As with most magicians, what you don't see about Sammy Prahalis is just as important as what you do see. And with her prop of choice -- a basketball rather than a wand -- there's no doubt the Commack (N.Y.) senior point guard is equal parts Steve Nash and David Blaine.
The way she effortlessly dishes out no-look passes, delivers ankle-breaking crossovers and dribbles circles around her opponents is almost supernatural. Prahalis makes it look so simple that it's easy to forget what you can't see: how hard she works.
"She has a gift for the game, but she has worked as hard as anyone I've ever seen," says Commack head coach Denis Conroy.
The fans see the YouTube-worthy finished product, but Conroy has seen the hard work behind the scenes that has made Prahalis the top-rated player in the N.Y. Metro area. The 5-foot-6 playmaker earned Newsday Player of the Year honors last season and committed to Ohio State over Rutgers and Illinois in October.
Though Conroy didn't take over as Commack's head coach until Prahalis' sophomore season, he'd been watching her play since she made her varsity debut in seventh grade. His favorite example of her superhuman work ethic came during a Saturday practice last year following a week in which the Cougars played three games. He cut the workout short to give his players a chance to rest in preparation for a big game the following week, but Prahalis stuck around for three more hours to work with her personal trainer.
"You have to chase her out of the gym and turn the lights out to get her to stop playing," Conroy says.
Once the games start, all that hard work pays off. Last year, Prahalis averaged 23.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 5.2 steals per game. But perhaps her most impressive stat was 2.1 -- as in her number of turnovers per game.
"I definitely want to be able to do the flashy stuff, but I want to win most of all," says Prahalis, who led Commack to the League II championship and a berth in the Suffolk Class AA finals last winter.
By now, her teammates know to be ready at all times because a pass can come out of nowhere. Her nicest play last year came in a scrimmage when she picked up a loose ball at the free-throw line with her back to the basket and in one motion fired a two-handed pass over her head to an open teammate for an easy basket.
Plays like that make it seem as if Prahalis was born to ball. And considering her athletic genes, maybe she was. Her father, John, played football at Villanova. Her brother, Mike, was a record-setting quarterback at Commack who passed for 2,743 yards as a senior in 2000, the fifth-highest single-season total in state history.
As a kid, Prahalis watched her brother's football exploits with awe, having no idea that one day she would be the one making Commack crowds go crazy. "I looked forward to watching him play because he put on a show, and I think that rubbed off on me," she says. "I learned from watching him that if you work hard, you'll get rewarded."
Before she became a hoops illusionist, Prahalis took after her brother. As an 8-year-old, she was the only girl playing football in a Commack youth league. And as a running back and linebacker, she wasn't exactly hiding from contact. It was the first of many times Prahalis would try to break down barriers. To this day, her flamboyant style is at odds with stereotypes of the women's game. But Prahalis, a hoops junkie who loves watching NBA TV, is happy to be a pioneer of a new flavor of girls' basketball. "It's a lot more fun when you get the crowd involved," Prahalis says. "If the girls' game can get the crowd involved and play with more imagination, more people will want to come see it."
If you think it's impossible for one player to change traditional beliefs, don't tell that to Prahalis. As her foray into football showed, she's not afraid of long odds.
"If you ever want to motivate her, tell her she can't do something and then get out of the way," Conroy says. The last time Prahalis heard she couldn't do something was in the summer of 2006 when she made the jump to Exodus NYC, an elite AAU squad that features several of NYC's top girls' ballers each year. Playing in the city was a lot different than what Prahalis had experienced on Long Island. "Any time you get a kid from the suburbs, you wonder about how tough they're gonna be," says Exodus coach Apache Paschall.
Paschall threw the Long Island prodigy into the city fire right away, starting Prahalis in a tournament at Rucker Park in her first game. "She might have been a little nervous the first few minutes, but then she did a crossover and left her defender standing at the top of the key and hit a teardrop in the lane," Paschall says. "The crowd jumped up and went nuts." Prahalis earned the highest honor a player can get at historic Rucker Park when the announcer gave her a nickname -- Styles P -- a reference to her sick game and the rapper of the same name.
Styles P continued to wow the crowd with magical behind-the-back passes and long-range 3-pointers, quickly becoming a fan favorite for her countless highlight-reel plays.
Once again, Prahalis had proved the doubters wrong by showing that her game could flourish on any stage. But she wasn't satisfied. Shortly thereafter, she continued her grueling summer regimen: up at dawn for a conditioning workout before a session with her personal trainer. And then she would start playing basketball. Hours and hours of basketball.
Because while others fixate on her style, Prahalis knows the gym is where the magic originates -- and that what you don't see is just as important as what you do see.