For a long time I didn’t like basketball. I’m not sure the reason. Maybe because everyone pushed it on me. —Jennifer Hamson
PROVO — It isn’t easy being 6 foot 6½ inches — and a woman. Try shopping for clothes when your legs sport a 41-inch inseam and your arms a 6-foot-9 wingspan. This is to say nothing of the limited dating scene, and the comment, "Do you play basketball?"
Jennifer Hamson plays basketball and volleyball at BYU, activities in which her dimensions are an obvious advantage. For years she resisted trying those sports, despite the genes, height and the coaxing of others, but she finally gave in to the inevitable. Now athletics has opened a future of possibilities.
This spring the Los Angeles Sparks selected her in the second round of the Women’s National Basketball Association draft even after she had announced that she would postpone her professional career for a year so she can complete her collegiate volleyball career at BYU. In December, at the conclusion of the volleyball season, she will decide which sport to pursue professionally.
“I’m not sure how realistic it is,” she says. “It depends on how the volleyball season goes.”
There are a handful of dual-sport athletes in college — and then there is Hamson. She not only played two Division I sports, she played them simultaneously for three years. They are both fall sports.
Volleyball practice begins in August, and basketball practice in October, and their competitive seasons overlap in November and December. One day Hamson played a basketball game in Arizona, then took a chartered flight back to Provo to play a volleyball game. She has played two volleyball games and two basketball games in the same week several times, hurrying from one game to the next. Practice has been equally harried, but it became routine. She left basketball practice early so she could get to volleyball practice, walking and running from the Marriott Center to the Smith Fieldhouse. Meanwhile, she had to monitor practice time, because the NCAA has a limit of four hours per day.
She planned to finish her career juggling both sports until BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins casually suggested one day that maybe she should redshirt one of her sports to make her senior year easier.
“He said it jokingly,” says Hamson. “I didn’t take it seriously.”
But then Judkins talked to volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Olmstead told Hamson.
Hamson worried about how her volleyball teammates would react: “I wanted to finish my career with them,” she says.
But she also wondered if she was retarding her progress by trying to play both sports. She thought a redshirt in one sport would be an opportunity to see how well she could do by concentrating on the other sport. After leading the BYU volleyball team to the Sweet 16 in the 2012 NCAA tournament and earning first-team All-America honors, she opted to redshirt volleyball and focus on basketball, her weaker sport. Just as she did in volleyball, she helped the Cougars reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament and her game improved vastly.
“I realized this last year that I have potential (in basketball),” says Hamson.
Now she is focusing again on volleyball with daily workouts on campus. By the time she takes the volleyball court for the Cougars this fall, it will have been almost two years since she played in a game.
“I’m rusty,” she says. “I was surprised. I lost a lot during the layoff. My timing is off.”
She is one of 36 players invited to train and compete in the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships in Minneapolis this month.
Hamson comes by her height and athleticism genetically. Her mother, the former Tresa Spaulding, led the nation in scoring as a senior at BYU in 1987, averaging 28.9 points per game, and was a first-team All-American. She finished her career with a 23.4 scoring average, once netting 50 points in a game. An alternate for the 1984 Olympic team, she played two seasons of professional basketball in Europe before marrying Dave Hamson and beginning a family.
It was a match made in basketball heaven. Tresa is 6-7. Dave, who was 5-7 when he got his driver’s license, is 6-8. They have five children: 7-foot-3 Alan, 6-11 Timothy, 6-6½ Jennifer, 6-4 Sara and 5-2 Heather (at the age of 10). Alan played basketball for Pleasant Grove High School, while Timothy played one year before quitting the sport to pursue music. Sara will play for Pleasant Grove in the winter.
Jennifer was around the game since she was in preschool. Tresa kept statistics for BYU basketball games and Jennifer tagged along. She ran around the Marriott Center to amuse herself, but she wasn’t interested in playing the game: “I think part of the reason I didn’t play is because I was around it so much,” she says.
She chose instead to participate in, of all things, gymnastics, simply because it was what her close friend did. Gymnastics is dominated by short athletes for the simple reason it’s easier for a small body to tumble through the air than a tall one.
“I wasn’t very good,” Hamson says. “My coach knew I was there for my friend.”
She competed in the sport for eight years, a giant among munchkins. Tresa tried to direct her away from the sport: “There are sports that are better for your height,” she would say.
Jennifer was 6-foot-4 in eighth grade and more than a foot taller than her teammates when she finally gave up gymnastics. She joined the Pleasant Grove volleyball and basketball teams, which is what parents, coaches and classmates had urged her to do for years.
“For a long time I didn’t like basketball,” she says. “I’m not sure the reason. Maybe because everyone pushed it on me.”
Jennifer, who reached her current height at 16, was hardly a dominating basketball player. She was unskilled and her coordination was still catching up with her height.
“I was tall,” she says. “I definitely wasn’t good. I started off like everyone else.”
By her senior year she was being recruited by colleges for both sports.
She began basketball so late and spent so little time on it because of her divided basketball-volleyball interests that she was a raw basketball player who hadn’t yet developed solid fundamentals. Her only real move in high school was a turn around jump shot. She didn’t have the power game one would expect of a player her size.
After focusing on the game last year, she produced easily her best season, averaging 18 points per game, despite frequent double teams, and 11 rebounds. Using her volleyball skills she blocked 147 shots (4.2 per game). She was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, the first woman to win both awards in one season. The Cougars finished with a 28-7 record and Hamson was an honorable-mention All-American.
“I didn’t realize what I could do until this last season,” she says. “I didn’t think I was good enough. Focusing on it made all the difference. I improved so much. I just hadn’t developed the way I wanted to because I had trained for volleyball in the summer.”
She worked on all aspects of improving her game, including her intensity. She is so reserved and restrained that coaches have encouraged her to show more emotion. She concedes that she has had to learn to be competitive.
“I’m not an emotional person,” she says. “I don’t get mad. Being level-headed is good – you deal with pressure better. But at the same time you have to bring that emotion into the game. Both coaches have talked to me about it."
Hamson seems uneasy with the attention that she has generated in recent months, but she tolerates it patiently. She is used to standing out in a crowd anyway. She has been at least a head taller than her classmates since she was a little girl and she is still a head taller than most students on the BYU campus, male or female.
“I’ve learned to accept (being tall),” she says. “It doesn’t bother me. There is a woman at BYU who is about my height. I haven’t met her but I can see her across the top of the crowd once in a while around campus. In sixth grade there were a couple of kids almost my height. In high school there were two guys taller than me. That was nice. I never felt like I’m the only one. And I like being tall.”
She has to special order pants online through a website called Makeyourownjeans.com. She provides her measurements and they make the jeans: “They’re not super stylish, but they work,” she says.
She has solved the problem of sleeve length: “I just don’t wear a lot of long sleeve shirts.”
Dating is another challenge for someone whose height is virtually in the 100th percentile. There aren’t a lot of prospects when the criterion is somewhere north of 6-6 and Mormon.
“The dating (pool) is kind of slim,” she says. “I’ve dated guys who are an inch or two shorter than me. Statistically, I’m in a small percentage here. I just let those things happen.”
She has more control in her athletic future and to that end she is powerlifting and honing her volleyball skills while the WNBA and the Sparks await her decision.
“They were supportive,” she says. “They know I won’t be around this season. Right now it’s volleyball.”