Five-year-old Emaia’s heart raced. She ran barefoot over the sharp grass in her backyard, hardly feeling the sting as she sprinted past one of her brothers. He tried chasing after her, barely missing her ankle as the little girl continued to the end zone. The football she protected remained safely nestled underneath her armpit.
Her second oldest brother, Travis, stood between her and the goal line. He tried taking her head-on, but Emaia hopped from her left to her right and dodged him. Emaia threw the football on the grass and lifted up her arms in victory. Old bruises from previous “Pick ‘Em Up, Mess ‘Em Ups” covered her biceps.
She looked at the brothers she finally outran and grinned. I did it!
A small feat, sure, but one that fueled her confidence from the get-go. If gritty Emaia O’Brien — now Long Island University’s starting guard — could beat her brothers, then what couldn’t she do?
YOUNGER, SMALLER, AND TOUGHER
Emaia and her brothers also played basketball behind her house in Detroit, Michigan. Her older siblings trained her, so when her dad enrolled her for AAU, Emaia was ready.
From a young age, Emaia learned she had disadvantages against her. For one thing: she was the only girl on a court of boys. For another: Emaia was the shortest person on the court.
When Emaia first started playing in the league, she realized the rules differed from the tough games she played with her tweenaged brothers. The six-year-olds were allowed to carry the ball, which was something Emaia’s brothers told her was a big no-no.
Emaia recalled her mother shouting from the sidelines: “Emaia, you can pick up the ball and run!”
She replied, “No, Travis gonna call travel!” And so, she dribbled away.
Emaia played tough. After the AAU named her MVP, the mothers of the other players gave her a nickname: Biggie. The pint-sized player took after her namesake by adopting a larger-than-life persona on the court.
When fifth grade came, the AAU finally enrolled enough female players to field an all-girls’ team. But Emaia could not leave the boys hanging – nor the older kids.
Emaia recalled, “At the time, I played two games against boys and then two games against girls, because I used to play on the fifth and sixth grade team. And then seventh [grade team], eighth [grade team]. But I was only in the fifth grade.”
She ran up and down the court for hours, playing basketball with kids bigger, older, and stronger than she was.
What would have tired anyone else only gave Emaia more reason to push forward. Her coaches were impressed.
But coaches of other teams wanted to reign her in. After Emaia led her elementary boys’ team to another victory, the losing coach tried to get her pulled.
C’mon, dude, he complained, hasn’t she played enough games today already?
Emaia laughed as she recalled the league official’s words. “You talkin’ about Emaia O’Brien.” Of course she would play until she decided she was done.
Rules were not broken for just anyone. But this girl was not “just anyone.”
BIGGIE THE SUPERSTAR
By high school, Emaia was the hotshot of Chandler Park Academy.
When Emaia broke her fingers, she had to miss a big game. Obviously, this would bum any player out, but Biggie was the team’s poster child, literally. Her face was all over the gym, plastered among Chandler Park banners in their signature blue and white.
The team needed her, and she could not play. Emaia refused to let her team down. She screamed and rooted them on from the bench and became the Eagle’s loudest cheerleader. Biggie never missed an opportunity to support others — something her family always taught her.
Then came 2021: Emaia’s senior year and her second year being captain. Chandler Park versus West Bloomfield. Chandler versus a Top 25 school. The two teams: head to head. The score: neck and neck.
The pressure: on.
Every point a team scored was matched by the other. On the court, standing next to girls a head taller than she, five foot, one inch Emaia seemed unthreatening. But she knew Chandler needed to win, and to do that, Emaia had to make her shots.
Because of her size, Emaia tried to avoid the paint, but West Bloomfield pressured.
A girl fouled her, giving Emaia the chance to make a pivotal free throw.
The score: 78-78.
Biggie, with the whole school watching, took the shot. She thought of her mom’s words of comfort: “What is meant for you will be for you.” She thought of all the hours of practice, and . . .
With seconds left in the game, West Bloomfield never stood a chance. Emaia, their undersized guard, helped do the impossible: defeat a Top 25 school.
That year, Emaia averaged 13 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 steals per game, and made the Detroit Free Press All-State team. Her signature long-shot three-pointers and 1,000 point-plateau ensured her legacy in the school.
What D1 college would not want her?
But, in basketball, the first thing college teams look at is height. The average height for a female D1 basketball player is 5’6”. The NCAA recruiting guide lists a 5’8” guard as the ideal. Emaia barely broke the five foot mark. How could anybody keep up in such a competitive division being small?
Still, Emaia never expected to have to deal with picky recruiters. She thought she would become a local hero and go to University of Detroit Mercy.
Then, the coach of Detroit-Mercy was replaced, and her options dwindled.
With rejections coming in left and right, Emaia did her best not to get discouraged. She repeated her mother’s mantra to herself: “What is meant for you will be for you.”
Emaia’s father tried to boost her prospects by recording her games and creating highlight reels for coaches to watch on the internet.
That was when Long Island University called.
Every two weeks, Emaia spoke with LIU’s coaches. Long Island’s interest, in turn, captured the attention of other schools.
But no other school captured Emaia’s attention. LIU had the community she wanted. Emaia committed on her mother’s birthday — a gift to her biggest fan.
If the recruitment process was fraught, so was playing D1 for her first season in 2021-2022.
Emaia has spent most of her time in college practicing. “Honestly, now I wake up [and practice] an hour before the actual team workout; then we have lift, then practice, then conditioning. So, I spend at least five to six hours in the gym a day, probably more because I shoot late at night on the [shooting] gun."
When the Sharks suffered a discouraging losing streak in the first half of the season, Emaia trained even harder and listened to her coaches. She typically dedicated the extra hour before each workout for new footwork to get around opponents, and new moves to keep her game unpredictable. She constantly broke the expectations others held for her and aimed higher than ever before.
In Emaia’s weekly phone calls home, her mom told her they were going to start winning soon. After all the hard work, it was bound to happen. This prompted Emaia to work even harder.
Her spirit rubbed off on the rest of the team. Just a freshman, Emaia already became a key player on the court, a key teammate who pushed the other women to do better.
In the second half of the season, LIU scored some long-overdue wins, and Emaia was instrumental in every single one of them. Each game, Emaia brought her faith in her mother’s words every time she took a shot, make or miss: What is meant for you will be for you.
“But it feels better to see [the ball] go in than it to not go in,” Emaia admitted with a chuckle.
Her skill was so exceptional — shots taken from outside the paint, going up the court in three strides — that she received a record-breaking seven NEC Rookie of the Week honors. Then, the NEC unanimously named Emaia Rookie of the Year.
On top of all of her accolades, Emaia recently became Long Island University’s captain for the 2022-2023 season. With a brand-new team on its way, LIU needed someone reliable to be their leader.
LIU’s Head Coach, Rene Haynes clearly agreed that Emaia was the best fit for captain. “Emaia has proven that she is not only a confident scorer, ready to hit the big shots, and competitive, but she is a great teammate. [She] continuously leads by example on and off the court,” she said.
THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE
So many colleges thought her success would be impossible. Biggie was actually very small. They did not see that Emaia’s size only made her faster. That her family had drilled into her a competitive and supportive spirit since she could walk. That she leaves a legacy with every step she takes.
“You know, during the recruiting process, I would hear all about what she would not be able to do on a D1 level,” says Long Island’s Associate Head Coach, Chris Dunn. “I guess they were wrong. Emaia is a once-in-a-lifetime player and I am happy to have the opportunity to be a part of her journey to this point.”
Emaia’s journey is only beginning. She dreams of going pro to become the shortest woman ever in the WNBA. With how things are going so far, Emaia knows the impossible is not always impossible, and if it is meant for her, it will be for her.
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