Fluid, effortless and easy – that’s how Central Methodist University (Fayette, Mo.) assistant women’s basketball coach Greg Ray describes recent signee Dajonee “Ne Ne” Hale. But for the Houston (Alaska) 5-foot-7 star guard, the path to landing a basketball scholarship was anything but smooth.
Hale was homeless for part of her high school career. Sometimes she bounced to and from various friends’ houses. Sometimes, Hale said, she didn’t have anywhere to stay.
“I just fell off completely,” said Hale, who didn’t discuss the specifics of how she became homeless. “I’d hopefully see somebody I knew and asked for money. I wasn’t really doing anything to support myself.”
Hale’s undoing was a sharp shift from when she was a standout player for the invite-only Alaska Lady Hoops. The elite travel team took her to Seattle, Arizona and Illinois, and Hale quickly stood out as an eighth grader among her junior and senior high school teammates.
“It was amazing to watch that girl work,” said Ray, who coached the Alaska Lady Hoops team before accepting a position at Central Methodist while Hale was in high school. “It was as though she was born with a basketball in her hand.”
At age seven, Hale, a self-described tomboy, started playing pick-up ball with her brother and his friends. Throughout her youth, Hale continued to play with guys for up to three hours at a time after school at the Boys & Girls Club.
Hale arrived at East (Anchorage) her freshman year and played on the varsity team. But during her sophomore season, she started skipping school twice a week. Hale had lost contact with Ray and was apathetic about grades. She said she barely met the academic requirements to play. The following year, she stopped going to school and playing basketball altogether.
“She had it rough coming up,” Ray said. “As a result, when times got hard, she didn’t feel like she could trust people and started doing her own thing.”
When Hale eventually connected with an aunt in Wasilla, the two made a deal. So long as Hale went to school, kept up her grades and stayed out of trouble, her aunt would provide a roof.
Hale enrolled at nearby Burchell, an alternative high school serving at-risk youth. According to principal Adam Mokelke,more than half of Burchell students are classified as homeless. Mokelke said if a student does not live with his or her parent(s), he or she technically falls into the category of homeless or unaccompanied youth.
The transition was difficult, but successful.
“I’m actually doing something,” Hale said. “A lot of people want to support me. It feels really good.”
Part of that support system includes Michelle Overstreet, Hale’s graduation coach. Along with Mokelke, Overstreet helped petition for Hale’s athletic eligibility when she expressed interested in getting back on the court.
As a fifth-year senior, Hale was almost prohibited from playing. According to the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) — the regulating body for Alaska high school sports — students are limited to four years of athletic eligibility.
Unexpectedly, the ASAA granted Hale’s request. Since Burchell doesn’t offer sports programs, Halejoined Houston’s girls basketball team, commuting 20 minutes to practice by bus or sometimes catching a ride with her aunt or coach.
During Hale’s debut for the Hawks last December, she posted 33 of the team’s 65 points in a win over Cordova. In March, Hale was instrumental in getting her team to the quarterfinals of the 3A state championship.
“She’s a program-changer,” Ray said. “Ne Ne is a floor general. She’s sneaky fast. She can get the ball, come up the floor, see where everybody is and get you in a position to do something productive.”
Since enrolling at Burchell, Hale has maintained a 4.0 GPA. She expects her cumulative GPA – which is weighed down by her missed year of school – to reach 2.75 by the time she graduates.
“I wouldn’t even think about skipping now,” Hale said. “Skipping is… just not me.”
Hale said she’s surprised by her academic and athletic successes, considering it was non-existent the year prior. But ask her future college coach, and he’s anything but surprised.
“That girl is so smart it freaking amazes me,” Ray said. “It’s a testament to the type of person she is. She’s a genuinely good-hearted young lady who wants to do well at whatever it is she’s involved with.
“We’ve only scratched the surface with her. If she develops the way that I expect her to, Ne Ne could very well play at the next level overseas. Maybe she even develops into a the type of player who can go into the WNBA.”