Epiphanny Prince takes long, troubled road to find Liberty

Epiphanny Prince takes long, troubled road to find Liberty
Epiphanny Prince bounces from the Brooklyn streets to overseas in Russia only to find herself back home, this time with the WNBA's New York Liberty.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Epiphanny Prince bounces from the Brooklyn streets to overseas in Russia only to find herself back home, this time with the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

Day burns into night as LaShawn Doyle, dressed in a tie-dye dashiki, hurries past a gray bulldog, three shirtless men and a “DO NOT ENTER” sign at the corner of Park Ave. and St. Edward’s St. in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. The heat index is nearing 100 outside the Ingersoll Houses; denizens duck the sun. One bare-chested man divvies up marijuana into dime bags spread on his lap outside an 11-story building, and Doyle, a community organizer, reminds passersby of an open run at the gym two blocks away.

His momentary mission is to preach about the greatest female he ever saw take the court in the projects. Her name is Epiphanny Prince, an inventive scorer and four-time city champion. Doyle knocks at the door of 3H, her old unit. A woman answers. Two dogs scurry out into the hallway. Doyle introduces himself.

“Did you know that Epiphanny Prince lived here?” he says.

The woman, confused, calls for her daughter. They are not aware of Prince.

“Epiphanny was the first woman to score 113 points in a game,” he says.

Both women say, “Wow.”

“She’s in the WNBA now,” Doyle says.

“Oh yeah?” the mother says.

“I just wanted you to know you have a place of history!” he says.

Pieces of Prince, the Liberty point guard, dot the city. The No. 10 jersey she wore across the Manhattan Bridge at Murry Bergtraum is encased in glass, her controversial 113-point effort for the Blazers commemorated on a plaque at the school. Her playground exploits still echo across a forgotten section of the city, passed on by oral historians. The ongoing game of Around the World that she plays — from Kursk, a small Russian town, to the Garden, where she carries the torch of talented point guards with the Liberty — offers little down time. Streetball legend Ed (Booger) Smith, a cautionary tale with a crossover for the ages, pays respect to Prince, the most accomplished of Ingersoll’s proud line of basketball products. She is electrifying the city again — back from a stint with the Russian National Team as it tried to reach Rio’s Olympics — and leading the Liberty atop the Eastern Conference.

Epiphanny Prince leaves a courtroom at age 17 after being charged with assault in 2004.Theodorakis, Andrew/Theodorakis, Andrew

Epiphanny Prince leaves a courtroom at age 17 after being charged with assault in 2004.

“She is the Queen of Fort Greene,” Smith says, “beautiful in every single way.”

Prince’s dreams almost never got beyond Myrtle Ave.’s troubles. In May of 2004, Tyanna Miller, then 13, shopped for boxes of macaroni at the Associated supermarket across from the housing projects one day. She exited the store, and was jumped by a group of girls. Miller told police that Prince and two of her friends — Tylisa Smith and Keosha Moss — broke her leg below the kneecap and left her face bruised. Smith and Moss pleaded guilty in juvenile court, but Prince, who was 16 when arrested, was charged on three counts as an adult in Brooklyn Criminal Court. A key defense witness testified in the non-jury trial that Prince was a few feet away from the incident but did nothing more than laugh. The prosecutor labeled Prince “an active participant.” Both sides brought up Prince’s career prospects in closing statements.

“Maybe (Miller) was jealous of Epiphanny’s success as a basketball player,” defense attorney Jennifer Sandman, of the Legal Aid Society, said.

Assistant District Attorney Charles Tucker countered.

“Should we look aside because she has a future in the WNBA?” he said.

Prince refers to the court case as a “wake-up call” now. She faced 195 days in jail, but the judge issued a split verdict. Prince was convicted of second-degree harassment and sentenced to 15 days of community service. Her community service included cleaning jail cells at a detention center on Atlantic Ave., but her public transformation from troublemaker to unlikely trailblazer unfolded over the next five years. Instead of running to neighborhood brawls, she hopped the A or C trains to watch prep games across the city. She played her way out, accepting a scholarship to Rutgers, contributing in the NCAA title game as a freshman and leaving for Europe to play professionally after her junior year. She was among the first women to pursue the European route early. Once too shy to travel with AAU teams, she negotiated her way through Turkey and Russia, spinning off defenders and splitting double-teams. Top American women such as Syosset’s Sue Bird assisted her growth. She made herself at home, eventually earning a starting role on the Russian National Team as a Russian citizen.

“We’ll be riding around town, and I’ll say, ‘I wonder which picture of Piph the team is going to put up on a billboard this week,” says Seimone Augustus, who plays with Prince for Dynamo Kursk. “The Russians have a soft spot for Epiphanny.”

Ingersoll holds a unique position in Prince’s thoughts. She helps Doyle around the holidays, participating in a toy drive on Christmas Eve with Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Her sneaker fetish is on display in June when she contributes to the 422 shoes given away at the community center; leftovers are brought to the Tillary Street Women’s Shelter. On Aug. 26, she is hosting a book bag giveaway. She knows plenty is different. The Associated supermarket is no longer open, replaced by a condo. Her parents live in New Jersey. She rides around in a white Range Rover, living in a quieter section of Long Island. She cites suburban calm as its biggest plus.

“After the trial I didn’t want to hang out in the neighborhood,” she says. “I wanted to be around basketball all the time. In my neighborhood, if somebody says there was a fight, you want to go see the fight. That’s what happened.”

She cannot pull everyone up. As the sun falls beneath the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, two teen girls fight. Tempers rise, fists fly. One NYPD officer rides up the wrong way on a one-way street that’s no wider than an alley. Nine officers make their way in between the women, less than a hundred feet from the front door to Prince’s old building.

One officer shoos a child away from the skirmish. He tells the boy to go inside and stay there. A woman wears a red form-fitting dress and cranes her neck to see the action.

Her backside is emblazoned in white letters: PLAY DIRTY.

***

“I’m not supposed to be here,” Prince says, standing by midcourt at the Liberty’s facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. Practice is over for the day. She wears long sleeves and compression shorts as she dribbles a white-and-orange WNBA ball. Her hair is braided and she is slimmed down. She lost 17 pounds, dedicating herself to a chicken-and-zucchini diet overseas. “I mean, I’ve really come a looooong way.”

She is one of the craftiest guards going today. Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer likens her approach to that of an assassin, and he goads her to go past defenders no matter the failed shot attempts in between the makes. Her ball-handling and body control are renowned; scouting reports spotlight her ability to maintain balance and absorb contact from defenders. Laimbeer points out Prince’s patience on pick-and-roll plays with forward Tina Charles. He highlights the way Prince “snakes” around screens, applying pressure or stepping back for jump shots. Prince pounces often.

“She can feel, see and read,” says Teresa Weatherspoon, a former Liberty guard and current director of player development. “The moment she has the ball, she has to know she’s a threat. She can score from any angle, distance, direction.”

Few take the game in as many directions as Prince. She follows the bouncing ball year round, suiting up for Kursk during the winter, the Russian National Team in the spring and then the Liberty in the summer and fall. When she first turned pro, she played in Russia. Her AAU coach, Chris Mooney, joined her for a month. She seemed to be adjusting well, accompanied by the likes of American stars such as Sylvia Fowles and Diana Taurasi. Two days after Mooney departed, Prince joined teammates at the office of Moscow Spartak owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic, an oligarch and former KGB spy who recruited the Americans for his team, paying them far better than the WNBA was. They were scheduled to attend a Beyonce concert that night, but Taurasi arrived early and learned that the flamboyant owner was dead. He died in a hail of bullets while sitting in the back of his Mercedes S500. No one was apprehended for the killing. Prince, all of 21, had just watched “Taken,” a kidnapping thriller about a retired CIA Agent traveling across Europe. She moved into Fowles’ apartment.

“I was like, ‘I left Brooklyn to get away from this stuff,’ ” Prince says. “All I knew was what I had seen in the movies. I was scared.”

Prince is one of the craftiest guards in the WNBA, according to her head coach, Bill Laimbeer.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Prince is one of the craftiest guards in the WNBA, according to her head coach, Bill Laimbeer.

Comfort came in time. Back stateside, she signed on with the Chicago Sky of the WNBA, threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field and reached the WNBA Finals last season. It was in February, though, that her world grew smaller. Prince was back in New York on a break from Euroleague duties when she missed a phone call from Sky coach Pokey Chatman. Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa, reached Prince and informed her of a trade to New York. She was being dealt for former Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter, who was in the midst of readying for the playoffs in Australia at the time. Both teams spoke with their players before the trade was completed, and Pondexter, five years older and from Chicago, accepted the mutual homecoming. “There wasn’t any animosity built in,” Chatman says. “Piph looks great. I’ve probably still got her on speed dial. It worked out for both teams and players.”

Chicago and New York are on a collision course as the season’s second half opens. Another practice ends at the Liberty’s facility, and Prince makes her way around the perimeter once more. She knocks down shots from each spot, but Weatherspoon wants more from her. She feigns lunging at Prince’s legs, claps in her face and pokes her stomach. Prince, unfazed, rises and fires, eyes fixed on the rim.

“That’s the rhythm!” Weatherspoon says. “C’mon, now! That’s your spot!”

***

Each basket Prince scores at the Garden is punctuated by a playing of the line — “My name is Prince and I am funky” — from the musical artist of the same royal name.

Teammates — both in Russia and New York — consider her goofy. They talk about passing time in Russia playing NBA2K and UNO. She doesn’t drink alcohol, but she does indulge in shopping, particularly sneakers and jerseys. Following a recent game, she heads across town to East 9th St. to a vintage jersey store between Ave. A and First Ave. It is called Mr. Throwback. She peruses the offerings, and the owner points to a Pistons No. 10, the old uniform top for Dennis Rodman. It is adult size extra small. Her friend, Tyreke Spencer, mentions she is a WNBA player coached by Laimbeer, a former teammate of Rodman’s with the elbows-out Pistons of the ’80s.

“Bad Boys,” she says. “I’m not going to tell him about it. I’m just gonna show up with it at practice.”

Prince’s reemergence in the city comes in a summer of celebrating female athletes. What began with the U.S. women’s national team being feted for its World Cup win in downtown’s Canyon of Heroes will end with Serena Williams seeking to finish off the Grand Slam in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open later this month. In the interim, Prince, a two-time All-Star, and the Liberty continue to chase their first Eastern Conference title since 2002. The team is 7-2 since Prince’s arrival, readying to square with Bird and the Seattle Storm on Sunday. Before tip, former Liberty guard Becky Hammon will be ushered into the Ring of Honor at the Garden. She paved the way for Prince to play on the Russian National Team when she participated in the 2008 Olympics. Prince reflects often on the paths both took in the years since. She smiles.

“I never thought the Russians would use me because Becky was there,” Prince says. “I guess I was just being naïve. I thought Becky would never get old and retire.”

Prince accepts her role in developing eventual replacements. Mooney coaches a team called Epiphanny Prince Elite in tournaments across the country. They practice at Baldwin High on Long Island, and the 15-and-under team reached Nike’s national tournament this week. Mooney connects the current crew with Prince, who checks in regularly with players, whether on social media or during unannounced visits to gyms. Mooney remembers when Prince’s name first appeared on the uniforms. An older man approached him during a tourney in Tennessee. The man noted that he remembered Prince and asked how she was doing. Mooney updated him. The man asked who the next Epiphanny Prince would be.

“I don’t think there will be another,” Mooney says.

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