Jamie Russell has made a tremendous impace on the women's basketball team at Illinois State. (Photo by B Corbin/WJBC)
By Bryan Bloodworth
One of Jamie Russell’s biggest attributes as a basketball player is her quick hands.
She claims that comes from her days as a youngster chasing chickens while growing up on a farm in Rock Falls and her time in the boxing ring.
There truly is another side to the self-described “Tom Boy” who has been a two-time Missouri Valley Conference first-team selection during her two-year career for the Illinois State women’s basketball team.
“Growing up on the farm in the middle of nowhere and boxing definitely shaped me as a person, gave me my work ethic and self-discipline,” said Russell on the eve of Friday’s first-round game in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
The Redbirds meet Bradley at 8:35 p.m. at Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. ISU is the No. 3 seed with a 21-9 record, while Bradley in the No. 6 seed with a 14-15 mark.
ISU coach Stephanie Glance said it was difficult to put into words what Russell has meant to the Redbirds since transferring to ISU from Wisconsin prior to her junior year.
“When Jamie arrived I knew from the first day of practice that she was going to be an incredible player,” said Glance. “She is very gifted athletically, but the great thing about Jamie is she works so hard every day.
“She spent her entire red-shirt year in the weight room when she didn’t have to. She went above and beyond what was required. When you have that kind of player, who has that kind of talent - then makes that kind of commitment – that’s a special player.”
The 5-foot-7 Russell grew up scooping horse manure, baling hay, cleaning chicken coops and all the other general chores on a farm.
“I even helped my Dad butcher chickens,” said Russell. “I tell people my quick hands come from all the years of chasing chickens to catch them and put them in the barn during the winter.”
When she wasn’t on the farm, Russell was playing Junior League football as the only female on an all-male team or hanging out in her Dad’s gym, who was a professional boxer and owner of the John Russell Boxing Club.
“I would go to the gym and watch my Dad work out before football practice,” said Russell, who grew up as the middle of five children with two older brothers. “One day I decided boxing seemed like fun and something different.”
So at 9 years of age, Russell began a boxing career that saw her win all 11 bouts – nine against males - she participated in until she retired at age 12.
“I couldn’t handle thinking about losing and leaving on a loss,” joked Russell about her decision to retire from boxing.
It was actually basketball that led Russell away from the ring.
“I was 12 or 13 when I started to really get into basketball,” she said. “It stole my heart. I played on my brother’s YMCA team and I realized I was pretty good at it and kept with it.
“We had an old rim hanging from the barn and I would play every day because it was fun. I didn’t do it because I wanted to get better. I wasn’t even thinking about going to college and playing. It was just pure enjoyment.”
That enjoyment led to Class 3A all-state honors and a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.
Russell lasted two years with the Badgers before she decided to transfer.
“Wisconsin didn’t turn out the way I expected,” admitted Russell. “I wasn’t happy with not playing. I wanted to play and contribute to a team. When I decided to leave I didn’t know where I was going.”
Russell had heard about Glance, who had just been hired in the spring, and put in a phone call to her.
“Things just kind of happened from there,” said Russell, who earned all-league defensive honors for a second straight year. “It was that two-hour phone call that sealed the deal.”
And what sold Russell on the Redbirds?
“Her southern voice,” said a laughing Russell. “No, she was so sincere and I felt so connected to her just from our talk on the phone. I knew I needed to come to ISU and meet her and it was everything I was looking for.
“I realized then that a relationship between your coaches is one of the most important things to look at when choosing a school.”
Russell, who is majoring in criminal justice and sociology, also learned about the importance of relationships earlier in life when her parents divorced, leaving her mother to raise five children while working three jobs.
“After that, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my Dad,” said Russell. “My aunt and uncle (Phil and Shauna Hubbard) became very important to me. There were there for me and took guardianship over me in high school.
“I lived with them and they are the people I need to thank for helping me get to college. Without them, that never would have been possible. They have been my rock and they still are.”
Russell did say her Dad has been to a couple of games this year, which “was a little surprising, but I think he’s realizing he was missing out on something,” continued Russell. “He’s made an effort, so I do appreciate that.”
Russell, who leads the team in scoring (14.2), steals (75) and free throw percentage (87.0), added that her career at ISU has been more than she could have imagined.
“My first two years in college weren’t ideal,” said Russell. “I was lucky I got this second chance. It’s been amazing.”
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org