Father and daughter won’t be on speaking terms Tuesday.
But that’s always been their ritual: He won’t talk to her on big-game days, preferring to let her focus on the task at hand.
And games don’t get much bigger than the April 7 matchup between UConn and Notre Dame for the NCAA women’s basketball title.
One of the best players on the floor at Amalie Arena in Tampa will be star UConn senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a Mater Dei High School superstar and the daughter of Anaheim Fire & Rescue Firefighter Khairi Ali.
She’s only the best long-distance shooter in women’s NCAA history, recently breaking the 3-point record in tournament play with 396 buckets — besting the previous record of 392.
Early Monday, Ali – in Florida to see the big game with his wife, Sundy, and 4-year-old son, Xander, as well as other relatives — sent his daughter a brief text message:
Good morning, I love you.
Thanks Dad! I love you.
Now it’s time for the child Ali helped raise since she was 2½, honing her skills through countless marathon shooting sessions at a local gym, to once again shine on the big stage.
“I’m excited and a little nervous,” Ali, 43, said in a phone interview Monday. “But we’re a family that takes things in stride. We know it’s a blessing that she’s here, but she’s put in the hard work and has done everything she’s needed to do to get where she’s at.”
It’s the same work ethic her father has had in a 25-year firefighting career that began with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“I’ve always put in the hard work; I was never was out partying as a 20-year,” said Ali, who is assigned to Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s Truck 10 on the easternmost side of the city.
Ali has been with Anaheim Fire & Rescue for 18 years.
And come tipoff time at 5:30 p.m. (PST) Tuesday, it’s safe to say there will be many UConn fans within the agency rooting hard for Kaleena.
“I’m sure I’ll be getting a lot of texts, but I like to keep things hush-hush when it comes to the games,” Ali says. “Every time I talk a lot about Kaleena or brag about her, the games seem to go haywire.”
UConn will be vying for its third straight NCAA title in a rematch of last season’s championship game. The Huskies (37-1) have appeared in the last eight national semifinals.
Kaleena’s mother, Sundy (pronounced “Sunday”), a pediatrics nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, was a standout softball player at Mater Dei.
She was a single mother when she met Khairi at Venice Beach when he was an L.A. County firefighter.
Khairi and Kaleena formed an instant bond, and he and Sundy recognized Kaleena’s athletic potential when she was young.
Kaleena first started playing softball, but she found it too boring.
Then she tried soccer, but that was boring, too.
Being left off an All-Star basketball team when she was a third-grader at Canyon Rim Elementary School in Anaheim Hills only served to motivate Kaleena to become a better player, her father says.
Ali, who grew up in Anaheim Hills, recalls taking his daughter to a 24-Hour Fitness when she was in middle school to fire off 500 shots per day — even if she had to break up practice into two or more sessions.
Five-hundred shots eventually increased to 1,000 per day, with Kaleena looking to NBA sharpshooters like Kobe Bryant and Reggie Miller for inspiration.
She has succeeded wildly on the court.
Mosqueda-Lewis (a combination of her mother’s maiden name and her biological father’s last name) finished her career at Mater Dei as the school’s all-time leader in points (2,744), rebounds (876), and 3-pointers made (337).
As a senior, Mosqueda-Lewis led the Monarchs to a perfect season, its third straight CIF-SS Division 1AA title, and its second consecutive state crown.
Now the 6-foot forward readies for her final collegiate game as a likely top choice in the WNBA’s draft April 16.
Among Mosqueda-Lewis’ many accomplishments at UConn are being only the fifth UConn sophomore to be selected to the WBCA All-American Team, and burying 118 3-point field goals in 2012-13 — shattering a single-season record that had stood for 21 years.
Mosqueda-Lewis has been a member of the USA Basketball National Team since she was 16 and now, at 21, could be selected to play on the U.S. Olympic squad in 2016 or 2020.
Ali says that despite being one of the top female players her age in the world, Kaleena has remained humble — and determined to keep working hard to be her best.
“Our family doesn’t believe in burnout or giving up,” Ali says. “We believe that when you put your mind toward something, you go full speed.”
But Ali says life is about much more than basketball — and whether the Huskies end up victorious over the Irish.
“For us,” he says, “it’s always been family first.
“And as for me and my daughter, our relationship is about something far greater than basketball.”