Asked to share the story of her winding path to a spot on the Washington Mystics’ roster, center Quanitra Hollingsworth waxed poetic:
“In the beginning . . .” she said, before laughing and taking a less dramatic approach.
That Homeric tone may have been appropriate given her story, a global basketball odyssey that took her to college at age 15 and even saw her gain Turkish citizenship to play in the London Olympics. Now her path has wound up in D.C., where she has a chance to build a standout WNBA career near the place where it all began.
Hollingsworth, 24, grew up in Chesapeake, Va., and went to private school at Faith Academy of Excellence in Norfolk. She was an academic prodigy, and schoolwork came so easy to her that “there came a time I wouldn’t have anything to do but become a disruption,” she said.
She took a few tests, and school administrators decided she could bypass the fifth and sixth grades. After finishing what was left of middle school, Hollingsworth headed to Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High and began playing basketball.
“The coach saw my height, said I had great potential,” said Hollingsworth, who was 5-foot-9 as an 11-year old. “You know, the usual.”
Despite her late arrival in the sport, Hollingsworth’s skills developed as she grew to 6-5. She graduated from high school in 2004 and headed to Virginia Commonwealth on a basketball scholarship. She was 15.
“When we had her on campus as a freshman, you knew she was young, but her maturity level didn’t come across as that of a 15-year old,” said former VCU women’s basketball coach Beth Cunningham, now an assistant at Notre Dame.
Except for the cartoon thing.
“We used to joke that she loved to sit there watching cartoons on the weekends,” Cunningham said. “Those were the kind of things where you maybe noticed her age a little bit.”
“Q,” as she’s known to teammates, redshirted her freshman year before putting together a stellar collegiate career. She elevated VCU from the middle of the pack in the Colonial Athletic Association to conference title contender and an NCAA bid.
She was the conference’s defensive player of the year as a senior in 2009 and ended her career as the Rams’ all-time leading rebounder (1,114) and second leading scorer (1,523). That led the Minnesota Lynx to select her ninth in the 2009 draft.
She appeared in 59 games for the Lynx over the next two seasons while pursuing a career abroad in the offseason. After stops in Lithuania, Latvia and Russia, Hollingsworth ended up in Hungary, where she pinged the radar of Turkish national team officials readying their squad for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“They called my agent and he said, ‘They want you,’ ” she said. “I flew into Turkey for a weekend, met a couple faces, and they said, ‘Okay, you seem like a great person. You can contribute. You won’t be somebody that will negatively affect our image.’
“So paperwork done, they stamped it, and now I’m a Turk,” she said with a wry smile.
Nobody in Hollingsworth’s family had ever lived in Turkey, nor had she ever played for a Turkish team, but with her citizenship confirmed she established a place on the country’s national team and headed to the London Games.
“It was a little awkward because USA was in our bracket. So at one point I’m standing across from all them,” she said. “A lot of [the U.S. national team players] are older, more experienced. They just said ‘Q, keep working hard. This is a great opportunity.’ ”
After a quarterfinal loss to Russia in the Olympics, Hollingsworth played for Turkey in the FIBA European Championship, meaning she could not play in the WNBA during the 2012 season. Prior to the 2013 draft, Mystics General Manager and Coach Mike Thibault acquired her rights from the New York Liberty, for whom she had played 31 games and averaged 4.6 points in 2011.
“I just felt she’s still young, she’s got a huge upside to her. It’s hard to find skilled, 6-5 post players,” Thibault said. “She started playing basketball late, went to college early, so now she’s just coming into those years where her biggest development is going to take place.”
In her first month with the Mystics, Hollingsworth has played in two games, still incorporating herself into a roster and rotation that was largely established by the time she returned from Europe.
“I told her, ‘You’re coming in late to a team. There’s not going to be a lot of opportunities right away but be patient,’ ” Thibault said. “I think she’s got a chance to be a great player.”
Hollingsworth, too, sees the potential for a happy ending to her unique story.
“I have a lot of work to do as far as consistency and all that, but I’ve seen myself in spurts where I know I can be a great player,” Hollingsworth said. “With hard work, I’ll get there. Hopefully I end my WNBA career here, we do big things and become a great team.”