Between stories, Gwen Pratt-Miller looked down at the court from her seat in Section 101 at Verizon Center last week. The sight of her niece, Washington Mystics rookie guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, running up and down the floor was enough to turn tears into a smile.
Never much of a WNBA fan before, Pratt-Miller hasn’t missed a home game this season. It helps take her mind off the grief that has consumed her since May.
“My son was her biggest fan. He lived his basketball dreams through her,” Pratt-Miller said. “The only part I hate about it is he never got to see her play one professional game, but outside of that, it does help because I love watching her play.
“I believe he’s in here somewhere, too.”
After going undrafted, she was signed by the Mystics and proceeded to wow General Manager-Coach Mike Thibault during training camp. But on May 22, the night Thibault informed Ruffin-Pratt that she had earned a roster spot, she received a 5 a.m. phone call.
Her cousin Julian Dawkins was dead, allegedly shot and killed by an off-duty Arlington deputy sheriff following an argument near Ruffin-Pratt’s home in Alexandria, hours after the family had gotten together to celebrate the good news. Craig Patterson was arrested last month and charged with murder in the case. He has a preliminary hearing in Alexandria on Tuesday.
Dawkins’s death — which happened only five days after the funeral of Ruffin-Pratt’s grandfather, Ulysses — devastated the family. They cope by watching Ruffin-Pratt play professional basketball, if only because that’s what Dawkins would have been doing.
“Everybody deals with it a little differently,” Ruffin-Pratt said after a game last week. “I do it through playing, so it’s a little bit easier for me to play than them to just live it.”
Born just a month and a day apart in 1991, Ruffin-Pratt and Dawkins were “more like brother and sister” because Dawkins was an only child, said Deneen Pratt, Ruffin-Pratt’s mother.
It was Dawkins who first got Ruffin-Pratt interested in basketball, as she felt compelled to tag along when he started playing at Cora Kelly Recreation Center at age 6. The two played on teams together until the eighth grade, with Ruffin-Pratt usually the only girl on a court full of boys. By high school, she had developed into one of the top girls’ basketball recruits in the country.
Dawkins, meanwhile, played just one season as a reserve on the T.C. Williams varsity team, but he was never jealous of his cousin’s success on the hardwood. Though Ruffin-Pratt jokes now about the drills he would sometimes insist she do, Dawkins remained her biggest supporter.
“Whenever she would do something magnificent out there, he would say, ‘She got that from me,’ ” Pratt-Miller said.
Ruffin-Pratt’s finest accomplishments may have come in the past calendar year. After recovering from labrum surgery to her right shoulder as a junior at North Carolina, the 5-foot-10 Ruffin-Pratt flourished while playing out of position at point guard in her final season with the Tar Heels. She averaged 15.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds and her versatility piqued the interest of WNBA talent evaluators.
But North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell admitted Ruffin-Pratt was “shocked” when her name wasn’t called on draft night. Dawkins may have taken the news worse.
“He physically cried about it,” Pratt-Miller said.
Twenty minutes after the draft ended, though, Ruffin-Pratt received a phone call from Thibault. He had planned to select her in the third round until the Mystics traded the pick a day before the draft. Instead, he offered her an invitation to training camp, but also a stern message about her conditioning.
“I told her she needed to be in better shape: ‘People who came to watch you at Carolina think you’re heavy. You better come better prepared for what pro ball is like,’ and she did the work,” Thibault said. “There’s never been a question about her talent.”
Ruffin-Pratt said the draft-day snub was simply “more motivation” and she began to overhaul her diet, consulting with a nutritionist and eschewing fast food for the most part. By the third day of training camp, Thibault raved about Ruffin-Pratt and her potential contributions to this year’s team.
Thus far, she has turned into a pleasant surprise off the bench, averaging 4.7 points and 2.7 rebounds off the bench. In three of Washington’s past six games, she has set a new career high in either points or rebounds. She is also dealing with a partially torn labrum in her left shoulder suffered last month, an injury doctors have told her could require surgery in the future.
But Ruffin-Pratt continues to play through it, the memory of her cousin as the driving force. She prays about Dawkins before games and sometimes catches herself talking to him on the floor.
“I know this is what he wanted,” Ruffin-Pratt said, tears welling up in her eyes. “This is what I wanted, so I’m kind of living it for him, too.”