Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Family-first Hampton guard not your typical freshman

For a kid who's all about family, it's no wonder Hampton's Malia Tate-DeFreitas returned to her roots for college.

"I was born in Hampton," says the soft-spoken 5-8 freshman guard.

"Newport News," says her mother, Jennifer, a Pirates alum from 1994 and a nurse today. "I met her father when I was a freshman there. He was in the Marine Corps. in North Carolina. We married when he was a junior, and I had Malia my senior year."

Hampton's family environment appealed to Malia - a kid who's all about family -- "My immediate family – there might be like 40 of us -- I see every day when I'm home," she says. "We have dinner together every day. My aunt cooks for everybody, and everybody’s invited."

She visited Pitt and Albany, and St. John's and Hofstra were in the mix. But she found the right fit at Hampton, where she felt an immediate bond with coach David Six and departed Pirates assistant Ashlee Finley, who she describes as a big sister.

As a player, Malia has flourished in a manner atypical of most freshmen in Six's program, who often spend much of their first year on the bench. She's started every game, averaging 19.3 ppg and .758 from the free-throw line, and while shooting just .356 from the field, Malia has the green light to shoot. Three times, Malia has been MEAC Rookie of the Week, and this week was named Player of the Week for the second time thanks to her 24 points and seven boards against Coppin State. Malia has a string of seven straight 20-point game and counting.

 "I haven't had a freshman like her," Six says. "She's a good basketball player regardless of her age. She's got things you can't teach."

Malia is unflappable -- donning a game face that even startles Six, who notes he gets the same expression whether he's yelling at her about her defense or complimenting her for a good shot. Pressure situations don't deter her -- no surprise for a player comfortable in the cooker. She is the ninth player in Pennsylvania history to have eclipsed the 3,000-point mark in high school.

"You'll never know if she's upset because she doesn't show it," her mom says. "When she tore her ACL when she was in high school that was probably the first time and the last time I saw true expression. She was so mad because they wouldn't let her go back in the game. She ripped the ice off and ran back in the game, and realized going down the court that she couldn't play."

"I think I tore my meniscus when I went back in," Malia says.

She continues to wear a sleeve on her left knee, which admittedly doesn't have full range of motion. But Malia rebounded from the injury to finish her high school career in glorious fashion. During her sophomore year, she led the Lady Steamrollers of Steelton High to their first Class A state title, averaging 23.9 ppg -- lofty enough for a mention in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd. As a junior, her average ballooned to 34 ppg, and by her senior year, Malia had another state title and was named a Parade All-American.

While she wasn't initially drawn to basketball -- she cheered, danced, played piano and had a special affinity for tennis -- basketball was clearly her sport.

"Basketball grew on me," says Malia, who played in the Stephon Marbury league in Coney Island -- quite the hike from her Harrisburg, Pa. home. "I didn’t like it right away because I played with all boys. I was the only girl in the league. They were overly aggressive."

Off court, she drifts toward talk of her family. Eighteen of them traveled to Los Angeles for Hampton's Thanksgiving trip. Nearly 30 were in the stands for the game at Delaware State. Malia talks to her mom at least three times a day and is eager to share the stories that come with the family funeral business. Her grandfather, father and aunt are all morticians.

The Winfield Funeral Home is a second home to her and was once the real deal. "We lived upstairs," she says. The double A-framed  home is an actual brick home on a two-lane road on Front Street. While many see the funeral business as something macabre, Malia says the family business has a welcome feel. 

"There's nothing creepy about it," she says. "At most funeral homes, the cars are black. Ours are white. We release doves. I will probably work there at some point in time."

For now, her business is basketball, and this kid is just getting started.

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