It began with a picture. A picture and a promise.
No sooner had Essence Townsend stepped off the train two summers ago when she was whisked away to College Park, straight to an ice cream social for University of Maryland athletes. The Terrapins women’s basketball players typically mingle with the men, and this afternoon was no exception. Townsend and her teammates saddled up to their friends, when among the crowd she noticed a new head peering across the fray.
Townsend, the women’s team’s tallest player at 6 feet 7, first introduced herself to Alex Len. She spoke slow and loud, emphasizing her syllables so the 7-1 freshman could understand her, even though he barely knew any English and had just arrived in the United States, fresh off a plane from his native Ukraine. As Townsend chatted away, one of her teammates snapped a picture. Townsend grew furious.
“Why’d you do that?” she said. “You better delete that right now.”
Her teammates were laughing. Tianna Hawkins, a Maryland forward and the rogue photographer, was more predictive.
“That’s going to be your future man,” she said.
Townsend will sit beside Len on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., watching as NBA Commissioner David Stern steps to the lectern and reads her boyfriend’s name.
She was a junior when Len arrived, wide-eyed and nervous over assimilating into the American college life. They passed each other in the Comcast Center hallways, and he always said hello. Sometimes, when the women’s team exited practice and the men were stretching in the hallway, Len offered a high-five. Soon, as 21st-century relationships tend to do, they began talking on Facebook. Eventually, Len asked her to hang out. They kept pushing back the dates, but when it finally happened, they talked for eight hours straight. “From there, every single day, we hung out,” she said.
Len’s teammates told Townsend that he was into her, but she never believed it until that first time they hung out.
“He said, ‘I like you,’ ” Townsend said. “I said: ‘I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to say I hate you, but I don’t really know you like that.’
“He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to get to know each other.’ ”
One of Townsend’s favorite movie is “Love & Basketball,” the 2000 romantic drama that’s become a cliché for every hoops-related romance since. The film is separated into four quarters, mimicking a basketball game, each section representing a different challenge for the on-screen couple. First, it’s meeting. Next comes high school. Then college. Finally, the professional level.
It’s this final transition that looms ahead like an ominous cloud for Len and Townsend. Except these two are storm chasers. They’ll drive straight into the eye together. Townsend will stay at Maryland. A torn ACL during a preseason scrimmage last season gave her one final season. Friends sometimes wonder why she wouldn’t just follow Len into the NBA, especially as she earned her bachelor’s degree in family sciences.
“Some people say I’m so stupid,” she said. “No, I’m going to finish what I started here and let him get started there and we’ll see where we’re at. I think that would be too big of a step. I want him to get adjusted to his new life, just like he had to get adjusted here.”