Sabrina Keys remembered receiving her first three form letters from college basketball programs when she was in the eighth grade. Her first hand-written letter came as the Berkeley High basketball standout started her sophomore season. Since then it’s been a steady stream of letters, visits to college campuses and, as Keys estimated, conversations with more than 50 schools.
“I can’t even tell you where that first letter was from,” said Keys, who last month committed to Purdue for the 2002-03 season. “They all send so much information.”
With college plans now finalized, the ’Jackets’ 6-foot-1 senior forward can devote her full attention to leading one of Northern California’s top girls’ basketball teams, which has competed in the state championship game the last two seasons. Berkeley lost to Narbonne High 48-45 in last year’s final – the second straight year the Harbor City-based Gauchos defeated the ’Jackets in the title game at ARCO Arena in Sacramento.
“We basically won that game,” Keys said, referring to last year’s contest. “But with 18 seconds left and the game tied, the referee called a cheap offensive foul. It was like the game was stripped from us.”
Listening to Keys talk, it’s obvious that the disappointing loss is still fresh in the team’s collective mind, possibly providing an extra bit of motivation to help Berkeley clear that final hurdle this season.
“We’re going to take it this year,” she said emphatically.
As the tallest player on the ’Jackets’ team last season, Keys retained her familiar position in the post and helped the ’Jackets compile a 27-6 record by averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. This season, however, Berkeley welcomed 6-foot-3 freshman Devanei Hampton to bump and bang inside.
“I’ve been helping her out on defense,” Keys said. “She reminds me of myself a lot, but taller. She’s very aggressive and is playing really well.”
Keys moved to the power forward spot to make room for Hampton and can now utilize her dribbling ability and drive to the basket or pop a shot from the outside.
While Hampton gives Berkeley added height, the ’Jackets also need to fill the hole left by Robin Roberson, last year’s leading scorer who graduated and now plays for the Arizona Wildcats. As a senior, Keys will be counted on to keep the team dominant.
“Fundamentally (Keys’) game is very sound,” said Berkeley coach Gene Nakamura. “She’s also a warrior. She’ll go out and battle and isn’t afraid to get physical.”
Keys’ ultimate plan is to have her game mimic that of her favorite player: Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal.
“I love how aggressive and how powerful he is,” Keys said, who like Shaq, dons jersey No. 34. “If I was dunking I would do it like him. He’s just so big and unstoppable. I plan on being like that one day – unstoppable.”
Keys traced her aggressive roots on the court to the fourth grade. Without a girls’ basketball team, the elementary school boys’ coach recruited her to play on his team. At the time Keys was the tallest girl at her school, but she still gave up some height to a handful of her new teammates.
“I played on the all-boys team in the fourth and fifth grades,” Keys said. “I think that’s what got me so aggressive. I was out there yelling and playing like a boy.”
While merely a sixth-grader, Keys played on a summer travel team made up of high school sophomores and juniors.
“I was horrible when I played on that team,” Keys said. “My parents used to come to games and wonder what I was doing. I was really bad, but I got better because I played (with older players).”
Indeed, she got much better. Heavily recruited by schools in the Pac-10, Big-10 and several other conferences, Keys found she could write her own collegiate ticket.
“I had offers to go just about anywhere,” Keys said. “I knew that I didn’t want to play in the Pac-10. That’s just not my style of ball.”
The Pac-10, she said, characteristically showcases athletic guards rather than power forwards and centers. As such, Keys said that the conference tends to “call every little foul” and doesn’t let the bigger bodies play their game.
“I want to bang inside,” she said.
So the San Francisco native signed with Big 10 powerhouse Purdue, not only because the school suited her style of play, but also because Keys admired the coaching staff.
“They were the only ones I could communicate with as if they were friends,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere that made me feel like it was a home.”
A successful basketball program didn’t hurt either. Purdue, which won the national title in 1999, finished last season with a 31-7 record before losing to Notre Dame, 68-66, in the final. The Boilermakers are ranked No. 7 this season.
“I think I would have chosen them because of their coaches even if they weren’t champions,” Keys said. “I’m not saying I would have gone there if they were horrible, but probably if they were just an OK team.”
Nakamura, who has coached Keys since her freshman year, described his star forward as an “all-around player” who has worked hard on improving her offense this season.
“She’s always been a great post defender,” he said, “but now she’s increased her shooting range and is driving to the basket better. She’s a very versatile player.”
And as for overall talent?
“She’s right up there,” Nakamura said. “I’ve had a lot of good post players, but Sabrina is as tough as anyone and plays as hard as anyone. She’s just a joy to coach.”