About two years ago, I met the greatest women’s basketball player in Syracuse history without even realizing it. It was a Summer Reception Day for high school students and I walked into the Schine Student Center hoping to familiarize myself with the school I would soon attend. A 6-foot-4 sophomore girl from Ontario stood at one of the information tables eager to answer questions and share her story about Syracuse.
Noting her towering height, I asked "Do you play basketball?"
My simple question to Kayla Alexander actually wasn’t much different from the way she first broke into the sport. She didn’t really like basketball as a kid and didn’t know how to play.
So how does a girl growing up in Canada unfamiliar with the game develop into a dominant center?
"You have a friend in seventh grade who says ‘You’re tall, come to this basketball tryout with me,’" Alexander said. "That’s when my experience with basketball started and from there, just having the people who believed in me, willing to give me an opportunity and chances, the right coaching staff around you and support system around you, and that will to get better."
As a freshman at Syracuse, Alexander didn’t have the luxury of slowly getting acclimated into Big East play. SU came off of a mediocre 17-15 season and needed help right away.
"When she first came in, we knew she had to play right away," coach Quentin Hillsman said. "So she didn’t have a chance to have what they call ‘the learning curve'".
Syracuse went 25-11 that season and Alexander played in every game. She was third on the team in scoring with 10.8 ppg in limited minutes.
"She had to come in and learn on the floor," Hillsman said. "So she had to get beat up a little bit to learn and she’s just been getting better and better every year."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Kayla Alexander, now the all-time leader in points, blocks, free throws and field goals made in Syracuse women’s history, will suit up one last time in the Carrier Dome for Senior Night on Monday versus Louisville. But this farewell tour will have little pomp and circumstance or fanfare. There won’t be campouts in Boeheimburg and big heads are unlikely. That’s probably fine by Alexander, who always has a modest and unassuming demeanor.
"(Alexander) leads by example. She always plays very hard," coach Quentin Hillsman said. "I push her to put the ball in the basket. She can be quiet and not speak, and score, rebound and block shots. Everything we ask her to do, she does it. And that’s why she’s getting better and that’s why we’re getting better."
You wouldn’t how much Alexander has contributed to Syracuse’s program by talking to her or watching the way she carries herself. In many ways, she’s just like any Syracuse student. She isn’t recognized around campus and that’s how she would want it.
"I just go about my day, go to classes, and see my friends," she said.
SU’s quiet leader has also been very active off-the-court at Syracuse University and the surrounding community.
"I usually volunteer at U100, giving tours on campus or just doing work in the office that I can help out with," she said. "They have great spirits and they are all so happy. It’s just a great atmosphere so I love volunteering."
U100 is a volunteer student group that works with the Office of Admission. Members give tours, speak with prospective students, and help out during information sessions or other campus events.
"I love that. It’s great to meet new people, to tell them about your fun experiences on campus, and to encourage them to come to one of the best schools in the U.S."
Alexander, a social studies education major, also volunteered as a speech teacher in the city high school system.
"Working in the Syracuse schools is great. I want to be a teacher eventually so I loved working at Nottingham," she said. "I learned so much about myself and I enjoyed that experience."
SU’s senior center has also done alright for herself on-the-court this season. She is leading the team in scoring with 17.4 ppg. During her four years, Syracuse has transformed from an up-and-coming program to a nationally-ranked team.
"It’s been a process. It hasn’t been a race, it’s been a marathon. It takes time."
Even so, Alexander has never reached the NCAA Tournament. She remembers spending past Selection Mondays on the outside looking in and she’s made it a primary goal to make it this season.
"Sitting in that room, crossing your fingers, hoping, praying that you get in, and your name’s not called---it’s the worse feeling ever. I don’t want a repeat of that this year."
SU is ranked No. 22 and projected as a six-seed in the tournament. Regardless of where the Orange ends up, Alexander has a lot to be happy about. She has brought so much success to the school she loves. It may be an unconventional path to come to Syracuse from Milton, Ontario, but she doesn’t have any qualms about it.
"The coaching staff, the team, and just the academics and the atmosphere here at Syracuse University…can’t really beat it to be honest, in my opinion, and I haven’t regretted my decision."
Alexander is a projected top 20 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft and has a bright career to look forward to. It’s quite a long way since that first tryout.
"I didn’t know the rules of the game," she jokes. "That tryout…I keep telling people if that was on tape, it would be a great laugh because it was a hot mess."