advice from his brother, David, also an Army man, about preparing her. A friend asked her mother: How can you let your daughter enroll in a military school where 16% of the students are women?
Minato took it all in stride, breathing in teargas with classmates and loading her M16 rifle. She earned sharpshooter status for her accuracy as well as honors as the best new cadet in her squad during the second half of Beast. Her greatest failure related to facial control. She smiled often, even as others learned to stare blankly. To get the smiling out of her, Minato’s leader gave her duct tape to shape a fake smiley face on a wall. She was ordered to communicate with the tape without laughing.
“I don’t even know why I smiled so much,” she says. “It wasn’t even fun.”
* * *
Half past eight o’clock on a Monday morning in late January and Minato, making her way from an environmental engineering class in Washington Hall, slips on a wool hat over her hair, wrapped in a tight bun, before stepping outside. She wears a black parka, “USMA 16” stitched in gold on the front, and moves quickly over the blacktop — white lines painted for basketball and bordered by Gothic arches — to Thayer Hall for a military leadership class. Snowflakes fall; her California blood cools. She frets about when to put on gloves when the weather turns cold on campus, not wanting to seem “soft” in comparison to the other cadets.
“It’s probably 80 degrees and sunny back home,” she says.
It is nine degrees in the rockbound highland atop the banks of the Hudson. There are posters lining the walls to her next classroom, one featuring Uncle Sam pointing at all comers and informing them, “I want YOU . . . to be a Math major.”
Another poster invites cadets to a lecture reflecting on 20 years after the Rwandan genocide. Inside Room 372, Lieutenant Colonel Darcy Schnack, a logistician who grew up in Iowa and served multiple deployments in Iraq, welcomes 16 cadets — 14 men, 2 women — for class. She informs them that she will likely not be at their next session due to funeral detail duty. She tells them about proper procedure for full military honors at burials — pallbearers, a lieutenant presenting the flag, a team playing Taps, a rifle team firing a 21-gun salute. She encourages them to learn more.
“I’ll tell you to take it seriously, to interact with these folks,” she says. “We have a lot of World War II veterans passing nowadays.”
Schnack transitions to life-and-death decision-making. Emotional intelligence, self-management and time constraints are touched upon. She commences a lesson focused on the emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 by Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeff Skiles some 50 miles south.
“You guys familiar with The Miracle on the Hudson?” she says. “I want you to start thinking about decisions.”
Minato opens a binder to take notes on loose-leaf paper. Her tools during the course of the school day are her TI 30XIS calculator, a multi-color pen and a “Pink Pearl” compound eraser. She hates math, but enjoys the calculations taken by military leaders.
In class, Schnack shows a scene from “Lone Survivor,” a movie about Navy SEALS faced with ethical decisions in the mountains of northern Afghanistan that border Pakistan. Later, in a biology class, the professor breaks up a dense lesson by using the video game “Halo” to highlight enzyme inhibitors. Heavy metal plays as clouds of blood form on screen after an explosion. The words “Who’s Yo Daddy?” and “Owned!” stream across the monitor. Minato, seated in front, smiles.
There are times when the military and basketball themes come together. Before each game, the women line up in height order outside the locker room in a formation they learn during field training. It features all 19 players
stacked together. Some place their hands as if holding pistols, others as if aiming rifles, one as if lugging a grenade launcher.
Minato, second shortest, ducks, ready to pounce, ball in hand. A cadet yells, “Locked and loaded!” They run out onto a home court lined with advertisement boards that range from Lockheed Martin to Massage Envy Spa.
Magarity, 65, never lacks for ammunition. Once a Seabee, his spark is best evident at home games when the school awards a $20 gift certificate from a local pizzeria to a fan who guesses the time when he will throw off his sports jacket in frustration. They know him well. He came to Army in 2005 when Maggie Dixon was head coach. The Black Knights reached the NCAAs for the first time as a Division I program that March, but Dixon died a month later due to complications of an enlarged heart. She was 28, and Magarity, who reached the NCAAs with Rik Smits at Marist in 1987, had opportunities to leave. He remained entrenched.
In Minato, a Californian like Dixon, he found a singular talent to lead Army back to the NCAAs. Last year, before the league title game, Magarity visited Dixon’s granite headstone by Old Cadet Chapel.
“When you come here, you definitely feel her presence,” Minato says. “She will always be involved with us in some way. In a way we were playing for her.”
Magarity’s pupils are playing for each other, too. His staff extends the playbook often, implementing screens and re-screens, encouraging Minato to work methodically, to outwit counterparts by finding open teammates.
In practice, she will roll her eyes at the length of play names, such as, “Down Fist Special Reverse,” but she understands the end game: establishing an inside game with forwards Olivia Schretzman and Aimee Oertner while developing wings such as freshmen twins Destinee and Daizjah Morris.
“They run Minato off every screen imaginable: down screens, wing screens, fade screens,” Fabbri says. “She has perfected the floater off the tight curl.”
Minato works to close holes in her game, but one doctor told her there might be one in her right (shooting) wrist. She noticed something amiss during a West Coast swing near her hometown in November. She made 1-of-10 attempts from behind the arc against Pepperdine, and had an X-ray taken. She practiced with a protective strap for a time, but played games sans brace throughout. She insists she is fine, but frequently rubs the wrist following games, flexing it to keep loose.
There is no sympathy for the league’s leading scorer. At Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., she sells contact into a foul call, and Holy Cross coach Bill Gibbons shouts, “She might be the best player in the league, but that’s a flop!”
She later lobbies another official for a call, and Gibbons yells across the court, “She can’t talk to you like that!” She shrugs and scores Army’s last eight points to win, 53-51.
“Props to her,” Gibbons says.
No team frustrates her like Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks offer the cadets a kaleidoscope approach, flashing 11 looks on defense, alternating schemes mid-possession at times. Minato struggles all night, needing 17 shot attempts to score 16 points in a 12-point loss. When Minato misses a jumper in the second half, a whistle follows and one fan, throwing all diplomacy to the side, alleges nepotism.
“Well, that’s a patriotic call!” the fan says.
Minato tries to compartmentalize her worlds as best she can. She checks CNN.com in between classes, scanning for updates on international events. She notes headlines highlighting the actions of ISIS — a beheading of a journalist here, the burning of a Jordanian pilot there. The ongoing battles occupy her thoughts.
“It makes me really sick, but it also makes me feel like I am part of the solution, fighting them,” she says. “It’s nice to know there are people who recognize that type of behavior is unacceptable. It’s despicable, really. I get really pissed off.”
The Middle East is never far from her reality, and the last Monday in January is no different. Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli President, visits, paying his respects in the cemetery before addressing the cadets from the poop deck inside Washington Hall. To curry favor, he pardons all cadets facing punishments. He adds encouragement.
“I bring you a message from the people of Israel,” he says. “Go Army! Beat Navy!”
The corps erupt, fists pounding on tables, forks banging on plates. Lunch is done in 20 minutes, and Minato makes her way toward her room on the sixth floor of MacArthur Barracks, a gray stone building looking out at Trophy Point. Her living space is Spartan, just past a battlefield cross — combat boots, bayonet in ground, battle helmet on top — penciled on the wall, the words “All Gave Some, Some Gave All,” sketched nearby. She lives with one female roommate on a co-ed floor. She mentions the mouse that used to rummage through granola she stored in a drawer, and the sleep she lost listening to it. She later found the mouse dead by her desk.
“I need a nap,” she says.
* * *
Twenty minutes to tip behind enemy lines inside Alumni Hall, the U.S. Naval Academy’s basketball building that doubles as the Bob Hope Performing Arts Center in Annapolis, and Minato prepares for center stage. She is in a locker room that is more of a dressing room, what with the vanity mirrors lined with light bulbs and Georgetown Cupcake boxes stacked by the door. She tightens her ponytail and applies lip balm. She smirks at a schedule poster of the Navy women’s team that has been re-decorated with their opponents’ teeth colored in and horns added to heads. Minato gives the poster a quick punch before exiting into a hallway that leads to the court. More than 800 Midshipmen in uniform anticipate her appearance.
Once Army possesses the ball, she dribbles. Her antagonists commence their pre-planned chant.
“Ball hog! Ball hog!” they say, timing a tomahawk chop to the hymn.
Minato dribbles again.
“Ball hog! Ball hog!” they say.
It goes on all game; Minato pays them no mind. She bit her fingernails and picked at her lips when the arena was empty during the morning shoot-around, but maintains a calm exterior as her shots fall short early. Army is up one at the half, and she grows more aggressive, finding rhythm in a second-half run. In five-and-a-half minutes, she hits a pull-up jumper, a 3-pointer from the top of the key, another from the wing and a baseline jumper. She is fouled, and makes the subsequent free throw. The chants die down; the Midshipmen stay put, but several open academic books to read. She finishes with 23 points in a 12-point win. Magarity pivots to punch the air as Minato steals the ball in the final seconds. He attributes the win to her flourish. “At the end of the day, it came down to Kelsey Minato stepping up and making some incredible plays,” he says. “She has an incredible feel for the game.”
Logging a league-high 38 minutes per game, more than 1,000 on the season, she is worse for wear this time of year. She walks out of the locker room — hair still wet, a gym bag on each arm — back to the court, where her parents wait for a brief embrace. Her father snaps posed photographs en route to the bus, the last one in front of a battleship painting. Minato boards, and takes her seat. There will soon be an ice cream social at the superintendent’s house for sinking Navy, but she halts the onward march for a night.
Someone slips the disc for “Fury,” a film about a mission taken by Allied forces behind enemy lines during World War II, into a DVD player.
“It just feels good to shut them up,” she says.
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