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The quiet resilience of Kentucky superstar Rhyne Howard

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even as a little girl, Rhyne Howard had a high basketball IQ.

So when the second-grader started getting steals in her rec league, but pulling the ball back out short of the fast-break layup, her family was confused.

Rhyne wasn’t. She knew exactly what she was doing.

The league had a policy that if a player scored a certain amount of points, they had to sit out the rest of the game. The idea was to keep the competition fair, but Howard learned quickly how to cheat the system.

Every time she approached the number, Howard would change the way she played. Instead of looking to score, she would set up her teammates. She still had a positive impact on the game, but she was also ensuring that she didn’t have to leave the court.

It was then that her mom, Rhvonja “RJ” Avery, knew Howard — a three-time All-American at Kentucky and a projected top pick in this year’s WNBA Draft — was special.

“That’s something you can’t teach,” Avery said. “That’s instinct.”

On and off the court, Howard never stops thinking. Her hobbies are all things that allow her to have quiet time and be alone with her own mind. She likes doing puzzles, and she loves to draw. It’s not uncommon, Avery says, for Howard to sneak away and take out her art supplies.

During the pandemic, Avery set up an art corner in her house so Howard’s creativity could run uninterruptedly wild. Sometimes she draws SpongeBob, her favorite cartoon character. Other times, she creates more serious artwork, like a piece entitled “Black Empowerment.” It depicts a Black woman with a flowing afro framing her face, and atop the black curls, a small yellow crown.

Off the court, it’s not uncommon for Howard to keep to herself.

“She’s a little bit quiet, a little bit shy,” Avery says. “Even if she says something funny, something witty, she usually does it in a whisper.”

When it comes to basketball, however, Howard does not whisper.

She never has. It’s the one thing that consistently brings the Kentucky guard out of her shell. Around the same time that she learned to work around her rec-league rules, Howard set the goal of playing in the WNBA.

And when people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, Howard did not waver.

“Sometimes people were like, ‘You’re going to have to find a real job,’ And I’d say, ‘That is a real job, and I’m going to be getting paid,’” Howard said with a laugh.

Howard’s name is on every WNBA mock draft board, and it’s usually at No. 1 or No. 2 — switching off with Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, depending on the analyst.

So yeah, she’s going to be getting paid. But when she was telling off her doubters, the draft or where she would be selected wasn’t on Howard’s mind at all.

“The goal is just to make it,” she says, “But to be a top pick, like, wow. As a young kid, I never would have imagined it.”

Maybe she should have.

Howard was heavily sought after in high school, but at first, she wasn't interested in the recruiting process. (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Skills aside, Howard has always been too competitive to finish anywhere but first. Avery remembers taking her kids to the doctor, and to help pass the time, she would give them a big word and see how many smaller words they could find within the letters. Howard’s brother is five years older than she is, but she would still cry if she didn’t get more words than he did.

In middle school, Howard was doing a project on New York City. She made an origami replica of the Statue of Liberty, but couldn’t get the tiny crown quite right.

“She was frustrated and I had to calm her down,” Avery said. “I told her, ‘Rhyne, how many other kids in sixth grade are making 3D statues?’

“But she’s a perfectionist. She likes to finish. She’s a competitor.”

When she turned in the project, Howard got an A.

If Howard did something, she was going to be the best. Especially when it came to basketball. If you think spelling words against someone five years older is hard, try going at them on the court. And all of their friends.

“Playing with my brother, no one took it easy on me,” Howard said. “And my mom would be like, ‘Well you asked to play with him, so you can’t get mad.’”

She still did.

“I used to try and fight him all the time,” Howard says, breaking out into a giggle that sounds like she’s right back in the moment. “I’d be like, ‘Please, you’re doing too much.”

Eventually, Howard figured out how to beat her brother. Once she learned how to shoot, Howard no longer had to try to out-muscle him. Instead, she would stay outside of the 3-point line.

“I would do a few moves and then shoot it,” she said. “And then everyone would keep passing me the ball asking me to shoot.”

By the time college recruiting came around, Howard had plenty of suitors. Schools like Tennessee and South Carolina were eager to sign her, but she didn’t want to go through the recruitment process. Howard was confident that she would go to Florida, where Avery went, and play for her mother’s former teammate, Amanda Butler.

Growing up, Howard spent plenty of days on campus, painting her nails with Butler and dreaming of the day she’d play at her mom’s alma mater.

But Avery wasn’t having it. She’d been through college basketball herself, and knew how fickle it could be. If something happened, and Butler was no longer the coach, she asked Howard, would you still want to go to Florida?

Howard said yes, but Avery was not convinced. So she persuaded her daughter to go through recruitment.

“I said, ‘In the end, if you chose Florida, that’s a great choice,” Avery said. “It will be a great choice because it’s your choice. But don’t go just because you know it.”

Avery had Howard make pros and cons lists of every school she was considering. From the obvious: coaches, campus, style of play, to the not so obvious, like what kind of shoes the team wears. Howard, for the record, is a Nike girl. And Kentucky, for the record, is a Nike school. It didn’t come down to the shoes, though.

“I could visually see what they had going on,” Howard said. “They were going through kind of a tough time when I was getting recruited and I was like, ‘Yeah, I have to go here. I have to make a name for myself and for Kentucky. I have to be able to change the program.’”

Since she committed, Howard has been making a name for herself. She’s set essentially every record you can think of, and even some you can’t. On her senior day, Howard set a program mark for the most 3-pointers in a half with six, and the most in a game with eight.

She’s second all-time on Kentucky’s scoring list, and the guard helped propel her team to an SEC Tournament title with 10-straight wins to end the season and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats earned a 6-seed and will take on Princeton on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET.

Howard’s legacy as a Kentucky great is already cemented, regardless of what happens in the tournament.

“I didn’t envision that I’d have this much of an impact,” she said. “But I’m really proud of myself, and I’m grateful to have brought some more attention to Kentucky. It’s a really good place, and there are people around me who deserve to be noticed.”

For Avery, it’s hard to envision what’s next for her daughter. Her career at Kentucky has been historic, and the WNBA is in sight. She knows Howard wants to end her time in a Wildcat uniform with a deep tournament run. But whatever happens, one thing is for sure: The basketball community knows Rhyne Howard, and it always will.

“It’s so surreal,” Avery said. “My daughter is a household name.”

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.