Kianna Hamilton was just 4 years old when she first started to play basketball at the local YMCA, dribbling with hands too small to really fit around the ball. Over the two decades since then, the sport has been a primary focus of her life.

Hamilton, now 24, a citizen of the Osage Nation, just finished her final season of college basketball. She rounded out her basketball career at the University of Portland playing point guard for the Pilots. The team made it all the way to the 2024 NCAA tournament.

The Pilots beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs, number one in the tournament and one of their biggest regional rivals, on March 12 in a 67-66 upset, only to be defeated a week and a half later by Kansas State.

“I feel like we ended on a good note,” Hamilton said. “So I feel complete.”

Kianna Hamilton poses for a photo with members of her family after winning the 2024 Credit Union 1 West Coast Conference Women’s Basketball Championship in Las Vegas. L to R: William Hamilton, Kiarra Hamilton, Kianna Hamilton, Nikki Hamilton, Linda Hamilton, Savannah Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Hamilton)

Basketball dribbles through her DNA

As soon as she enters the gym before one of Kianna Hamilton’s basketball games, Nikki Hamilton announces her presence, calling out “K-Ro” for “Kianna Rose.” One of the loudest in the stands, Hamilton is perhaps her daughter’s number one fan.

“She's my priority; my children are my priority,” she said, about making it to many of her daughter’s games even when living in another state. “It's very important as a single mom. She deserves as much support as I can give her.”

A former collegiate athlete herself, Nikki, citizen of the Osage Nation, remembers dribbling the ball with her round, pregnant belly at 24 years old, soon after graduating from California State University Northridge.

Kianna and her mom used to practice basketball together — shooting hoops, dribbling up and down park courts — until Kianna got older and quickly became faster and able to block most of her mom’s shots, according to Nikki.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, Kianna began playing basketball at the local YMCA, the only young kid able to dribble the ball down the court, according to her mom. As she grew, she began to play on increasingly competitive basketball teams.

In 2017, during the summer before her senior year of high school, Kianna joined the Cal Stars travel basketball team as point guard, coached by Stan Delus. That’s when her dream of playing college ball began to feel attainable — and a few years later she did just that.

“Thinking about everything that I've been through the past six years – me coming in as a freshman versus me now – I'm a totally different person, in a good way,” Kianna said.

Kianna played as a guard for five years at California State Long Beach. For graduate school, she transferred to the University of Portland, pursuing her MBA, where she played for another year, this time as point guard. Due to a pause for COVID-19 and a year-long injury, Kianna was able to be on a team for all six years.

Throughout it all, her family — her mom, sister, grandma and uncle — have been there, cheering her on from the stands.

“They're kind of like [my] ride or dies,” Kianna said. “They would do anything for me, I would do anything for them. They are for sure my biggest support system, no matter what.”

Kianna Hamilton, a citizen of the Osage Nation, played the final season of her collegiate basketball career as guard for the University of Portland Pilots, and will graduate from the University of Portland with her MBA this spring. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘She was a soldier’

During her sophomore year of college, Kianna sustained what could have very well been a career-ending knee injury, according to her mom.

The summer before the season began, Kianna was playing pickup basketball with some friends when she fell, hurting her knee and requiring the assistance of her friends to walk off the court. Though she was able to walk shortly after — and even played four games that season — she had destroyed part of the bone and cartilage in her right knee.

That injury led to surgery, around nine months of recovery and physical therapy that continues today.

“Each year I feel like I've progressed and I do feel pain, but I feel like I'm kind of used to it by now,” Kianna said. “I mean, it is a struggle but I think it's just how it goes being an athlete.”

Knee injuries are common for basketball players. In fact, Kianna’s mother tore her ACL during her own basketball career. As a result, she knew how difficult her daughter’s healing process would be.

“When she hurt her knee, my soul dropped for her,” Nikki Hamilton said. “She was a soldier.”

The number 25 has been Kianna Hamilton’s jersey number since she joined a traveling basketball team back in middle school. She continued to wear it through all four years of high school and into her college career.
(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Becoming champions

Though she was only on the Pilots at the University of Portland for a year, Kianna was a leader in her position as point guard.

“She just sets up our team so well,” said Lucy Cochrane, a senior who played center for the Pilots. “She's such a versatile player as she can pass and score and defend so well. She just fits right into our team.”

This year the team won the West Coast Conference Championship for the second year in a row and the fourth time in the program’s history.

For Kianna, in her final year playing college basketball, that win was momentous.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Pilots played against Kansas State. Though they lost, the experience of being in such a big, loud, sold out stadium felt unreal for Kianna.

“That's why I came to a program like [the Pilots],” Kianna said. “It was just amazing.”

Graduating with her masters in business administration, Kianna is ready to embark on the next adventure. She recently accepted a job as the director of basketball operations for the Portland Pilots. She begins her new role in August.

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....