At a gathering of friends, family, teammates and coaches on Wednesday, Bryant Lady Hornets senior guard Jakeria Otey related her diary entry on a day, a year prior, when former teammate Dezerea Duckworth signed a letter of intent to continue her basketball career and education under scholarship.
Otey wrote what she might say on the day, if and when it came, that she signed a similar document following the 2015 basketball season.
In it, she recalled a very difficult, tear-filled decision she had to make after her freshman year at J.A. Fair. She had played basketball that year for the Lady War Eagles and shown a lot of promise. But, she admitted in her diary that, at the time, she really didn’t think she wanted to play basketball.
“’I wanted to be cute and hang with my friends and do girly things,’” she read.
But seeing her potential and realizing the challenges of playing at Fair where, in recent years one or two wins a season have been hard to come by, Otey’s father Ivory Gilmore, who had recently moved to Bryant, suggested that she move in with him and her step-mother and transfer to Bryant.
At first, she didn’t like the idea but she talked to her mother Carla Otey, with whom she lived in Little Rock. After much discussion and many tears, they, ultimately, agreed to give it a shot.
Adding to the difficulty was the fact that she would have to sit out a year before she’d be eligible. Much to her surprise, Bryant coach Brad Matthews made her work just as hard as those that were playing.
But the work paid off. As a senior, Otey averaged 16.2 points, six rebounds and three assists a game.
As had been hoped, the day came on Wednesday. The reason all those folks were gathered in the Bryant gym was that Jakeria Otey was signing her own letter of intent for a full-ride scholarship to continue her education and basketball career at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, a Division II school in the Great America Conference, located in Alva, Okla.
“’I would like to thank God,” Otey read from the entry in her diary written on the eve of her signing ceremony. “’I appreciate everyone coming out to support me. I would like to thank my mom, Carla Otey, for even letting me come to Bryant because it was hard for the both of us. It was just like I was moving to another country.
“Moving to Bryant has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” she said. “The school was overall better and I was focused on getting my work done. I was focused more on the court. I was going for a goal. I wanted to be better as a person, a player and a student.
“Coach Matthews is like my second dad. He’s so supporting and caring. I remember practicing my sophomore year, knowing I couldn’t play and him yelling at me like I was playing the next day. I was like, “I’m not even playing. Why is he yelling at me?” I went home and asked my dad. He said that he just wants the best for you. He knows what you’re capable of.’
“I just want to thank Coach Matthews for always believing in me,” she concluded. “I want to thank (Hornets senior) Wesley (Peters) for helping me and working out with me; and my dad and everybody who’s helped me.”
“They’re getting a great young player,” Matthews said of Northwestern. “Jakeria was so good for us in so many different areas. She led us to a lot of good wins over the last two years. The thing about Jakeria — and I’ve told so many college coaches — she has a tremendous upside. I think she can get stronger, she can get more confident and she can be more aggressive. At the college level, she has a chance to mature into a really good college player. I think the sky’s the limit for her.”
Asked about what he saw when Otey came to Bryant, Matthews related, “She was talented but didn’t really believe in herself very much, lacked some confidence, lacked some aggressiveness. You could see what she could blossom into. Her junior year, you could see some growth. As last year and this season went on, her ability to make plays, to be a scorer, to be a leader — all those things it takes to lead a team, she does that well.
“She’s produced some memorable moments,” he continued. “A year and a half ago, against Benton, with no time left on the clock, she hit two free throws to beat them. I know I’ll always remember that ending. This year, she had 31 against Benton in the (Saline County Shootout) trophy game. This year, in our State tournament victory over Bentonville (a well-respected program), she had a tremendous game. I think she had 23 points and helped us get a really important win for our program.
“But that doesn’t tell the story of Jakeria,” the coach asserted. “She’s meant so much to our team, our program, to me as a coach, because of who she is, on the court, every day in practice, in the locker room and as she makes her way around campus here at Bryant. She’s a tremendous young lady.”
Ironically, the coach of the team she helped beat in two Saline County Shootouts against the rival Benton Lady Panthers, helped get Otey and Northwestern Oklahoma coach Eric Bozeman together. Bozeman had called Benton coach Jerry Chumley, a Bryant alum, about his daughter Braxton who starred for the Lady Panthers for three seasons.
“He told him that Braxton didn’t want to go that far away from home,” Otey recounted. “But there’s another player at Bryant. You can call Coach Matthews. I don’t know if she’s committed.”
So Bozeman called Matthews and her father and it went from there.
Otey said she had been considering Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss.
“But they can only have three out-of-state players,” Otey explained. “They already had two and another girl sent her scholarship offer in before I did. So they took her over me. So, (Coach Bozeman) kind of called me at the right time and it all worked out.”
She visited the Alva campus and liked it.
“I liked the coach and I liked how they had their program set up,” she related. “I liked the players. I didn’t really see a lot of the students because everybody was getting out of school. But I liked it. It’s small and the community is very supportive.”
“Coach Bozeman does a good job,” Matthews mentioned. “He’s a Little Rock native. He knows the state well. He’s coached men, women, coached in Division I, coached in the Sweet 16 for the men. He’s got vast experience coaching, very successful at all levels. He’s starting to turn the program around at Northwestern.
“He had the freshman of the year this year in that conference,” he added. “It’s a tough league with Harding and Tech, OBU — traditionally, really strong programs. I think Jakeria will have a really good chance to help Northwestern Oklahoma compete for a conference championship, moving forward.”
Otey said she wants to be an elementary teacher and eventually a counselor.