Cleveland native, NCAA champ Amani Bartlett to be honored with parade, ceremony on April 29

Amani Bartlett

A day of celebration and triumph will be held in Cleveland on April 29 as the community welcomes home its own 2023 NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball champion – Amani Bartlett, a forward for Louisiana State University’s championship team.

Amani, the daughter of Cleveland native and a 1997 Cleveland High School graduate Amelia “Kesha” Brown-Bartlett and New York native Kareem Bartlett, grew up in Cleveland where she attended school through eighth grade until her parents transferred her to a private school in Houston.

The parade in Amani’s honor, which begins at 12:30 p.m., will be followed by a ceremony at Douglas Gym at 1:30 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend. The parade will line up at the MLK Pavilion next to Samuel Wiley Park in Cleveland and end at Douglas Gym, on the 900 block of Samuel Wiley Dr., Cleveland.

At the event, one lucky person will be awarded two tickets to a future LSU game next season, courtesy of Amani and her family. She also will be available for autographs after the event.

Amani began playing basketball at the age of 5 with her mother as her first coach. Naturally shy, at the time she was more interested in reading and drawing than basketball. It was not until she was 11 that she decided to try basketball again.

Amani Bartlett enjoys her Division 1 NCAA women’s basketball championship win with her family.

Coach Ivan “Tuffy” Williams and Coach Charles Brantley were her early inspirations into the sport, her mom said.

“Coach Brantley put her on the Little Dribblers team – the one that went to nationals. He told us at the time that she was going to be one of the best players to come out of Cleveland, even though we couldn’t see that at the time,” said her mom.

As a seventh-grader in middle school, she began to draw attention from college recruiters. She played two years of basketball for Cleveland Middle School and was picked as Most Valuable Player for the team both years. During her sophomore year in high school, her family moved to Kingwood to be closer to their jobs, even though their hearts remain in Cleveland.

“Academically she needed a few tweaks, which is why we transferred into a private school in Houston. She was shy and needed to thrive when she got to college,” her mom explained.

During her freshman year of high school, Amani was invited to elite camps like the Blue Star 30, recognized as one of the Top 30 in 2021 and ranked No. 25 in ESPN’s Top 100 women athletes.

It seemed she was destined for athletic greatness until her sophomore year when she suffered a torn meniscus and ACL that benched her for a year. Determined to get back on the court and play up to her previous standards, Amani began working out and training under guidance of her father.

“She told us that God made a promise to her that her condition wouldn’t set her back, but from a college perspective, it seemed like all the recruiters stopped showing interest. Within eight months, she was back up and running. Typically it takes a whole year to recover from this injury, but she has God and willpower on her side,” said Kesha.

By her junior year of college, the offers began pouring in again from college recruiters.

“In her junior year, that’s when they are allowed to start calling with offers. Before that, they can’t call you directly. On the first day, she got six calls from college recruiters. She was leading her team that year to the championship when they lost to a buzzer beater. That was devastating to her because she didn’t get to win. Then in her senior year of high school, COVID hit. It was a frustrating season. You couldn’t go on college visits,” her mom said.

While in her senior year, Amani signed a letter of intent to play for Syracuse University in New York after high school. Two weeks before it was time to leave for college, all of her Syracuse University coaches were terminated, so Amani and her parents petitioned to the NCAA to release them from their commitment to Syracuse.

“Once we got the commitment back, other schools began reaching out to her. At this point, she was ranked No. 50 with ESPN’s Top 100 women in high school basketball. She was ranked No. 3 in the state of Texas. The phone was ringing off the hook,” said her mom.

The family considered and visited a few other universities – Kansas State, Auburn, Texas Tech, Wake Forest and Mississippi State – but Amari “didn’t feel it in her spirit than any of them were the right program,” Kesha said.

At the same time, they were contacted by LSU Coach Kim Mulkey, who explained to them her program and what she expected from her athletes.

“She spoke straight with us and that stood out to me as a parent because I am a person who tells it like it is,” Kesha said. “Two days later, we took her to the LSU campus.”

As a sophomore, Amani gets a little less court time than her senior teammates, but when she is on the court, she is very impactful.

“She even got a buzzer beater in one of their games this season. She has had to learn what it means to be a team player and a great teammate. She just had a meeting with her coach for next year and the expectation is she will be playing a lot more next season,” said Kesha.

Leading up to the championship game was a surreal experience, her mom remembers.

“One of the team’s mantras was ‘God did.’ This started at the Sweet 16 games. The night before the NCAA championship game, some of us had gathered at a lounge on the third floor of the hotel. It was an area where we could visit with her kids away from the media. We formed a prayer circle for the parents. As we were preparing to pray, some of the players noticed what we were doing and joined us in the prayer circle,” Kesha said. “One of the things Amani said afterward was, ‘Mom, I know we are going to win.'”

After the championship game, when her father greeted her to congratulate her, Amani told him, “Thanks, Dad. It all paid off. I worked for this moment, but this was God’s promise to me.”

It was then that her parents remembered Amani telling them when she was a junior in high school that God had told her she would be an NCAA champion by the time she was a sophomore in college.

“She reached me, started crying, and said, ‘Mom, God really does answer prayers and His promises are sure because I am an NCAA champ,'” Kesha said.

As a NCAA champ, Amani has three championship rings coming her way – a Conference Ring for the Regional Championship, the NCAA championship ring and an LSU championship ring. The team is visiting the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday, April 19, the Louisiana State Legislature next week and are working out the details for a visit to the White House.

While the recognitions in Louisiana and D.C. are important to Amani and her teammates, nothing could be more important for her family than seeing her recognized in her hometown of Cleveland.

“It means the absolute world to me that she will be recognized in the parade in Cleveland. The most exciting thing for me is seeing her profile photos posted online and seeing Cleveland, Texas, listed as her hometown,” Kesha said. “Cleveland is our home.”

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.


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