Bentley's Kari Brekke Cares
Back in her junior year of high school, Kari Brekke finished up a difficult morning practice to prepare for a playoff game later that night.
With sweat dripping down her face from sprints, she quickly realized that the early practice would not be her only exercise of the morning. That extra exercise was not for basketball, but for Jacob, an exuberant 25-year-old with special needs who spent an hour running on the court with Brekke as part of her community service club.
“He was just so excited for the session, and would just want to run around the gym at full speed,” Brekke said. “So we spent that morning literally just running around the gym. We probably did so many sprints. Every time I would catch up to him or we would take a break, he would just have the biggest smile on his face.”
Brekke’s decision to run with Jacob the morning before a playoff game provides just a glimpse at the lifelong commitment she has made to basketball and her community. Five years after her session, she continues to give back to those less fortunate than her as she embarks on the last year of her basketball journey at Bentley University.
Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, Brekke’s motivation to give back to her community sprouted at a young age when she began to take basketball more seriously and play for her local AAU team, the Wisconsin Blizzard. Although playing in front of college scouts at multiple AAU tournaments forced her to live and die with every decision she made on the court, Brekke said her parents instilled a sense of perspective that she could apply to her life off the hardwood.
“They’ve always taught me that sports are great, they are fun,” Brekke said. “But at the end of the day, the ball will stop bouncing at some point. Who you are off the court is way more important than your stats or anything like that. That perspective has been big for me.”
With that mindset rooted in her psyche entering Appleton North High School, Brekke took her parent’s advice and assumed a leadership role with ”Inspire Sports,” a community service organization created by her assistant coach, Lucas Jadin, that organizes two-hour sports clinics linking high school athletes and special-needs children.
Brekke said she learned to not take anything for granted in high school after spending all four years with Inspire Sports, as she witnessed the sheer joy both the children and parents felt during the sessions.
“Seeing these kids and their faces when they get to run around with us for a morning and afternoon would just set my week on a whole different course,” Brekke said. “I would just be more grateful and felt lucky to just go to school or go to practice.”
Jadin, who described her as “the closest thing I’ve had to a sister,” said Brekke showed a unique ability to bond and connect with special-needs children, something that was on full display at a session during her sophomore year.
“I’ll never forget, we had a kid that came in who couldn’t talk, who couldn’t run, who couldn’t catch, who could barely move,” Jadin said. “And instantly I knew who was going to be that kid's partner. It was Kari, because Kari had the ability to be patient, to not give up on this kid even though she was uncomfortable because he couldn’t communicate. And he left that day beaming with pride, his parents watched with tears coming down her eyes, because Kari was one of the few people that could connect with their son.”
Brekke's perspective on life through her involvement in Inspire Sports translated to success on the court for Appleton North High School, as she was a three-time captain and starting point guard for the Lightning for all four years. Brekke started every game for her varsity team and led the Lightning to back-to-back state championship titles in 2017 and 2018.
At the same time, Brekke was excelling in the classroom, graduating as valedictorian of her class. Brekke credits her high school accomplishments to her ability to control and improve her mental health, a skill she learned from Jadin — who also served as the mental health trainer for the team.
“He would always talk about the importance of sleep and human nutrition and how all of that needs to come together for you to be a good athlete and good student,” Brekke said. “So I just really valued all the little things. I always tried to get nine hours of sleep knowing that would help me in the classroom and on the court.”
Brekke’s dominance on the court at Appleton North earned her a scholarship at the University of New Hampshire, where she led the team in points, three-pointers, assists, field goals and minutes in her first year.
Despite being named Rookie of the Year in the America East Conference, Brekke took her talents to another New England state, joining the Bentley Falcons in the spring of 2019.
In just her first season with the Falcons, Brekke ranked second on the team with 12 points and 3.5 assists per game, leading the team to a 19-9 record. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the end of her season in March 2020, Brekke knew she had to step away from the court and make a difference in her community, prompting her to work at St. Joseph’s food pantry in Menasha, Wisconsin during the summer. Providing food to those in need at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic made her feel grateful and privileged for the life she lives.
“It helped me to really feel lucky for the situations that I’m in and that I have,” Brekke said. “When people are coming by for food twice a week, it does put things in perspective.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic also canceled her 2020-21 season, Brekke is continuing her life-long commitment to basketball and her community as she enters her senior year at Bentley.
On the court, the senior guard -- who is one of three captains on the team this season --- has led the Falcons to a 5-3 overall record this season while averaging 10.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals a game.
While Brekke stuffs the stat sheets every night, Bentley head coach C White said she separates from the rest due to her rare leadership qualities and ability to see the game from a different perspective, something that was on full display in a preseason meeting earlier this season.
“There was a time in our preseason when we just started, and we did a team bond thing,” White said. “And she took over the locker room and talked about mental toughness. She did a ‘train to be clutch’ PowerPoint and talked about some of the tips and techniques she uses in order to move onto the next play and get better. That was when it was like, ‘Wow, look at this kid.’ Not only setting up an entire PowerPoint presentation, but teaching all of her teammates on how to be better and different tips and techniques of how to move onto the next play.”
As Brekke has emerged as the main leader of the team for the Falcons, it is what she accomplishes outside the game of basketball that she takes the most pride in. When she is not directing the floor for Bentley, the senior guard co-leads the on-campus club ”Be the Bridge Bentley,” which aims to raise awareness of and combat social injustice by sparking conversations with students on campus.
Brekke said she started the club last spring to create a safe space for students of any background to discuss problems regarding race and inequality, something she thinks is an important conversation given the current social and racial climate in America.
“My mom is from Taiwan, so I’m half Taiwanese,” Brekke said. “Being Asian-American, I have been feeling the weight of how can we come together and create a space for these conversations that might be uncomfortable to have in day-to-day situations. We just wanted a place to sit and feel the emotions and gravity that come with these types of events."
Brekke said she has seen her club meet those objectives in the first year, noting one specific conversation regarding forgiveness that showed a significant step towards social progress.
“Someone talked about how their grandparents haven’t always seen eye to eye, they grew up in a different time and it was hard to have these conversations,” Brekke said. “I remember one of them coming back and saying how they got the courage to talk to them and told them that they forgive them for anything they may have said before that was harmful. Feeling like that community that we have built had given someone enough courage to have that tough conversation with family, that felt like a really powerful moment.”
As the guard hopes to cap off her collegiate career with a strong senior season, she remains dedicated to serving her community. She wishes to keep her club operating to provide students with a safe space to converse. Then she wants to continue that commitment to social change after graduation.
“I love basketball, I love the sport,” Brekke said. “But I honestly think the social justice part, whether it’s volunteering or working with a non-profit, or even starting my own non-profit, that is way more important than the basketball side.”
Why does she think this? Because she has kept that same perspective her parents instilled in her as a young child: that no matter how much success she has on the court, it is what she does off the court that will be remembered.
“Generosity and compassion have always been natural things that I’ve felt that I can make a difference with,” Brekke said. “Looking around and knowing that I’ve been blessed with things that other people haven’t, knowing that not everybody has two legs and two arms and can run. That feeling of giving back is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I’m very much a believer that the best gift is giving, not receiving.”
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