Alabama resident LaQueena Douglas would wake up at 5 a.m. and check on her three daughters. She’d expect to find them sleeping, which would be true for two of them, but not for Aaliyah Nye.
“It’s a habit to look in everybody’s room to make sure everybody’s good, but Aaliyah would be gone,” Douglas said. “I’d be looking for her around the house and then I would look out the back window and she’d be back there at the little mini basketball court that we had, shooting baskets.”
Nye, now a senior at East Lansing High School, has taken basketball much further than the mini court she once played on. During her four years at East Lansing, she has made a name for herself as the team’s top defender and finished as the runner-up for Michigan Miss Basketball 2020.
But it wasn’t always basketball. Nye enjoyed other activities as a child, including soccer and tap dancing, and it wasn’t until middle school that she discovered her potential in basketball.
“When I was little, my mom didn’t focus on one sport for us. She let us explore what we wanted to do,” Nye said. “I wasn’t really good at soccer, or dancing or anything like that. I was actually better at basketball than both of those sports.”
Nye said her first memory of playing basketball wasn’t even on a court or with a team. She was in her yard, shooting baskets for fun through the hoop in that same mini court her mom watched her on each morning.
She played on her first basketball team in sixth grade through a community recreational center in her home state of Alabama. She then played on her middle school team before joining her first competitive travel team in eighth grade.
“I just played,” Nye said. “I didn’t really think ‘Oh, I’m going to play in college’ or ‘I’m going to make this something big and I’m going to play in the WNBA,’ (or anything) like that.”
Then, she moved to East Lansing.
The season of the sisters
It was her freshman year and East Lansing High School was playing its rival, DeWitt. On the court stood three siblings, Aaliyah, her twin sister Aashawnti and their older sister Aazhenii.
Down by two points with 48 seconds left, the Trojans and the Nye sisters ran one final play to secure their victory. Aazhenii Nye took the ball from coast to coast, sank a layup to tie it and drained a free throw afterward to secure the win.
It was a standout moment for Aazhenii Nye, but not because she had scored the buzzer-beating shot against her team’s rival, it was the fact that she was doing it with her sisters by her side.
“That was the most memorable moment because DeWitt was our rival and it was a good experience to have not only for me, but with my sisters on the team it made it perfect,” Aazhenii Nye said. “I was really excited to have my sisters on the same team as me. I think it made us more competitive as far as pushing each other and trying to be better. That season was probably my favorite season.”
Aashawnti Nye said that the competitive aspect that came with playing alongside her sisters was both the biggest challenge and greatest advantage of that season they spent together.
“In practices we would try to be the best one in everything that we did,” Aashawnti Nye said. “When one of us was behind on a sprint or something, you heard one of our sisters say ‘Keep going, you got this,’ and I feel like, as a sister, we knew what each other were capable of.”
Although the sisters all participated in the same sports growing up, Douglas said this season at East Lansing was the first time her three daughters played on the same team, wearing the same jersey and practicing day in and day out next to each other.
“Not many siblings get that opportunity,” Douglas said. “Aaliyah having a twin, they’ve always played together, but then when they got to high school they had the opportunity to play with the older sibling. Now that was a really special moment because they’ve never had the opportunity to play on the same team with each other.”
It was special, especially when Aashawnti and Aazhenii Nye moved back to Alabama, leaving the sisters separated for Aaliyah and Aashawnti’s final two years of high school.
Although the separation was a change for the sisters, and especially the twins, Aashawnti Nye said the time apart helped Aaliyah Nye improve as a player and a leader on the court.
“When we all first started playing together Aaliyah was more of the quiet sister,” Aashawnti Nye said. “After we left, it gave her the opportunity to be more independent and that really helped her in her basketball career. She really stepped up and she was a leader for the team.”
Planning for the future
In addition to playing at East Lansing, Aaliyah Nye played on the Michigan Storm, one of Michigan’s top AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams. Her coaches at Michigan Storm played a large role in Aaliyah’s recruitment process, helping her start it off during her sophomore year with an offer from the University of Detroit Mercy.
“I was like, dang, I got my first Division I offer, this is crazy,” Aaliyah Nye said. “After that I got more and more offers coming in and at one point I was so nervous.”
Aaliyah Nye wanted to choose a school with academic advantages. As a 3.9 GPA student, she said she plans to become an engineer and wanted a school that could help her achieve that goal just as much as it could her goals as an athlete.
As the 10th best engineering school in the nation, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ultimately landed Nye’s commitment.
“You’re picking somewhere that you’re going to go to for the next four years and you just want to make it the best decision. I took my visit and I really connected with Illinois because their coaching staff is just wonderful and the campus is so nice,” Nye said. “I want to help rebuild the program there because I feel like I can be a big part of that … another big thing was I want to be an engineer and that’s one of their top majors.”
An abrupt ending in an uncertain time
Four more games.
That’s how many Aaliyah Nye and her East Lansing team had before they could have made it to the 2020 State Finals.
On March 12, the day the Michigan High School Athletic Association suspended sports due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Aaliyah Nye was getting ready for a game.
“It didn’t really hit me that day, I felt like I was living the dream. I was thinking, ‘Oh wait, we’re gonna play, this can’t be happening,’” Aaliyah Nye said. “All the seniors, we worked so hard in our four years just to come to this season because we really had a shot this season. It was just heartbreaking and I know how bad Coach Smith wanted it, too.”
On April 3, the association announced the official cancellation of spring sports, meaning Aaliyah Nye’s senior season was over and she wouldn’t get one last chance at achieving her final goal.
“This year one of the goals that she really, really wanted to accomplish was winning that championship and being able to say that she played with a group of girls that were able to accomplish that,” Douglas said. “When they didn’t get to finish that season, that was pretty disheartening because we were all looking forward to it.”
But there were other goals that Douglas said her daughter accomplished. To score 1,000 points … Aaliyah Nye had 1,192. To find a school that would benefit her academically and athletically … how about one of the top engineering schools in the country. Become Michigan Miss Basketball … she got the runner-up.
It’s these small goals and accomplishments that Douglas said truly prove Aaliyah Nye’s legacy at East Lansing and beyond.
“When you win championships you really win them for yourself,” Douglas said. “Then there’s also the onlookers, the outside visual, a confirmation of how great or how good you are in a sense. But when you set individual goals and achieve them throughout the season or throughout the years, those are memories you can hold on to and you cherish those more. You don’t ever have to prove anything to anyone. You just prove it to yourself.”