When she’s tired or sore, exhausted during a game or practice and searching for motivation, Texas guard Lashann Higgs looks down at her feet. On her right shoe she’s scrawled the words, “In Jesus’s name I play.” But it’s her left shoe, with the words “Romilly Higgs” that gives her a lift when she needs to dig deepest.
That’s the name of Lashann Higgs’s mother, who passed away in September 2013, back in Harbour Island, Bahamas, almost 1,200 miles away from Houston, where Lashann grew into one of the nation’s best women’s basketball prospects. Romilly didn’t get to witness Lashann’s journey, but she heard about it from Lashann, who called back to the Bahamas every week to tell her mom and sisters about life in America.
Lashann, who last week hit a crucial free throw that helped Texas eke out an 8480 win over NC State and earn a spot in the Sweet 16, says she is sometimes overcome with emotion when she realizes her mom will never see her play in college. But the Texas sixth woman, who averages eight points and three rebounds off the bench, then remembers that Romilly sent her to America to find happiness. The sadness evaporates, at least temporarily. That means that Friday, when the Longhorns meet Stanford in Lexington for a spot in the Elite Eight, Lashann won’t be thinking about a rough past or the tremendous adversity she’s overcome. Instead, she’ll remember what she came here for.
“When you watch TV as a kid, especially in another country, America always seemed like the place of opportunities,” she says. “That’s what I felt like this was: the opportunity to accomplish something amazing, by getting a college education.”
Basketball, as it turns out, was more of a happy accident.
To Texas assistant coach George Washington, coaching is far from a 95 job. Before he became an assistant with the Longhorns five years ago, Washington worked as a high school coach and, in the off-season, with Dallas-based AAU club DFW Elite. On the weekends, he volunteered at a community outreach program through FallBrook Church in Houston, training aspiring hoopers. He tutored dozens of kids through FallBrook, often opening his home and inviting those players to have dinner and hang out with his wife Jackie and their three boys. He counseled kids on and off the court, breaking down how to attack a full-court press and how to get through life without a mother or father.
“I’ve coached a lot of kids who are in bad situations,” he says. “And never did I have the desire to say, Hey, come and live with me, I’ve got you.’”
Then the Washingtons met Lashann.
A shy, skinny girl who lived with her uncle in a group home for international students, Lashann had moved from the Bahamas as a seventh grader. When she met the Washingtons one year later, they connected instantly. She was 14, mostly alone in a strange country and without many friends. She had a variety of dental problems, and no health insurance to cover the cost of fixing them. She wanted to sit around and watch the Lifetime Movie Network with her mom again. She appreciated finally being able to visit Toys R Us and Chuck E. Cheese (“I like the games! I admit it!” she cries), like she’d heard all American kids did, but hated the cold. The fourth of five girls, she desperately missed her siblings.
But around the Washingtons, Lashann felt at ease, laughing and playing with their boys (George Jr., also known as “Lil’ G,” is 13, Jackson 11 and Jayden 9). Soon George started picking her up and dropping her off for workouts. That turned into dinners with the family, which led to church on Sundays and before long, weekend stays. The boys thought she was “so cool,” according to their mom, and George and Jackie adored Lashann’s sweet disposition.
Finally, after almost a year of visits, Jackie hit her breaking point. As a former professional basketball player-she played two seasons in Finland after graduating from Abilene Christian-Jackie loved talking hoops with Lashann and watching her game develop. But as a mom, she could not handle the heartbreaking details regarding Lashann’s medical issues. Lashann had six completely rotted teeth that needed to be removed and no money to pay for the procedure.
“That’s it,” Jackie told George one night. “I want to help take care of this girl. Permanently.”
The misconception of this whole situation, George says, revolves around how good of a basketball player Higgs was when she came to live with the Washington family. As a former AAU coach, Washington’s heard the stories of handlers and coaches who exploit talented players, using a teenager’s skill to advance their own careers. That’s not what this is. George and Lashann laugh talking about just how unskilled and underdeveloped she was back in the eighth grade when the two first met. When Jackie initially proposed letting Lashann move in full-time, no one knew Lashann had Division I potential.
Back in the Bahamas, where Lashann’s family lived in a home with concrete floors and sometimes went weeks without running water or electricy, basketball was hardly a priority. On a walk to her grandmother’s house one day, Lashann saw a group of boys playing pickup at the local park. She studied the game, decided it looked fun and joined in. A naturally gifted athlete-Texas coach Karen Aston says Lashann’s speed and defensive abilities are obvious to anyone who watches her, along with a terrific motor-Lashann one day caught the eye of a local coach, who pulled Lashann and Romilly aside. The coach told Romilly that her daughter had talent and potential, and that in the United States, there were coaches and teachers who could give her direction. More importantly, he said, Lashann could get into a good school system.
The Bahamas’s economy relies heavily on tourism, and the best job most women can hope to land is as a hotel cleaning lady. Romilly and her oldest daughter worked in hotels, and Lashann knew if she stayed, she was likely destined for that life, too.
“One night my older sisters told me, A college education could change your life. You have a gift and an opportunity that God has blessed you with that could help you be successful,’” Lashann recalls. Shortly after that conversation, she was on a plane with her older cousin Marvin Higgs, bound for Texas. They settled in Houston, in the group home, before meeting the Washingtons.
How do you call a mother and tell her you want to take care of her child? How do you walk the delicate line of offering charity without coming across as judgmental?
George and Jackie struggled with those questions for weeks. George, whose parents had adopted three young girls when he was a child, knew how a better living situation could transform a young woman’s future. Ultimately, he decided being straightforward was the best bet and called Romilly to introduce himself.
“I had never talked to her mom before that and right away she says, I know who you are, my daughter has told me all about you,’” George says.
“As for offending her, that’s what I would tend to worry about,” Washington says. “But No. 1 they’re not American, so they have a completely different frame of reference. No. 2, the economic situation that she came from was completely different from what we can comprehend. When I took her to see her mom when she was sick and in the hospital, that’s when I understood why she had to come to the United States.”
In Feb. 2010, the Washingtons became Lashann’s legal guardians, and she moved in full-time. Initially, she wouldn’t eat dinner, partially because her mouth hurt so bad (when the dentist eventually removed Lashann’s six teeth, George says they were so decayed that “he touched one and it just broke in half”) but also because she was overwhelmed with portions. In Harbour Island, Lashann sometimes went to bed hungry. In Houston, she’d sneak food up from the dinner table and hide it in her room, just in case.
Though George coached a championship program at local Westbury Christian High in Houston, he enrolled Lashann at Kinkaid School because, again, he didn’t want anyone to question his motives. (“They actually beat us one time,” he sighs, “and it’s because she had an incredible game.”)
Then, just a few months before Lashann turned 18, George got a phone call from one of Lashann’s sisters back in Harbour Island. “You need to bring Lashann home,” she told him. “I don’t think my mom is gonna make it through the weekend.”
That was a Saturday. On Monday, George and Lashann were on a flight to the Bahamas.
George says now that from the moment they walked into the hospital in Harbour Island, he knew Romilly wouldn’t survive. She had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer and the hospital situation, particularly for someone of her financial stature, was abysmal. Romilly could not afford the necessary treatment to combat the cancer, and she knew it. She waited until Lashann left the room, then told George she wanted him and Jackie to take care of her daughter. Then a 17-year-old sophomore, Lashann had no idea of the conversation taking place.
Back in the states, George and Jackie spoke immediately with an adoption attorney but wavered on sending paperwork to the Bahamas.
“We struggled with it because basically, we’re asking a dying woman to sign paperwork that says, I don’t want my daughter anymore,’” he says. “How could we do that?”
A few weeks later, Lashann got the call that her mother had passed. That expedited everything. Within 10 days, Lashann, George and Jackie were in front of a judge making official what George says everyone felt since the first time Lashann walked into the Washington home: She was part of the family.
After Romilly died, Lashann decided to skip the funeral. “I didn’t want to see her like that,” she says. “I didn’t want her in a coffin to be the last image in my head. When I saw her, she told me she loved me and smiled. That’s what I wanted to remember.”
Lashann does not directly address Jackie and George as “mom and dad.” George jokes that Lashann “made me earn my paycheck” as an assistant at Texas because it wasn’t a given that Lashann would sign with the Longhorns. But through the recruiting process, it became clear to Lashann that Austin was the only fit because it already felt like family.
“Playing for him again in college, it doesn’t feel any different to me than when I played for him before,” she says. “I’ve never separated him as Coach’ and Dad.’ Most girls who have dads as coaches get to play for them, so I think it’s pretty cool.”
She always wanted that, she says. She just didn’t know it would happen like this.
Lil’ G, the Washingtons’ oldest boy, admits with a little prodding, that it’s true he’s never beat his older sister in one-on-one. “Not yet,” he says, making sure everyone understands that it’s going to happen someday. In the meantime, he and Jackson, the second oldest, team up for two-on-two battles against Lashann and Jayden, the youngest. Lil’ G wishes everyone knew how hard Lashann works when no one is looking. Jayden likes playing football with her, too, which typically involves her running routes and him playing the role of the hero quarterback. But mostly, Jackson says, he and his brothers just want everyone to know that their big sister never gives up, on anything. She’s told them they’re not allowed to either.
That’s a message that’s resonating with everyone.
“There’s some resiliency in her that’s not normal,” says Aston, the fifth-year Texas coach. “Even when she has a bad day, she just doesn’t quit. I think some of that is because she has a real passion for the game. But on the flip side, I think she has a passion for wanting to be somebody. That’s the bigger part of this: She really wants to make something of herself.”
Her family would say she already has.