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Gophers’ Kenisha Bell started off homeless in Minnesota, but she’s made it her own

Kenisha Bell is averaging 18.9 points as a senior for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and ranks eighth all-time in career scoring despite playing for Marquette as a freshman. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kenisha Bell was an inquisitive child, and her questions were abundant when her mother moved her and her three brothers from a home in Chicago to a homeless shelter in Minnesota in 2007.

Aishia Bell tried to soothe her children, telling the older ones it was just a restart and they needed to get their feet underneath them.

What Aishia didn’t tell her kids at the time was they were fleeing gun and gang violence in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood considered one of the most dangerous in Chicago.

“It was a culture shock because we had to stay there,” Aishia said. “We came from a big family, so we never had to be in a shelter ever.”

Kenisha has 16 brothers and sisters total, most on her father Brian Townsend’s side, so leaving Chicago meant saying goodbye to them.

“There was a lot of emotion,” Kenisha recalled of her feelings as an 11-year-old. “I didn’t really want to leave because I didn’t know people here. … I’m very family-oriented. … It was really tough.”

Kenisha now understands her mom’s motives. Within months, the single mother and her children had settled into an apartment in Bloomington, and a peaceful foundation was laid for Kenisha and her siblings to flourish.

Kenisha has become one of the best scorers in Gophers women’s basketball history and has twice been named all-Big Ten first team. The senior guard enters the final stretch of her collegiate career when seventh-seeded Minnesota plays No. 10 seed Indiana at 5:30 p.m. tonight in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

But Aishia was worried Kenisha and her three other kids might not live to see college.

At home on Marshfield Avenue in Chicago, Aishia was on maternity leave with Kenisha’s youngest brother Romelle when she knew a drastic change was needed.

“I was looking out the window and I see two guys pull up in a car and they shot this boy on the corner and they took his money,” Aishia recalled. “The boy didn’t die. I called the ambulance and was thinking, ‘Damn, what if my kids were right there?’ It was broad daylight and someone gets shot.”

That wasn’t an isolated incident. “It was getting really bad,” Aishia said. “A lot of kids were getting jumped on and bullied and initiated into gangs and drugs. I just wanted something different.”

Aishia’s cousin suggested a move from where she was born and raised to where he lived in Minnesota, a place she had never visited. She uprooted her kids from school, their friends and families for a chance at a better life.

Aishia gave birth to Brandon and Kenisha before she graduated high school, and they were followed by Darius and Romelle. Each has separate fathers.

In Minnesota, Brandon was called on to help raise his siblings. Aisha’s boyfriend Antoine Easley entered her life soon after the move, and with kids of his own, he has been integral in the family dynamic.

Aishia obtained her associates degree in human services from Minneapolis Community and Technical College and now works at UCare, a nonprofit health care company.

“She never gave up,” Kenisha said.

But during lean times during their transition to Minnesota, Kenisha wondered how her mom would pay for basketball when she made the Bloomington Kennedy travel team in the sixth grade.

“I knew that my mom didn’t have the funds for me to play,” Kenisha said. “I was like I don’t know how this is going to work. They worked with her to basically see what they could do to help.”

Bell went on to lead Kennedy to two Class 4A high school state title games, losing to Hopkins in 2013 and Eastview in 2014.

In January, Kennedy raised a banner in its gym to commemorate Bell’s career.

“She will forever be up there,” her high school coach Quintin Johnson said. “I said this in my speech about her: … Knowing the type of player she is, I took my keys and gave them to her and said, ‘Here you go.’ She didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t get it. I said you have the keys to the car. I knew with that type of talent she was going to be on a national stage at one time or another.”

During her freshman year of high school in 2010-11, Bell was offered a scholarship by then-U coach Pam Borton. “I thought, maybe this is going to be the only one I get,” Bell said. “I just kind of took it right away.”

Brandon, a year older than Kenisha, went to Marquette to compete in track and field after high school, and Kenisha soon followed him to Milwaukee.

“I wanted to be around my bother; somebody that’s positive,” Kenisha said. “I can’t get distracted. He’s going to stay on top of me and push me through.”

But longtime Marquette women’s basketball coach Terri Mitchell, who recruited Kenisha, did not return to coach her freshman season. Despite setting a Golden Eagles freshman scoring record (424 points, 14.5 per game), she decided to transfer to the Gophers and play for coach Marlene Stollings.

Eight years after her first move from Chicago, Minnesota was no longer a foreign place for Kenisha. Moving back meant both her mom — and also now her dad — could watch her play.

“I was just thinking that maybe I should go back because my support system is there,” Kenisha said. “Maybe it would be cool if they could watch me in person.”

As Bell sat out the 2015-16 season, she made an impression on now-coach Lindsay Whalen, who was coming off the third of her four WNBA championships with the Lynx in summer 2015. Whalen practiced with the team and liked Bell’s game when they were on the same squad in scrimmages. Then they faced off against each other.

“When she started blowing by me all the time, I was like, ‘She’s really good,’ ” said Whalen, now in her first year coaching Minnesota. “To get to coach her, I knew that would be a good thing for us. Her speed and just the way she’s able to get to the basket and the way she is able to get to the free-throw line.”

Bell is third in the Big Ten with 18.9 points and 2.0 steals per game. She is tied with teammate Destiny Pitts for sixth in the league in minutes per game with 34.5 and is eighth in assists at 4.3 per game.

In Gophers history, her 1,692 points in three seasons ranks eighth all time. If you include her 434 points from Marquette, her total would jump into fourth behind Rachel Banham, Whalen and Carlie Wagner.

Bell showed how much the program means to her on senior day when she was subbed out of the U’s 82-63 victory Sunday over Michigan State at Williams Arena.

“She’s just got a lot of heart,” Whalen said. “She gives everything she has to her teammates every day. … She was pretty emotional out of everybody coming out of the game the other night because it’s meant so much to her. We will miss her for sure. I wish had four years with her, no question, but I’m happy that I at least got one. It’s been a great year.”

Bell takes time to work out with current Kennedy players and makes herself available to young Gophers fans at The Barn. After looking up to top pros Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, she wants to be a role model for others and fulfill her own dream of playing in the WNBA.

Johnson added a layer to that dream: “Let’s hope the Minnesota Lynx call her name, right?”

Wherever her next step goes, Minnesota is clearly home.