Originally printed in the SF Chronicle by Mitch Stephens
Shayna Mehta has always found an unusual balance of peace and exhilaration on the basketball court.
Quiet and reserved, the San Francisco native finds joy and creativity by expressing herself with “fancy dribbling moves, no-look passes, step-back threes and juking players,” she says.
Mostly, the 2015 International graduate and current Brown University junior finds joy in “defying expectation and surprising people who don’t expect a 5-foot-7 desi (of Indian decent) girl to play at this level.”
Mehta isn’t only playing at the Division I level; she’s excelling.
She is averaging a team-best 18.9 points per game for the 14-7 Bears, after earning Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman and second-team All-Ivy League as a sophomore.
Not bad for a short woman from a small, lightly regarded high school.
“I think I was probably a little under-recruited out of high school,” Mehta said. “I definitely came into college with a little chip on my shoulder. Luckily, I came to a program where I love my coach (Sarah Behn) and her style of play. We love to run and gun. We basically play with a 16-second shot clock. We have a lot of green lights.”
In a first-person November story she wrote for the online publication Brown Girl Magazine, Mehta described growing up in an Indian family of “first-generation professional doctors, engineers and CPAs.”
Some similar families put up a big red light to athletics, but her father, Yogy, a New York native and basketball junkie, put the ball in her hands at the age of 7 and let her fly.
Her mom, Usha Rajagopal, was a little apprehensive, but she joined in the joy of the game.
“Now she’s a bigger fan of basketball than my dad,” Mehta said. “She watches every Warriors game. They both watch all my games.”
Her parents clearly embraced the joy with which their daughter played. They could sense the game offered a great diversion to the rigors of academics, in which she also excelled. When she wasn’t studying, Mehta was a self-proclaimed “gym rat.”
“In high school, while many of my peers would stay out late and socialize on weekends, I would be in the gym developing my skills,” she wrote. “Basketball allows me to live in the moment and show a creative side most people don’t see. It’s my medium for expression.
“I feel fortunate to have supportive parents who have encouraged me to follow my passion to play a sport. They have allowed me to challenge traditional cultural barriers in athletics with their guidance.
“With so few desi women athletes in sports to follow as role models, my parents’ support has been the key to my achievements.”
She thanked all her former youth coaches too, at International, AAU and the Olympic Club, including Charlene Murphy, John Perez and Mary Hile-Nepfel.
Mehta burst on the high school scene as a sophomore at International and averaged 23.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game before earning Bay Counties League West Player of the Year honors twice.
The leap from a Division 5 high school in San Francisco to a Division I college in Providence, R.I., was huge but she said she was prepped well by playing against college and adult women at the Olympic Club.
“That helped me prepare for faster, bigger, stronger players,” she said.
The development of her three-pointer helped, too. She’s made 181 three-pointers in her career, including a school-record nine (on her way to a career-high 33 points) in an 89-79 loss to Cal on Nov. 19. She’s also a career 77 percent free-throw shooter while averaging 15.8 per game.
“There’s girls like 6-5 in the conference so if you drive to the basket it’s generally going to get swatted away,” she said. “The first year was definitely tough, but I learned a lot.”
A pre-med biology student, juggling school and basketball isn’t as hard as when she entered.
“You get the hang of it,” she said. “It’s hard, but it’s doable.”
Every summer, through a program called “Crossover Basketball,” she travels to India to teach basketball and life skills.
“Seeing their excitement match mine over the game of basketball was incredibly eyeopening and I cherished my daily interaction with the students,” she wrote.
Next summer she wants to play against collegiate and professional players from India and empower more women and “desi girls involved in the sport I love.”
She doesn’t back off a lifelong dream to play in the WNBA as well.
“Competing against the most skilled athletes in the world is a challenge that motivates me,” she wrote. “A 5-7 desi girl playing in the WNBA? Why not?”
MaxPreps senior writer Mitch Stephens covers high school sports for The Chronicle.