Once she started holding her own in the bruising "no blood, no foul" pickup basketball games in the family's back yard, Jamee Ward knew she could compete at any level. The second youngest of seven siblings, none of whom took pity on their undersized baby sister, Ward developed a gritty competitiveness that already has made her the clear-cut leader of a young Brainerd basketball team, even as a sophomore.
Those bruising backyard games also prepared her for the tough-love coaching by her older brother Tyrus, who's in his first season as the Lady Panthers' head coach.
"I knew he'd be tough on me, tougher than he is on anybody else, but I like that," said Jamee, a multisport athlete who qualified for a national championship track meet in the 100-meter hurdles two years ago. "That's how I was raised, and I know he does it because he expects more out of me.
"Other players can get by with not playing as well because they have a stomachache or something, but if I complain about anything he just gives me that look and I know I better get back out there.
"But I believe I was born to be a leader, and I know what kind of leader he has always been, so I do whatever he expects."
A relentless summer conditioning program with Tyrus and another older brother, E'Jay, both of whom played college athletics, prepared Jamee for the grueling season. Rarely coming off the floor now, she leads Brainerd in average scoring (22), assists (6) and steals (3.5), and Friday evening she helped the Lady Panthers build a double-digit lead over perennial Best of Preps tournament title contender GPS, scoring 20 first-half points.
The Bruisers rallied late for a narrow win to advance to tonight's championship final, but Ward had proved she belongs among the area's top young prospects.
"She carries us in about every way one player can," Tyrus said. "She has to be our ball handler, scorer and defend the other team's best player usually, and that takes a lot out of anybody. But she never complains. She wants that pressure."
With no seniors on the team, Tyrus knows his early coaching success will go hand-in-hand with how Jamee continues to develop as a player and a leader, both on and off the court. Because of that, the coaching and mentoring don't stop once the final practice whistle blows each evening.
"She rides home with me a lot after practice or games, and I take that time to talk to her about things away from the game," Tyrus said. "That's my time to get to be her older brother and tell her about the pitfalls to avoid and the things she needs to work on, like her grades and things away from the game, to be as good as I know she can be. I read a lot and I'm always telling her things she needs to read and learn to be a better person.
"When I got the coaching job a few months ago, we had a family meeting at home and I talked to her about priorities and how things were going to be. She knew it wouldn't be easy playing for me, but she's handled it well, and so long as she keeps working like she has already, there's no telling how good she can be."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.