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UNLV’s Essence Booker happy she found her way back home

Essence Booker never wanted to play college basketball at UNLV or live in Las Vegas after graduating from Spring Valley High School.

But you never would have known that watching her Thursday night in the waning moments of UNLV’s 85-79 win over New Mexico.

When a double technical foul forced a lengthy stoppage in play in the final seconds, a spirited group of spectators at the Cox Pavilion began to cheer and celebrate in the bleachers.

So, too, did Booker, flashing a celebratory grin after dancing to the beat of King Von’s “Took Her to the O.”

After a long and complicated journey away from home that took her to UNR and Ball State, she’s returned with a greater sense of appreciation for the city that steeled her.

The fourth-year junior transfer is thriving and enjoying her first year with the Lady Rebels (17-4, 9-1 Mountain West) as their leading scorer (15.7 points per game) and most indispensable player, leading them in minutes and helping propel them atop the conference standings.

She’s finally at peace away from the basketball court, too, knowing she’s reunited with the family she so deeply loves and so proudly represents every time she takes the floor.

“She just seems more secure as who she is as a person and as an individual,” said Booker’s aunt and role model, Sonji Green, a former sprinter on UNLV’s track team. “She made these decisions on her own, so now that she made the decision (to come) back here, I’m happy for her that she was allowed go on that journey.”

Las Vegas’ own

Booker loves Las Vegas. The iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign tattoo on her right biceps is proof. She was born and raised in this city. Molded by her surroundings as the second of five girls born to parents Greg and Telisha — making for what at times was a chaotic and hectic upbringing.

But she found focus in school and sport, paving a pathway for her eventual departure from Las Vegas with her family and siblings doubling as her guides.

Basketball was actually secondary for Booker, a self-described tomboy and former strong safety who loved to tackle the boys at the peewee level. To her chagrin, though, football eventually became too physical, leaving basketball and its blend of physicality and finesse as a viable alternative by the time she began seventh grade.

One of Booker’s older cousins played basketball at Barstow Community College, giving her an early role model to emulate. She would skip classes at Garside Junior High to practice in the gymnasium and fill her schedule with club practices and workouts.

Traditional powerhouses like Centennial and Bishop Gorman were options for secondary school, yet Booker opted instead to attend Spring Valley, which had a 1-24 record during her eighth-grade year.

“She had a chip on her shoulder from the moment she walked into Spring Valley,” Grizzlies coach Billy Hemberger said. “I’m forever grateful for that. … A kid who said, ‘I see that they win, but let’s make this school relevant.’”

As a freshman, Booker powered the Grizzlies to the first of consecutive Class 3A state championship game appearances. She also excelled academically by laying the foundation of what would be a 4.6 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale by the time she graduated in 2018.

Securing a scholarship became her primary focus and she gravitated toward those who could help her do so. Leaving Las Vegas, she thought, would distance her from potential distractions.

She even left her home during her sophomore year to live with Spring Valley assistant Errol Campbell and his family in North Las Vegas, trusting his household would provide the stability she needed.

“That step needed to be taken for Essence to free up, lose some of the stresses in life,” said Campbell, Booker’s de facto godfather. “She was able to … start to grow in maturity. Relax. Not worry about some of the things that you would normally worry about.”

Booker said she still feels guilty about leaving her siblings, but the transition helped her intensify her training and studies. She blossomed into one of the state’s top players while Spring Valley flourished as one of its top teams. Even in high school, she would obsessively pour over game tape, determined to address her weaknesses.

Her work ethic fostered unwavering confidence, and the Grizzlies followed her lead to post a 105-21 record during her prep career.

She’s part point guard, part two-guard and all moxie, three times earning All-State honors as one of the best players in the city.

She craved discomfort and inevitably found it during the 2018-19 academic year in Reno, where she would study public health and sociology with the hope of one day becoming a pediatric neurologist. She missed her family and felt disconnected from the coaching staff — triggering feelings of self-doubt and sapping the joy from the sport she’d always loved.

Sure, Booker played and played reasonably well, starting 12 times as a freshman and leading UNR in scoring (12.5 points per game) as a sophomore en route to All-Mountain West honorable mention. But she acknowledged that she privately contemplated quitting basketball and stopped caring about winning and losing.

Her apathy trickled into the classroom for the first time in her life and she struggled to cope. She began wondering what it would be like to be what she called a “normal student” free from the demanding student-athlete lifestyle.

“At some points, I would be at practice and I would kind of just be there. I wouldn’t really be present,” she said. “I was kind of wasting my time and their time.”

As one of six players to transfer from UNR after the 2019-20 season, Booker garnered recruiting interest from programs like Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Georgetown. But the emergence of COVID-19 prevented her from visiting any of her preferred programs and rendered all visits virtual.

Ball State coach Brady Sallee successfully outrecruited the bigger programs that sought Booker’s services by presenting her with a plan tailored specifically to her wants and needs.

Coming back

Booker had never been to Indiana before. Let alone Muncie, which sits 62 miles northeast of the city center in Indianapolis. Her eyes still widen with a twinkle of surprise at the mere mention of the Midwestern state. Las Vegas and Reno are 24-hour cities illuminated by casino lights during the darkest of nights.

“It was just super dark” in Indiana, she said.

But she wasn’t there to “go to a pretty campus” or enjoy the weather. She was there to play basketball for a coaching staff she trusted and still admires.

Until she couldn’t.

While playing against Kent State last January, Booker suffered her first consequential injury: a fractured tibial plateau. The recovery timetable prevented her from playing for seven weeks.

Without basketball to buoy her, she truly missed life in Las Vegas for the first time in her college career. Her younger sisters were growing up, Campbell had an undisclosed health scare at the beginning of the 2020-21 season and Green was mired in a battle with cancer.

Booker returned to play in Ball State’s final four games while knowing she’d transfer again after the season.

“I felt like I had support from my coaches and teammates, but in reality, (I) can only deal with so much on my own,” she said. “I was just ready to go home, to say the least.”

Booker entered the transfer portal in April and hoped to hear from Lady Rebels coach Lindy La Rocque. A school in California or other surrounding states would have sufficed, too, so long as she was a manageable car ride away from Las Vegas.

A few hours after Booker entered the portal, La Rocque reached out.

“From the first conversations I had with her, obviously, you get the sense she really wanted to come home to Las Vegas,” La Rocque said. “But not just to be home to play in front of her friends and family. But to compete and win. It’s basketball, too.”

Booker knew immediately that she wanted to play at UNLV for La Rocque and referred to her newfound connection with the program as “automatic.” She accepted a scholarship, moved back to Las Vegas in April and trained in the summer with the Lady Rebels.

Booker was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA in October, ensuring that she would be UNLV’s starting point guard this season.

“She cares a lot about other people and taking care of people,” LaRocque said. “That’s why I think she can also be a great player, too, because she wants to do right by the people around her.”

Booker is brutally honest with herself. Almost to a fault. But she doesn’t lament any of the decisions she made. They’ve given her the perspective she needed to reframe how she defines home. And home for Booker is where she’s happy.

Home is Las Vegas.

She unsheathed her signature smile after the game Thursday alongside her teammates, who lovingly mobbed her in celebration of her 1,000th point. Then she concluded one of the best nights of her career by posing for pictures on the court with family, friends and fans

“I think she gained a different kind of confidence in knowing ‘I can go away. Even if I don’t like to. I can do these things. And it’s not going to kill me,’” Campbell said.

“Essence is always going to strive to get to where she wants to be,” he added. “She’s going to always try to make the right decision. The moral decision. The fair decision. And she’s going to make sure that she grows and moves forward from it.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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