In the Gophers’ opener Saturday against Harvard, Kenisha Bell, the replacement at point guard for All-America Rachel Banham, will have cheering sections with family from Chicago and Minnesota for her U debut.
Her mother, Aisha, had special T-shirts made with her daughter’s picture in front and No. 23 and “K. Bell” on the back.
“That support keeps us together,” Aisha said. “Sometimes if you don’t have support, you lose focus and your passion.”
A one-time Gophers recruit, Kenisha Bell starred at Marquette for one season before deciding to return to Minnesota to be closer to her mom, brothers and the people who shaped her basketball career.
She’s one of four Minnesotans on the Gophers’ roster who transferred back after starting their college careers elsewhere, joining Whitney Tinjum (Bradley), Allina Starr (Auburn) and Bryanna Fernstrom (Iowa State).
“Once players like me started to come back,” Bell said, “it was kind of like this was the talk of town.”
Rarely do you see players as successful as Bell transfer. She set Marquette freshman records for scoring average (14.5), total points (434), free throws (111) and field goals (157) in the 2014-15 season, before sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules. The 5-9 guard started 28 games and earned All-Big East freshman team honors.
Bell’s older brother, Brandon, is on the Marquette track team, and Bell often drove the 90 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago to see her father and more than a dozen half brothers and sisters. But Bell, who has 17 siblings, missed Minnesota.
“She called almost every day stressing and saying she really didn’t like it there,” Aisha said. “So I told her to stick it out the year. And then if she wanted to go somewhere else and it was available, she should leave.”
Aisha left a steady job in 2007 to leave Chicago’s Southside, afraid her children would succumb to gang violence.
“She felt it was a better fit for us growing up,” Bell said. “Chicago was getting really bad with violence going on every day. We were used to it. We didn’t want to leave. We were crying every day [at first]. But my mom said, ‘Let’s try it.’ ”
For their first month in Minnesota, Aisha Bell, her three sons and Kenisha lived in a Minneapolis shelter.
“I had to make a decision and sacrifice for them,” Aisha said. “I left everything behind. But I wanted my kids to do something better. A lot of kids were being initiated into gangs and getting into trouble. I didn’t want them to grow up with that. I wanted them to go to [college] and get a degree.”
Aisha carved out enough time while raising four kids to earn an associate degree, and today she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in human services. Kenisha’s two college-aged brothers raised in Minnesota are in school, too. Brandon is a senior All-Big East sprinter at Marquette on pace to graduate in May. Darius is a sophomore guard at Riverland Community College in Owatonna.
Once Bell’s family life stabilized in the Twin Cities, her basketball career blossomed. She went from a benchwarmer on a boys’ fifth-grade team in Chicago to being one of Minnesota’s best in her age group by eighth grade. She quickly became a varsity starter for Bloomington Kennedy, which was the Class 4A state runner-up her senior year in 2014.
Bell recalled once getting humbled by Lakeville North, led by Banham, the state’s player of the year and future Gopher legend. Bell started attending games at the Barn just to watch Banham play, leading to Bell’s commitment to the U as a high school sophomore.
That decision came “too soon,” she said, and Bell reopened her recruitment.
Now, about five years later, Bell’s basketball life has come full-circle, back to the Barn. She’ll join junior Carlie Wagner in a Gophers backcourt that has the giant task of replacing Banham, the Big Ten’s all-time scoring leader.
“Kenisha’s definitely different from Rachel,” Wagner said. “She’s more of a driver. She wants to get to the basket. A little craftier with her handles and getting by people. She’s got excellent speed. Kenisha creates for people.”
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings hopes Bell’s case is an example to other top Minnesota prep players.
“She’s a great talent who left home, and we wanted to bring her back,” Stollings said. “A lot of kids want to initially get away because they think there’s something greater out there. But they then quickly realize there’s nothing more special than playing in your home state.”