Fort Drum teen attends elite basketball camp, plays tournament in Bahamas
August 31, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Fantasy basketball means drafts, league settings and countless hours of evaluating statistics. But for one Fort Drum teen, it means playing hoops in a tropical paradise surrounded by palm trees, exotic foods and panoramic vistas painted peach, aquamarine and flamingo pink.
Local basketball sensation Larissa "Nikki" Maier dazzled crowds down in the Bahamas this month after a group of NBA trainers, noting her smooth ball-handling wizardry, singled her out to attend an elite camp in Florida followed by a trip overseas.
It all began in her junior year at General Brown High School in Dexter. Nikki, the 17-year-old daughter of Chief Warrant Officer 3 David R. Maier Jr., a former criminal investigator at Fort Drum, received a letter stating she was selected to represent the U.S. at an international level.
"We did not know the price at first," said Nikki's mother, Sue Maier, a civilian employee at Fort Drum's Directorate of Resource Management. "The letter just said she was selected and would play in Switzerland, Brazil, the Bahamas or Costa Rica. We thought it would be an awesome opportunity."
The unusual invitation came from Sportek Events, a North Carolina-based organization that boasts NBA-level training for talented young players.
Nikki, a point guard, is known not only for her play at General Brown, but also for her playmaking finesse with the St. Lawrence / Jefferson Pioneers, a traveling all-star team of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
Off the court, Nikki is an honor roll student, already enrolled in three college-level courses for her senior year.
She also has diligently worked part-time during the school year and throughout the summer.
After receiving the letter in February, Nikki and her mom attended an informational meeting in Syracuse, where Sportek representatives explained the program in detail, including the exposure students would receive from college scouts and the excitement of playing in a tournament overseas.
Maier said program costs were slowly disclosed. Including training, flights, hotel stays and incidentals, it would be thousands of dollars.
Her parents held a Family meeting over Skype (Nikki's father was in Fort Jackson, S.C., training to be a polygraph examiner).
"I honestly did not think I was going to be able to go," Nikki said. "I looked at the price and said 'Oh well.'"
Even so, her parents knew their daughter's talent, and were committed to working out the details.
"Nikki was keenly aware of the financial difficulty this opportunity could pose for us as a Family," David Maier said. "So, instead of sitting back and letting her mother and I scrounge together every penny we could, she saved all of her hard-earned money to help offset this financial burden -- an accomplish- ment in and of itself for the average teenager."
Welcome to paradise
In late July, Nikki boarded a plane for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she and some 300 other high school students from around the country trained for two days before being dispatched to play in weeklong tournaments against all-star teams in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Bahamas.
Nikki and nearly 90 other girls went to the Caribbean.
Their tournament, called the Bahamas Blue Marlin International Basketball Tournament, kicked off on their second day in Nassau, so Nikki spent the first day getting settled, going to the beach and visiting Paradise Island.
Mornings in the Bahamas involved intensive training, while afternoons consisted of at least two tournament games at courts located in city schools and universities.
David Walden, Nikki's coach, said he watched her game and leadership qualities notably improve.
"Nikki is the type of player that any coach would love to have on their team," Walden said. "Teammates loved having Nikki out on the floor, not only as a teammate, but also as a leader.
"As a college coach (myself), those two key elements, I believe, every college coach looks for in recruiting an athlete," he added regarding her future.
Professional strength and conditioning coach Alan Stein worked with Nikki and her teammates in Florida and the Bahamas.
In addition to one-on-one training, players received invaluable information in on-court tactics and strategies.
"I have a lot of stuff written down in my notebook," Nikki said. "We had classes with the trainers every day."
After an intense five days of tournament play, Nikki's team went into their final game undefeated.
They lost in the finals to a powerhouse Bahamian team, 53-52, but each member of the team returned to the U.S. with a "silver" medal and memories to last a lifetime.
"It was probably one of my best experiences of my life," Nikki said. "Especially my team, they were really fun to play with, and we got along on and off the court."
Sue Maier said whenever Nikki sent emails from the Bahamas, she could "hear the excitement in her voice."
"Her team was really communicating and playing really well together," Maier said. "They had a real connection, being that they did not know each other. It says a lot about how far she has come."
Growing up a competitor
Nikki's mother said her future basketball star knew how to "play the game" early in life. Nikki was walking by nine months and putting herself in time-outs by 18 months.
"She has always caught on very quickly," Sue Maier said. "She picks up on things; she doesn't miss a beat."
At 7, Nikki started playing basketball on an all-boys team at a YMCA near Fort Campbell, Ky.
Maier said even though she held her own, one of the boys constantly picked on her with comments like: 'You're not bad for a girl.'
"One day," Maier recalled, "the coach told that boy: 'She's actually better than you!'"
Maier said it was probably some of those early experiences in the first grade that gave Nikki such a competitive nature.
"And with that comes attitude," Maier said. "She really hated losing.
"Of course, when they would lose, we could see her get upset and not want to talk about it," she added.
Over time, her parents helped her learn good sportsmanship.
"When you get upset, you lose focus," Maier said. "We started re-cording her games so she could watch herself.
"Now, she's an aggressive player, but in a good way," she said. "She's not sloppy."
As someone who has spent her whole life travelling from one Army installation to another, a lot of Nikki's passion, discipline, determination and focus come from her father.
Nikki said she has learned a lot from the man with nearly 20 years in the Army, including his knack for not overreacting and talking things out during frustrating moments at work or conflicts at home.
"He has taught me to do the same on the court," Nikki said. "Someone may not catch my pass or someone may not make the assist. I tell them, 'It's alright -- we'll get it next time.'"
For his part, Maier takes great pride in his daughter's passion for basketball, especially in her drive to excel and become a young woman of character.
"The most rewarding thing as a father is that she has become a better person because of the steps she took towards becoming a better basketball player," he said. "She has taken charge of her life, and while basketball might be the most important thing to her now, nothing else in her life faltered as a result of her focus on this goal.
"Her love for basketball made her a leader," he added. "(Nikki) being a leader and not a follower has always been my dream for her."
Nikki's dream is to continue making her father proud, maybe even following in his footsteps.
After high school, the Syracuse Orange basketball fan hopes to play college ball while she majors in criminology.
Her mother said she will miss Nikki very much when she leaves home next year, but that her daughter's strong-mindedness will help her reach her dreams.
Her father will miss the "heart-to-heart conversations" with his daughter.^More importantly, he said, he will remember how Nikki always "let Dad win a game or two of one-on-one to make the old man think he still has some youth left in him."