Nottingham senior Imani Alston drives past Steinert High’s Gabby Bennett during the Northstars’ 51-26 win Jan. 18, 2013. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Imani Alston had an interesting junior season, to say the least. It was chaotic, to say the most.

But she survived and made a successful return to the Nottingham High girls’ basketball team this year, serving as head coach Lauren Kelly’s extension on the floor.

“She is a natural leader, she’s like our little voice of reason,” Kelly said. “And a lot of times on the court if there is a change in the defense or someone needs to call inbounds plays, if I don’t get to it first she’s setting it up automatically.

“She’s mini-coach on the floor, which is crucial. Last year, when we came in as coaches she taught us all the plays before we got there.”

That was just part of the fun Alston had last year.

The season started with Leo Mahon as the new varsity coach. After the players finally learned Mahon’s system, all heck broke loose in early January and Mahon resigned.

Kelly was promoted from freshman coach on Friday morning to varsity coach for the game that night. Because there was little communication between the varsity coaches and sub-varsity, Kelly had to learn the plays from Alston that day.

“That was different,” Alston said. “We have one coach and then in school that day we find out we have a new coach. It was kind of an easy transition because Coach Kelly picked everything up quick and I was able to learn a lot too.”

Once some regularity resumed, thanks in part to Alston running the show on the floor, another disaster hit. In the third to last game of the season against Princeton, Alston was playing defense and ran to beat her girl to a spot on the floor.

“When I turned, my knee did not turn with me,” she said. “I felt it pop and fell to the floor. I screamed, felt like I was dying and they had to come wheel me off.”

The result was a torn ACL in her right knee, which was the “perfect” end to the “perfect” season.

Alston was unable to do anything basketball-related during the spring or summer and had to miss playing field hockey in the fall as she could only rehab the knee.

“It was very tough in the beginning,” she said. “I had to get full range of motion back, learn to bend again, put pressure on it to walk. After the first couple weeks of therapy it got a little easier and I started pushing myself a little more to get ready.

“I leaned a lot on my friends and family during that time. It was hard and stressful not being able to play basketball. I came to every game and was yelling from the bench. The coaches kept telling me to shut up.”

Alston was unable to start fully dribbling or even running until basketball tryouts.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be ready,” she said. “Or that I rushed back too soon.”

Alston wasn’t the only one worried.

“Obviously any coach would be concerned,” Kelly said. “In the beginning you could tell she was a little tentative and nervous, like anyone could be.

“But I knew in the off-season she was not one to slack off. She’s in the gym before practice starts and stays after to work on shots. I knew in the off-season she would do what she had to do to get better.”

Alston developed her toughness as a youth in Jersey City, when she used to play on an all-boys team with her brother Anthony, which was coached by her dad.

Upon moving to Hamilton after third grade, Alston continued to play with her brother (a former Northstar) and some male cousins.

“They’d be physical with me,” she said. “But I know how to handle pressure.”

Considering she is the Northstars point guard, Alston better handle pressure well. She has done that, as Kelly feels that what Imani had to endure last year helped her grow as an individual and a player.

“I think it made her a stronger and wiser player,” the coach said. “Not even just a player, but a student and athlete.

“She definitely had to step up big with us being so young. The best part about her is we never had to ask her to step up. She did it on her own. She just did it, and she’s very valuable for many reasons.”

Not the least has been as a playmaker, as Alston prides herself on getting assists and averages over five per game this year.

“We don’t score a lot but what baskets we get she usually sets up,” Kelly said. “She hasn’t been scoring a lot but she does little things not always seen in the boxscore. She’s a team player all the way. She had a tough time with the surgery and recovery but we’re starting to see the old Imani.”

Alston, who sees the court well, is sometimes too savvy for her own good as several surprise passes to open teammates were dropped because they were thrown with too much zip. It has cost her a few assists this year, along with some missed shots.

“But that doesn’t bother me,” Alston said. “I know they’ll make them next time.”

“She can find the gaps in the defense and her intelligence and basketball IQ are huge for us,” Kelly said. “She has a great shot when she’s able to take it. She’s starting to become a little more selfish with shooting, which we told her she needed to be.”

Alston said setting up teammates “is my absolute favorite thing to do.”

She also didn’t mind explaining the plays to the coaches when they took over last year.

“I like doing that,” Imani said. “Hopefully one day I can be a coach – something to do on the side. I enjoy being around the game.”

Her main dream is to be a sports broadcaster. When told most folks usually coach and then become broadcasters, she laughed.

“I’m gonna do it the other way around,” she said.

And why not? She already has practice doing it that way after a topsy-turvy junior season.