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Nani Redford fired up over going to Harvard

Long Island Lutheran's Nani Redford moves the ball

Long Island Lutheran's Nani Redford moves the ball against Ossining during the first half of the New York State Federation Class AA girls basketball semifinal on Friday, March 27, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. Credit: Hans Pennink

Nani Redford watches television. She even has favorite shows!

Yes, that is a revelation because it hadn't been the case for the Long Island Lutheran senior, until about a month ago.

For years, Redford created for herself simple but paramount goals, which she became fixated with: To excel academically and hone her basketball skills.

With her time, thoughts and energy dedicated to those things -- grueling practices and study sessions going to 1 a.m. -- television, she said, would have been a silly distraction.

Then the letter arrived last fall . . .

"I handed it to her and she ripped it open," Redford's mother, Candace Knox, said. "She was grinning, jumping up and now and saying, 'I'm going to Harvard!' "

It was an expected reaction from a teenager upon receiving an acceptance letter from a prestigious university, along with a spot on its basketball team. But for Redford there was added significance: She will be only the second member of her family to attend college, Knox said.

"My parents didn't go -- only my uncle did -- and growing up it was something I was conscious of," Redford said. "But I always wanted to put myself in a position where I could go to a good school, fulfill my goals and make a difference for my family."

Redford, 18, grew up in an apartment building in Spinney Hill -- a small, low-income enclave within the predominantly affluent hamlet of Manhasset. Knox said she was 17 when she had Nani and she and Nani's father, Tyson Redford, separated two years later.

Nani said she is close with her dad, who works at nearby North Shore University Hospital. She also was sponsored financially throughout high school by Steve Leondis, a family friend and Manhasset resident who runs the "Hoops on the Hill" after school program in her area. Still, Lutheran coach Rich Slater said, "Nani didn't have it easy and it took a lot of perseverance" for her to succeed.

"It was clear that she was gifted and had the rare combination of great athleticism and intellect," said Leondis, a former basketball star at Yale. He met the Redfords when Nani joined his after-school program at the Hagedorn Community Center near Spinney Hill. "Our goal is to help some underserved kids reach their potential, and Nani was clearly special."

Knox said that she always urged her daughter to "make something of herself" and Tyson Redford always stressed to her the importance of academics. Knox said she knew Nani was bright from early on because, as a 2-year-old, she was able to recite the seven continents.

"She's a different kind of nerd," teammate Taylor Byrne joked. "She's funny and cool, but she gets intense about schoolwork and competitive when it comes to grades. She's been on a mission to get to the Ivy League."

Redford declined several Division I basketball scholarships and passed on offers from other Ivy League schools including Yale and Columbia, the family said. She chose Harvard, which had a record low 5.3 percent acceptance rate for its incoming class, according to a recent Boston Globe report.

"It's 'Harvard,' " Redford said, playfully emphasizing the 'H' in a faux-British accent. "To come from where I have and get there is kind of surreal for me."

Redford said she has maintained a 95 average and takes several advanced-placement classes, including calculus. She also helped lead the Crusaders to a third consecutive state Federation basketball championship last month. The 5-7 guard is a defensive whiz whom Slater described as "the best pure athlete I've ever coached." She also was a standout on the Lutheran lacrosse team. Her talents, Slater said, will translate well to the college game.

The Ivy League doesn't provide athletic scholarships, but a comprehensive financial aid package is expected to cover almost all of her college expenses, the family said. Redford said she plans to major in business and pursue an MBA.

"It's an incredible feeling knowing that people believed in me that much," Nani said. "You don't want to let yourself down or them, and it helped keep me focused."

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