By Joseph Staszewski
Amani Tatum has Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy with her every step of the way.
Tatum, who plays guard on Manhattan College’s women’s basketball team, is getting to do what her friend Murphy, a former high-school girls’ hoops star at Bishop Loughlin and Murry Bergtraum, was only allowed to dream of. Murphy’s chance at a college career was ended when she was gunned down in Harlem’s Grant Houses Sept. 11, 2011 at the age of 18.
“At any given moment anything can happen,” said Tatum, who played at Archbishop Molloy. “You just have to appreciate the game and appreciate what it brings and the experience.”
She has kept Murphy close to her heart since then, permanently changing her number from 5 to 15 when she was a junior with the Stanners. The two played their first CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens Division I varsity league game against each other. One of the sneakers she wears when she’s playing has “All about Chicken” on it and the other “#B4C” or Ball for Chicken. It reminds Tatum just how lucky she is.
“Any time I look down at my sneakers I know that I am playing for her,” she said. “I do it because she didn’t get an opportunity to do it.”
Tatum has made the most of her first season playing with the Jaspers after transferring from James Madison. After sitting through a dismal 3-27 campaign last year because of NCAA rules, she is the team’s leading scorer, helping the Jaspers improve to a 13-14 record following a loss to Quinnipac Tuesday and keeping them in the mix for a conference title. Tatum won a Colonial Athletic Association crown her freshman year at James Madison, and the level of expectation she’s brought with her to Manhattan has rubbed off on her teammates.
“She has elevated everybody else’s game,” Jaspers coach John Olenowski said. “The confidence and drive that she shows on the floor is huge for us.”
He saw Tatum trying too hard early after a season she called “hard to watch,” because she was helpless on the bench. The red-shirt sophomore picked up two fouls early in games because she was too pumped up and aggressive on defense. It landed her back on the bench and unable to help. Tatum found herself and her game once conference play rolled around, and hasn’t looked back.
“As time went on I adjusted to the league and how we played,” Tatum said. “I think it was more about learning myself and what I can do.”
She is the team’s top scorer at 11.6 points per game, as well as leading them with 84 steals and coming in second in assists with 3.1 per contest. The Japers are 10-7 in MAAC conference play. Olenowski called her a “terror defensively.” Her decision making has seen improvement—to the benefit of her teammates.
“Everyone just sees the way she plays and they feed off her energy,” Olenowski said.
Tatum has her own personal motivations. She’s driven to win and is absolutely certain the Jaspers will. She’s driven by her family—who can now attend all her home games—and by Murphy’s memory to leave a lasting mark with her team.
“We are going to win a championship, no doubt in my mind that we have the team, that we have the talent. It would be everything to us,” Tatum said. “I don’t think a lot of people expect us to do it, but we are going to do it, shock the MAAC, shock everybody.”
Murphy will be with her for all of it.
“I just try to keep her in my thoughts,” said Tatum. “Going into a game, looking down at my sneakers means more to me than anything.”