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Mater Dei's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis gets advanced training

The 15-year-old sophomore has devoted herself to working on her basketball skills with her stepfather since she was 9, and results have been impressive.

February 06, 2009|Melissa Rohlin

Watching her now it's hard to imagine that any team would reject her.

Five feet 10 inches tall. Compact. Strong.

When she moves over the basketball court, she seems to glide. Effortless.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is among the nation's top girls' basketball players, a silky-smooth shooter who is the leading scorer on the top-ranked team in the country.

But there was a time, not too long ago really, that the Mater Dei High sophomore didn't make a team that she desperately wanted to join.

A recreation league all-star team.

She was 9 years old at the time.

Passed over by the team -- she had a bad habit of dribbling the ball off her knees -- she was crestfallen. She came home crying.

It was then that her stepfather, Khairi Ali, made her an offer that changed her life.

Basically it was: You want to be a real ballplayer? Then commit to being one.

"I told her, 'If you're going to do this, we're going to do this all the way. Give me a six months' evaluation. See how I train you. And if you don't like it, we'll stop,' " he says.

They're still going.

It started with the 9-year-old making 9 p.m. weeknight trips to the gym to dribble, shoot and ride a stationary bike. Then, on weekends, she jumped rope and used pile boxes for speed and agility drills.

Kaleena's mother, Sundy, was skeptical. The time her daughter was devoting to training wasn't the problem. "At first I was concerned whether it was something she wanted to do," she says. "I played softball when I was younger year-round, every day. . . . I just wanted to make sure she loved it."

She soon was convinced. Kaleena was placed in a variety of sports programs, yet kept coming back to her first love -- basketball.

By age 11, daughter and father were waking up before 5 three mornings a week, running sand dunes while other bleary-eyed kids watched cartoons.

Ali would wake her without a word. She'd open her eyes and they'd be off. "I put on my iPod and pushed myself. When she saw me, a man over twice her age pushing himself, she would push herself," Ali says.

He had been an athlete, a soccer player whose career was cut short by an injury. Now a firefighter, he says, choking up a bit, that his life "revolves around Kaleena."

"I didn't promote in the fire department. I could have been a captain or an engineer," he says, "but I said, 'Kaleena, you are more important.' "

She feels his commitment. Her mother's too. An only child, she abhors the thought of letting her loved ones down by not performing to her capabilities.

It has happened before.

There was a rough stretch of games, not this year, when Kaleena says she played "horrible."

Her parents became angry.

"If I didn't play basketball, you wouldn't be mad at me and we wouldn't be fighting like this," she told them.

But they weren't upset about the basketball.

"They said, 'If you're going to give up on the court, then you could give up on something in your life,' " she recalls. "Basketball isn't just a game. You can take a lot of things about basketball and put them into real life."

Her parents demand excellence. Basketball is just the medium she chose.

"My parents always say, 'If you're not playing basketball, you're going to be doing something,' " she says. " 'You're going to be a professional violinist, or playing tennis, or golf, or something.' "

Kaleena has career aspirations all right, but not what you might expect.

Yes, she hopes to lead Mater Dei to a couple of championships -- the top-rated Lady Monarchs (24-0) host No. 3 Cajon tonight at 7:30 -- and she hopes to make the U.S. team for that 2012 Olympics, but after that . . .

She'd like to be a pediatrician.

"I don't want to play basketball forever," she says.

For now, though, she plays with feverish intensity. The game still excites her. She has room to grow and improve.

Still only 15, she is a Mater Dei team captain, taking a leadership role with older players while scoring at a clip of 24.5 points per game.

She's used to it, though. When she was 12 she played on an elite club team with 16- and 17-year-old girls. "I had to grow up faster than a lot of other kids," she says.

Just don't call her a basketball machine.

She wants you to know she has other interests. Music. Movies. Hanging out with her friends. Reading.

Suddenly animated, she eagerly describes the theme of her favorite book, "The Invisible Man." The main character? He had his own set of challenges.

"Even though you may think things are going bad, and even though you may feel sorry for yourself, there's always going to be something good at the end of the day," she says, summing up the moral of the story.

The Invisible Man found happiness.

So has she.

She is a basketball phenom performing under watchful and critical eyes. She trains hard. She makes sacrifices. But she doesn't second-guess.

"I've pictured my life without basketball and it'd be boring," she says.

"I wouldn't change anything. I like my life the way it is."


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