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Alaysia Styles would rather sit in a library quietly reading a book, preferably “The Alchemist,” than be in most other places. She draws a great deal from Santiago — the main character — and the message about enjoying the journey, finding one’s purpose and reaching the “pot of gold.” It’s cliche, she said, but it helps her keep both feet fully in at that moment, even if she’s just getting an iced caramel macchiato with almond milk, extra caramel and cold foam from Dunkin’.
To her, the message of the book is “beautiful.”
But Styles’ pot of gold isn’t a material possession like in “The Alchemist.” It’s inner peace, inner fulfillment. She’s experienced stumbling blocks at each stage of her life, said her mother, Ra Russell. From growing up in a single-parent household, to having tumors and a rare hemangioma removed from her forehead at the age of five, to her winding collegiate career, Styles just wants to make herself feel pure and free as a transfer at Syracuse.
“It’s taught me to seriously be where I am, and to enjoy every aspect of where I am,” Styles said.
Styles is a self-described introvert, bookworm and someone who thinks about everything literally. It affects her basketball game and the way she sleeps, she said, but it also leads her to think about the bigger picture. Syracuse’s de facto center is now at her third school. She’s already earned a degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is pursuing a graduate degree in hopes of becoming an independent filmmaker.
Shortly before Syracuse began its season, Styles called her mother and asked, “is it weird to want to be very relevant, yet irrelevant?” Russell said Styles isn’t a “spotlight person.” She gets overwhelmed in situations with a lot of people and is quiet on the basketball court and during team events. When SU played laser tag as a bonding exercise, for example, she sat back and observed everything.
Because she grew up in a single-parent household, Styles said she grew up faster than she needed to. She didn’t realize how it affected her at the time, but it benefited her, making her now feel as though her mind is older than her body is.
That desire to be seen, yet unnoticeable led Styles to change her hair. Until her junior year at California, she had braids. Prior to the surgery that removed her tumors and the hemangioma, the doctor told Russell to braid Styles’ hair so he could make the incision along the middle part of the hair, peel back the skin and avoid keloids. After that, Russell said Styles became “vain” about the scar and wanted to cover it up.
Styles said she’s always felt like herself, but being at California allowed her to try something new in a place where “no one will bat an eye at you.” She cut off the braids, something she felt she couldn’t do at her predominantly white, private high school, La Jolla Country Day (California) School. One night before going out with friends, she removed the braids, returning to her natural hair.
Still, Styles was embarrassed and showed up to meet her friends with a hat on. They asked her to take off the hat, and when she did, her friends erupted, telling her she looked like herself. Styles finally felt “free.”
“That was the moment where I was like, ‘I’m going to unapologetically be me,’” Styles said.
As time progressed, she played around with the colors more. The changes were a way of doing something that not many people were doing, while not having to say anything, Styles said. It was also a way of imitating former NBA player Dennis Rodman, whose persona she said she’s completely enthralled with. Styles had run out of documentaries to watch this summer and flipped on “The Last Dance.” She was doing yoga on the floor and said she’d just watch one episode.
But once Rodman came on, she was “infatuated” with him, Russell said. Styles didn’t care about what he did on the court or the technical explanation of how he read each rebound off the board. To her, “how he was just unafraid to do whatever the hell he wanted,” was enough.
“After that, she said … ‘I’m going Rodman for the rest of the season,’” Russell said.
California allowed Styles to express herself, and the hair was the end of several lifestyle changes she made to express herself the way she wanted to. Styles started dressing how she wanted to and got numerous tattoos, too.
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Now she has the coordinates of San Diego embroidered on the back of her upper left arm, a reminder of home. She has a tattoo of Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, whom her mother is named after. She also has “ENOUGH” scripted across the inside of her left wrist. Styles said she got that tattoo when she started becoming who she wanted to be. If she’s doing too much or thinking too critically during basketball games, it’s a constant reminder to slow down, she said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not enough for everyone else as long as you’re enough for yourself,” Styles reminds herself when she looks at the word.
It wasn’t until Styles was older, particularly at California, that she realized the reality of her previous struggles, former high school teammate Bianca Notarainni said. Styles was more shy during her freshman year than she is now, Notarainni said, especially on the court. Styles’ high school coach, Terri Bamford, described her as a “perfectionist,” and as someone who would drop her head when something went wrong. In middle school and high school, Styles would pass up taking a shot if she thought she couldn’t make it.
Once Bamford, who coached Styles since elementary school, broke the perfectionist attitude, Styles became a “monster” on the court. Styles said she still won’t take a shot if she thought she was going to miss it and constantly jabs at herself during games, telling herself she should have made a certain shot. That’s never going away, she said.
But Styles has grown up, maturing into a person she’s completely comfortable with, even creating her own website that sends money to single-parent households. She still analyzes everything, though. Sitting in the Carrier Dome, Styles pointed to the men cleaning up the bleachers on the upper deck. “Those people up there, something led them to this point right now, and they’re up there doing whatever they’re doing because everything in their life led them to that moment right now,” she said quickly.
Now, Styles is working toward becoming a filmmaker, hoping to focus on the convergence of the human race and intersectionality. She is looking forward to returning to San Diego to see her high school teammates and coach later in the month. They usually get to the beach around 11 a.m. and find a pit. Then they swim, throw a Frisbee and sit around a bonfire, back to where they all started, grew close and made something of themselves. Styles will now be there with her multicolored hair, tattoos and a better sense of her purpose.
“I’m just looking forward to that break to give her the self-satisfaction of saying, ‘You know what, job well done Alaysia,’” Russell said.
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