First, there was shock.
Just hours earlier, they had all been together in Chicago, at the Jordan Brand Classic game, a showcase for the top 26 basketball players in the class of 2022. At the center of it all, as is often the case at these gatherings among the nation’s elite, was Aaliyah Gayles, the Spring Valley High School (Nevada) point guard, USC commit and owner of the group’s most contagious smile.
Then came fear.
The news spread on social media: Gayles had been shot at a house party in Las Vegas. Her condition was unclear. The four- and five-star recruits bounced into each others’ Instagram DMs, frantically trading what little information they had. It was Sunday night.
“When you see multiple gunshot wounds, you don’t know,” Sidwell Friends (D.C.) point guard Kiki Rice said. “You assume it’s bad.”
“It just broke my heart,” Homestead (Fort Wayne, Ind.) wing Ayanna Patterson said.
“This can’t be real. Not Aaliyah, not Aaliyah,” Hopkins (Minnetonka, Minn.) forward Maya Nnaji said she thought.
Finally, as the school week progressed, there came some relief.
Gayles had been shot 10 times, including eight times in the legs and ankles, but her injuries were not life-threatening. She underwent three surgeries and is expected to make a “full recovery.” Doctors were hopeful Gayles would be able to learn how to walk again from rehabilitation.
Her basketball future, however, is less certain.
What happened to Gayles at a Las Vegas house party on Saturday night will take time to process, for Gayles, her family and her loved ones. Among those impacted are the girls from across the country who’ve gotten to know the springy guard over the years, who’ve been her direct competitors for awards, rankings and scholarship offers.
Instead of enemies, they’ve become friends, forming a basketball sisterhood whose bond was strengthened at the Jordan game and the McDonald’s All-American Game, also in Chicago, on March 29. Gayles, with her flashy handles and flashier dance moves, had become the group’s purveyor of joy, on and off the court.
So, for the girls who’ve come to know Gayles, the past week was a rollercoaster of emotions: Shock. Fear. Relief. And something else less quantifiable, but just as visceral.
“It makes me want to go out there and compete even harder,” Nnaji said, “for her.”
Class of 2022 good luck to all you ladies ✌🏾 pic.twitter.com/8s5UCa3FvY— D.Gayles (@DGayles3) April 17, 2022
Class of 2022 good luck to all you ladies ✌🏾 pic.twitter.com/8s5UCa3FvY
The moment that best encapsulates Gayles, her friends said, came on March 28, the evening before the McDonald’s game. The 24 girls had just been awarded their All-American rings, and were being called to load back on the bus for the hotel.
Gayles had another idea.
She saw a DJ and a dance floor. It was time, she decided, to dance.
“She was dancing so hard,” Nnaji said. “She was going crazy!”
With her “West Coast flavor,” as Patterson put it, Gayles urged the rest of the girls to join her on the floor. Soon she and Janiah Barker, the 6-foot-2 forward from Montverde (Fla.) committed to Texas A&M, were sweating through their white T-shirts, and Iman Shumpert, the NBA shooting guard from 2011-21, was dancing by their side.
Rice, winner of the JWS Player of the Year award and several other national honors, is the most celebrated name in the class. But Rice, who does not identify as a “good dancer,” was not too proud to admit she could learn something from Gayles.
“We were joking about how she needed to teach me how to dance,” Rice said.
Rice first met Gayles, she said, in eighth grade, at the Blue Star 30 camp in Las Vegas. Same with Patterson, who recalled that Gayles took control of an impromptu dance circle at the camp despite being among the youngest players in attendance.
“She wants everyone to feel as happy as she is,” Nnaji said. “She’s always trying to get other people to smile.”
That also applies to the court, where Gayles has built a reputation among her peers for her ankle-breaking handles and calls for the crowd to make noise. In a practice ahead of the McDonald’s game, she successfully threw a between-the-legs lob to Patterson. The same behavior from a lesser-liked player might evoke bitterness, but not Gayles, who averaged 13.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.5 steals and 3.3 assists for Spring Valley this past season.
On Monday night, a local parent set up a GoFundMe page to help Gayles’ family pay for medical expenses. Several of the players Gayles has met on the national scene from the class of 2022, Patterson said, donated $22 each as an act of solidarity.
Gayles will probably spend about two months in a wheelchair, former Spring Valley coach Billy Hemberger (he left to take the head job at Liberty this month) told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. But Gayles was in good spirits, he said.
Still, questions remain about her future, as well as what happened Saturday night. Her father, Dwight, wrote in a since-deleted tweet that Gayles normally doesn’t attend house parties.
“For the record my kid hates house parties,” he wrote. “Anybody that knows her knows that. She was simply returning a favor to a friend that came to her birthday party and within (minutes) of being there this happened.”
It’s all still a little difficult for Rice, a UCLA signee, to wrap her head around. Will she ever get to play against Gayles in Pac-12 rivalry games, as they had talked about?
Rice, Gayles and a few other girls rode on the same bus to the airport Saturday morning. Gayles told Rice she was going to head straight to the gym from the airport. She didn’t hear about a party.
The next day, it was Rice who told Patterson what had happened. Patterson, who is bound for UConn, did not have a workout scheduled for Monday, but after school she hopped in her car and drove 30 minutes to her father’s facility, the McMillan Park Community Center in Fort Wayne.
Patterson threw up shot after shot, seemingly alone. Though the ball was flying off Patterson’s fingertips, she felt like someone else was taking the shots.
“This,” Patterson said, “is her moment.”
Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.