After the game, Lexi makes time to pose with some young fans and autographs a souvenir ball for other well-wishers.
CRYSTAL FALLS— The signs were there early, like when Lexi Gussert was a toddler.
After the future Forest Park star had learned to walk, her grandmother gave her a doll and a stroller. Gussert took a look at the stroller and thought she’d keep that. But the doll, well, not interested.
So little Lexi chucked the doll and grabbed a basketball, put it in the stroller and began walking the ball around.
So began Gussert’s path to glory.
A decade and a half later, Gussert has become one of the most accomplished high-school athletes to ever come out of the Upper Peninsula. The Trojan senior has made the hardwoods of the northwoods her personal canvas, painting strokes of brilliance from Bessemer to Sault Ste. Marie.
Gussert and her Forest Park teammates -- the unbeaten and top-ranked Class D team in the state -- will square off against second-ranked and unbeaten Posen at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday in Sault Ste. Marie in the state quarterfinals. The 6-foot-1 phenom is the U.P.’s all-time scoring leader for both boys and girls with 2,629 points and is one of six finalists for the Miss Michigan Award for best prep female player in the state during her final year in Crystal Falls.
That’s just the beginning of a resume` that reads like an entry in a basketball encyclopedia. Some of her stat lines are straight out of a PlayStation game. Last year, Gussert averaged 32.5 points and 11 rebounds per game. This season Lexi is averaging 29 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
The numbers are dizzying and can obscure the emotional impact Gussert has had on her teammates, coaches and fans. Even a fellow Forest Park legend like Bill Santilli can only shake his head and smile.
“She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen play any sport,” said Santilli, a former state football championship player and coach who also works on the Trojan basketball radio broadcasts.
“Even when we started playing basketball in third grade, she was the star,” said fellow senior and lifelong friend Sam Nylund. “I knew that from the beginning it would be amazing playing with her.”
It’s with the same mixture of exhilaration and outright awe that hoops fans of all ages have packed themselves into gymnasiums on frigid winter nights the last four years to witness Gussert’s exploits. At halftime of the Trojans’ 56-21 regional semifinal rout of Dollar Bay at Kingsford High School on March 4, a 20-something man stood in the hallway outside the gymnasium talking to a fellow fan, marveling at Gussert’s passing ability.
At intermission of Forest Park’s 69-52 regional final win over Superior Central, an elderly Forest Park fan seemed to shiver when she explained what it’s been like following Lexi and the Trojans.
“This has just been so much fun,” she said, beaming.
Little girls try to emulate her, donning Lexi’s familiar black headband and wearing their hair in a pony tail like their hero. Little boys seek her out for autographs, one even asking Gussert to sign one of his shoes after the win over Dollar Bay. Lexi estimated she signed about 50 autographs that night and has penned hundreds since the fans started approaching her during her sophomore season.
Then there are the pictures. In a time when anyone can snap a picture just by grabbing a cell phone, Gussert is often surrounded by fans who just want to capture a moment for a personal keepsake.
All the attention can get draining, Gussert said, but the engaging 18-year Crystal Falls native smiles and accommodates all the requests nevertheless.
“I’m used to it now, but it was definitely a weird transition for me,” Gussert said. “It’s exciting, too. And it’s fine because I looked up to players like that, too.”
Gussert began turning heads early, not only in basketball but in Little League baseball, youth football and other sports. She followed her father, Scott, when he played men’s league basketball. She tagged along and wanted to participate in everything her brother Andrew was doing, her mother, Kathy, recalled.
During all this, Lexi had basically one aim in mind.
“Girls would always get picked last, and I always made it a goal that I wouldn’t get picked last. I would say by my middle-school years, I would be picked first, even out of all the guys.”
A big reason why was Lexi’s height. She remembers always being the tallest player on the court or field in those early years. Of course, some of the boys caught up and passed her, but she still stands head and shoulders above all her teammates and most of the opposition.
But her size hasn’t curtailed her athleticism in the least. She is Forest Park’s primary ballhandler and is clearly as comfortable on the perimeter as she is in the interior. Gussert has developed guard-like and ambidextrous shooting and dribbling skills from attending numerous summer camps and playing on AAU traveling teams in Ishpeming and Midland, has incorporated such subtleties as pass fakes and shot fakes into her game and plays with a preternatural knowledge of the sport.
“It just seemed that it came easy to her,” said Scott, who remembers giving Lexi her first basketball as soon as she could sit up. “She’s very skilled, but she’s put a lot of time into it.”
Lexi’s development accelerated when she joined the Ishpeming Ice the summer before seventh grade. It didn’t take Gussert long to realize that she could keep up with girls years older than her.
Once Lexi made it to high school, there was little doubt that she was highly advanced on the court.
“By the time she was in eighth grade, I pretty much knew she’d be on the varsity right away and probably be a starter instantly,” Trojans coach Jeff Syrjanen said.
When her classmates caught up to her on the varsity level, Gussert had already become a much-sought after player. College coaches started to call during her sophomore season and offers started rolling in from such schools as Oakland University, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.
By her junior year, the level of interest began to soar. Big Ten schools like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois all offered her scholarships. Then came the heaviest of the heavyweights like Tennessee and an offer to visit from Connecticut.
Lexi eventually chose Michigan State and will head to East Lansing on June 25. She plans to study kinesiology and dreams of coaching one day.
On some teams, the hullabaloo surrounding a highly-recruited player can create divisions. But that hasn’t happened at Forest Park.
“We haven’t had a problem,” Syrjanen said. “It’s been remarkable how unselfish they’ve all been and how they get along so well. The kids don’t feel drown out by the attention Lexi gets.”
Of course all is not simple playing with a top talent like Gussert. While her teammates are often the recipients of spectacular passes that set up easy layups, sometimes the ball doesn’t exactly hit hands.
“I think all of us have had our fair share of knocks on the head from her,” said senior and close friend Mary Beth Grandahl, laughing. “That’s something we all had to get used to.”
In the midst of their transition, Lexi did not let any frustration build. A confident and competitive person, Gussert still has a disarming charm that helps build relationships and ease difficulties. Her natural leadership skills are quickly evident once she takes the court.
Many high school coaches cajole their players to communicate with each other on the court. Syrjanen has no such difficulty with Gussert, who begins encouraging and instructing almost as soon as the jump ball is tipped. The barrage of talk is meant to be constructive, Lexi said.
“I can see how hard it would be having a girl my age telling me what to do, but it’s good that they respect me and they know that I know the game. I’m sure I can be demanding, I realize that. But I sit down with them sometimes and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I just have a lot of passion for the game.”
Now that March Madness is here, all that passion is focused on the one goal Gussert and her teammates have had all along – bringing home the first girls basketball championship trophy in school history.
“That would mean the world,” Lexi said. “I don’t think I want anything more.”