Prior to UC Irvine’s Big West bout versus UC Santa Barbara, senior guard Kassandra McCalister was accompanied on the court by her mother, grandmother and two brothers as she was honored for her contributions in part of the annual “Senior Night,” which is traditionally held on the last home game of the regular season.
McCalister put on a shooting clinic, scoring a career-high 36 points in what could have been her last game at the Bren Events Center, en route to leading her team to a much-needed 72-65 victory.
“All I was thinking was I’m not going to lose that game,” McCalister said. “These next few games determine whether we get home-court advantage or not. We are in fourth place and top four teams get to play at home. We do not want to travel. I’m doing everything to push the team, push myself to stay in the top four where we think we deserve to be.”
McCalister will end the season leading the Anteaters in scoring and will undoubtedly be considered for All-Big West honors.
Her journey to the top is a remarkable story, but five years ago, Kassandra McCalister wouldn’t have imagined playing for UC Irvine.
Fresh off three league titles, three section titles, and one NorCal Championship at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, McCalister accepted a basketball scholarship to Oregon State University, 50 miles north of where her father, Danny McCalister, was a standout defensive back for the University of Oregon Ducks.
It seemed like a perfect fit for McCalister, who credits her father for introducing and inspiring her to play the sport of basketball.
“I started playing basketball when I was in second grade,” McCalister said. “My dad was always interested in basketball. He got me started in NJB (National Junior Basketball). He coached me all the way up to my eighth grade and taught me everything I know.”
Tragedy would strike during McCalister’s freshman year at Oregon State, nearly pushing her away from the game of basketball forever.
On Oct. 29, 2007 Danny McCalister was pronounced dead in a work-related accident in the city of Saratoga, 20 minutes west of San Jose. McCalister, who had been working as part of a three-man paving crew, was driving a work vehicle when wet conditions caused the vehicle to slide downhill. As the truck slid, McCalister jumped out of the truck to escape and it rolled over him.
“At first, I wanted to stop playing basketball just because he was such a big part of my life, but that would not do him any justice for what he did for me,” McCalister admitted. “The best thing I could do was to go out and continue to play, and play the way that he knew I could play.”
McCalister would sit out her entire freshman year at Oregon State with a foot injury. After returning from the injury, she played in 19 games and averaged a subpar 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. The following year she played in only 10 games and averaged a disappointing 1.4 points.
“Things weren’t working out [at Oregon State]. One of my old teammates at Oregon State actually came down [to Irvine] and gave me reference to Molly [Goodenbour]. I started talking to Molly and found out I really liked her so I decided to come to UC Irvine. It’s a top academic school, as well. It was a no-brainer to me.”
Three years after the death of her father, McCalister’s change of scenery marked the start of a fresh beginning. Anxious to prove herself on the court, McCalister was forced to wait her turn and sit behind, then UCI women’s basketball star, Jade Smith-Williams.
She managed to average a decent 7.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, but playing behind Smith-Williams was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to her both as a ball player and as a leader. For the two, not only would they eventually share the same position and role on the court, both shared the burden of losing a father at an early age.
“I learned a lot from Jade because I had to transition to playing point guard [this year], the same position Jade played. I never had played point [guard] before. Just watching her all season — being a leader, pushing through when you’re tired. I’ve definitely have translated that to what I have done on the court this year.”
“I am one of two seniors on the team, so naturally that role comes with being a leader. I’ve played longer than everyone on the court. From day one I knew I had to step up and knew people would look up to me and follow me.”
McCalister’s emergence as a star player can be seen in both her statistics and the team’s success. Not only has she nearly doubled her scoring average from 7.6 points per game last season to 14.1 this season, but she’s put her team in a position that no one expected them to be, especially after losing their top three scorers from last season.
“In the beginning it was slow because it was a new position for me. Playing point guard and playing the wing are two completely different things. Once I got comfortable in that role, things started falling into place.”
Despite struggling mildly early in the season, McCalister says the team could have gone in two directions: continue to play badly or step up and play better. All she had to do was look down at her arm to remember the things her father taught her.
In old English font, the word “Strength” is tattooed on her left forearm. Just below it, her wrist bears the Japanese symbol for strength with the number 27 embedded within it. It’s a reminder to always leave everything out on the floor and have no regrets.
“You never know what will happen, just play as hard as you can,” she said.
“I know that he’s always looking down on me and knows that I’m successful now. I go out every day and play for him,” McCalister said. “The biggest thing you can go through is losing one of your parents. That has definitely made me the stronger person I am today. I know that he’s always with me.”