Editor’s note: This is a special story of an individual who was born and raised in women’s basketball. The rest of the Tomeka Brown story, including her coaching career, other basketball endeavors and the role the sport has held in her life, will be shared in the second installment of this series.
Right before the WNBA, there was the American Basketball League (ABL) and its dominant force, the Columbus Quest.
As a girl growing up on the south side of Columbus, Ohio, Tomeka Brown was often in attendance.
As a young teen just entering the basketball circuit herself, she did what she could to expose herself to the professional world. She looked up to Quest players, like Shannon Johnson and Katie Smith, and befriended Valerie Still as she hung around the habitat.
“I was immediately exposed to a high level of excellence,” Brown said.
Brown watched the Quest rule the ABL, winning championships in the league’s only two completed seasons in 1997 and 1998. Its roster was loaded, and future two-time WNBA champion Brian Agler roamed the sidelines as head coach.
In her first season following the team, Brown volunteered at a Valerie Still Foundation event, and that built a connection between the two that has lasted now a couple decades later.
At the time, though, Brown said she didn’t totally understand the incredible access she was afforded.
“I would be a ball girl for her games and be immersed in the atmosphere, but at that time, I didn’t get it,” she explained. “I didn’t get the fact that this was actually what was going on. I was just riding with my big sister at her workplace. I didn’t understand that it was before the WNBA and things like that. I just thought it was something they loved.”
Even though Brown was surrounded by professional female athletes, it didn’t sink in for her until later that this was a potential route for women, herself included. That changed as she aged and grasped the paths available.
“As I got older, I was like, ‘Wow, that was a big deal,’” Brown said. “Having a chance to see what it took, their workouts, how they lived, how they carried themselves, I think that planted a seed. I was able to see that early on. Even when I didn’t know what to do, I had a good memory of how to be.”
Brown carried those early experiences with Still and the Quest with her, and they helped her put together a successful enough high school career at Marion Franklin High School to gain Ohio State’s attention.
She had plenty of suitors, but Brown’s family has lineage in Columbus. After moving to the city at age 3, and it has been dear to her heart since. She said she always grew up wanting to make a statement in her hometown, and Ohio State provided that chance. So, in 1998, she moved across town to begin her life as a Buckeye.
As a freshman, Brown came off the bench, appearing in 29 games and averaging 4.4 points per game. The team went 17-12 (9-7) and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Beth Burns’s second season as head coach.
Brown’s play would blossom from there as she welcomed a larger role each successive season, and by the time her career concluded, she was one of the best perimeter defenders in program history. She was ranked 12th all-time in steals in school history (now 19th) with 154, including a 10-steal game at Northwestern on Feb. 17, 2002, tied for the second-most in a single game by a Buckeye. Brown proved a hero at times, too, like when she made a game-winning shot at the buzzer to lift Ohio State over Cincinnati, 61-60, in the first round of the 2001 Women’s NIT, a crucial victory that made the team’s eventual triumph in that tournament possible.
Although she saw individual success on the court, her teams didn’t as much. Ohio State did not attend the Big Dance in any of Brown’s last three years on the squad and finished below-.500 her sophomore and senior years.
It was a challenge, but Brown said she took a lot away from those struggles.
“It always goes back to your personal foundation and what drives you. You have to be yourself first to even bring something to a team element, basketball team or anything,” she explained. “For me, it was making sure I maximized the opportunities, the education, developing myself, so that I could shine on the outside. Your results don’t always go how you think they will, but I’m a spiritual, faith-based woman, so that’s where my foundation comes from. Do what you can and hope for the result. Even when it wasn’t good, I knew there was a lesson learned.”
Brown survived, and at the end of her four years, she got her shot at the pros. The Orlando Miracle drafted her No. 55 overall in the fourth round of the 2002 WNBA Draft, and Brown said it was humbling to have her hard work acknowledged with the selection.
But it didn’t work out. Brown was released before she could play for the Miracle, and although she said there were other teams interested in her, she chose to go home, complete her degree, and navigate a new life not as a basketball player.
“I had graduating college really hanging over my head. That was something I wanted to accomplish,” Brown said. “When I was, for the first time in my life, given a list of options, I chose to finish up the quarter. I knew as a female athlete, it wasn’t like I was going to be able to retire in so many years from playing basketball. For the next stage, maybe I’d go on vacation and relax a little bit, learn myself outside of the sport actually. So that’s what I did. I came home, graduated, and real life began.”
All photography was shared with courtesy by Tomeka Brown.