Before Imani Lewis is a basketball player, she is a leader — both in her community and on her team.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin forward Imani Lewis would visit American Family Children’s Hospital and have fun with the kids as they went through some of the most challenging trials this world has to offer.
More recently, the junior has turned her attention toward advocating for racial equality through the Minority Student Athlete Union and the Black Student Athlete Summit.
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“Off the court, I will say… As far as out of the community, wanting to help and be active and stuff like that. She’s always at the forefront of that,” her position coach, former WNBA player and Purdue star Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton said. “Always wanting to take on initiative.”
It was not always clear Lewis would be an all-conference caliber basketball player. In fact, one of the first forks in her road to becoming just the 27th player in the history of the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team to reach 1000 career points was whether or not to stick with hoops at all.
With a passion for soccer, she had a decision to make — the pitch or the court. Badger fans should be counting their blessings she chose the latter.
Though one of the hardest decisions in her life, this would not be the toughest roadblock. At nine years old, a scoliosis diagnosis jeopardized her playing basketball in any capacity — let alone the ability to realize her dream of becoming a professional.
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“I just want to inspire those coming in behind me,” Lewis said. “Here I am playing with a broken spine, a discombobulated body … This game has allowed me to have a platform. My whole life I’ve always said I want to leave a mark, I want to leave a mark, I want to leave a mark and I think it’s something I’m continuing to do and it’s something that has continued with me.”
And in the wake of the police brutality against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and countless others, the platform is more potent than ever.
“If I have a voice to bring awareness, that’s helping,” Lewis said. “And so I think just, in my heart is just something that I’ve always wanted to do … I feel like it’s helping a lot and it’s helping me turn into who I am today and is helping me leave that impact, leave that mark and be the change that I want to be.”
She routinely emphasizes her journey to 1000 points could not have happened without her support systems. Her parents, coaches and teammates have all played instrumental roles in producing the kind of player who deserves to reach such a milestone.
Lewis, along with sophomore standout Sydney Hilliard, graduate transfer Estella Moschkau and fellow junior Sydney Mathiason, comprise the Badgers leadership counsel. Their camaraderie and leadership have been invaluable to how the team has come together in the craziest season in the history of college athletics.
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Whether it be trivia night, organizing shoot around sessions or making sure as many people on the team as possible are registered to vote, Lewis and her fellow Badgers have always concerned themselves with what is best for the development of the team.
As a result of this camaraderie, Lewis has enjoyed some of the best basketball of her career in the latter half of this season. In her last 10, Lewis is averaging a dominant 18.7 points per game to go along with a monster 11.4 boards per contest. She lead the way with 27 points and 14 rebounds in the Badgers upset win against then No. 12 Ohio State and was promptly honored with the Big Ten Player of the Week award.
“She knows that she deserves it and she’s put in the work to earn those thousand points and rebounds and double-doubles and all that because she knows she’s put in that work,” Wisdom-Hylton said. “She’s helping our team and our program as a whole and she does so much for the program.”
Lewis has been a three-year starter in the program, but this year marks the first time in her career Lewis is the oldest front-court player on the team. Her freshman year she had Marsha Howard showing her the ropes. As a sophomore, Abby Laszewski took her under her wing. Now, the onus is on Lewis to be the leader of the bigs and of the whole team.
Since Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis recruited Lewis to play for Wisconsin, she’s grown into the role. Becoming a vocal leader as opposed to just one who leads by example has been an emphasis for her and the coaching staff.
“We put the team captain’s leadership book in her hands very early,” Tsipis said. “The people in our student-athlete development office saw great potential in her being able to lead, be a spokesperson for minority student-athletes…. When you’re doing things that are outside and not directed at basketball, I think it helps engage her teammates even more on how well-rounded Imani is.”
When Lewis scored her 1,000th career point against Michigan State, her initial response was … flat. For someone who pours so much into the community and the team as a whole, an individual accomplishment in a loss did not seem like much of an accomplishment at all. With time to reflect on her milestone, her tone has shifted ever so slightly.
“Now that I look back on it it’s a great accomplishment and for myself I say it’s a miracle,” said Lewis. “That’s just a huge milestone to get it and to me it means even more because at one point I couldn’t play basketball and here I am shocking the world.”