A case of love at 2nd sight for Mercy's Banjo

Girls basketball: Senior BJ Banjo didn't take to the sport the first time she tried it at age 11, but it has since become her strongest passion - and the No. 4 Magic is grateful for that change of heart.

February 03, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Mercy's BJ Banjo remembers the exact day basketball became her passion.

She was 11 years old that summer and had given up swimming and gymnastics, although she attended an African dance class on Saturday mornings. Her mother, not wanting her to sit around the house the rest of the summer, took her to the Northwood Recreation Center to check out basketball.

"The first day, I was so intimidated," Banjo said. "I said, `I don't want to do this.' My mom told me to give it a chance, so the next day I went back. That was the day I fell in love with basketball."

Her devotion has not waned.

The Magic senior loves having the ball in her hand and she has developed into a multitalented guard with a scholarship to play next season at East Tennessee State.

Although just 5 feet 5, Banjo boasts one of the top scoring averages in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference with 18.9 points a game.

"She might be, individually, the best offensive player in the league, because she's able to score so many different ways," said St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton. "She's an excellent perimeter shooter, she can drive the ball to the basket and she can post up your guards. She has a multidimensional kind of flexibility to her offense."

Banjo scored her 1,000th career point in December - even though she has played high school ball for just three years. Tuesday, she scored 30 points in a 64-58 loss to No. 2 St. Frances.

She also averages 5.8 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 2.3 assists for the No. 4 Magic. Her leadership has proven invaluable to her team, her defense is solid and, although she can be a streaky shooter, she can usually find a way to provide an offensive boost when necessary.

"BJ's the type of kid who can put a team on her back," said Archbishop Spalding coach Deb Taylor. "She can create shots for herself and because she draws so much attention, she can create easy shots for her teammates. When you're keying on her, she can still get 25 points, which makes [Mercy] very dangerous."

Banjo hasn't always been a big scorer. She began as a forward who was mainly a rebounder.

"When I was younger I knew how to box out and I was getting all these rebounds," said Banjo, 17. "When I got older, people started getting growth spurts and getting much taller than me and I wasn't getting rebounds any more. I didn't know how to dribble, because I always played forward."

When no growth spurt came for Banjo, she knew her future lay in the backcourt and she had to work hard to develop a new game.

Hard work was nothing new to Banjo. She learned about that when she got cut from the first Amateur Athletic Union team she tried out for as an 11-year-old.

"That was one of the most crucial years," Banjo said, "because it showed me what to do when you're faced with adversity. I went out every day [to the neighborhood court]. I came back the next year and I did make the team."

Back then, her mother threw in a little extra incentive.

"My mom would say as long as you stay out there, that's the amount of time you get to spend on the phone. I like talking on the phone, so sometimes I'd be out there for hours."

More adversity arose when Banjo left Friends School for Poly as a ninth-grader. She played one scrimmage for the Engineers and her mother took her off the team, because, said Robin Banjo, "it was a great academic school, but it wasn't the right situation for BJ basketball-wise."

BJ Banjo "was really disappointed and angry at my mother, but now that I look back, I think it was a good decision. It fueled my fire. I knew when I did play I had to come in ready because I didn't play my ninth-grade year."

Banjo arrived at Mercy as a sophomore, and the fit was perfect. She carries a 3.5 grade-point average aimed at a career in nursing, and she has emerged the past two years as the Magic's go-to player.

Despite her big numbers, Banjo is the epitome of the team player. She never stops hustling and never stops encouraging her teammates. They thrive on that intensity.

"She's real aggressive. I love that in her," said teammate Colette Hailey, who has helped Banjo carry the offensive load this season. "When she gets pumped, it gets me pumped right with her and we can roll."

As the season winds down, Banjo is determined to take the Magic as far as she can in the IAAM tournament. As a tune-up, she'd like nothing more than to lead the Magic to victory Friday night over No. 11 Institute of Notre Dame in the 36th annual showdown that drew more 3,500 to the Towson Center last year.

Those who know her expect nothing more than her usual effort.

"She works extremely hard. You can italicize that, put it in bold, capitalize it and still won't symbolize half of how hard she works. She wants to win and she's going to do her best to get her team the `W,' " said Spalding guard LaToya Strong, a close friend and AAU teammate.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.