How family has been the driving force of Alissa Pili’s evolution into a star

UNCASVILLE, CT - DECEMBER 10: Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) is defended by South Carolina Gamecocks forward Chloe Kitts (21) during the Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase game between South Carolina Gamecocks and Utah Utes on December 10, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Utah forward Alissa Pili (35) is defended by South Carolina forward Chloe Kitts (21) during the Hoophall Women’s Basketball Showcase on Dec. 10, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s easy for the Pili family to draw attention. Nine kids, plus two parents, often with aunts, uncles and cousins in tow. But when they settled into the stands of Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, for the Hoophall Women’s Basketball Showcase, there was no fanfare. Their matching jerseys and T-shirts should have been a giveaway they were related to Utah senior Alissa Pili, but no one stopped to ask. Instead, all eyes were trained on the basketball royalty in the building: South Carolina and UConn.

That soon changed.

With 37 points against the Gamecocks, Pili announced herself to the arena, and the fans in attendance learned what her family, Utah and the Pac-12 have known for years: Alissa Pili is the real deal.

In three heavyweight matchups that included UCLA, Florida State, South Carolina, North Carolina and UConn, Pili was the best player in the building. And after her incredible performance, the Pili family’s exit was drastically different than its entrance.

“We couldn’t leave,” her dad, Billy Pili, said with a laugh. “We had so many people coming up to us, saying how good she was.”

They knew. And now so did everyone else.

“There are moments and opportunities that are different from everything else,” Alissa said. “That was one of them.”

There are no family photos hanging on the living room walls in the Pili home in Anchorage, Alaska. Instead, the room houses a basketball hoop. After too many pictures fell, and too many frames shattered, Billy realized the two things couldn’t co-exist. So he picked the hoop. It provides more memories, anyway.

Alissa and her siblings battle it out in one-on-one games, while the rest of the family sits on a couch that wraps around the living room, cheering and providing commentary. There are no out of bounds, no fouls and very few rules.

The hoop has been there for 15 years. The family moves furniture to allow for the makeshift “court.” Billy and his wife, Heather, have even had to patch holes in the living room walls in the aftermath of particularly competitive games. But the hoop is here to stay.

“We don’t have a big place. We have a tiny place,” Billy said with a laugh. “But we make it happen.”

Alissa, the second of nine siblings, started her life in Barrow (now known as Utqiagvik), Alaska, a town of 4,383 people. There wasn’t much to do, she says, other than go to school and go to the local gym, so that’s how she spent her days.

“Basketball is something that really brings our community together,” she said.

When Alissa was in elementary school, the family moved to Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city. Her routine didn’t change. School, sports and family were still the fabric of her days.

Athletics for Alissa included much more than just basketball. Specialization is more and more common for athletes across the country, but not in Alaska, and not in the Pili family.

“My dad strongly believed that if you have a God-given talent, and skill, that you shouldn't take it for granted,” Alissa said. “You should use it to the best of your ability and do everything you can to kind of utilize that.”

Alissa played, and excelled, in almost every sport.

Is there one she’s not good at?

“Honestly, no,” Alissa said with a laugh.

OK, so every sport.

As a kid, Alissa played football, she wrestled, played volleyball and did track. But she showed a particular affinity for basketball.

Alissa dominated high school players as a middle-schooler, and college coaches were taking notice. Basketball became her main sport, but never her only sport. And that’s part of the reason she’s excelled.

FILE - Gardner-Webb forward Alasia Smith (30) guards Utah forward Alissa Pili (35) during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City. The biggest recruiting coup came when Pili joined the Utes after transferring from Southern California. Pili immediately elevated Utah to a conference title contender. She averaged 20.7 points on 59% shooting last season with 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Utah forward Alissa Pili works against Gardner-Webb forward Alasia Smith during the second half of a first-round game in the women's NCAA tournament, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“Wrestling gave her strength,” Billy said. “Volleyball is her reaction time. Football helps her in the post, and when she takes charges.

“I always told [my kids], you can pick your main sport, but you’re going to play all the others. Because it helps. Even if you hate it.”

Alissa didn’t hate it.

She won 13 state championships during her four years of high school, and remembers every one with fondness – four in shot put, four in volleyball, two in discus, two in basketball and one in wrestling. She does have a favorite, though. As a senior at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alissa won state in basketball, playing with one of her little sisters, Kayla, who was a freshman.

“My sister is like my best friend,” Alissa said. “So having her around all the time was so fun.”

But Alissa’s favorite memories growing up happened far away from a court.

The Pili family camping trips started when it was just Billy, Heather, oldest son Brandon and Alissa hopping in the family RV and heading to a campground in Sutton, Alaska, for Memorial Day weekend.

“Well, I don’t know if you can call it camping,” Alissa said with a laugh. “We call it glamping.”

There’s a bit more glitz than you would expect from the Alaskan wilderness, Alissa said, referencing their RV, ATVs and crowded campground. But there are still camping staples, like a rope swing above a lake, swimming and fishing for salmon, which Alissa’s grandma is often tasked with cooking.

It eventually evolved into all 11 of Alissa’s family members piling into one RV. Her parents and the youngest child get the bed, while the older siblings get to pick the best spots on the floor. Then, the younger kids slide in wherever they can fit.

The trips aren’t just about immediate family, as six other family units – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – all come as well, bringing their own RVs that are bursting with Pilis.

During the day, Alissa and her siblings take the ATVs to explore, and according to Billy, “Only come home when they broke something, are out of gas or are hungry.”

The campground is also a place for celebrating. With so many kids there isn’t always time for individual birthday parties – though the youngest, Felila, did get to go to Chuck E. Cheese this year – instead, the Pilis celebrate together in the summertime.

During COVID, the Pilis made up for things the pandemic forced them to miss and threw their own graduation on a weekend camping trip. Several of Alissa’s cousins had finished high school, so the family put together a stage for speeches and singing.

In the evenings they all sit around a fire, talking, telling stories and laughing. That’s Alissa’s favorite part.

“When we are just chilling together, that is the best,” Alissa said.

Growing up, Alissa rarely went to friends' houses. Instead, she had sleepovers with her cousins, and when the family moved to Anchorage, Billy would often send Alissa back to Barrow to spend days with her aunts.

“I wanted her to really know these people,” Billy said.

That upbringing shaped who Alissa is. And her love of family was part of the reason she decided to go to USC when she graduated high school. It’s also why she ended up leaving.

Pili, a five-star recruit in the class of 2019, joined her brother, Brandon, a defensive lineman at USC. When she got homesick, which happened often, Brandon was there to comfort her. But during her junior year, something happened that not even an older brother could fix.

Alissa lost two of her aunts, and then a cousin, back-to-back-to-back. She’d never dealt with death in her family, let alone three at once.

She learned generosity from her aunts, Susana Maiava and Felila Tuai – the latter was even trying to persuade Billy to let her buy Alissa a car – and how to find joy in the smallest of moments. She remembers that even running errands with them was a blast.

“They’re huge pieces of our family and they did so much for us,” Alissa said. “Just having to deal with not having them around, that was tough.”

Saying goodbye to her cousin, Sosefina Aukusitino, was hard in a different way. They were close in age, and more like sisters than cousins.

“We were inseparable,” Alissa said. “It was just different than losing my aunts because of the relationship that we had. It’s something that I don’t know if I will ever get over, to be honest.”

The people around her thought Alissa was stoic in her grief. On the outside she was stone-faced, but on the inside, she was in turmoil.

Alissa couldn’t grieve at USC. She needed to be in Alaska.

So after a conversation with the USC coaching staff, Alissa went home. She surrounded herself with the people that knew her cousin and aunts in the same way she did. The ones who understood that her ability to hide emotions didn't mean they weren’t there.

She also needed time. She still does.

“It never goes away,” Alissa said. “Time makes it more bearable … I guess.”

She didn’t intend to leave USC for good, but tragedy forced Alissa to evaluate her life. And as she thought about life and loss, Alissa realized she’d changed since coming to USC, and not all of those changes had been for the better.

She’d become complacent in her talent, Alissa admits, and stopped putting in the work necessary to maintain it. She’d also stopped being kind to herself. When Alissa made a mistake, she’d beat herself up.

Grief wasn’t the only thing Alissa had to battle, but it did lead her to understand what she needed: a fresh start.

“It taught me not to take anything for granted,” Alissa said. “I don’t want to have any regrets.”

At Utah, Alissa had to prove herself all over again. With new coaches and a new system, she understood that complacency wasn’t an option. That turned out to be exactly what she needed.

In her first year at USC, Alissa was dominant, playing over 30 minutes a game and recording 16.3 points and 8 rebounds per contest. But as a sophomore, her numbers started to dwindle, and by the time that difficult junior year came around, Alissa was down to 19 minutes, 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest.

“After everything that I went through, I got tired of doubting myself and losing my confidence,” she said. “I got fed up with feeling that way, and not really doing anything about it.”

UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT - DECEMBER 10: Alissa Pili #35 of the Utah Utes grabs a rebound against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Mohegan Sun Arena on December 10, 2023 in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
Alissa Pili grabs a rebound against South Carolina at Mohegan Sun Arena on Dec. 10, 2023, in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

The summer before the 2022-23 season, when Alissa first got to Utah’s campus, things clicked.

“I just made up my mind that I was going to do everything I could to be better, all around.”

At Utah, Alissa is averaging 21.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 steal per game. She also improved her 3-point shooting, adding another element to her game. At USC, Alissa never shot better than 30% from long range. At Utah, she’s making over 40% of her attempts.

She also found a program that gets her, and an advocate in coach Lynne Roberts.

“If anyone has ever doubted, or questioned how good Alissa Pili is, I think today showed that I think she’s the best player in the country,” Roberts said after the South Carolina game. “She’s unbelievable, and she will play at the next level.”

Until that moment, Alissa skated under the radar. Even now, she knows people question her ability, especially when it comes to playing in the WNBA.

“I’ve always been underrated, and that’s something I’ve gotten used to,” Alissa said. “I never minded not getting that attention, but it does mean a lot to finally get that recognition.”

That recognition isn’t just for her.

Alissa is Samoan and an Alaskan native, and growing up, a lot of the girls she competed with had similar backgrounds. It wasn’t until she got to USC that Alissa realized not many people playing Division I basketball looked like her.

“A lot of people think because I’m a bigger build, but I’m not as tall, and I’m not the most athletic basketball player, that I won’t do well against good competition,” she said. “But I used that as motivation. I don’t really pay those people no mind.”

Instead, she pays attention to the people who do support her. Especially the ones back home in Alaska.

“It’s honestly great to be in this position, to be different than everyone else,” Alissa said. “Because the people who do look like me, the ones from my background, they can see me doing it.”

In November, Alissa and her Utah team participated in the Alaskan Shootout in Anchorage, playing two games in her hometown. After the championship game, Billy watched as crowds of people swarmed Alissa, asking for pictures and autographs.

As time ticked by, and the crowd didn’t dissipate, the venue’s security team told Billy: “Say the word, and we will make them leave.”

He shook his head no. Instead, Billy watched his daughter with pride.

The longer Alissa interacted with the crowd of supporters, the less time the Pilis would get to spend as a family. But this mattered. For Alissa, and for the place she grew up.

“I feel like the big sister of Alaska,” she said with a smile.