By Jeff Griesch
Nebraska Athletic Communications
After experiencing a roller coaster first season in college basketball, Nailah Dillard was looking for a new basketball family in a safe and consistent place she could call home.
As a freshman at Texas Tech, Dillard played in 23 games, including a career-high 10 points in 28 minutes off the bench in a win over Oklahoma in Lubbock (Jan. 22). The next game, she made her first career start against No. 1 Baylor in Waco (Jan. 25). She had nine points in 27 minutes against the defending national champions. She started the next game against Oklahoma State (Feb. 3) but played just nine minutes and then did not see action at all against Kansas State (Feb. 5).
It is a brief sample of the highs and lows of Dillard’s freshman season on the court in Lubbock, but it is just a small part of the story.
“As a 17-year-old girl coming out of high school, I guess I didn’t know what to expect from college, college basketball or college coaches,” Dillard said. “The bond I had with my teammates was incredible, and they will always be my lifelong friends. Unfortunately the relationship I had with my coaches was nonexistent.”
The 5-9 guard out of Inderkum High School in Sacramento, expected her new college basketball home to be back in California after making the choice to enter the transfer portal and leave Texas Tech. She expected to find the safety, security and consistency she was seeking in a place she knew as familiar.
“I entered the (transfer) portal with the goal to play closer to home, where I could get more emotional support from my friends and family,” Dillard said. “I was recruited by several amazing teams in California and really turned down most of the teams outside of California because my heart was set on coming home. I was pretty vocal about my previous experiences and what I was looking for…someone to care about me on and off the court.”
Then Nebraska called.
At first, Dillard didn’t even want to respond to the Husker coaches, but through the encouragement of her father, Jason, she took the call and the recruiting process began.
“At first, I was like ‘where’s Nebraska?’ My dad knew of the amazing Husker fan base and thought I would enjoy the athletic experience,” Dillard said. “Immediately I had a connection with all the coaches. Coach (Amy) Williams made me feel safe. The coaches took me and my family on a virtual tour and spent quality time getting to know me. I was sold.”
Dillard officially became a member of the Husker family on April 15, 2020, when she signed to come to Nebraska with fellow West Coast transfers MiCole Cayton and Bella Cravens. Those two are now her Husker roommates, along with another West Coast transfer, Ashley Scoggin.
“We are all already so close,” Dillard said. “We are some of the girliest basketball players you will ever meet, so that’s definitely something we all have in common. I hate that we’re in a pandemic, but I feel very connected to my teammates. Our coaches did an amazing job getting us together on zoom calls before we even got to Nebraska and now that we’re all here we are bonding and really getting to know each other.”
It is that strong sense of family that Dillard was hoping to find, after growing up in her own tight-knit family in Sacramento.
Her father, Jason, is a real estate broker, and her mother, Damia, is a social worker. Her parents provided the foundation for her success on and off the court.
“My father has been my coach and toughest critic from day one. My mom licks my wounds and puts me back together again. My dad exposed me to the game, pushed me to be my best, traveled the country with me, and always placed me in the best position to advance my career. My mom tried to ensure I had a balanced life with friends, family and time to be a girly girl. I needed them both, and they both did a well-balanced job of raising me.”
Nailah also has a twin sister, Naomi, who was a co-captain alongside her on the basketball court at Inderkum High School. Naomi also went to Texas for her college career, pursuing a career in medicine on a full academic scholarship at Prairie View A&M just outside of Houston.
“My parents always said together we are the perfect person. Nay has always wanted to be a doctor, and while I played AAU she spent her summers in science camp,” Dillard said. “Being a twin is like being born with a best friend. I never had to be afraid because my twin was right there. We have the same best friends and did everything together. Separating from her to go to college wasn’t easy. Last year, we were both in Texas and she drove hours to watch me play as often as she could. We talk all day every day. She knows everything about me.”
In addition to playing basketball together, Nailah and Naomi also shared a love of music, and strengthened their family bonds by singing in the church choir.
“I grew up in the church and church choir. Nay is a soprano and I’m an alto. We have led many songs at church which helped us with public speaking and our overall confidence,” Dillard said. “I love music. Music is poetry. I love all genres of music but mostly listen to Gospel, R&B, and 90s throwback R&B. I love the messages that songs bring. They speak to me. Gospel is so uplifting, inspiring, healing while R&B tends to speak to my mood, my heart or my pain. I’m always singing something, and I’m pretty decent, too.”
While Dillard sees the uplifting power of music, she also knows the power of the spoken word to inspire, advocate and protect others. That recognition may be leading down a path of eventually pursuing a law degree while currently majoring in criminal justice at Nebraska.
Although a career as a lawyer for Nailah may seem like the natural complement Naomi’s pursuit of a career as a doctor, Nailah’s motivation may stem more from being a big sister than a twin sister.
When Nailah was 11, her younger sister, Samaya, experienced a traumatic event as a seven-year-old at her elementary school. Samaya went missing for two hours during the school day, after being punished in school by her teacher. Nailah, riding in a car with their father, spotted her on the streets after Samaya had crossed a busy California freeway.
“This was a devastating and emotional time for me and my family. I was in the car with my dad as we combed the streets searching for her. I was the first person to spot her and nearly leaped out of the moving vehicle to tackle my baby sister. I was emotionally distraught. My little sister was a ghost of herself and was never the same,” Dillard said. “We went to therapy, had news reporters at our house, lawsuits. This never faded to the distant past because it has remained at the forefront of how we all navigate our worlds. In fact, my little sister continues to travel the country sharing her story and was featured in a documentary. She has gone to D.C. to speak to Congress about black girls and instructional racism.”
The documentary “PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” was executive produced and co-written by Monique W. Morris, Ed.D, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. The documentary, based on the book of the same name, was screened for the first time near the tip-off of the basketball season last year, featured at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles (Feb. 21) and aired on PBS in mid-March.
These notable experiences for Nailah and her family make the five words she uses to describe herself strikingly significant.
“I am a fighter, an advocate, passionate, loyal and ambitious.”
Pretty good qualities for a lawyer, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teammate and a basketball player.
“We are very excited to add Nailah to the Husker family,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “She brings another confident presence from behind the arc, and she is also a player that is hungry to expand her game. She takes pride in playing on both ends of the court.”
As a freshman at Texas Tech, Dillard hit 34.6 percent (18-52) of her three-pointers and 74.1 percent (20-27) of her free throws in sporadic action. While her three-point shooting stands out, she characterizes herself as more of a “utility” player on the court.
“Throughout my high school and AAU career, I was a utility player. You put me on the court and tell me what you need me to do. I have played point guard, shooting guard, and played in the post,” Dillard said. “Texas Tech really used me a lot as a perimeter shooter, but I have a well-rounded game. I work really hard on trying to create my own shots and get on the shooting machine as often as I can. Hitting threes feels great, but I want to help my team win wherever I’m needed.”
A second-team All-California selection as a high school senior in 2019, Dillard averaged 22 points per game. As a junior at Inderkum High School, she scored 40 points in a win over Woodland (Jan. 10, 2018), just five days after pumping in 34 in a win over Yuba City. She played her AAU basketball for West Coast Premier. She was also an honor roll student and graduated magna cum laude.
“The facilities here and the academic support are definitely top notch, and I truly feel so blessed to be able to play here and represent this great school,” Dillard said. “I chose Nebraska because I wanted to play for coaches who would invest in me and value me as a person on and off the court. I wanted to play for a program that values success, and I am looking forward to playing with teammates and for coaches who love to win as much as I do.”