Women’s basketball’s Kayla Henning: thoughtful, radical and fast as hell

Freshman point guard highlights work as an organizer and transition to D1 basketball

Women’s basketball’s Kayla Henning: thoughtful, radical and fast as hell

Kayla Henning stands among Evanston Fight For Black Lives members and Jacob Blake Sr.

Nobody thinks more than freshman point guard Kayla Henning. Whether she’s watching game film from American University’s limited schedule, pondering radical thoughts or running through a drill after practice, her mind always seems to be five steps ahead of everyone else.

But sometimes it can be too much for her own good.

Henning can tend to overthink. It’s the first thing Brittany Johnson, her high school coach at Evanston Township in Illinois, saw when she turned on Henning’s college games. It might even spur from a habit she picked up in high school, Johnson said, watching film night-in and night-out. That tendency to overthink and press over game film is certainly something AU head coach Megan Gebbia and her staff took quick notice of, and put a quicker stop to. She sees game tape a couple of times a week at most. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any rule-bending on Henning’s part. These days, she stays up late watching her high school tape, since it’s the only film she can get her hands on. 

“I go back to my high school games where I thought I was so good and try to take what I’ve learned from AU so far and write comments like ‘oh, what I should have done there’ knowing what I know now,” Henning said. “I think that's kind of helping me, in a sense, where I can correct it. You know the principle in school where if you can teach somebody else, you can teach yourself? I’m kind of teaching my old self.”

When asked how her coaches feel about that, she laughed and defended herself.

“I wasn’t supposed to go over practice film, game film and I don’t! I just watch my old high school games,” she said. “But they don’t let me watch necessarily by myself because they know that I overthink a little bit.”

That same tendency for deep thought, though, is what makes Henning a captivating leader, teammate and activist. It’s a big reason why so many people look up to her. It’s why she was prepared to be a community organizer, help raise $15,000 and speak in front of almost 5,000 people this summer. But before all that, she was a quiet freshman at Evanston Township.

Henning’s upbringing

Henning, a 5’7 guard for the Eagles, grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb 30 minutes outside of Chicago.

She arrived at the Evanston Township High School program in 2016 as a soft-spoken, promising player. But her high school roster had three other future Division I basketball players and was on its way to a 27-4 record, so varsity minutes were sparse to come by. Henning only saw about 10 minutes per game, but from day one, she bought into her role. As the years progressed, she did too. Henning and Johnson arrived at the program in the same year, and the coach said she was the perfect player to build around.

The two developed a close relationship, and even now, they talk all the time. 

“I've never really met a kid who reminded me more of myself,” Johnson said. They share subtleties like a love for Lauryn Hill, but what makes them really click is their thoughtful approach to life. “In so many more ways she's so much better than me. I never could speak the way she speaks, I never could, you know, stand up for things the way she does. So I tell people a lot, and I'm not even embarrassed to say it, I've learned a lot from her. She's actually made me better.”

As the years went on, Henning went through her ups and downs, including between her sophomore and junior seasons when she tore her ACL. While her junior year was rough — “I sucked,” she said — she grew on and off-the-court. 

The injury gave her space away from the game that dominated her life, and in Johnson’s eyes, allowed her to grow into her own as a person. She became more vocal. Henning also came into her own off the court, diving into her academics and wrapping herself in Students Organized Against Racism at Evanston Township, where she learned how to organize, teach and develop relationships with other organizers in the area.

On the court, even as a terrific senior year came and went, she still hadn’t received an offer she was seriously considering. But she and Johnson held out hope, even sharing the H.E.R. song “sometimes” any time things seemed like they weren't going their way.

One day, the tides shifted. Navy, AU's Patriot League foe, had Henning’s film in their system. When the Midshipmen's head coach Stefanie Pemper and her staff were let go in March, a Navy assistant told Gebbia to “check out this kid who could be really special in the Patriot League.” The film, coupled with Henning’s confidence, sold her. Within two weeks, without ever seeing Henning in person, they offered her a full scholarship and a spot on the team.

“You always want leadership from your point guard, and it just felt like she could be a good leader down the road for us,” Gebbia said. “That, I think, is what really sold me on Kayla.” 

Kayla Henning
Kayla Henning pushes the pace against Loyola on Jan. 24.

The role of an activist

Henning, for a freshman, is uncharacteristically candid and vulnerable. At the start of the year, she admits that she wasn’t sure if she was even good enough to be at AU. The coaches certainly aren’t easy on her, and being a freshman guard in a pandemic is challenging.

“We’ve brought her to tears many, many times,” Gebbia said. “I’ll take that because she cares.”

But she’s perhaps no more candid and thoughtful than when discussing activism. Henning is an activist through-and-through, though she defers much of the praise onto other organizers, particularly those at Evanston Fight for Black Lives (EFBL). This past summer, after police officers killed George Floyd in Minnesota, Henning spoke at a local march. She was under the impression that she’d speak in front of a few hundred Evanstonians. Almost 5,000 people showed up.

Henning often talks and thinks about revolution and radicalization. To her, revolution is the work being done every day. It’s centered in the community. And it’s making sure everyone has a place to eat and a place to live. She said her roots are radical.

“My family is one that isn’t all related by blood, but we just love each other, we take care of each other, we just all have this collected care for each other,” Henning said. “I didn't think of that as radical until I was on a call with one of my friends. They're like, ‘everybody's got to eat, and everybody’s got to have a home.’ And I was like, well, Black folks have been doing that for years in terms of creating those spaces. So it made me think of survival as being radical. You know, surviving is to love. And I think community has done that forever.”

Henning continued her work with EFBL this summer. She and other organizers were quick to organize in August after a police officer shot and critically injured Jacob Blake, a young Black man who was also from Evanston and graduated from Henning’s high school. 

“We all had different ties to his family, so once we found out that it happened, we said ‘one, we need to do something to unite the community, obviously around our own specifically this time, and two, since we have this connection with the family, we can ask them straight up what do you need,’” Henning said in September. “As a grassroots program and from his community, I felt like we would get a genuine answer of what the needs were.”

When Blake’s family needed the financial support to take care of his caretakers, Henning and others in EFBL were able to raise almost $15,000 for them. They also organized a march with over 500 people, which Blake’s father attended.

Now that she’s in D.C., she’s started to build a family with her teammates, but the pandemic has made it harder. As for whether she considers herself an activist at AU, she said the most powerful thing she can do now is take care of herself.

What’s ahead for Henning

There are moments where Henning looks nothing like a freshman. From baseline-to-baseline, Gebbia said no Eagle is faster. Her mind races too. She’s certainly an uptempo point guard. But the game still needs to slow down for her. 

Every time she comes in for individual work, she has to dribble with her left hand. Grab a rebound? Dribble left. One-on-one workout? Go left. Scrimmaging against junior guard and defensive stalwart Emily Fisher? Same story.

Henning would be the first to admit that her numbers won’t necessarily grab you. Through eight games, she’s averaging 2.1 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game. That’s to be expected. The most challenging spot on the court is a freshman point guard in a pandemic.

And yet, there are times where she can wow you. Last month against Loyola, she eusrostepped past two defenders and finished with her off-hand. The game before, she did this.

But that’s just what Henning does.

“It's the little things, the things that you probably wouldn't notice as a fan, those are the things that we've been correcting her the most on,” Gebbia said. “Yet the things she does that you talk about, the athleticism, the quickness — that’s just Kayla being Kayla. That has nothing to do with us.”

Even if her game needs to slow down, she’s still fast enough to do this. And she’ll keep pouring over her high school tape until they let her watch those clips. Her future, regardless, is bright.

“Well she knows I want her to be president, but that's not really what she wants to do,” Johnson said. “I think honestly, anything where she's teaching, is going to be great for her. Whether she coaches, you know, she could teach young kids, she could teach at the collegiate level. But anything where she is just giving her perspective, I think is really powerful.”

snusbaum@theeagleonline.com

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