New number takes pressure of Sykes' back
Basketball is a sport with plenty of important numbers. The one on the back of the jersey is not normally one of them.
But for junior April Sykes of the Rutgers women's basketball team, an offseason change from No. 12 to No. 24 is more significant than any number anyone could throw her way.
Sykes' father Michael Sykes — before he passed away 18 years ago — wore the No. 24 when he ran the court. April Sykes wears his number to honor him and channel his shooting ability.
"I've always worn it to represent him and I finally got it back," Sykes said. "I'm excited about it."
Sykes did not have the opportunity to don No. 24 during her first two seasons because the number belonged to Myia McCurdy. But with McCurdy now a Rutgers graduate, Sykes quickly asked for a number change.
"I feel like my old self again," Sykes said. "It's just the confidence of knowing that it's on my back. It's like a relief. I always wore it for a reason. It's not just a number."
When Sykes refers to her old self, she is not kidding.
In high school, Sykes was the best of the best. Ranked the No. 2 overall recruit in the country, Sykes was the top player to make it to college after Elene DelleDonne opted out of her Connecticut commitment to spend time at Delaware.
Sykes was an All-American — the start of the Scarlet Knights "Fab Five" and an everyday double-double scorer with the ability to drop 50 points per game as a high school senior.
But when she got to Rutgers from Starkville, Miss., it all disappeared.
As a freshman, Sykes started just two games and could not even pass her conditioning test before the season started. She showed glimpses of a deadly shooting prowess, like her 18-point game against California, but finished with just 3.2 points per game.
Sykes' sophomore season was just as tough. Rutgers needed Sykes to play a key role on last year's squad. She started 11 games, but only upped her scoring average to 5.6 points per game. Her shooting percentage plummeted to 29 percent from the floor and just 16 percent from long range.
But now a junior, Sykes feels like she finally found her grove.
"I wouldn't say it's confidence," Sykes said on her offseason improvements. "I'm just relaxed. I used to be a relaxed player, like nothing worried me. I think I'm just more relaxed now. I'm just slowing things down and reading situations better. Defensively, it has been a huge progress for me, so it's exciting."
Her teammates see the same improvement.
"I think the number changed has already helped her," said junior guard Nikki Speed, who came to Piscataway with similar lofty expectations as a member of the Fab Five. "I think that's going to help her with her confidence. She's always in the weight room just trying to see what she can do. She works hard on the court, taking Coach [C. Vivian] Stringer's — whatever you want to call it — verbal abuse and learning from it. She's going to be a weapon on the court this year."
The relationship between the Hall of Fame coach Stringer and Sykes has not been a smooth one.
"She used to yell at me all the time, but it was never for shooting. It was for not shooting," Sykes said. "The other day at practice, she yelled at me, ‘If you're not going to shoot, just get off my court.' She's embraced me as far as shooting because she knows that's one thing we're going to need since we don't have Brittany Ray from last year."
Stringer's plan this season is to not force Sykes into any specific mold, but to allow her to be herself.
"I don't intend to put anything on her in terms of expectations," Stringer said. "I need her to be a part of everybody else and not worry about it because the greatest burden anyone ever has is the expectation that one has of one's self and the expectations that everybody else has and it puts a burden on your shoulders."