There are the past Kayla McPherson stories and the future ones. And the two sides of time’s coin met on the Madison County gym floor Wednesday, with talk of what the Red Raider basketball phenom has done and what’s ahead.
Her future glory will come in Tar Heel blue. That was sealed Wednesday when last year’s national leading scorer penned her commitment to the University of North Carolina in front of a crowd of family, friends, coaches and teachers.
UNC head coach Courtney Banghart spoke on a pre-recorded message from Chapel Hill, telling the Red Raider that she is a “relentless competitor,” that she “plays the game with joy,” and that she “can’t wait to go to battle with you.”
“This is your day,” said Banghart. “Keep playing the game with joy. And keep doing you. It’s a really special thing.”
McPherson’s basketball abilities were obvious early. Her dad, Nashon, remembers the moment he knew his daughter would be a special player.
“I remember it and her mom is going to hate me for saying this,” said Mr. McPherson. “I think she (Kayla) was probably around 9. She was actually in the driveway and we had a rim in our driveway and she did a stepback three on her mother who was dang good player. She hit the three and her mom went in the house immediately and was icing her knee. At this point, I said this girl may have something very, very special. Her mother was a top Division I point guard and a very good player in her own right.”
Both Nashon and Kayla’s mother, Katashia, played basketball at Western Kentucky. Nashon said Katashia “hit many buzzer beaters and had many highlights herself.”
“When Kayla did that stepback on a hard-nosed defender like her mom, that’s when I knew,” he said.
Red Raider girls’ basketball head coach Dan Lampe gave the large crowd at the Nov. 11 signing ceremony a partial list of McPherson’s basketball awards. He said he’s sure the list was incomplete, because there were too many to name. But he noted that Kayla is a McDonald’s All American nominee for this year. She was the 2018-2019 “Gatorade Player of the Year.” She scored 36.2 points per game last year, leading the second highest girls’ basketball player by a considerable margin. She was the 2019-2020 “Georgia Player of the Year.” She was the Region 8-AAAA “Player of the Year” for her sophomore and junior seasons. She is currently second on the Red Raider career scoring list, with 2,159 points, which puts her 511 points behind the decorated Madison County and Tennessee Volunteer star Shelia Collins, who led the Red Raiders to a state title in 1981.
Lampe said the accolades and numbers are unbelievable, but they don’t tell the story about Kayla.
“The numbers don’t even get close to how unbelievable a person she is,” Lampe told the signing-ceremony crowd. “…She gets more joy out of watching teammates score than she does scoring herself. In practice, you just see the joy. She just loves the game. She loves her teammates.”
Red Raider athletic director Mike Haynes said trophies aren’t what’s important, it’s the people.
“My trophies are young men and young women,” he said. “And they don’t ever tarnish and you don’t ever put them on a shelf. They go out and accomplish great things. And we get to look back at them and say, ‘I had a small part in that.’ This is one of the biggest trophies I got. Give a student who not only has an amazing talent but an amazing work ethic, you know that’s a superstar.”
Mr. McPherson said it’s not the basketball but the humility that makes Kayla special.
“It’s a great day,” he said. “Of course, it’s Kayla’s moment. One moment of many to come. I’m very proud of the type of player she has become, but I’ve always been very, very excited and happy to see how humble she is throughout all the accolades, throughout everything she has accomplished. That’s the key ingredient. If you want to really ask what separates her, it’s how humble she is.”
Lampe said Kayla is a special blend of talent, work ethic and character. He remembered the first time he saw McPherson. Her mom had dropped her off at a summer camp at the high school before Kayla started seventh grade.
“We got seniors there and some alumni there coming back and trying to stay in shape and Kayla ran the courts going into seventh grade,” he said. “She’s yelling at them, trap, trap, trap. She’s all over the place, tipping the ball, making layups. And everyone was just like ‘Who is that Coach Lampe? Who is that?’ I don’t even know her last name. Her name is Kayla, her mom dropped her off here and stuff. It was absolutely amazing. I knew from that point on she was going to be something.”
Lampe remembered a summer camp before McPherson’s eighth grade year. Long-time girls’ coach Tony Watkins screamed at his players during a timeout.
“He’s just berating his team,” said Lampe. “And he’s yelling at the top of his lungs, over and over, for the entire timeout, ‘She’s only 12 years old! And she’s killing you!”
Lampe remembered that he met with Kayla prior to her ninth grade year. He told her that she needed to work on her three-point shooting. She told him, “Coach, I’m-a-take-it-to-the-rim player.” Lampe said that’s good, but she needed to expand her game. He said he didn’t realize the beast he created. She worked relentlessly to improve her outside shooting. The two shot every day.
“Fridays I’m wanting to get home,” he said. “I’d text her, we shootin’ today? Oh yeah, we’re shooting today.”
During covid, McPherson would be at the gym at 6 a.m. working on her shot. Lampe said the rare combination of ability, work ethic and character is something to behold.
“I’ll miss the basketball stuff,” he said. “I’ll miss more, just our conversations and seeing her work ethic.”
Kayla’s middle school cross country coach Nathan Herndon echoed that sentiment. He noted that McPherson was a relentless runner and talked about how in cross country events, there’s a bike rider who serves as the “rabbit,” leading the runners on the course. He said the guy could barely stay ahead of her.
“We had to check on the guy on the bike, because he was struggling,” said Herndon.
But the coach said it’s not the athletics that comes to mind first with Kayla.
“I am truly blessed that you are in my life and I in yours,” said Herndon to McPherson. “From our handshake to our hugs, you’ll always be in my heart forever and thank you for impacting my life and I love you and I consider you family.”
Before signing her college commitment, McPherson took the microphone after her coaches spoke. She had index cards with a long list of thank yous and at times she fought off tears, speaking about those who are dear to her. She voiced appreciation to her siblings, Jaye and Landon, for their love and support and for making her laugh. She mentioned “my baby sister up in heaven, Destiny.”
“I know you’re looking down on me and keeping me and the family safe,” she said. “And I love you and miss you so much. And I hope I make you proud.”
She thanked all her family, friends, fans, teachers, the Madison County community. She thanked Madison County coaches.
“You guys really contributed to my development as a player and also as a person,” she said. “I really appreciate everything.”
She remembered her Team Elite Hubbard coach putting a set of keys in her right hand for a whole scrimmage, forcing her to develop her left hand dribbling.
McPherson talked about her decision to go to UNC, noting that the class of 2020-21 hasn’t gotten to visit schools during the recruiting process due to covid, which she said was disappointing. But she said she built a good relationship with Coach Banghart and her staff. She remembered the moment she made a decision.
“We had this one game night and we played Scategory, and it was so much fun and I was like, OK dad, this is probably it right here,” she said. “And I was just really excited about it. I just can’t wait to be officially a Tar Heel.”
McPherson opened by thanking God, but saved her final thanks for her parents.
“I know you are my dad, but me and you are like best friends, too,” she said. “We’re so close and you’ve supported me since I was 4 years old and just picking up a basketball. You’ve helped me develop into the player I am today, all the 5:30 wakeups at your house, going to run 10 miles, or six miles, whatever we used to do, to you driving two hours just to come down here and work me out at 6 in the morning.”
She said she is going to beat her dad one-on-one soon.
“Undefeated,” responded Mr. McPherson.
Kayla got choked up with her final thanks, to her mom, Katashia.
“I know probably all kids say this, I am probably the luckiest kid,” she said. “I got the best mom all around. You have always been there for me, all the things we went through. Eleven-hour road drives to Chicago and back, all the plane rides with you holding my hand, because you know I don’t mess with planes. You’re my toughest critic. Even when I scored 64 points, I asked you what my grade was, you gave me a C+ or something like that. You know the right things to tell me. You always help me when it comes down to that kind of stuff. It can be a packed out gym and literally everyone can only hear you. You’re my support system and I really appreciate you and I love you so much.”
After the ceremony was over, it seemed everybody in the gym wanted their picture with the big-time basketball talent. And McPherson smiled for one photo after another, enjoying the moment.
“It makes me feel like I’m loved and appreciated, to see all these people, all my family, all my friends come out and support my signing,” said Kayla. “It really meant a lot to see them all here.”
But McPherson’s time at MCHS is not done. There’s still one more season in red and gray.
“I think we’re looking good,” she said. “We’re going to shoot for region, shoot for state. We’re still practicing hard. We’ll see how far we get. I’m really excited.”