Last summer, the scar on Alexis Dillard’s surgically repaired right knee was still fresh—a painful reminder, quite literally, of how quickly hopes and dreams can disappear.
Now, it was a waiting game.
Nearly a year removed from her last game as a star forward on the Anderson University women’s basketball team, with the game she loves seemingly slipping away, the waiting was nearly unbearable. First, you should know that Dillard is an eternal optimist. It’s a mindset that, when combined with an unrelenting work ethic, led to success at every step in her career. But she’d finally hit an insurmountable obstacle.
“I was just kind of down,” she said. “I guessed it just wasn’t going to happen. I thought, at least I gave it a try and gave it my best. Maybe it’s time to just move on from basketball and accept my time was finished.”
Dillard, who graduated from the Anderson University College of Health Professions with a degree in kinesiology, is finalizing a contract to play in a women’s professional basketball league in Africa. It’s the realization of a dream that began when she was just a kid, and it has far exceeded expectations. After all, it started with a pretty modest goal: make the middle school varsity team
“At each phase of my life, I’ve always set goals and visualized where I want to see myself,” said Dillard, who grew up in Taylors, South Carolina. “In middle school, I just wanted to play on the team. Then, moving to high school, I set a goal of making the varsity team as a freshman. And I did. Throughout high school, I thought if I played as well as I could, and kept progressing, I could in college. I made it my mission to earn a scholarship.”
AU women’s basketball coach Jonathan Barbaree isn’t surprised that Dillard’s career didn’t stop there. She was the South Atlantic Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year in 2018, capping off a career that included accolade after accolade. CoSIDA Academic All-District. CoSIDA Academic All-American. All-SAC first team. SAC Defensive Player of the Year. AU’s all-time career rebound leader.
“On the court you couldn’t find a young lady that brought more energy and passion,” he said. “She worked hard on both ends of the court and was a great example of an all-around player. She definitely left her mark here at Anderson and we are really proud of her.”
Of course, moving from NCAA Division II to the professional leagues is a big step. Few make that leap. Part of it is the talent level, sure. But there’s also the sheer number of players trying to make the transition. Even the logistics are difficult.
Dillard participated in three player combines. They are held each year throughout the country; think of them like a giant tryout, with hundreds of recent college graduates or those trying to get back into the game hoping to catch the attention of professional scouts and player agents.
Last year, an agent saw a video of Dillard at a combine in Ohio. He called her up and invited her to his own showcase, scheduled for June in Atlanta.
“I thought, ‘What is there to lose? Why not?’” she said. “I participated and everything went well.”
The deadline for participants to get a contract was August 27. But all summer, she didn’t hear anything. Then, right at the August deadline, she got the call she’d been waiting for.
“(My agent) said, ‘Looks like we have an offer.’” She put him on hold and patched her mother through on a three-way call.
“I told her, ‘Mom, I think it’s happening!’ I can hear her screaming on the other end of the phone. I’m screaming, she’s screaming, my heart is racing. Then it was a matter of figuring out flights, housing and all of that.”
That’s where things stand today. She’s waiting again. Until the meantime, she’s making travel arrangements, getting housing figured out and preparing mentally to join her new team in Morocco.
“I’m willing to make that transition, to put in the hard work,” Dillard said. It’s a lesson Coach Barbaree and the entire culture at AU helped instill in her.
“Playing for Anderson, and the coaches there, prepared me to take my talents to the next level,” she said. “They helped me grow as an individual and as a leader. (Coach Barbaree) exemplified that approach. It’s all about work ethic, and helping motivate your teammates to want to practice at your level and play hard.”
For Dillard, being a Trojan was more than athletic competition. She learned life lessons off the court, too, none more important than the inherent value AU’s campus community places on each student.
“I don’t think I fully realized how much people at Anderson really care until I got hurt during my senior year,” she said. “I witnessed first-hand just how much love and support and encouragement they offer. It’s not just about games and competition. It’s about the people. They want to make sure you feel comfortable and supported as a student-athlete. It’s those one-on-one relationships that really make a difference. They are willing to do whatever they can to help you prepare for the future.”
Today, Dillard’s future is bright.
“I’m just waiting to see where my next journey will take me.”