For family and nation

Forward Summer Hemphill discusses family, accomplishments and growing up in Buffalo

summer3

It’s hard to stand out on a team with 25 wins in the regular season and a roster stockpiled with talent. With names like Sarah Reid, Cassie Oursler, Katherine Ups and Cierra Dillard already on the women’s basketball roster, strong performances can come from any player on any night.

But the talent of Summer Hemphill has everyone on the team talking.

Hemphill, a sophomore forward, has become one of the Bulls’ (25-4, 16-2 Mid-American Conference) strongest players, already setting school records this season. Hemphill, who has lived in Buffalo all her life, showed early promise in basketball and has only improved as time went on. With two years left at UB, the Seneca Nation member has players, coaches and family talking about how much she can still improve.

The journey to UB

Hemphill played sports other than basketball growing up, but that didn’t stop her from excelling at an early age.

“The thing is with Summer, if she is going to try something you just have to expect her to be good at it,” said her mother, Tina Kettle. “She has just always been able to pick up on anything and have a natural talent for it. She didn’t even start playing basketball until she was 10.”

Hemphill started her basketball career in fifth grade when she was attending the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, a school for students in grades five through 12. Kettle said when her daughter started playing, she could tell Hemphill was talented and tried to push her to pursue the sport further.

By the time Hemphill was in eighth grade, she had already joined the school's varsity team, but said she didn’t take basketball seriously until she transferred to Cardinal O’Hara after sophomore year.

Hemphill led the Hawks to a Monsignor Martin Association Championship and was named the All-Catholic player of the year as a senior. She was also named to the All-Western New York teams in both her seasons at Cardinal O’Hara. She said her time at O’Hara turned her into a player who could attract the eyes of college recruiters.

But the first time Bulls head coach Felisha Legette-Jack saw Hemphill play in person, she was unimpressed. She was not recruited for the 2016-17 season.

“The first time I went out to see her play, I just didn’t see it,” Legette-Jack said. “My coaches went out to see her, too, and they didn’t push to sign her either.”

Legette-Jack continued recruiting. In February, she decided to reconsider Hemphill after talking to her high school coaches. Legette-Jack attended one of Hemphill’s final games of the season in a sectional against the Bishop Kearney Kings.

Something had changed, according to Legette-Jack.

“I watched her play, and there is something so magical about her,” Legette-Jack said. “The way she went out on the court, the way she played, the way she demanded from her teammates. I just thought, ‘I need to have this kid. This kid is the one.’”

It was a performance Hemphill remembers vividly. She said she made it her mission to have a strong game.

“My high school coach just told me that coach [Legette-]Jack was going to come and watch me play at Bishop Kearney and that I needed to do what I do best and just go all-out, and that’s what I did,” Hemphill said.

After the game, Legette-Jack went to Hemphill’s coaches and discussed bringing her to UB despite it being late in the recruiting process. A few days later, Hemphill called Legette-Jack to let her know she was interested, and from there, Hemphill became a Bull.

Hemphill now holds the school rebound record for a single game and has had performances “on the same level as the U.S. national team,” according to Legette-Jack.

Before basketball

Hemphill was born and raised in Buffalo and grew up in the house her grandfather, Alvin Walker, built near Martin Luther King Jr. Park. She was the second-youngest in a family of 10 and developed a close relationship with her younger brother, Justin.

“They were always competitive growing up,” Kettle said. “They would always be outside doing something. You have to remember that Summer was three years older, so she took the older sister role very seriously.”

Hemphill said she would beat her brother in every game they played. She credits those early days playing sports with her brother for her competitive drive. Hemphill said growing up in Buffalo was a great experience and feels blessed to be able to stay in the area for her college career.

“A lot of my family and friends come out to all the home games, and that support is invaluable,” Hemphill said. “I see a lot of the other players who can’t have family here, … but I am blessed to have all these family and friends make it to all the games.”

Family support has always been a constant for Hemphill. She grew up near members of both sides of her family. Kettle recalled coaches from multiple sports complimenting Hemphill on her natural ability, even at a young age.

“They were going to have Summer play football because the coach thought she just had the natural arm for it,” Kettle said. “They didn’t have girls on the team, and they wanted her for quarterback.”

That natural ability didn’t stop at sports. She even pursued dance early in her life.

“Just one day she wanted to try dancing. … We signed her up for a recital and I got her the outfit she needed,” Kettle said. “When she was done, they wanted her for the program. They couldn’t stop talking about the way she moved.”

In the Bulls’ practice on Monday, Hemphill did pirouettes when not involved in drills.

Seneca heritage

Hemphill and Kettle are enrolled members of the Seneca Nation. Kettle said that while raising Summer, she would stress the importance of her heritage and tell her to take pride in where her family came from.

“The whole Seneca Nation is rooting for Summer,” Kettle said. “Everyone is just so excited with what she is doing.”

This past summer, the Bulls held a combine on the Seneca Nation reservation for kids interested in playing basketball. Hemphill said she feels family isn’t just an important value, but important to her growth as a person. She said without her family, she would not have the drive to to play every game to the best of her ability.

“I feel like my game represents my family on both sides,” Hemphill said. “They are really proud of what I am doing and want me to keep going.”

Hemphill stressed that she tries to represent friends as well as blood relatives. She said she feels all the people who have helped her in her basketball career are now part of her family. The growth Hemphill has experienced while playing basketball, she added, has been the most important of her life.

Growing as a Bull

Upon Hemphill’s arrival, the coaching staff had plans to establish her into the team’s fold. Legette-Jack said Hemphill struggled to find confidence early on, playing only a few minutes in her first games as a Bull.

Hemphill said she lost her confidence from high school when she first arrived at UB. She said it was hard to find time between practice, classes, a mandatory 10 hours of study hall and seeing her family.

Hemphill still managed to impress in her freshman year, starting in 10 games last season. Hemphill said as time went on, things became easier for her when she began “just trying to fit in and go with the flow.”

“With coach [Legette-]Jack always pushing me to be better, I feel like it started to come back,” Hemphill said. “Even now I still feel my confidence is growing.”

This season, however, Hemphill took her game to another level.

Hemphill had 23 rebounds Feb. 24 against the Ohio Bobcats –– the most rebounds recorded by a male or female UB basketball player in a single game since UB joined Division I.

Hemphill was putting strong numbers up all season, averaging 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. It was her play in February that elevated her profile, as she improved to 12.5 points and 9.3 rebounds a game during that month.

The success Hemphill has was something she never expected.

“Coming out on the court, I am just grateful I can play and try to take advantage of it,” Hemphill said. “The thoughts had never come across my mind that I would be starting or getting that many boards.”

When she broke the record, Hemphill said she thought she only had 10 rebounds until the game was over and she saw the actual number.

The Bulls have had a strong season to match Hemphill’s, already setting the program’s record for wins in a season and winning the MAC East division. The team is in the MAC tournament, which began Wednesday and ends Saturday.

Hemphill’s teammates believe her full potential remains untapped.

“She is just incredible. I have never met somebody with such God-given talent,” said senior guard Stephanie Reid. “I know that with even more hard work, she will prove to be amazing.”

Her teammates have not just praised Hemphill for her talent, but also for her attitude off the court.

“I love Summer. She is a great person and a great teammate,” Reid said. “Her laugh is just infectious, and her sneezes are so loud they will wake the whole bus up in the middle of a trip.”

Hemphill said she felt the team become closer over the summer, growing not just as players but as people. She said the team wants to do the best for each other now, which has been the biggest change from last season. It is a sentiment shared by senior center Cassie Oursler, who considers Hemphill “somebody everybody has to look out for.”

“I don’t think she fully knows how good she is or can be,” Oursler said. “She is unstoppable when she is on her game. I envy that.”

Oursler said she is unable to fathom how good Hemphill could be after two more years learning from Legette-Jack.

Hemphill looks at her time at UB as part of a bigger learning experience. She said her experience at the university has started her transition to adulthood.

With a strong season behind Hemphill, Leggette-Jack said it is now about trying to help Hemphill reach her potential.

“You can already see how good Summer is. We are trying to get everyone to see how great she can be,” Legette-Jack said. “I’ll tell you — look at these next two years. This is one of the best talents to walk into this school, and we now have a chance to see this young woman grow and do great things.”

Thomas Zafonte is the senior sports editor and can be reached at thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com and @Thomas_Spectrum.