UCLA's Star Forward Is Breaking Out of the Box
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s a big with big plans that involve more than basketball.
By Tal Pinchevsky
In preparation for a senior season at UCLA she hoped would cement her legacy at the school, Monique Billings spent last summer running drills on the court and putting in hours in the weight room — while also working as an intern at Ivan Bitton Style House, which promotes emerging designers in Los Angeles. Just another busy summer for a college basketball star who’s proven to be as versatile on the court as off.
“I’m a Renaissance woman. I like cooking; I like fashion and dressing up,” says Billings, a 6-foot-4 giant who led the Bruins this season in blocks and rebounds while ranking second in points and third in steals. “I always promote the idea that you can be girlie and you can still get buckets, and you can wear heels and still be a ballplayer.”
You don’t have to be put into a box to be a basketball player.
After advancing to the Sweet 16 in each of the past two years, Billings and the Bruins will look to take it a step further when they face the University of Texas on Friday in the third round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Equally adept at pounding the boards and protecting the rim as she is sprinting the floor and hitting midrange jumpers, the two-time all-conference player in the Pac-12 was named a finalist this year for the Lisa Leslie Award, which recognizes the top center in Division I college basketball. If third-seeded UCLA advances past the third round for the first time since 1999, you can bet it’ll be because Billings showed up in a major way.
“The second and third and fourth effort, you don’t see a lot in the women’s game from bigs. She’s one of the few players I’ve seen that has that bounce and that energy,” says Ann Meyers Drysdale, a UCLA legend who’s now a TV analyst for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and a vice president for the Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
“Early on in her career she got in foul trouble. There’s no question that hurt them defensively. I think she’s gotten better at that,” adds Meyers Drysdale. “When she gets to the next level, it still may be a learning curve because game in and game out you’re playing against unbelievable players.”
And what is that next level? It’s expected that the 21-year-old will be snapped up in the upcoming WNBA draft, but she has worked as a model for years and hopes to sign with an agency when she wraps up her time at UCLA. The Corona, California, native also has her eye on broadcasting, having shadowed a number of television analysts during her undergraduate years.
But those decisions can wait: For now, she’s fixated on helping UCLA win big over Texas.
“I can’t get too far ahead of myself thinking about the draft and where I’m going to end up. I am in the present as much as I can,” she says. “My dad gave me a quote: ‘Better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.’ I live by that.”
Chuck Billings gave his eldest daughter more than inspirational quotes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss — with a frame that seems sculpted from Mount Olympus and a career as a strength and conditioning coach that meant Monique was lifting weights starting when she was 12 years old.
“He doesn’t have any sons, and my mom says I’m his son because I play basketball,” she quips. “She’s kidding.”
For what it’s worth, Chuck Billings doesn’t care that young girls don’t usually lift weights. “That’s why not a lot of 12-year-old girls reach their potential,” he says matter-of-factly.
When it comes to fitness, whether his own or his daughter’s, he isn’t kidding around. “Our ancestors had to be in shape to go out, wrestle with an antelope, choke it out, clean it and feed it to the tribe. That wasn’t working out. That was survival,” he says. “Now you can pull up to the drive-through, reach out the window and pull in a bag of crap.”
Papa Billings and his no-nonsense approach to fitness have had more than a passing influence on his daughter’s development as an athlete. He helped chart her training regimen and talks to her before every game. But when it comes to her interest in fashion and cooking, he says, the credit goes to his wife, Jane.
“I love the balance,” he says. “I don’t want just a basketball player. I always wanted a well-rounded, complete child. Or woman, I should say.”
That balance has become Monique Billings’ calling card, and she shares it with her followers on every social platform — Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube — from modeling shots to her broadcasting reel to a personal vlog to favorite home-cooked dishes (she’s really feeling casseroles lately).
And it explains why Billings cites supermodel turned entrepreneur Tyra Banks as a role model for being “a strong, powerful Black woman.” It speaks to her focus and drive as an elite athlete, as well as her ambitions for life after basketball — traits that haven’t gone unnoticed by her teammates.
“Her dedication on the court has translated to other aspects of her life, whether modeling or her wanting to do commentating,” says fellow Bruins senior Kelly Hayes. “She’s a very versatile scorer and that goes with her beyond basketball.”
The record-setting forward, who already owns UCLA’s all-time blocks record, is squarely on track to reach the WNBA — and then? She’s not one to limit her options.
“I kind of want to be that figure for young girls and young women, and really whomever, who can look up to me,” Billings says. “You don’t have to be put into a box to be a basketball player. You can be whatever that is for you.”
- Tal Pinchevsky, OZY Author Contact Tal Pinchevsky