‘What a freaking miracle’: Inside the courageous comeback of USC guard Aaliyah Gayles
AALIYAH GAYLES CALLS me over to her bed at Sandstone Spring Valley rehabilitation center in Las Vegas. “Katie,” she says. “Brush my teeth.”
I timidly walk over. Her dad hands me a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. “The spit thing is on the shelf,” Aaliyah says.
I put the silicone tray on the gurney by her legs, trying to keep my eyes from lingering on the wounds on her exposed shins. I divert my focus to a tattoo on her left forearm. In all capital letters, it says, “Only the strong survive.”
She opens her mouth as I squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube. I lean over the bed and press the toothbrush against her bottom teeth and gently scrub. The only sound is the whoosh of the bristles. Her arms and legs rest eerily still on the mattress as she looks up at me.
After moving the toothbrush around her mouth, I ask her if that’s good. She nods. Her dad hands me a water bottle, and I pour a little into her mouth. Aaliyah swishes it around and spits into the silicone tray I’m holding up to her lips.
“Thanks,” she says.
When I met Aaliyah a month ago, hoping to tell her story of resilience and recovery, she was too overwhelmed to open up. Today, on this May 2022 afternoon, she is still at a loss for words, but she can show me what it’s like to be so vulnerable. Perhaps, more importantly, she genuinely needs help.
It wasn’t always like this for Aaliyah. Before, she was one of the most physically gifted high school basketball players in the country, so quick, so smooth, so springy that she had her choice of the top college programs. Now she can’t bend her fingers enough to hold a toothbrush.
Seven weeks earlier, a night after playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, Aaliyah went to a party. She was shot by an unknown assailant too many times to be sure how many times. Doctors counted 18 holes where bullets burrowed through her arms and legs, shattering bones and bursting a blood vessel. She can’t put weight on her legs. She can’t grip a pencil to write.
But one lesson Aaliyah Gayles has learned in her 18 years of life is this: A life without basketball isn’t really living. She doesn’t know who shot her. She doesn’t know how long it will take her to brush her own teeth. She doesn’t yet know how much pain she’ll have to endure to take a single step. But from this bed in this rehab center, she is resolved. She will play basketball for the USC Trojans.
AALIYAH CAUGHT THE ball on the left wing with 3:38 to go in the first quarter of the 2022 Jordan Brand Classic in Chicago. She jab stepped to the right and dribbled once into open space to her left. She crossed over to her right and dribbled into the lane. Perfectly balanced, she elevated. And got smacked. She staggered backward into a referee.
One black leg sleeve up over her calf and one black sock down around her ankle, she swished both free throws and jogged downcourt. After her team got a defensive stop, Aaliyah left her defender — none other than LSU-bound and game MVP Flau’jae Johnson — in the dust. She took an outlet pass and stopped. Cupping the ball with her right hand and forearm, she windmilled the ball backwards in a ball fake that looked similar to Michael Jordan’s rock the cradle dunk. She brought the ball back to her shooting pocket and banked in a layup over Johnson’s outstretched arm.
“I call that the ‘get it and go for it layup,'” Aaliyah says.
It took 21 seconds of game time on April 15, 2022, for Aaliyah Gayles to show what makes her Aaliyah Gayles. She’s cricket quick, and although she’s only 5-foot-9, she can grab the rim — some even swear she can dunk. She has graceful movements and exquisite body control. She has flair; she has fun.
The next night, after flying home to Las Vegas from Chicago, Aaliyah’s girlfriend at the time, Janaye Jackson, talked her into driving 10 minutes to a party in North Las Vegas. Aaliyah didn’t know the host, Uriah Tucker, but Jackson wanted to go after seeing an invitation on Instagram.
Tucker had convinced her aunt, Asia Shelby, to hold the party at her home. Asia Shelby had just ended her marriage, and her ex-husband took all the furniture on the first floor. “I was like, ‘Well, throw the party before we start furnishing the house,'” Shelby says.
A DJ named Derek McMillan set up in a corner that would have been the living room had there been any furniture.
Asia and Tucker’s mom, Tempest Shelby, checked bags and purses as teenagers filled the first floor. Aaliyah and Jackson stayed near the door, vibing on their own. “We was being wallflowers,” Aaliyah says.
Then a group of Tucker’s classmates, a group she had history with, entered the house. McMillan cut the music so Tempest Shelby could tell the girls they needed to leave.
They did not go quietly.
“We were all trying to calm them down and just get them to leave,” Asia says. “That caused a scene, so that is when everybody started coming out of the house.”
Aaliyah felt in her gut it was time to go. But Gwendolyn McMillan, the DJ’s wife, directed everyone back into the house. With about 100 people inside, she locked the door behind her so no one else could enter. This time, there were no bag checks or pat downs.
Gwendolyn stood by her husband as he resumed playing music. She stared at the door, which she says did not open again.
Two guys in ski masks walked by Aaliyah and Jackson, still near the door, and one of them bumped into Jackson. He turned around. The mask covered his entire face except for his eyes.
“My girl and him exchanged some words,” Aaliyah says.
The other guy punched Jackson. Aaliyah jumped in. He reached into his waistband and pulled out a gun.
Gwendolyn saw the gun barrel flash in the dark each time he pulled the trigger. She lost count.
Derek thought the bangs were part of the music. But then everyone started running, and he tried running, too. His legs wouldn’t work. He was shot three times. Gwendolyn dragged him through the kitchen and into the garage. She called 911. Many others did, too, but nobody reported anything about who the shooter was or what he looked like. Only that shots had been fired.
Jackson was hit once in the leg.
Aaliyah fell to the floor. She felt burning, but the adrenaline masked the pain. She knew she was hurt. Badly. She was dragged outside.
“I thought to myself like, ‘This is going to my last time breathing,'” she says.
When an ambulance arrived, EMTs rushed Aaliyah to University Medical Center. Her blood left a stain on the house’s front steps.
AALIYAH’S MOM, MALKIA LOCKETT, had already woken up once that night. She stirred a little before 11:30 p.m. and checked her phone. Earlier that day, Aaliyah had texted her, “I love you,” but Malkia had missed it. So she texted her back now. “I love you too. Where are you at?” She pressed send and went back to bed.
Minutes later, the sound of her phone ringing woke her up. It was Jackson, and she was screaming that Aaliyah had been shot.
Dwight Gayles heard Malkia on the phone but was groggy from sleep. Then he heard her trying to calm Jackson down, which was like water to his face. Jackson was with Aaliyah.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Malkia kept repeating.
“What happened?” Dwight asked Malkia. “What’s going on?”
Malkia looked at him. “Liyah got shot.”
Dwight threw on socks and shoes and grabbed his keys. Malkia couldn’t feel anything. She could barely type on her phone. She struggled to get her legs to work and fell down the stairs.
When they got into the car, Dwight looked up his daughter’s location on his phone and sped toward Asia Shelby’s house. All he could think about was getting to Aaliyah, seeing his baby. They learned from Jackson that an ambulance was taking Aaliyah to University Medical Center. Dwight whipped the car around. When they got there, Dwight and Malkia rushed into the emergency department.
“We don’t have a Gayles here yet,” the attendant said. Dwight and Malkia waited outside, panic gripping them. They didn’t know how many times Aaliyah had been shot or where. They didn’t even know if she was alive.
Finally, the ambulance arrived. The EMTs lifted Aaliyah out of the back. She turned her head to look at her dad. She gave him a head nod as if to say “Sup?” With his eyes on his daughter, Dwight finally felt himself breathe.
Aaliyah was alive.
Dr. Allison McNickle, the trauma surgeon on duty at University Medical Center, performed a quick assessment. Aaliyah was conscious, alert and able to speak. But there were tourniquets on her legs, which meant she had lost a lot of blood. McNickle went to work assessing the damage.
“The biggest challenge was she’d been shot so many times, trying to find all the holes, and make sure you weren’t missing any,” McNickle says.
McNickle counted 18 bullet holes, allowing her to “guesstimate” Aaliyah had been shot nine times. The bullets fractured her left forearm and damaged her wrist, her right arm above the elbow, her right thigh bone, her right shin, her right ankle and her left shin. A ripped artery behind Aaliyah’s left knee was of immediate concern. It was no longer able to distribute enough blood to her lower leg. Amputation might be the only choice.
The fractures and the cumulative damage to Aaliyah’s body were alarming. These fractures weren’t like ones caused by hard falls; they weren’t straight-line fractures across the bone. The velocity of the bullets entering and exiting Aaliyah’s body pushed the bullets through her bones, shattering parts of them.
McNickle coordinated a combined surgery. In the early hours of Easter Sunday, one surgeon repaired the blood vessel in Aaliyah’s left leg and another inserted rods to stabilize the fractures in her right femur and tibia.
“I thought basketball was over…” Dwight says. “I’m thinking, like, reality. Both legs. Both arms. People don’t just bounce back from something like that, you know? But I forgot who I was talking about.”
AALIYAH DREAMED OF going to USC since she was a little girl splitting time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where her dad’s family lived. She adored “Love & Basketball,” and USC was where the movie’s protagonist, Monica Wright, attended college.
On one trip to L.A., when she was around 5 years old, Dwight brought her to a pickup basketball game. While he ran up and down the court, Aaliyah watched from the sidelines. During breaks, she sprinted onto the court and tried to muscle the ball up to the basket. “Couldn’t get it over the rim,” Dwight says.
A week later, she could. “So I started backing her up a little bit,” Dwight says. “And she was still making shots.”
Aaliyah begged to be on the court with her dad and the other men playing pick-up. He told her no. She ran onto the court anyway.
When she was 9 or 10, Aaliyah’s uncle brought a moped to a family barbeque at her grandparents’ house. Dwight told his younger brother to keep Aaliyah away from it. Dwight just knew she would beg for a ride.
Later, his brother came back into the house without Aaliyah. “Man, where’s Liyah?” Dwight asked.
His brother answered: “Outside.”
Dwight bolted out the door and saw Aaliyah speeding down the street on the moped. Dwight shouted her name. She looked at him but couldn’t stop. She jumped off and smacked into a bench. Dwight ran over to make sure she was OK.
“I know that had to hurt,” he says. “But five minutes later she’s right back outside doing her thing. She’s a tough cookie.”
Dwight started getting calls about Aaliyah getting into fights when she was in middle school.
She grew up as the baby in a family with three much older siblings, and they all played rough. Aaliyah learned how to defend herself at a young age. She also learned how to defend her friends.
“I was a hot head,” Aaliyah says.
Youth coach James Eustace saw Aaliyah play basketball for the first time when she was in seventh grade. He remembers Aaliyah skying to block one of his player’s shots, and he knew right then he wanted her to play on his Vegas Elite team.
“From an athletic and a skills standpoint, you could tell the difference between her and her peers,” Eustace says.
As a point guard, she fed her teammates the ball and hit open shots. On defense, she took on the opponent’s top defender and never left her side. Sometimes, she popped off on the court.
“One of her best [attributes] and also one of her worst enemies was controlling her emotions,” Eustace says.
Aaliyah’s teams didn’t always win, which gave Dwight the opportunity to instill a lesson.
“OK, you lost the game, but what are you gonna do about it? You gonna sit around, you gonna cry?” he asked Aaliyah. “Or you going to hit the gym and get better? … You cry when you win it all.”
At Spring Valley High School, Aaliyah found a new setting and different friends. She also found a coach who helped her focus on her goal of playing at USC.
“I would constantly say to her, ‘Actions over feelings,'” Billy Hemberger says. “What kind of person do you want to be? Not everybody feels like going to class or feels like turning in homework. You got to stay committed when you don’t feel like it.”
During her senior season, she was named a McDonald’s All American and was invited to play in the Jordan Brand Classic. She planned to sign with USC the following week.
DWIGHT WALKED INTO his daughter’s room when she got out of surgery. Machines and tubes filled the space. Aaliyah was sedated. Bandages covered her arms and legs.
“I want to hold my baby so bad,” he says. “It’s eating me up inside that I can’t. That kills me right there. And then I can’t get a real good one. Just one of them little ones. Nah, that’s not the hugs we do.”
Aaliyah tried to talk when she woke up, but the tubes in her mouth prevented Dwight from understanding her. He wrote the alphabet on a piece of paper. Barely able to lift her arm, Aaliyah pointed to each letter to spell out her thoughts. The first sentence she spelled out to Dwight was, “I didn’t cry.”
She didn’t cry when the first bullet hit her. Or the next. Or the next. She didn’t cry when she was pulled out of the house. She didn’t cry in the ambulance as they tied a tourniquet around her leg. She laughed when they cut off her shirt to continue working on her, making a joke about her chest being exposed.
The message was clear. She didn’t cry. Nobody else could either.
She understood that her family and friends were upset, but she wanted them to purge their tears before entering her room. To Aaliyah, crying felt like mourning, and she saw no reason to mourn. “I’m still here,” she says. “You can still see me. You can still give me a hug. Be happy for me. Be happy that you can still call my phone.”
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb arrived as soon as she could. She’d been recruiting Aaliyah since she took the job in May 2021. Aaliyah had committed to USC to play for Mark Trakh, but she reopened her recruitment when he retired. One of Gottlieb’s first tasks was to get Aaliyah to recommit. “We were all-in on her at that point,” Gottlieb says. “I was feeling a connection to the kid. She’s our kid.”
When Gottlieb entered the waiting room, she wrapped her arms around Dwight and Malkia. “Hugging them was really like this unimaginable and indescribable feeling,” Gottlieb says. She was nervous when she walked into Aaliyah’s room, but when Aaliyah smiled at her, the fear in Gottlieb’s chest melted away.
“It was immediately clear that her mind and her heart were unscathed,” Gottlieb says. “And what a freaking miracle.”
Aaliyah had recommitted to USC, but she hadn’t yet signed a letter of intent. She was shoring up some schoolwork and was going to sign after she got back from the Jordan Brand Classic.
Gottlieb didn’t care about any of that. Aaliyah had put in the work to be a Trojan, and for Gottlieb, paper was just paper. Maybe Aaliyah would play basketball again, maybe she wouldn’t, but she would go to USC.
Gottlieb sat down next to Aaliyah’s bed in the hospital room. Aaliyah’s eyes started to flutter. “It’s OK,” Gottlieb said. “You can go to sleep.”
Aaliyah looked at her. “Will you be here when I wake up?”
“I’ll be here when you wake up,” Gottlieb answered. “Before you fall asleep, tell me, what do you need from me?”
“Please,” Aaliyah said. “Get me to USC.”
ALIYAH’S GRANDMOTHER HAULS balloons. Family members, including her great-grandmother who has arrived from out of town, crowd around her bed. Friends come in and out. Nurses, too. Malkia floats between Aaliyah’s room and a party room downstairs.
It is prom night, and Aaliyah’s family is bringing one to Sandstone. Three weeks after the “incident,” as her family refers to what happened on April 16, she can’t put weight on any of her limbs. She can’t pull herself up in bed or put herself into a wheelchair. But she can have prom.
Aaliyah presses the button on the remote that controls her bed. She doesn’t want to be laying down with so many people around her. “I was in one spot the whole time,” Aaliyah says. “The only thing I could do is turn my head or turn on the side. But I needed help.”
She had picked out her outfit weeks earlier — a royal blue velvet jacket, black pants and blue shoes — to match her friend Sani Banks, who introduces himself to me as her brother.
The nurses return and pull the curtains around Aaliyah’s bed to get her dressed.
The black pants don’t fit — they are too tight to be comfortable over the bandages. Malkia scrambles to find black Jordan pants with a wider leg. Aaliyah can’t wear the blue velvet loafers either. Her right foot is in a boot, and a black sock will have to do on her left. Aaliyah wears the jacket and rocks a chain.
When she is ready to head downstairs, the nurses slide a white cloth underneath her so a machine can lift her from her bed into a wheelchair.
Jackson pushes her down the hallway, the rubber wheels silent as Jackson’s heels clack against the tile. When they make it to the door, Aaliyah reaches for her sunglasses. She struggles to grasp the thin temple of her shades but finally slides the tip over the top of her ear. Jackson wheels Aaliyah through the door.
Dwight turns up the music. Family, friends and teammates fill the room. There’s a buffet: chicken wings, rolls and green beans. Balloons and posters decorate the walls. A photo backdrop of the Las Vegas strip is taped on the back wall. What’s prom without posed photos? Aaliyah takes photos with each of her friends and family.
“I was so happy to see her smile,” Dwight says. “I been waiting on that.”
The beat thumps through the speaker, and the dancing starts. Before basketball, dancing was Aaliyah’s first love. Malkia remembers bringing Aaliyah to a festival when she was a toddler. Malkia and her mom sold engravings. Aaliyah started dancing in front of the booth and people dropped tips at her feet. “My mom was like ‘I need to bring her out here more often,'” Malkia says.
Tonight, Aaliyah shimmies in her chair, looping her fingers under her chain to pull it in rhythm with the beat. “03 Flow” by Wallie the Sensei floats in the air, and the teenagers shout the lyrics and sway in the middle of the room.
This is my ’03 Flow
They got me peekin’ through the window
Outside is all I know
I’ll never make it out this hole
The sun is long gone and the room is dim, but Aaliyah keeps her sunglasses on. I find myself wondering if she’s hiding tears under those big square lenses. She’ll never say.
With the night winding down, Aaliyah takes her sunglasses off and is wheeled to the front of the room. “I just want to thank everyone for being here,” she says.
She scrolls on a phone and picks the song she wants. Aaliyah closes her eyes and sways as Marvin Sapp sings, “Never Would Have Made It.” Then, Aaliyah joins her voice with his. She tilts her head and sings to the ceiling.
I would have lost it all
But now I see how you were there for me
AALIYAH’S FAMILY MEMBERS do everything they can to bring little bits of joy to her life. They deliver a burger and fries to break up the monotony of hospital food. Dwight installs a new TV so Aaliyah can have Netflix.
Today, June 23, two months after the incident and the daily grind of physical therapy, she’s hoping to regain some life beyond her bed. She’s going to try to walk.
A physical therapist wheels Aaliyah between two parallel bars. Another physical therapist kneels in front of her to guide her steps. A third stands by her side, leaning over the bars and grabbing a belt around Aaliyah’s waist to help lift some weight off bones and muscles that haven’t experienced bodyweight since April.
Aaliyah grasps the bars and pulls herself out of her chair. Tentatively, she steps forward with her left foot. Pain radiates. “I felt like I didn’t have any legs,” Aaliyah says. “It was very difficult at first just knowing I don’t have the power in my legs anymore.”
After the pain comes confusion. Why can’t I just pick up my legs and put one in front of the other and walk? Logically, she knows why, but she’s struggling to accept it. On the edge of pain and confusion is something else: joy. “It felt like two billion dollars just landed in your bank account,” she says.
Aaliyah takes six wobbly steps before collapsing into her chair, exhausted. She leans back, closes her eyes, and tilts her head to the ceiling. She exhales. It hurt like hell. And she knows she’ll have to put herself through the pain day after day just to get out of this place, let alone to get back onto the basketball court.
“Damn,” she thinks to herself.
THREE MONTHS EARLIER, Gottlieb promised Aaliyah she’d get her to USC. Today, July 14, is that day. Aaliyah can make a fist, she can wiggle her fingers and her toes. She can sign her name (which she did, to her national letter of intent to play for the Trojans). She can hold a sandwich and dip her French fries into a squirt of ketchup. She can pull her own pants up her legs. She can push her arms through the sleeves of a hoodie and pop her head through the hole.
She occasionally braves the stairs during a week at home after leaving the rehab facility. But on the way out to USC, Dwight carries her down on his back. He puts her in the wheelchair for what she hopes is the last time and pushes her to a Mazda SUV that he and Malkia rented to make the 300-mile trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. She hoists herself out of the chair and stretches out in the backseat with her feet up.
“That’s always how she sits when she has the back seat,” Dwight says.
When she arrives to campus, she goes to the practice gym to see her teammates. She decides right then that she’s going to walk through the doors. No wheelchair. No walker. No help.
“Aaliyah!” one of her teammates screams. Everyone turns toward the door and rushes toward her.
Her steps are labored, but none of that matters. She’s walking. By herself.
“I almost got ran over by one of my teammates jumping around,” Aaliyah says. “I was scared. I’m not stable yet.”
It seems as miraculous as walking on water to her coaches and teammates.
“I literally lost it,” Gottlieb says. “I was standing there bawling like a baby because it was unbelievable. It was symbolic. And it just speaks to who she is, right. That if they tell her she can take three steps, she’s going to want to take 10.”
Taylor Bigby, a sophomore transfer from Oregon who grew up in Vegas competing against Aaliyah, stands near the end of the line. Bigby wraps her arms around Aaliyah. “It wasn’t a typical hug,” Bigby says. “It was one of those hugs that was like, ‘I’m glad you’re here. You’re doing it.'”
Still, Aaliyah’s road back is a long one. As her teammates work to install Gottlieb’s system, Aaliyah is stationed off to the side doing rehab. She pulls putty into a flat circle to work on the dexterity in her fingers and hands. Athletic trainer Erin Tillman helps her build core strength. The goal is to get Aaliyah back on the court, but that’s not the focus. “It was never about just go play basketball,” Tillman says. “It was like, just learn how to live first.”
Her recovery is multifaceted, which presents unique challenges for Tillman. When an athlete suffers a high ankle sprain or tears an ACL or breaks a wrist, the focus is on one injury. In that sense, rehabilitation and recovery is straightforward. With Aaliyah, it’s the opposite. She’s recovering from gunshot wounds in all of her limbs and multiple surgeries affecting different parts of her body.
Her progress — no matter how incremental — is applauded. “We celebrate everything,” Tillman says.
DWIGHT BOUNCES THE ball to Aaliyah in the practice gym at the Galen Center. With towering white walls and echoey hardwood, the court is empty except for father and daughter. It’s October 2022, a month before her freshman season starts and almost three months since she arrived at USC.
Aaliyah catches the pass and puts up a shot directly in front of the basket, just like when she was a kid and Dwight taught her how to shoot at his pick-up games.
Today, when the ball drops through the net at the Galen Center, Aaliyah feels a surge of motivation.
Dwight tells her to back up after she makes a few from the same spot. Aaliyah takes two steps back. Dwight keeps passing her the ball, and she keeps shooting, more aware of the stretch of her shoulders and back than she used to be.
She gets to the free throw line. Dwight tells her to take another step back. “I can’t,” she says.
“What do you mean you can’t?” Dwight asks.
Aaliyah explains that she feels off-balance, that she’s not sure if she’s strong enough. “I knew where my limit was,” she says.
This 2022-23 season, she watches from the end of the bench as the Trojans jump out to a 9-0 record. She watches as they lose their first game, a three-point loss to UCLA at home. She watches as USC upsets Stanford in January.
“I could be dropping dimes to my bigs right now. I could be dropping dimes to my shooters,” Aaliyah says. “All I want to do is help my teammates. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. Get back on my feet so I can help them for next year.”
Teammate Madison Campbell, who had offseason back surgery, sits next to Aaliyah.
“It was our personal job to be annoying, obnoxious, loud people at the end of the bench who teammates rely on to have an energy source,” Campbell says.
Aaliyah celebrates when a teammate knocks down a 3 or gets a steal or a block. Sometimes she dances. She learns what college basketball looks like up close. Her body may not be ready for the speed and the bumps and bruises, but her mind is fully engaged.
“I’ve discovered this other cerebral part of her that maybe I wouldn’t have discovered if I was coaching her kind of in a typical freshman year,” Gottlieb says. “With her sitting on the side, I want to pick her brain at every turn that I can. She’s just invested in every way. And it’s hard when you’re not on the court to give, but she gives to this team just with her presence all the time.”
But being present doesn’t fulfill the promise Aaliyah made to herself. She promised herself she’d play for the USC Trojans.
“That’s the No. 1 thing on my mind right now,” she says. “Playing and getting right.”
AALIYAH CURLS HER fingers around the handles of a 45-pound trap bar. She takes a breath as she bends her knees and lowers her body into a squat. She pushes her shoulders back with another breath. Then she pulls. Exploding upwards, Aaliyah lifts the weight off the ground and straightens her back.
It’s the last week of 2023 summer practice, and she’s deadlifting over 150 pounds. A year before, she sat off to the side when her teammates did their strength workouts. Now she works out alongside them.
When I first met her, the hospital bed swallowed her frame. Her body seemed small, her legs and arms thin. She is thicker now. She squats; she runs; she does box jumps.
Aaliyah joins her teammates on the Galen Center court for drills. She catches an outlet pass and fires the ball ahead to her streaking teammate. She sprints toward the free throw line, slows down to round the cone and sprints back down the sideline toward the other hoop. She catches the pass and goes up for a layup. She pushes off her left leg and lays it in with her left hand.
It’s not as natural as it once was.
“I am more, I would say, cautious about the things I do now,” Aaliyah says. “When I’m playing against contact, the way I explode up to the basket, I think about that more than what I used to. I could just explode and score. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m scared, but I think about it more than usual.”
The explosiveness, athleticism and confidence are those final qualities that made the player who was recruited to USC. After making enormous strides, the baby steps might be the hardest ones yet.
“It’s like she’s not 100% who she was before, but sometimes I see herself get frustrated and doubt herself,” USC junior Rayah Marshall says. “I’m like, ‘Calm down. The game will come to you. Play your game. Don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t go overthinking things. It’s just basketball.'”
The question of Aaliyah’s return to the court has moved closer to when than if. She has been medically cleared and is eligible to play when No. 21 USC opens its season against No. 7 Ohio State in her hometown of Las Vegas on Nov. 6. Friends, family and caregivers will be in the stands hoping she gets the chance to show the “incident” didn’t define her.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as resilient,” Marshall says. “She just have this dog in her.”
AALIYAH GAYLES WAVES me over to the couch in the USC basketball players’ lounge, cardinal and gold covering nearly every inch of the room. She rolls up her sleeve to show me a tattoo that stretches from her left shoulder down her bicep. A banner extends under a rose with a time: 11:52 p.m. Underneath, in a mixture of script and print lettering, it reads, “Everything happens for a reason, whether good or bad.”
Well over a year after Aaliyah was shot at a party, no arrests have been made, and the investigation remains open. She says she doesn’t know who is responsible, and it’s not something she puts much energy toward. She has other things on her mind.
“I don’t really think about it too much because I think that’s a stone that’s trying to bring me down,” she says. “I’m trying to lift myself back up.”
She has more tattoos all over her arms. The Roman numerals of Dwight’s birthday. A butterfly she got with her mom. Her brand “AG3.” An homage to her grandfather. My eyes once again drift to her left forearm and the tattoo in all capital letters, “Only the strong survive.”
“I feel like they’re art that explains a person,” Aaliyah says.
So do the scars. She has a favorite. Her fingers trace one on her left leg. It starts behind her knee and extends down her shin. She’s covered some of her scars with tattoos. This one stays for now.
“It reminds me,” Aaliyah says, “of a warrior.”
ESPN’s Nicole Noren contributed to this story.