If you would have told Diarra Oden seven years ago she would be playing college Division III (DIII) basketball, you would’ve received an incredulous look.
“It was not a concept I would’ve ever imagined,” she recalled in an interview with The News-Letter.
Growing up in the South, the thought of playing DIII basketball in the unfamiliar Northeast was scary to her. But if there is a catchphrase to describe what changed her mindset and what defines her legacy here at Hopkins, three words suffice: Lead by example.
Oden has emerged as a two-way captain for the Blue Jays. The 5-foot-8-inch guard has embraced tough defensive assignments and made the correct decisions offensively. She is averaging more than 30 minutes a game and 18 points per game, leading her team in the category. Last Saturday against Muhlenberg College, Oden tallied 16 points en route to a 79-34 victory in what is now a nine-game winning streak.
According to Oden, there are many days when she reflects on her journey and is amazed at where it has taken her. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would be playing sports in college.
Oden was born and raised in New Orleans. In her interview with The News-Letter, Oden described how Hurricane Katrina forced her and her family to move to Atlanta at the age of five, where she lived with her mom and three sisters. It was there that she was introduced to sports. She played tennis for a few years, but basketball soon caught her attention.
One day she told her mom she wanted to play basketball. Oden’s older sister, Dominique Oden, who was already playing competitively, did not approve.
According to Oden, she initially wanted to play basketball just to make her sister upset; Their relationship was the typical sibling rivalry story. When she was a child, Oden got a black eye playing defense against her sister.
Now, Oden credits her sister as being the biggest supporter of her throughout her career and the person she modeled her game after.
“She scored 1800 points at Purdue University and she’s not going between her legs and doing fancy moves. I’d say that’s what my game is like,” Oden said. “She was a big midrange shooter; I definitely got that part of my game from her.”
At first, the game of basketball didn’t come easy for Oden. In fact, it was often a painful experience. She tore her ACL three times before the age of 18. As a result, she missed out on a lot of high school basketball that would’ve allowed her to stand out from other athletes.
“I dealt with many setbacks, and that is why I wasn’t an offensive-minded player,” she said.
Defense was always Oden’s identity, which explains why she wasn’t an avid NBA fan growing up. Early on in her basketball career, she was strictly assigned to guard the opposing team’s best player. When she was given a new task her junior year of high school, however, her responsibilities changed.
“My sister and her graduating class weren't there anymore, so I had to lead by example,” Oden said. “Coming off an ACL tear — that was a challenging season. I was also learning how to lead as well. I didn’t know how to actually lead how I thought I did.”
Through practice and gametime experience, Oden grew into a more comfortable scorer and leader for her team. Her senior year of high school, she was named region player of the year and won the local championship. From there, Oden’s travel basketball coach connected her with Hopkins coach Katherine Bixby. Oden was a part of Bixby’s first recruiting class on the women’s basketball team.
Oden recalled the two of them having a heart-to-heart conversation on the future and goals of the Hopkins basketball program. The fact that the opportunity to create a winning environment was present appealed to Oden. The women’s basketball team has had a 53-16 record since Oden joined in 2018.
Going from high school to collegiate basketball, Oden says the biggest adjustment was coming from being a captain to a freshman and finding out the best way to contribute.
“I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have the experience but I didn’t let that deter me from seeking and gaining that experience,” she said.
The leadership qualities she acquired from her sister and her high school career would be called upon. The coaches and players named Oden a captain at the end of her freshman season. After the then-seniors graduated, she was able to show off her new offensive skill set, and her production tripled from six points per game her freshman season to 18 points per game her sophomore season.
“I had that realization early on that I would be called upon to lead,” she said.
Her junior season was suspended due to COVID-19. Oden referred to this as one of her toughest times since she had never been away from basketball for so long. Despite the distance, she and her teammates all stayed active and connected with each other, doing workouts and weight-lifting exercises to stay ready.
Even with the year off, the Blue Jays have shown no signs of slowing down. Oden’s leadership has been evident throughout her time at Hopkins. Now in her final season, the Blue Jays are riding a nine-game winning streak and a 13-2 record overall.
Oden cited team chemistry as being the key throughout this win streak.
“We have confidence in each other; we aren’t feeling the pressure whatsoever. We all have individual and team goals and we are focused on achieving them.”
The team has a conference championship goal on their minds: Beat Gettysburg College. Hopkins hasn’t beaten Gettysburg in the four years during which Oden has played, but the team is confident that this is the year.
Regardless of how this season ends for the Blue Jays, Oden feels honored to be a part of the graduating class that helped shift the culture of the women’s basketball program.
Being a player in Bixby’s first recruiting class, Oden has infected the team with a winning culture that is centered around leadership, trust and motivation.
“I want people to remember how I was able to score and lead. I think it will give confidence to others that you don’t have to be flashy to produce results. In the future, I hope girls who come here can look at what I accomplished to be inspired by it.”