Kristal Espinoza wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to her iPad alarm to get ready to go to work. She takes a shower, brushes her teeth, and drives from the San Gabriel Valley to South Los Angeles for work when the sun is nowhere in sight. She doesn’t even eat breakfast because there’s not enough time until her first break. Her shift at the hospital cafe starts at 4:00 a.m., and doesn’t end until 12:30 p.m.
The Asian-Latina Espinoza works with her mom at the hospital and sometimes they carpool together. She’ll do her homework until her mom is done with her shift. Then she’ll come home, do a little more homework, go to class and then go to basketball practice, all while maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Basketball is a tough sport. It’s given her a few bruises, a perpetually busted lip, scratches, and a hyperextended her knee to the point where she had to walk around in crutches. Although she admits that she’s stubborn, when she wants something, nothing can stop her. Not even COVID.
“We had a restaurant in downtown LA and we closed it in December when the pandemic was starting,” Espinoza said.
Ever since the Mexican restaurant closed, Espinoza has been helping her parents pay some of the bills. She started working at Sunday Cafe when she was 13 years old. She did everything from cooking to cashiering to waitressing. That’s partly why she got the full time job at the hospital cafe. But, she does miss having the restaurant. Her favorite part was creating her own concoctions.
“Since we owned the restaurant, we could make whatever we wanted,” Espinoza said. “I’d make shrimp fajitas and I’d put bell peppers, onions, jalapeños, and then I’d pour salsa, stir fry it, and then put it over white rice, and put teriyaki sauce.”
When she’s not cooking at the restaurant, she’s cooking on the court. The 5’7 southpaw small forward was the only freshman to get the starting nod from a team that featured Cosette Balmy, Marina Latu, and PCC’s all time leader in rebounds and blocked shots, Dariel Johnson. They won 18 games while she put up 8.1 points per game. And don’t be fooled by the stats, Espinoza can cook with the best of them. Her patented “fake pass for the layup” on the dribble drive is one of her favorite moves. A YouTube search of Rajon Rondo and Steph Curry provide perfect examples of why she likes to do it. She’s also been known to do and up and under move in the paint.
“No matter how many times I’ve done it, it works every time,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza has had a series of games where she’s gone above her average. She led the team in scoring with 19 over Cosumnes River College, had an equal amount against Southwestern College, and her all-time high was 21-points against East Los Angeles college. That’s part of the reason coach Joe Peron started her. Pamela Gonzalez, guard, was also a freshman at PCC in 2019. She’s since transferred, but cannot forget what Espinoza did on and off the court.
“She has a drive and confidence on the court, and naturally she’s good but also all the work she puts in,” Gonzalez said. “Off the court is her personality and she’s goofy and smart and just someone everyone wants to hang out with. She’s very cool and funny. Her vibe is just amazing.”
Basketball wasn’t always easy at PCC. In high school, Espinoza was the captain, so she got to call the shots. She prefers to play basketball like LeBron James. She wants to get everyone involved and have a true meritocracy. Espinoza knows that she can bring the ball up the court, but if there’s someone better at it, she thinks that they should have the responsibility. But at PCC, Espinoza was just a freshman. Dariel Johnson was a two time all-state player and Cosette Balmy was the speedy and fierce point guard. Espinoza felt that chemistry was something that was holding the team back.
“Last year, we didn’t really have that great of chemistry,” Espinoza said. “We weren’t terrible together, but we could have been a lot better.”
She felt that the lack of team bonding days was the root cause. They only saw each other at practice or at meetings. It also didn’t help that Espinoza kept making mental mistakes on court. Her very seasoned teammates pushed her to get better, but when the mistakes kept happening, those friendly banters became threats.
“They were like, ‘if you’re going to get the same playing time as me, you better be as good as me’,” Espinoza said.
It was only a matter of time before she heard ‘you’re not good enough’ and ‘why are you a starter’ and felt like giving up the sport. At that point, basketball stopped being fun and just became a burden. She went as far as speaking with coach Peron about quitting the team, but he convinced her to trudge along. Coach Peron is a defensive minded coach. Defense is the teams first priority. They rebound, block shots, and play a lot of on-ball defense. Espinoza admits that she would miss her defensive assignments, but she continued to fight on the court. Even her star teammate noticed her improvement.
“I remember her first charge,” Balmy said. “That marked me a lot. She got so excited and got so happy because of the whole team’s reaction. At PCC, charges were a big thing. So when someone took a charge, everyone got really hyped. And I think that really got her.”
That was the moment she had won them over. It’s those moments that she’ll never forget, and that’s part of the reason she loves basketball so much. Basketball has always been there for her.
“Basketball is a way for me to relieve stress,” Espinoza said. “When I’m on the court, all my problems are not part of what I’m dealing with right now. It’s just me and my teammates. The only issues are the plays and how we run them, but I leave everything else off the court. I forgot about my problems on the outside. It gives me space to think. When I’m having a bad day, I go play basketball or shoot in the driveway or do something basketball related.”
Whether she’s dealing with the stress of the pandemic or the fact that she has to work a full time job to help her parents pay rent, she looks to basketball. When she has to make her car payment, auto insurance, or has to maintain her perfect GPA, she looks to basketball. Basketball was even there for her when she broke up with her first boyfriend. She played by herself from the end of school until 9:00 p.m. at the school gymnasium until the school janitor walked in and turned on the lights.
This fall Espinoza will be transferring to Cal State Los Angeles. She doesn’t have a basketball scholarship, but she plans to walk-on. She plans to major in criminal justice because she’s been watching Law and Order and Criminal Minds since she was a kid. She’s made up her mind, which means that she’ll stop at nothing until she gets what she wants. And if all else fails, you’ll probably find her on the basketball court, shooting hoops.
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