Taber Spani was home-schooled and cocooned. Kamiko Williams was educated overseas on Army bases and world-wise.
By Spani’s estimation, Williams was likely otherworldly. From Williams’ point of view, Spani was an enigma.
They entered Tennessee together as freshmen and immediately didn’t like each other.
“She couldn’t stand me, and I really couldn’t stand her either,” Spani said.
That remark caused Williams to near fall out of her chair from laughter.
“We were like we just have to tolerate each other because we’re on the same team,” Williams said.
“I just couldn’t relate to her at all!” Spani said. “And she had no idea, like I was from another universe.”
Now, they are seniors and a lengthy interview at Pratt Pavilion is filled with laughter, hugs and interruptions and the two seniors finishing each other’s sentences.
Williams is the daughter of Vincent and Angelita Williams and grew up on various Army bases in Germany. When Sgt. Williams was assigned stateside to Clarksville, Tenn., Kamiko Williams got on the Lady Vols’ recruiting radar.
Spani is the daughter of Gary and Stacey Spani. Her father was an All-American linebacker in college and played 10 seasons in the NFL. Her mother coached her in basketball and taught her at home. A stellar shooting performance in a summer showcase event put Spani on the orange map.
Spani arrived in Knoxville from Lee’s Summit, Mo., with natural leadership skills, a sports pedigree – her grandfather Frosty Westering is a legend in college football – and a disciplined approach to every aspect of her life on and off the court. She discussed mental toughness with Westering when she was in grade school.
Williams arrived with a catalogue of songs in her head – safe to say Spani had never heard a single one played – and a carefree approach to everything on and off the court.
As freshmen they were forced to stick together – all newcomers live on campus while returning players can lease their own apartments – and get to know each other and, over time, they came to like each other and even found common ground beyond the fact they were both left-handed players.
They also helped each other. Spani got Williams to focus. Williams encouraged Spani to relax.
“She pops me in the back of my head every once in a while and tells me to get it right,” Williams said. “And I am trying to get her dancing. Taber’s got a little two-step when we play the right music, play a little Jesus jam.”
That outburst from Williams caused Spani to lose her train of thought mid-sentence – Williams blurted out responses at random throughout the interview – and burst out laughing.
“As different as we are – and I would agree we are very different – over four years of getting to know Kamiko, we’ve been through some stuff together, and our relationship has gotten a lot stronger,” Spani said.
“We are very similar in some ways, too. We are both fun-loving, kind of loud, outgoing. We just express it in a different way. There is definitely a Kamiko that can get serious. But off the floor she is goofy unless she is sleeping or unless she is hungry.”
The perception of Williams is that she is a free spirit, and it is accurate to a point. The book on Spani is that she is studious and serious, but Williams can share another version.
“Definitely, Taber can let loose,” Williams said. “We have Bible studies every week at Taber’s apartment, and Taber is the realest person I have ever met. She keeps it 100 percent honest with you at all times.
“Most of the time she is in her books, but she is the main person I go to for advice, whether it be my family, basketball, relationships. She is my go-to,” Williams said.
“We are really close,” Spani said.
“We really are,” Williams said. “We’ve come a long way.
“A long way,” Spani said.
The seniors also had a lot to endure. Spani has dealt with an assortment of injuries from turf toe to a severe bone bruise in her knee that cost her games and practice time at Tennessee. She also is dealing with lower back issues this season. Williams struggled with conditioning and staying focused for extended stretches, and the result was inconsistent play and conflicts with the coaching staff.
During their freshman year, then-assistant coach Daedra Charles-Furlow was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to take a leave of absence. Three months before that, then-teammate Amber Gray suffered a brain aneurysm and nearly died. They watched the careers of three other teammates, Cait McMahan, Kelley Cain and Lauren Avant, be ended or derailed by injury. Tennessee hasn’t reached a Final Four yet in their tenure on campus.
But the biggest blow of all came before the 2011-12 season when Pat Summitt told the team that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Summitt coached her final season and now is head coach emeritus. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick succeeded Summitt as head coach. Spani walks to Summitt’s seat and gives her a hug before every game.
“For me I was heartbroken,” Spani said. “It was more so for Pat because we have all the confidence in the world in Holly. It was the fact you can’t play for Pat and to see what Pat has been going through … that just killed me.
“It’s been a transition for us. I didn’t think it would be as big of a transition as it would be.”
“For a moment, we felt like freshmen,” Williams said.
“Definitely,” Spani said. “As much as she is similar to Pat, she is different in her own way, so we were trying to relate to the head coach Holly.”
Williams was concerned about Summitt, and her heart also reached out to Spani.
“I was more concerned about Pat’s health and if that means she is not head coach no more I am cool with that, as long as she’s OK,” Williams said. “I just wanted her to be better and still be around the team, but I didn’t want her to be so stressed out that her condition gets worse.”
That is quintessential Williams, who has a roll-with-it attitude about life but also a warm heart. Spani was distraught about Summitt, and it was Williams who offered comfort.
“She just cried in my arms,” Williams said.
“With Pat still around I’ve been able to have our relationship still grow,” Spani said. “I talk to her pretty much every day. I was developing that my first three years, but now it’s mentor. I just admire her so much, and I want to support her in any way possible.”
Summitt has unleashed her inner-Williams, too. Since she doesn’t have to coach the players each day, she has become a confidante and jokester.
“It comes out of nowhere,” Williams said. “It will be silent and all of a sudden she says something and everybody just falls out laughing.”
“She is hilarious,” Spani said.
Spani’s reason for attending Tennessee was to help Summitt win another national title. She never foresaw that her senior year would arrive and the Lady Vols were seeking her first career Final Four.
Neither senior is ducking the challenge in her final year. The stated goal is Final Four, which will be held in New Orleans in 2013.
“We have to,” Williams said.
“We feel a sense of responsibility,” Spani said.
“We have the talent. We have the system. We have the coaching staff,” Williams said. “We’ve just got to get it all together.”
Both players bring a different skill set to the team. Spani has the strength of a linebacker and can drain threes from long range. She can post up smaller wing players and get on the boards. Williams oozes athleticism and can break down a defender off the dribble at will. She also could be one of the best one-on-one defenders on the team but didn’t commit to that side of the ball until recently.
Spani was asked if, after seeing Williams pick up the ball on defense like she does now, she wanted to smack her in the head.
“I do sometimes,” Spani said with a smile while Williams acted hurt. “But Kamiko has been through more than anybody I’ve seen, just the ups and downs, so in a way I understand the situation, but then the competitive work-ethic part of me is like, ‘Miko! Come on! I need you every day!’
“So, it’s a little bit of both, but I know her potential is out the window. And we need that from her, and she knows that. I have seen her mature so much in three-and-a-half years. She is a different person, a different player in every sense.
“I don’t think people give her enough credit for how much she’s been through, and she really stepped up. She could have left multiple times and just said, ‘Forget this.’ But she didn’t and that’s a testament to who she is. She is not a quitter.”
Williams, for her part, gets frustrated with Spani when she becomes a reluctant shooter.
“I just tell her, ‘Keep shooting the ball, and she needs to give me one. You give Rel one. You give Meighan one. Can you give your fellow senior one?’ ” Williams said.
Williams is referring to assists compiled by Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons from passes to Spani.
“Or even if I am just sitting on the bench, ‘C’mon, Tay, give me one,’ ” Williams said.
That causes Spani to start giggling and Williams to launch into a monologue.
“ ‘Why are you overlooking your shot out here? You are the best shooter we’ve got. Shoot the ball,’ ” Williams said. “You’ve just got to remind her every once in a while, because she wants to look, get everybody involved. Sometimes you’ve got to shoot the ball. Shoot. The. Ball. Spell it in capital letters.”
“She does do that,” Spani said.
“I tell her all the time, ‘Taber, good defense, but, hey, shoot the ball. Taber, way to box out, but, hey, shoot the ball. Taber, great layup. Shoot the ball,’ ” Williams said.
The seniors know the clock is ticking – Spani has only so many college shots to take and Williams soon won’t hear Lady Vol coaches imploring her to play shutdown defense – and the day they depart Tennessee is approaching.
“I just want to have no regrets,” Spani said. “We still have an opportunity to leave an impact on the court. Our legacy, I don’t want it to be only on the court. I want it to be in the way we impacted other people, gave back, supported Pat.
“The basketball is absolutely awesome and we are completely passionate about it, but the things that last are the relationships that you build.”
“I want people to remember me for me,” Williams said.
“I don’t think they’ll have a problem with that,” Spani said.
Both graduated within three years in college. Williams did it by attending every summer school session – since she is from Clarksville slipping home for a visit was easier – and Spani did so by loading up on classes some semesters.
Spani’s approach to school was anything less than an ‘A+’ was underachievement. Williams celebrated a ‘C’ because she passed. Spani learned to relax – an A- or B+ was still OK – and Williams got serious about classwork. Both are honor roll students.
Spani is in graduate school, and Williams is getting a second degree in psychology. It was pointed out that both would leave school thoroughly educated, and they high-fived each other.
“Ow!” Williams said. “You throw a heavy hand. Look at what you just did. That is a football dad for you.”
Both want to pursue professional basketball, especially overseas opportunities, and Spani hopes to combine sports with missionary outreach.
“I want the Lord to guide whatever lies ahead,” Spani said. “I would love to continue playing basketball as long as possible and get into a nonprofit mission foundation in other countries and do stuff with basketball.”
Williams said she would welcome the experience of pro basketball, but she eventually wants to open a day-care facility, particularly for lower-income families.
“My heart and my passion are with kids,” Williams said. “My all-time goal is to own my own day care. All ages. I’ll have the little babies over here. I know ‘Sunshine’ is going to be in the name somewhere.
“So if I play ball overseas, I will save money and invest it. I want to make it affordable. Day care is expensive.”
Spani paused when asked if she would drop off her children with Williams, and Williams reacted with mock outrage.
“I’ll have to pray about that,” Spani said.
“They’ll be well taken care of,” Williams said.
“I know that,” Spani said.
“They just might hear some things that mama probably doesn’t want them to hear,” Williams said.
Spani wants to raise a family. Williams thinks she might just want kids she can send home at the end of the day.
“If I had a day care, I would be OK,” Williams said. “I can just walk in and play with the babies, go home, go to sleep and do it again. My mama wants grandbabies, though.”
While the two found plenty in common, differences will remain, of course. Williams now has a tattoo on her lower left arm, while Spani would be aghast at inking herself.
“It’s a rose and a butterfly and my dad, my mama and my brother’s initials,” Williams said.
Warlick retained Summitt’s policy of players having tattoos covered when participating in practice, games or official team functions.
“We’ve definitely run for that before,” Spani said while a sheepish Williams cleared her throat and smiled.
Williams thinks Spani might change her mind about ink “when she’s 80.”
“It’s on her bucket list from me,” Williams said.
That brings a peal of laughter from Spani, who clearly will continue her friendship with Williams after they leave college. Williams promised to call pretty much daily.
“Taber, can you come visit me, please?” Williams said.
They are now part of the long orange line of Lady Vols, and their paths never would have crossed had they both not selected Tennessee.
“Never,” Spani said. “We never would have been friends.”