Bell of the Ball
Former high school star has rocky start at MSU — Here comes the rebound
Sitting in the bleachers of East Lansing High School’s gym, Robert Smith recounted fond memories of one of the most accomplished players in his 11-year tenure — MSU junior guard Klarissa Bell.
“We were in a team meeting one time and we had to pass the ball to each other,” Smith recalled.
“When you passed the ball to somebody you’d have to say something about that person positive. I passed the ball to Klarissa and I said, ‘I really believe that if you wanted to do the work, you could play in the WNBA.’ I felt really strong about that. And now as you see her out there … it’s possible.”
Back when blue and white were her colors of choice, Bell led the East Lansing Trojans to four consecutive conference titles and their first-ever state championship in 2010 while setting school records in career points, games started, free throws made and offensive rebounds. Bell nearly earned another championship ring but fell short as the runner-up her sophomore year. In addition to the records, she ended her illustrious prep career by being named Michigan’s Miss Basketball and the Lansing State Journal Player of the Year following her senior season.
A shining résumé of that caliber attracted suitors from across the country, but Bell opted to stay home and play for the team she grew up cheering for.
But it wasn’t long until she realized her long list of high school accomplishments wouldn’t immediately translate to the Division 1 level. It would take blood, sweat and tears — literally — for her to establish herself in the program. After overcoming early setbacks, Bell now has the opportunity to achieve similar greatness to when she first made her name in the city.
If not for the encouragement of her stepfather, Monty Myles, Bell might not have developed into the city’s basketball prodigy. She grew up playing soccer and dreamt of starring on the pitch after moving to East Lansing at 3 years old.
When she was in fourth grade, Myles convinced a then-hesitant Bell to try out for a local girl’s basketball team — The Ballers.
“I was just like, eh, I didn’t really like it,” Bell said.
“My younger brother was better at it than I was so it just really discouraged me and I didn’t want to play. … (Myles) was like ‘I think you should go again,’ so I went to the next one, and I found myself getting better and better and that was just kind of what built me up and kept me going.”
Eighth grade was when she first realized her calling was on the hardwood.
College coaches started taking notice as early as her freshman year, Bell said, as she became a star on the summer AAU circuit. By the beginning of her sophomore year, the recruiting machine was ramped up full-go.
Official offers didn’t pile up because she committed to MSU relatively early — the summer before her junior year — with only Texas challenging the Spartans in the race.
With five younger brothers and a younger step-sister, proximity to family was one of the main factors in her decision, Bell said, in addition to facilities and playing style.
“I told her that whatever she did we would support her decision,” Bell’s mother Krista Myles said. “But of course I went out and bought myself an MSU mom T-shirt before she even made her decision and (hid) it in the basement.”
A humbled beginning
Although campus is a three-minute drive from Bell’s house, moving to MSU came with a harsh reality check.
The homegrown star came into the program with sky-high expectations but found herself grounded to the bench. In her first 48 games in a Spartan uniform, Bell averaged 2.2 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.6 assists while playing slightly more than 10 minutes a night.
“It is difficult being in East Lansing,” she admitted. “Coming out of high school, you’re this great thing and everyone’s like ‘Oh you’re going to do sweet at State,’ and then you’re not playing at all. That was hard for me.”
Even grocery store trips would lead to random fans approaching her to ask why she wasn’t excelling as a Spartan.
“Everyone’s like, ‘I know who you are! Why aren’t you playing?’” Bell recalled. “Just things like that, that’s just awful.”
Krista Myles was more frustrated than her daughter about her minutes.
“I said you need to leave — this is crazy, I can’t believe that you’re sitting … She was like, ‘No mom, I’m going to stick it out. I’m going to prove to coach that I should be on the court.’”
Not only was she not seeing the floor, her relationship with head coach Suzy Merchant was rocky. It wasn’t until this past summer that relations between her and the coach improved, partly because of increased playing time at the end of last season, helping ease any prior aggravation.
Monty Myles, who has coached Bell and her brothers at multiple levels, said he thought she had the talent to start as a freshman, but understood the situation. During that turbulent first season, she started getting in his ear to ask him to assist her with her shooting or to organize a workout.
“It was really nice to see that she wanted it,” Monty Myles said. “She just basically told us, ‘No, I’m going to make this work.’ And she did.”
Heart is where the home is
Countless hours spent working on her game, coupled with Merchant’s desire for an offensive spark, led to Bell starting the final 11 games of last season.
Heading into today’s game at Northwestern, Bell has started every game and is MSU’s leading-scorer at 12.1 points per game. She has posted career-highs in points four times this season — most recently a 25-point performance against Iowa on Jan. 17.
When asked if Bell could be MSU’s next superstar player — a role Merchant has yearned for somebody to seize all season, a player to put the team on their back when adversity strikes — the coach described the final time out of regulation in Sunday’s overtime loss to Purdue.
On a night where Bell struggled the majority of the game, going 3-for-11 shooting from the floor, Merchant made a telling decision by entrusting her as the centerpiece of the final play in an attempt to score the Spartan’s biggest win of the season.
“I have all the confidence in the world in her,” she said. “The last play of the game to win it in regulation we ran a high ball-screen … for KB to come up and put the ball in her hands in the middle of the floor … I think this coaching staff has a lot of belief in her by putting her in that situation on that play.”
As someone who already has overcome unstable times and high expectations in her career, what does Bell think of being the face of MSU women’s basketball?
“I think, yes,” she said.
“Would I love to have that role? Yes. Do I think I have the confidence in myself enough yet to become that player? I’m not sure. But I just think that as a team we’re working really well together right now, so I think that’s what’s really keeping us ticking.”