NEW PORT RICHEY -
In the spring of 2003, Walter "Goldie" Ayers co-founded Florida Fastbreak with the goal of building basketball players "one dribble at a time."
Ayers has helped numerous youngsters in Pasco County develop their skills and knowledge of the game, emphasizing working together for the benefit of the team. Four years ago, Leighlani Paselio registered for his summer league as an 11-year-old.
"From the moment I first met Leighlani, she has continued her development into an amazing talent," Ayers said. "She is a natural leader. I have made her my point guard in both the Florida Fastbreak and my AAU travel teams. In addition, she practices hard and is a tough kid, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team, even diving on the floor for loose balls."
In basketball, the point guard handles the ball, runs the plays and passes to open teammates. The point guard is not often counted on to be a top scorer or rebounder, but Paselio is the exception, averaging 15 points, nine rebounds and nine assists per game.
"I started with basketball around age 9," Paselio said. "My parents purchased a portable hoop for me and I started shooting just for fun. I soon learned that I love the game."
During her 11/2-hour-long practices with her father, Paselio works on the fundamentals of left- and right-handed layups, dribbling and passing and her jump shot by spot shooting from all over the court. They end each session with 10 free throws. If she misses one, she starts over.
"My belief is, practice makes perfect," she said.
Paselio, a Mitchell High freshman, also has strong religious beliefs, which she expresses by wearing a skirt instead of shorts and leading her team in a pregame prayer.
"Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that I choose to dress, talk, and live a life that is different," she said. "When people see me playing basketball in a skirt, they know that I am different. Opponents often ask why, which allows me to be a witness unto Him. I have uncut hair, no piercings, and wear no makeup. It's not a requirement; its a choice and commitment I have made to the Lord."
For the previous two years, she has committed to helping her Seven Springs Middle School basketball team. According to Coach Tim Boggess, the team's record with Paselio was 19-3. His seventh-grade team won the West Pasco County Middle School Athletic Conference championship with an 11-1 record.
"The strength of Leighlani's game was as a floor general leading the team," Boggess said. "Her greatest trait as a middle school basketball player was that she made everyone who played with her a better player and the team much more successful than it was without her."
In March, at an AAU basketball tournament at the University of Tampa, one of the opposing coaches approached Paselio's parents. He mentioned that he ran an elite basketball camp, where he helps top players develop and improve their game. That coach was former NBA all-star Dee Brown.
This weekend, Paselio will be receiving individual instruction from Brown at The EDGE Basketball Training Facility in Orlando.
Despite her youth, Paselio is expected to make an impact on Mitchell's varsity team.
"It's amazing to me how many different things she's involved in and that she manages to put her heart into everything she does," said Coach Jacob Tavo. "She will be successful because of how hard she works and she has a family who supports her. She is a very loyal and sincere person, and I look forward to her being on the team."
In addition to basketball, Paselio was a member of Mitchell's junior varsity volleyball team.
"Leighlani is a true asset to our team," said Coach Jamie Winterling. "Her constant communication and determination is extremely motivational to all the girls on the team. She has a promising future in volleyball to be a powerhouse hitter with serves that are amazing."
The classroom is another area where Paselio excels. An honor student with a 3.5 GPA, she is enrolled in honors English.
"Leighlani is a tenacious young lady who is always striving to find the best in herself," said teacher Karen Lawlor. "Her schedule is grueling, sometimes playing three volleyball games per week, yet she will not allow her school work to suffer."
Paselio gives credit to her parents for keeping school and sports in balance.
"My parents have always taught me that my education comes before my athletic abilities," she said. "That means I am a student first and an athlete second. An education is important because it will allow to me help others. I want to major in sports medicine."
It appears that Paselio is getting a head start in helping and influencing others. She volunteers as a manager for the Seven Springs Middle School boys basketball team. She helps keep the team statistics and teaches the fundamentals of the game to the players, including her younger brother, Matai. Paselio also visits a homeless shelter with her church youth group.
Paselio also volunteers with her youth group at a hospice center. During the holiday season, they make and distribute cards and bake cookies for the residents.
Recently, Paselio began coaching a basketball team of 12- and 13-year-old girls.
"So many people have invested time into developing my skills, so it has truly been a blessing to be able to give back to them," she said. "The most important lesson I teach them is that if they work hard, it will pay off. I also encourage them not to give up and let them know that regardless of what happens, to hold their head high."