As the Bishop McNamara players disembarked the bus, some in school uniforms, others in sweats, they gathered on the sidewalk in the close-to-freezing temperatures and walked together, bags in hand, toward Good Counsel’s gym.
Among them was Liatu King, one of the Mustangs’ core starters, a sophomore poised for a Division I basketball future.
The 50-minute drive from Forestville, Md., to Olney was her fourth bus ride of that early February day, but King showed little wear from the daily travel she has become accustomed to since starting high school.
Once inside, King sat in the bleachers and got to work. She had a Western Civilization history assignment to complete and then a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference game to play.
For the 16-year-old from Southeast Washington, who harnessed her athleticism through football, who developed maturity from having two deaf parents and who dreams of earning a basketball scholarship to become the second person in her family to attend college, there was no time to waste.
“She has the spirit of a warrior,” McNamara Coach Frank Oliver said. “That’s what’s allowed her to get through any trials.”
King hasn’t experienced much hardship on the court since arriving at McNamara in 2016. She leads the team in rebounds and blocks this season, flashing physicality against opponents bigger than her 5-foot-11 frame.
After all, jostling in the paint doesn’t compare with tackles King made as an outside linebacker, one of about five positions she played on the football team at Johnson Middle School. Fans still remember King once lowering her shoulder and leveling a running back.
Like football opponents learned not to target her “because she’s a girl and she can’t tackle,” King said, WCAC foes have come to recognize her prowess, too. She totaled 18 rebounds in No. 6 McNamara’s 66-53 loss to No. 1 Paul VI on Jan. 18, in a performance Oliver deemed the best he has seen in the past decade. She followed that up by leading McNamara with 15 points and coming within three blocks of a triple-double in an upset win over the Panthers on Tuesday.
That she has transformed into a prospect with interest from several colleges — North Carolina, N.C. State and Princeton are a few — as she improves her perimeter skills with hopes of playing on the wing in college, King said, stems from her childhood, too.
She learned American Sign Language at 9 months old, the only way she and her sister, Precious, who also lives with their mom, Patricia Opurum, can communicate with her. Her father, David King, who lives in Virginia, is also deaf.
Growing up, Opurum would point to objects, food — anything, really — and then sign the motion to King. Point, sign, repeat.
“Once you show it to somebody five times a day, every day,” King said, “they’re going to start to get it.”
Her mother’s inability to speak pushed King to take her family’s vocal lead — whether, for example, that entailed ordering for everyone at a restaurant or translating conversations to signs during doctors appointments.
By middle school, King didn’t hesitate to engage in hours-long conversations with her coaches after practices. In high school, she is one of the few students, Oliver said, who regularly makes eye contact with teachers during class lessons.
When McNamara offered her a scholarship, King learned the route to school because her mom doesn’t drive: one bus, a short Green Line ride on the Metro and two more buses to arrive a block away. All told, it’s a 50-minute commute. After practices, she waits in the gym for a ride, doing homework to keep her four-quarter straight-A streak intact.
“Her circumstance demands you to be mature,” said Kaitlyn Vaughn, King’s middle school teacher, coach and mentor. “It demands that you are able to do things that kids learn how to do at an older age.”
“I had to help my mom with a lot of things, and me having a younger sister, I had to look out for her,” King said. “I really wasn’t a selfish person, so that probably helped me become the person I am today.”
She finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, one steal and two blocks that night against Good Counsel, and more than 13 hours after leaving for school that morning, King walked out of the gym into the freezing night.
She headed toward the parking lot, eager to make her way home.
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