After heartbreak and struggles, best friends find hope in basketball at Wayne State

DETROIT - Juanita Cochran and Talisha Bridges grew up in Michigan and both had the same dream.

They wanted to play college basketball.

Quickly, they learned that dreams turn into realities, and realities can be anything but what you expect them to be.

After playing together on the same AAU team the summer before their senior year of high school, the girls decided to sign together to play for the University of New Orleans.

"They were rebuilding the city," Bridges says of New Orleans. "And we'd ride around town and see houses that looked like they really got blown away."

The city had hit rock bottom during the devastating blows Hurricane Katrina landed on its community, but the girls saw an opportunity to be a part of a resurrection in a place where fun could be had.

"We were 17 without parents, in a city like New Orleans," Cochran explains.

But the fun wouldn't last long.

The Big Un-easy
After the girls' freshman year at UNO, the school continued to fight financial troubles as a result of the hurricane. They signed four-year scholarships and took the first step in accomplishing their dreams, and the girls had their feet swept right out from under them.

The school's athletic department drastically slashed and cut its budget. Division I sports teams were immediately disbanded, and players were left looking for a new home.

"You pick a school for a reason. That's where you want to be for the next four years of your life. You want to build friends, relationships. So to be told 'We're making budget cuts, and the first thing we're cutting is all Division I sports,' it's kind of like, okay, gotta start all over again," Bridges recalls.

Left without a school, Juanita and Talisha hit the recruiting process trail for the second time. Again, they did it together. Only this time, they did it with a much stronger bond.

"We had a lot of different schools contacting us, all different areas, but only a couple want the complete package: both of us," Bridges says.

Big city, bigger heartbreak
They wanted to stay together, and they aimed for another big city destination. Stony Brook University in New York offered both girls a scholarship, and the stage was set.

"My first mindset was, 'I'm going to New York. This is awesome,'" Cochran says with a smile.

The opportunity seemed perfect. Only one year after starting in New Orleans, they had a new beginning, and a new coach they believed in.

That fun wouldn't last long, either.

Michele Cherry, the head coach at Stony Brook for over three years, didn't even make it through the season. She resigned in January of the girls' first season at the school.

That was hardly the biggest matter facing the friends' journey.

"I began to get depressed and miss family, miss home. I had been through so much, just with leaving New Orleans," Cochran remembers.

During that sophomore year, she lost her grandfather near the same time her best friend, Bridges, had lost her grandmother.

Basketball was becoming more and more of a secondary priority, and the girls longed for what they needed most: a place to concretely call home.

Finding hope in home again
Talisha said her usual medicine wasn't working anymore, and she knew it was time to refocus her life.

"If I'm ever feeling down, I'd go to the gym, get a couple shots up and and I'm back on track. But I just didn't feel like I loved basketball at that moment."

While Bridges stayed to play for the next coach, Juanita, who plays center, and anchors most offenses she's ever been apart of, jumped ship and headed for home. She left immediately after their sophomore season at Stony Brook.

"I've never been a quitter in life, I've never quit anything," she says, but the then 19-year old was in need of home cooking.

She chose to return to Michigan, and signed up to play for Wayne State University.

"When I came to Wayne State, it was amazing. Once I was happy, I was able to see my mom more, and everything began to fall in place."

Talisha, her best friend, heard the stories on the phone, and knew what was next for her future. They had done everything together through a long and twisted road, and now that her friend was actually happy, Talisha wanted to feel the same joy.

"Fixing her problems, I fixed my problems. Being together, it gave us someone to talk to, to look to kind of be happy and not think about things," she says.

After an extra semester at Stony Brook, Talisha left to rejoin her friend. By January of 2012, she was the newest member of the Wayne State Warriors, happily practicing alongside her close companion. She had to sit out for the year due to transfer rules, but quickly made a difference on the court.

"Having that chemistry and connection, it feels really good and feels like we've been friends for more than five years," Bridges says happily.

Now, the Warriors are off to their best conference start in a decade, a first-place 11-3 start to the GLIAC slate.

They've been through disaster and back, but through it all, they know

what kept their heads held high: each other.

"It's good to have someone you can talk to about anything. It's just amazing, the friendship that we have."

The way they dreamed it up looked much different than the way it played out, but Juanita and Talisha wouldn't have it any other way.

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