In basketball, it’s difficult not to notice.
The teams come out for the opening tip and there is immediate sizing up from players and fans. Everybody can see the shortest girl and how the No. 4 on her back is partly tucked into her shorts.
At an even 5-foot, 100 pounds, Nash Central senior point guard Ni’Ya Styles always is the smallest player on the court. She’ll be in the front row of every team picture she ever takes and disappear into the lane on every drive she makes.
Unlike the opening tip, though, feelings about her often are much different by the final buzzer. Simultaneously, Styles’ height always and never matters.
“She is feisty, and I think a lot of that comes from her size,” Nash Central coach Terri Cash said. “When you’re small, you have to fight a little harder because you feel like you have something to prove.”
In a game in which height is so valuable, Styles has thrived despite not having much of it.
She’s crowding stat sheets even as the 13th-tallest person on the court, counting the referees. Styles is averaging just under 16 points, four assists, four steals and three rebounds per game for the Bulldogs (11-3), who have realistic hopes of winning the Big East Conference.
When the game ends and the slightly oversized No. 4 jersey is traded in for her normal clothes, Styles goes back to dealing with people who think she is much younger than she actually is.
“They always think I’m in middle school,” said a smiling Styles. “I don’t take it as offensive. I just smile and laugh at it, but I don’t like it. I really don’t.”
On the court, her emotion never is far from erupting.
When one of her teammates makes an important shot, she’s the first there with a heavy-handed high five. If she hits a big three, one only has to listen for her yell to know it went in the hoop. She drives the lane as if she has no idea 5-foot guards have no business near the basket, and when she makes a tough bucket plus the free throw, she pops up with a scowl worthy of Kevin Garnett.
“She’s very, very, very competitive. I think if we make something a competition in practice, it goes better,” Cash said. “… If the lights are on, she wants the ball in her hands.”
That’s part of her on-court demeanor to the core.
“I’m never afraid. I’m always there and always trying to be strong for my team,” Styles said. “I always got to show. I’m so small, I can’t be all talk. I gotta show it on the court.”
There are players who seem made to play basketball, born to parents who look as if they intentionally were trying to create athletic forwards.
Styles is the exact opposite. Her parents are 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-2, and they were as surprised as anybody when she started tearing up youth leagues. Her Red Oak recreation league coaches dubbed Styles “Dynamite” because she was so small but so explosive.
Her mother, Lori, said people are surprised to meet Styles off the court and see the fiery point guard is quiet and well-mannered.
“She’s just an all-around wonderful girl, and I’m not saying that because she’s mine, but because everywhere we go, people come up to her and tell her they love to see her play,” Lori Styles said. “People we don’t know walk up to her and talk to her. It’s just like she’s a magnet. She draws people to her.”
Cash called Styles “the best leader we’ve ever had here,” and said Styles has come to realize as a senior that her teammates will respond to her direction. Styles’ dream of seeing her name on the back of a college jersey is close to a reality: Styles already has offers from Barton, Mount Olive and St. Andrew’s with interest from a few other schools.
There is more to be accomplished at Nash Central, though, and Styles wants a championship.
For those that don’t believe she’s a good basketball player, Styles invites them to come watch her.
Pretty soon, they won’t pay attention to her height, either.
“I think it’s because I’m so short, but people ask me if I play, and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah,’ Styles said. “They’ll say they’re going to come see me play and I’m like, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna give you a show.’”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com