Ayanna Patterson, a UConn commit, will play for the East team. (Courtesy of Leslie Palmer)

While Ayanna Patterson has not yet successfully dunked in a sanctioned basketball game, the high school senior has proved she has the talent. A few jaw-dropping videos from warm-ups and personal workouts have captured her slams, drawing thousands of views on Twitter.

The 6-foot-3 Homestead (Fort Wayne, Ind.) forward is quick to laugh off her one in-game dunk attempt — spoiler: she missed — but she’s still grappling with her quick rise to internet stardom after one of those dunking videos went viral on social media. Fewer than 30 dunks have been recorded in WNBA history, and it’s even rarer at the women’s college and high school levels.

“​​I got a lot of following for that — with following, there’s a lot of positive and negative,” Patterson said in a recent interview with Just Women Sports.

The aftermath has been a balancing act. It’s been fun, Patterson said, to hear praise from younger girls and basketball players — one even asked Patterson to be the special guest at her ninth birthday party — but there have also been comments and messages from social media trolls, picking apart her play and her appearance.

“I am able to be like, ‘OK, this is a hate comment, just brush it off,’” Patterson said. “Whatever you’re looking at, you just have to know yourself at the end of the day.”

But with her reach expected to grow as she joins UConn this fall, the 5-star recruit and No. 4-ranked player in the Class of 2022 knows the unsolicited judgment and ugly comments could only intensify.

“As a dad, obviously, you don’t like it; it hurts. People can say mean things,” her father, Andre Patterson said, noting that people have left negative social media comments about her hair, her height and her strength. “She lifts weights and she likes doing that. What’s wrong with that? She’s just in shape, she’s passionate about her sport and she wants to be the best at it.”

A role model

Patterson, a McDonald’s All-American, said she has never been big into social media, but more recently she’s made sure not to check her accounts every day nor direct messages from people she doesn’t know.

“I get the, ‘Oh, she’s not even a girl,’ ‘This isn’t even fair,’” she said. “You always have the freedom to say what you want to say, but sometimes words hurt.

“I always knew that I was going to play basketball. I have the hair — it’s not straight down like every other girl — I’m tall, I’m 6-3. … You always have to remain confident.”

She said she’s grown to love her height and her natural curls, wearing her hair in a mini Afro or puff ball since middle school, but she also knows that there’s still pressure for a lot of girls to straighten their hair or conform to more Eurocentric beauty standards.

“Growing up, I straightened my hair all the time and I honestly hated it just because of how active I was. It was just hard to maintain,” Patterson said. “But being able to keep true to myself and true to my culture by not straightening my hair and keeping my natural curls, and also show girls you don’t have to have straight hair every game. It’s OK to wear your natural curls and embrace them.”

She said since she started rocking her natural hair, a few younger players in Fort Wayne and in her AAU program have followed suit. But she also knows that women’s basketball and most elite sports still have a long way to go, noting that light-skinned players or girls with certain hair styles, usually straight, have secured a disproportionate number of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals.

“Hopefully it changes very fast … and they base it on your playing ability,” Patterson said.

Andre Patterson knows his daughter understands the downfalls of women’s sports, especially at such a high level, but he is proud of how she’s handled the pressure.

“I like the fact she’s comfortable with her Afro and she’s comfortable with herself in her skin,” he said. “They stereotype these young ladies so much, the game is really suffering. But it’s not just her. It’s many girls of color, or many girls. You can be a woman and be a great athlete. Part of what’s wrong with the game is the sexism. I try to explain to ’Yanna, don’t fall into that [thinking].”

Ayanna and her brother Andre Patterson Jr. (Courtesy of Andre Patterson Sr.)

‘A great person’

Despite the negative comments, Patterson turned herself into one of the nation’s most coveted prospects, earning a scholarship offer from legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

“Coming from Indiana, choosing Connecticut felt similar to home,” Patterson said. “You go to an Indiana men’s game and it’s packed stands. It’s the same thing when you go to Connecticut [women’s games]. I felt like I wanted to have that same atmosphere, that same fan base that the men got, and UConn is that equivalent.”

Patterson has lofty goals for her time with the Huskies, including winning four national championships, becoming national player of the year and of course, dunking in a game. But she also admits she’s a bit nervous about keeping up with school work during the season (she hopes to study graphic design), and being away from her family.

Her dad is hardly worried.

“I’ve never had to get on ’Yanna,” Andre Patterson said. “I’ve never had to ask about homework. She’s always been committed and dedicated, more so about school than anything.”

While she’s been a standout player for years — receiving her first Division 1 scholarship offer in eighth grade — her dad has said he’s probably most proud of her admittance into the national honor society, which requires a qualifying GPA as well as community service and demonstrated leadership.

Patterson also wants to be recognized as more than a star basketball player. This summer, she is hoping to plan a 3v3 tournament in Fort Wayne to benefit a local Autism organization, a cause that’s close to her heart because one of her nephews has Autism. In moments like these, when she is working to better her community, the trolls on social media couldn’t be further from her mind.

“I never want to be remembered as just this great basketball player,” Patterson said. “I want to be remembered throughout my community as a great person, great individual. A person who was always willing to give back, always gave 100 percent to what I’m doing, whether it’s basketball, or not.”

Grace Toohey is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously reported for the Orlando Sentinel and The Advocate (Baton Rouge), and has written pieces for The Marshall Project and other news outlets. Follow her on Twitter @Grace_2e.