A camera focuses in a small patch of ground.
Out bursts a fledging sprout that continues to grow and grow until a beautiful flower blossoms before our eyes.
Time-lapse photography can take the hard part of growing and condense it into a few short seconds, but life is not a National Geographic television special or an IMAX movie.
Growing is the hard part, the toughest part, before we see the final results.
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When one looks at Penn State center Nikki Greene these days, one sees a strong, confident player filling out the No. 54 uniform.
Really, what would a 6-foot-4 woman need to know about growing?
But as she takes to Bryce Jordan Center floor, along with four other seniors, for the final time of her career at 1 p.m. Sunday against Michigan, the once painfully shy Greene is an example of how slow growth yields beautiful results.
Far, far away
Imagine trekking nearly 1,400 miles to a university that has an enrollment nearly 10 times as large as the population of your hometown.
Imagine leaving a culture, a way of life, the cuisine and weather that’s your comfort zone for a new world.
That’s the decision Nikki Greene made to come to Penn State.
Tough decisions are nothing new for Greene, who along with her older sister Sade, decided to move to tiny DiBoll, Texas when Nikki was in elementary school. Greene’s parents were split and both had careers in the Navy. With her mother Anita moving constantly for duty, Greene wanted to stay put.
She and her sister, who played college volleyball, decided to move in with her maternal grandmother Maxine Fuller, travelling from the Carolinas to Eastern Texas.
“My fifth grade year, I moved to Texas,” Greene said. “By my sixth grade year, my mom wanted my sister and I to come back to North Carolina. At the point, my sister and I were like, ‘We’re tired of moving. We want to stay in Texas.’
“We were very close to my grandmother. I personally didn’t mind staying with my grandmother because I had a big relationship with her. It was not a bad decision because my mom understood why we wanted to stay there. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be with her. We didn’t like the moving.”
In her grandmother, Greene had a kindred spirit. She still maintains close contact with both her parents, but her grandmother is special.
“I feel like she’s one of the only people who really understands me,” Greene said. “To me, she’s like my mom. I don’t call her grandmother. I call her mom.”
Staying in Texas also gave Greene the opportunity to play basketball and she played it well. She became part of a talented class of post players in the state, one that included standouts Brittney Griner (Baylor) and Kelsey Bone (Texas A&M ).
Greene had opportunities to stay in Texas and play closer to home, but Penn State coach Coquese Washington came calling and Greene’s thoughts turned 1,400 miles to the Northeast to a program that was struggling.
Washington had taken over a program that had suffered through two losing seasons and had just lost 12 straight at the end of her first season. Still, Greene liked what the new head coach had to say and became part of Washington’s first true recruiting class.
Greene said the decision to come to Penn State was not tough at all.
“I knew coming here it was going to be pretty tough the first couple of years because we had five freshmen and Coquese trying to develop a new system,” she said. “I always had trust and faith in Coquese that she was going to change the program around. She just needed the correct players.
“I just really took in what Coquese was saying to me. She didn’t really sugarcoat anything. She was very honest and she knew that my freshman year was going to be pretty tough because she was still working with other players who weren’t hers. She was trying to put in a new foundation.”
Quiet, soft-spoken and shy, Greene arrived for her freshman year at a place that was far from Texas in more ways than distance.
Greene admits it was a complete culture shock on campus and around town.
“Penn State is definitely different from Diboll,” Greene said. “The people in Texas are more polite in a way. I was kind of throw off by different manners people use up versus the South.
“Something I picked up real quick my freshman year was how I would say, ‘Thank you’ and lot of Northern people would say, ‘Yep.’ Where I’m from when someone says, Thank you,’ you’re supposed to say, ‘You’re welcome.’ That at first kind of bothered me because I always thought ‘Yep’ was in a rude way. I caught onto it’s not because they were being rude --- it’s just how they were taught.”
And she found that she offended people, too, like some of the older Penn State fans.
“I wasn’t sure what to say to them,” Greene admits. “It was just a difference in language and manners. I have a habit of saying, ‘Yes ma’m’ and ‘No sir.’ Some people would get offended that I was calling them old, but I was really because of my manners.”
In classes, it was even more overwhelming.
“In Diboll, we didn’t have 500 students in one room,” Greene said. “It was hard for me at first to pick up the lectures and find ways to take notes when you have students around you making noise. When you’re trying to tune into what the professor is saying, the small things distract you. It was pretty bad.”
Washington, who worries about how all her freshmen will adjust to college life, wasn’t initially sure how the introverted Greene was handling the huge adjustment.
“Her freshman year, Nikki didn’t say a word,” Washington recalled. “She just was very introverted. … It was just a big transition for her coming from a small town to just a big university and the change in weather and all of those sorts of things.”
When Greene felt like talking, the phone lines were burning back to Texas to her grandmother, who offered sound advice.
“She’s able to pick me up when I’m down,” Greene said of her grandmother. “My freshman and sophomore year, I called her a lot because I was in a different place and state of mind than I am now. She was able to help me to realize the bigger picture of a lot of things. She’s able to keep me calm and to realize the bigger picture and of how much stuff that I have overcome and how much I’ll be able to accomplish after I graduate from here.”
Greene said another culture shock came with her teammates, especially her freshman class which featured diverse cultures from across the country (California, Indianapolis, Virginia and Pennsylvania).
During her freshman year, she roomed with big-city girl Alex Bentley from Indianapolis. The two were complete opposites. As much as Greene is shy and quiet, Bentley is brash and loud.
While the combination didn’t continue as roommates over the next three seasons, a mutual bond was formed. Next to Washington, Greene says Bentley has been one of her two biggest influences while at Penn State.
“I always tried to stay up with Alex because Alex was developing more than I was,” she said. “... Alex’s energy brings my level of concentration up.”
“I got to understand her and she got to understand me,” Bentley said of Greene. “That definitely helped us throughout the years. I know how to talk to her and she knows how to talk to me. That chemistry right there is awesome.”
Greene admits she hates confrontation. “I don’t get into arguments because if I do I might just say the wrong thing or hurt somebody’s feelings,” she said. “I’d rather just play the cool part of it or just let things go. If I have something to say, I just bite my tongue because it’s not going to fix it. For stuff like that, I’d just rather keep myself calm.”
Those closest to Greene know that she has plenty to say — it just takes awhile for her to say it.
“She can still be quiet at times, but the more you get to know her the more she opens up,” said teammate Marisa Wolfe, who has roomed with Greene for two years.
“Nik’s a lot more open now, but she’s still quiet,” added Bentley. “That’s just her. She’s a sweet soul, quiet. That’s just who she is.”
The introvert in Greene has found an outlet what she hopes to be a future career in art.
She’s an integrative art major and teammates marvel at the projects she brings back to her room.
“There are pieces of her artwork all around the apartment,” roommate Dara Taylor said. “It’s cool to see the projects she brings home. She actually right now just did a huge Mickey Mouse, but it’s an ice cream sandwich looking kind of thing. It’s pretty cool.”
“There will be times that she’s working on things or I’ll just ask how her classes are going and she shows me some stuff, I wish I could come up with those things,” Wolfe added.
Like her grandmother who writes poetry, Greene has found her passion and an outlet for the things she keeps inside.
“People don’t understand me because — I don’t want to say I’m weird — I just see things differently,” Greene said.
She initially liked sculpture, but now is enjoying oil painting.
“I really like the way that the colors blend,” Greene said. “I’m still trying to figure how to use the paint in a way. When I’m able to paint on my own terms and not as an assignment, I’m able to create different feelings that I’m not able to express in front of other people. I’m able to get my ideas out on paper and allow people see what I’m thinking, instead of me explaining it to them.”
No team member enjoyed a preseason trip to Europe more than Greene. The basketball played was secondary. It was an artist’s dream to visit Paris and Rome and see the art, architecture and history.
“Europe was definitely awesome,” Greene said. “I fell in love with it. If I could go back today, I would. I felt so much better in Europe. I was kind of able to be on my own and not think about the problems that I’ve had in the past or before I left. I was grateful to be able to experience something like that. I know a lot of people would love to go to Europe, the Louvre, the Vatican, to see the Colosseum and to be able walk the on the same ground as Julius Caesar. Stuff like that made me really appreciate basketball, Coquese and all of the hard work that she put on us.”
While most players pine for the WNBA, Greene says she’d take a trip back across the Atlantic if given the chance.
“I would really love to play overseas,” she said. “I would love to continue my art.”
She hopes to someday become involved in marketing or graphic design. She loves making logos and has done one for a program run by teammate Gizelle Studevent.
While Greene has high hopes after college, she’s got more work to do on the court for the No. 7 Lady Lions (22-3 overall, 12-1 Big Ten) who can clinch a share of their second straight conference title with a win today.
Her impact with the program has been significant.
Greene enters today’s game having put up some of the best numbers for a center in program history. She’s scored 1,051 points, is second on the school list with 206 blocks and is fifth in rebounds (937). She’s the only player in program history to top 1,000 points, 900 rebounds and 200 blocks.
She’s done it all while battling seemingly endless foul troubles — Washington has said Greene is one of the worst refereed players in the country — and constant pounding.
“People play me differently than other players,” Greene said. “I get the cheap punches in the face, the pulling on the jersey, tangling their arms with mine, the elbows to the rib cage, punches in the back. I get everything. It’s very frustrating. I feel like I’m playing football, or in an ECW match or I’m a wrestler. I feel like I’m playing a whole different sport than basketball sometimes.”
Washington said Greene has matured much, especially since she had to learn on the job. “She was the only center on the team when she got here,” Washington said. “Prior to her getting here we had some forwards masquerading as centers. She had to play and had to play through her mistakes, her frustrations and learn on the fly.”
“Nikki is playing the best basketball she’s ever played here,” Bentley said. “She’s a great player. She’s getting it done on the defensive and offensive end. We wouldn’t be able to be here without her.”
Greene’s ability to score and the swat away the shots of anyone who penetrates the defense has been a big part of Penn State’s rise back to prominence. The Lady Lions have not had a losing season since Greene arrived and will be making their third consecutive NCAA appearance this year. Greene has started in every game since she arrived and has never missed a game.
“I’m extremely tough,” Greene said. “If I was a lighter complexion, I’m pretty sure my whole body would be bruised. I think I can take shots and I have.”
Greene once enjoyed the kind of anonymity she got in dressing up as the Diboll mascot (a lumberjack), but knows what she’s accomplished at Penn State puts her in the forefront in her hometown.
“Numbers right now don’t mean anything to me, but later in life I believe they will because I’m able to inspire somebody from Diboll or a small town that they can do anything they want,” she said. “In a way, I don’t like the spotlight, but in a positive way I don’t mind being in the public eye. I don’t mind being a role model for kids back in Diboll.”
Washington says where Greene has come from to where she is now is certainly an inspiration.
“To watch her in her words ‘blossom,’ I think that is a very adequate description,” Washington said of Greene. “Now every time you see her she’s got a smile on her face and she’s open. She talks to teammates. She’s a leader, a quiet leader.
“She’s going to leave here and do great things. She’s developed a confidence in herself to take on any challenges that come her way because her transition to college was so foreign and in a lot of ways very tough. If she can get through this, she can get through anything.”
Greene’s teammates agree. “Just to see her sort of grow up — and that’s not in a bad way — from a basketball standpoint and being away from home, I like the Nikki I see now so much more that she has grown into herself,” Wolfe said.
Greene, who loves all kinds of music (2,000-plus songs on her computer), hats and Vans shoes (she wanted to be a skateboarder but had to quit because of its risk to her basketball career), likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror these days.
She sees both the “world as her canvas” and the “canvas as her world.”
Call it a growth experience.
“I definitely appreciate everything that I’ve done at Penn State,” she said. “I’ve gotten to travel the world. … Everything that I’ve experienced here, I would not take back. I don’t regret making my decision to come here because I know that I would have grown or experienced as much as I have or wouldn’t have met so many different people. I love it here.
Game notes: Penn State defeated Michigan (19-7, 8-5) by a score 59-49 earlier this seasons, using a 12-0 run at the end of the game. ... The Lady Lions lead the all-time series 29-9, including 14-2 at home. ... Penn State has won 19 straight at the Jordan Center. ... The Wolverines’ Kate Thompson has 96 3-pointers on the season.