When Katrina Nesby first read Candrice Jones’ play “FLEX”, she was startled at how closely the story of five talented high school basketball players struggling to transcend their small town mirrored her own.
“Once I read it, I thought, ‘I could relate to all of this,’” says Nesby, who played basketball from adolescence through college, where she played as a Razorback. “I thought, ‘This is so crazy.’ From the first quarter to overtime, I was totally surprised at how relatable it was with the things I’ve been through with sports.”
Her talent for the sport and intimate knowledge of the subject matter, both on and off the court, made her a natural choice as a coach for the five actors in TheatreSquared’s production. The cast of “FLEX” must convince audience members they’ve been playing ball together since they were children, and the play is peppered with scenes of actual ball playing. Nesby’s skill for integrating the sport with the acting required received high marks from the actors she trained; during scene changes for the show, assistant stage manager Coda Boyce wears a Nesby number 45 jersey—Nesby’s Razorback number— in tribute to her contributions.
“She sort of broke [the moves] apart and made it so simple,” says Erica Matthews, who plays Starra Jones. “And then we would build on top of it, until we were like, ‘Oh, WOW.’”
“She made it all in relationship with the play,” says Sydney Lolita Cusic, who plays Cherise Howard. “She structured everything around this Flex play, and the acting moments then eventually got folded in. It was like, ‘How can playing basketball in this way also reflect the story you’re supposed to tell? How does this lend to both the storytelling and make you look like you’re trained, college-bound basketball players?’”
“In addition to that, making sure that we know athletes are performers, as well, blending those two languages together,” says Alaina Kai Chester, who portrays April Jenkins. “It was such a beautiful part of the process.”
Nesby’s own basketball story, like those of the young women in Jones’ play, started when she was around 12 years old, growing up in West Memphis, AR. Her height — an astonishing 5’10 by age 12 that would grow to 6’4 today — was irresistible to her school’s basketball coach, who pleaded with Nesby to sign up for the team.
“I had been playing, growing up, literally in the dirt, like in the play,” she says. “We had a milk crate. We tore the bottom out of it, put it on plywood, and we nailed it to a light pole. It was just fun for us. It wasn’t anything major. I didn’t see myself as being good, I just played against other people. But once I got to school, and I saw how people were good at it, and I wasn’t that good — I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to play.’”
When Nesby gave her answer, she was told that she would get paddled — Nesby says the coach called it bending over and “touching the brick” — every day until she acquiesced. Furious, Nesby complained to her mother about the treatment.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s right — what are you going to do about it?’” recalls Nesby. “And she said, ‘No, what are you going to do? You’re either going to take the hit every day, or you’re going to play.’ So I played so I wouldn’t have to take the hit every day.”
Her perspective now, she says, is that both her mother and the coach believed basketball was a way for her to escape the confines of West Memphis.
“[My Mom] knew before I knew that this game could possibly help my future,” she says. “Looking back now, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m kind of glad it happened.”
Nesby works with T2 actors in preparation for FLEX
So Nesby’s basketball career was launched, and her height immediately earned her a nickname on the team: She would be “Stick” from that point forward. She liked the camaraderie of a team, but, despite her physical suitability, she still didn’t care for the sport itself.
“It wasn’t fun at all,” she says. “I only played because I knew I was good. But I didn’t see basketball as my future. When I started high school, I was great at basketball, but my attitude was bad. No one could tell me what to do. So that was hard between my coaches and me. I would get kicked out of practice pretty often. But around my 11th grade year, I noticed that colleges were looking at me.”
By the middle of her senior year, she had offers from around 30 schools to come and play for them. She was still on the fence about going to college, but her mom was not.
“She said, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to go, but you’re getting out of here,’” says Nesby. “She said, ‘They’re willing to pay for your school—you’re leaving. You’ll be the first of my babies to finish high school and go to college. So you have to go.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I have to go.’”
Nesby was courted heavily by the schools trying to recruit her, but the University of Arkansas ultimately won her over. She liked that it wasn’t too far from home — at four-and-a-half hours, it was within a day’s car ride — and she said she was immediately taken by the Razorback team.
“When I came on my visit, the girls were so calm — they seemed like a family,” she remembers. “I went on other visits [to other schools], and there was so much animosity amongst the team. I really didn’t want to be a part of that. And once I came [to the U of A], they treated me like I was a part of the team already. I said, ‘This will be perfect.’ So it didn’t take me long to make the decision.”
She immediately felt at home on the team. But moving away from West Memphis, where the majority of people looked like her, was a difficult transition; in parts of Northwest Arkansas and in some of the cities to which she traveled to play ball, she was frequently exposed to aggressive racism and hate speech.
Lady Train basketball team cast from FLEX
“The adjustment was tough; I don’t think I’d been called so many N-words until I moved here,” Nesby says, then pauses for two beats. Her voice breaks slightly as she adds, “I get emotional talking about it.”
“Even in my [uniform], I had someone tell me, ‘We don’t have to serve your kind,’” she continues with difficulty. “It was tough. And being so far from home, it was a major adjustment. I couldn’t tell my coaches, because they wouldn’t understand — they didn’t go through what I go through as a Black individual. Trying to keep your grades up, and basketball in itself was a whole job. We got up at 5:30 a.m. for workouts and my last class was probably 7:30 p.m. with study halls in between. It was an all-day thing. I was not prepared.”
The stress, says Nesby, was profound.
“I would say it was some of my darkest days. It takes a toll on you mentally. As an athlete, there is so much pressure. When I hear about these young athletes taking their lives, I can understand why. I, too, was at that point—you’ve got your teammates, your school, your coaches, your people back home, and you don’t want to disappoint any of them. It was so hard.”
The pain of this period of Nesby’s life is etched on her face as she recounts her first couple of years as a Razorback. She was still somewhat ambivalent about the sport she was playing. She was talented enough that she started getting press early on in her college career — she seemed to be a favorite of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports reporter Rob Keys, who called her “about the funniest person to come ‘round the Razorbacks’ block in a long time”. He also detailed Nesby’s sometimes rocky relationship with Coach Gary Blair over the course of her college career.
“Generally regarded as one of Arkansas’ smartest players ever since she’s been on campus, Nesby has shown flashes of brilliance throughout a career spotted with clashes with Blair,” Keys wrote.
“[Coach Blair] was about his job — winning and getting the job done,” says Nesby. “With me not wanting to attend college, playing for him was just a job I had to do, to get school paid for. It was tough, very tough, but my teammates made it better. My attitude was terrible and I was stubborn and let’s just say, it was not a good combination. I was kicked out of more than a few practices but one thing he refused was to give up on me and I am forever grateful for that.”
In fact, there appears to have been a deep level of respect on the part of both player and coach.
“Nobody’s a better kid than Katrina,” Keys quoted Blair as saying. “Her biggest fans are her teammates. They cheer louder for her than for anyone on the team. I mean, she’s just a tremendous kid.”
Looking back, is there anything Nesby can imagine doing differently?
“First off, I could have listened,” she says. “ Where I grew up, [there’s] a lot you don’t take from people, and that was my mentality. He tried to tell me what I should do and my reaction would always be a ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ reply. Wrong on my part, absolutely. He and I have a great relationship now and speak every so often. I’ve apologized for being such an ass and we laugh about a lot now. College life was a blessing in disguise because it truly has helped with me being such a great individual, to this day. Live and learn, such a great motto.”
Despite her talent, Nesby says she never considered the possibility of pursuing a professional basketball career post-college. Instead, early on, she set her sights on working with children.
“Children seriously brighten up my day,” she told Rob Keys as a sophomore. “We’ll have a Lil’ Back camp, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But then I come in, and they’re always up, happy, and grabbing on you. And those are the only ones, because they’re so young, I can walk up to them, and they’ll stop what they’re doing. The older kids, you step up to them, they step right back at you. So, I think I’ll side with the younger kids.”
After college she fulfilled that dream by working with toddlers and younger children for over 16 years; today, she works at Fayetteville High School. She only plays basketball on a casual basis, although, she says, she might like to get back to one-on-one coaching sometime in the near future.
The call to coach the “FLEX” actors took her by surprise, she says. She was recommended to the T2 artistic team by a T2 employee whose child had been under Nesby’s care.
“I said, ‘Are you sure about this? I don’t know about theater,’’ she says. “[T2 Director of New Play Development] Dexter [J. Singleton] said, ‘That’s okay, we just need help with the girls on certain parts of the play,’ so I said, ‘Okay, I think I can do that.’ Then I got nervous and thought, ‘I’m going to blow it,’ and tried to find someone else who could do it.”
But Singleton told her he knew she was the perfect person for the job, and she proved him right. The cast came to her with varying degrees of basketball talent — from virtually zero experience to a couple of hard-core players who could have played in college—and Nesby turned them all into the play’s talented team from Plainnole, Arkansas, who are desperate to use the sport as a ticket to something bigger.
“They made it so easy — they were so fun to work with,” Nesby says, with customary humility. “They made it easy for me. I just had to separate the basketball and understand that they’re doing theater, because I would get caught up in my coaching part of it. But it turned out really great.”
“Katrina was amazing to work with,” says “FLEX” director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. “She is not a theater person, but she understood how to integrate basketball into the play in a way that was true to the play and true to the game. This can’t be overstated. It is indescribable how very valuable she was to process.”
Nesby has seen the play twice, so far.
“I was in awe that they actually did it,” she says of the experience. “From day one to now is like night and day. It looks like they’ve been playing since they were kids.
“It was truly awesome to see.”