From Springfield with love: How Micky Perdue became Cleveland State’s unlikely superstar

Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

Micky Perdue loves basketball.

Okay, that’s not a particularly bold declaration to make about a Division I basketball player. After all, most are at least aware of the time, effort and sacrifices involved with playing basketball or any other sport at a high level. Those who don’t love it find something else to do with their lives pretty quickly.

But it’s just a little bit different with Perdue, even if it’s hard to pin down exactly how. Maybe it’s the large tattoo on her right arm depicting basketball jerseys with the numbers 10 and 0, the two she’s worn during her career. Maybe it’s the way she’s impressed veteran coaches like Toledo’s Tricia Cullop – who has seen hundreds of college hoopers up close in more than two decades as a head coach – into expressing admiration for her love of the game. Maybe it’s the way she offers an all-caps “LOVE DAY” on social media a few hours before her Cleveland State team takes the court for a game.

Maybe it’s the way she responded when basketball was nearly taken away from her, at least temporarily.

Perdue committed to the Vikings out of the transfer portal last April, though with a major catch: CSU became her third four-year college program after time at Toledo and Glenville State, and she wasn’t a graduate student, so she needed a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible for the 2023-24 season. Otherwise, she would have to establish a year in residence at Cleveland State, compliance-speak for “not play basketball during the upcoming season,” in accordance with the NCAA’s rules intended to limit the volume of player movement between schools.

Fortunately for Perdue, those rules also allow for three primary exceptions, with the first, an argument that the second transfer was for “reasons related to the student-athlete’s physical or mental health and well-being” being the most heavily cited, by far. CSU filed the appropriate paperwork, though as with anything from Jim Harbaugh to NIL, the NCAA moved at a pace rivaling TSA lines, tectonic plates, and untipped DoorDashers.

So Perdue waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

While she was waiting for an answer during that tortuously-long summer, a couple things happened. One was that, every so often, a college basketball insider would pass along a dire update from NCAA headquarters. “The [NCAA Division I] Council was also informed the overwhelming majority of the second-time undergraduate transfers thus far have been denied waivers. There were exceptions, but minimal,” read one such message, from Jeff Goodman on June 28th. Goodman’s source synched with legislation passed by the DI Council in January of 2023 that sought to restrict the number of approved waivers for second-time transfers, still another attempt to dampen the increasing popularity of the transfer portal.

Of course, as we now know, the NCAA – thanks to the litigation that tends to follow any of its attempts at rules enforcement – is presently subject to a federal court injunction requiring it to allow immediate eligibility for second-time transfers. However, that situation didn’t exist until December, well after the start of basketball season, and it can always disintegrate based on the outcome of the lawsuits that triggered the injunction.

Somewhere far removed from the concerned headlines speculating on the fates of star football and high-major men’s basketball recruits, Perdue took on the grind of Cleveland State’s summer workouts without any regard for the idea that they might be an exercise in futility.

“I know me, and I know that I’m going to work hard regardless, especially during the summer,” she said. “During the summer, I think that was the hardest I’ve worked in my life.”

“She handled it in a remarkable way for what you go through as a young kid to mentally have so much uncertainty about something that you love so much,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier added. “As a coaching staff, we were beside her every step of the way, and I’m not sure that she could have handled it much better from a basketball perspective and just how she approached life.”

“Micky’s just a great person. Her personality, just smiling and bubbling all the time. It’s just infectious to be around her, and she just oozes that to everybody. You just love to coach young kids that are maybe having a bad day, but they don’t show it. They’re happy, they just love being in the gym. She’s a special kid.”

Kielsmeier likes to point out that for most players new to a college basketball team, the difficulties of the game itself are just one facet of what can be an overwhelming and chaotic transition in ways both large and small.

While Perdue was learning where she was supposed to be on the floor in different situations, along with the various unwritten rules and preferences of a new coaching staff, she was also trying to learn which Starbucks location made her favorite drink the right way. She was establishing a new residence while searching for the best places in town to produce content for her robust social media following (always a must in the NIL era). She was trying to make new friends from a group of 12 complete strangers on the CSU roster. And, oh yeah, there’s the process of enrolling at a new university, then registering for, and eventually attending, her classes.

All while not even knowing if the thing that brought her to Cleveland in the first place would be there for her in the fall.

“It was tough, I’m not going to lie, it was tough,” Perdue said. “Basketball, this is my everything. This is what I put 100 percent of my time into, this and school. It was tough, but I knew that I still needed to go out there and play the game that I love at the end of the day. Whether I was playing or not, I just wanted to play what I love and what I like to do, so I just did that.”

Finally, after six months of uncertainly and just 12 days before Cleveland State’s regular season opener against Bowling Green, the word came back from Indianapolis: Perdue was in, and the love days would follow.

“In the end, it was God’s plan and everything happens for a reason, and I believe that to this day,” she said.

Adaptation is nothing new for Perdue.

She graduated from Springfield High School, roughly 30 miles northeast of Dayton, in three years, ending her time with the Wildcats as the school’s all-time leading scorer and three-point shooter, along with an enviable haul of postseason honors like a second team all-Ohio selection and a nod as the District 9 player of the year. There were also, of course, plenty of breathless scouting reports that sounded a lot like descriptions of Kobe Bryant, one of Perdue’s heroes, using phrases like “human highlight reel” and “this kid has no fears on the court.”

Naturally, plenty of Division I offers rolled in, including from schools like Villanova and Duquesne, though most originated within the Horizon League and Mid-American Conference. Perdue ultimately chose Toledo, signing with the mid-major powerhouse a couple hours north of home in the spring of 2020.

“I admire her incredible work ethic and love of the game,” Cullop, UT’s veteran coach, said in the school’s announcement. “There have been very few times I have spoken to her that she’s not going to or coming from a workout. Mickayla is a very driven person, talented player and exceptional student.”

If it seemed like Cullop had a good read on Perdue in some sense, it certainly wasn’t reflected on the court. She was used sparingly as a freshman, just 48 minutes across nine games, though she scored 11 points at Ohio on one of the few occasions where she did receive playing time of some substance. When she sat for all of the following year, 2021-22, it was time for a change of scenery.

The resulting connection between Perdue and Division II’s Glenville State proved quite beneficial for both sides.

Though the Pioneers were coming off of a 35-1 national championship season, they were also subject to the perpetual churn of a successful lower-division program, the sort of place where everyone’s trying to end up somewhere else. Zakiyah Winfield and Re’Shawna Stone, the team’s two best players, did just that, parlaying the title into grad transfer seasons at Buffalo, while several others moved on as well. Head coach Kim Stephens needed to reload quickly and Perdue, who needed to boost her stock after two years of invisibility, was an ideal fit.

Alongside juco transfer Breanna Campbell, who is now at Marshall, Perdue made sure Glenville State didn’t miss a step. She scored the Pioneers’ first points of the season on a three-pointer and didn’t really slow down from there – in fact, Perdue led Division II both with her 110 made threes and her 287 attempted threes. Her 17.7 points per game slotted in just behind Campbell’s 18.3, and included a pair of 30-point outings which, like her efforts from deep, featured a lot of shooting and a lot of made baskets.

The team itself was once again a wagon, finishing 33-3 but missing out on a repeat title after falling to eventual champion Ashland in the Division II semifinals. Perdue acquitted herself well in the defeat, firing home 20 points against a juggernaut Eagles squad that would undoubtedly beat a large chunk of Division I if given the chance.

It was an extremely successful season by any measure, but Perdue knew she wanted to give Division I another shot. To make it back, however, she had to get in touch with Kielsmeier, a coach she had previously turned down twice.

“Each time that I was in the portal, Coach K recruited me,” she explained. “We had already kind of built that relationship over the phone, through texts during [the previous] recruiting days.”

No hard feelings though, especially not when everyone involved saw a partnership as a ticket to winning on a national scale. The Vikings had recently taken the 2022-23 Horizon League championship, and the fresh banners on the wall of the Wolstein Center practice gym left an impression on Perdue.

“She just believed in our program,” Kielsmeier said. “When she came here on her visit, she committed to us on the spot, and said ‘this is where I want to play, this is where I want to go make my legacy.’”

“Part of why Micky came here is she wanted to win. When she was here on her visit with her dad and stuff, we just talked about winning.”

Of course, in the often-fickle world of recruiting, Kielsmeier’s persistence also counted for something too.

“He always had the confidence in me, he always wanted to recruit me,” Perdue said. “He just never gave up, and that just made me think ‘dang, he’s always been here.’”

Kielsmeier wasn’t the only one who didn’t give up.

Though the NCAA was able to say that Perdue is allowed to play this season, there were no assurances as to how much she actually would. After all, Cleveland State returned Destiny Leo, the Horizon League’s 2022-23 Player of the Year and already one of the Vikings’ all-time greats as she entered her fourth year. By the beginning of the season, the other starting backcourt spot was held down by Colbi Maples, a transfer from Grambling (a first-timer, no waiver required) who seemed tailor-made for CSU’s offense, with the processing power and quickness to consistently get to the basket and distribute the ball effectively.

There was also the matter of Kielsmeier’s system, simple on the surface but packed with nuance for those trying to execute it and notoriously befuddling for newcomers.

“At the start of the season, she really struggled with the system,” he said. “It’s a complex system, and there’s a lot to it, and she really couldn’t get herself settled in. But it was apparent to this staff what we had. She just tore the gym up this summer, she was making plays all over the place. We knew it was only a matter of time until we got her into a rhythm.”

That development time, through most of November, took place largely in the practice gym and not in competition. During the Vikings’ first five games, Perdue played extensively late in emphatically-decided meetings with Central Michigan and Chicago State, but barely at all in a close game against Austin Peay. Mostly though, things seemed to rest between those two extremes, leading to appropriately-moderate expectations. Maybe she would be the type of player who could spell Leo or Maples for stretches and effectively manage the game along until the starters were able to return. Maybe she would come off the bench and knock down a decisive three-pointer in a big game. If things went really well, maybe she would be named the Horizon League’s sixth player of the year in March.

“I just had a lot to prove, coming from DII and coming back to DI, I feel like I had that chip on my shoulder where I know that I can play DI,” Perdue said. “A lot of people doubted me, but I knew deep down that this is where I was meant to be, and I just had to put in the work.”

Suddenly, on an afternoon witnessed by a few dozen people struggling through the torpor unique to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and in an otherwise-forgettable game against Kansas City that CSU would eventually win by 27, everything changed: Leo tore her ACL and meniscus, after trying to pivot around light contact on a drive towards the basket.

In those early, uncertain days after Leo was lost for the season, pinning down Cleveland State’s prospects without its established superstar was a grim proposition. The Vikings were obviously still a very good team, but championship good? Second-round good? Those sorts of dreams seemed faded at best, and delusional at worst. Nope, for CSU, the 2023-24 campaign had certainly become a matter of pushing through as best as they could, logging a successful-under-the-circumstances outcome, and racking things back up to try again next year.

Perdue finished out that Kansas City game with 16 points in 29 minutes, a good showing that offered some promise of a soft landing from the unexpected disaster, though one that barely scratched the surface of what was to follow.

A couple weeks later, things abruptly escalated well beyond that, and Perdue started routinely turning in all-conference-level efforts.

Stacked one on top of the other, they almost read like urban legends, unlikely feats that expand and take on a life their own through sheer repetition, with a healthy dose of embellishment thrown in along each step of the journey:

“She once went shot for shot with Caitlin Clark in front of 15,000 hostile fans!”

“Oh yeah? My friend told me that she hit six threes against Oakland and basically won that game for the Vikings.”

“No, it was seven against Green Bay and now they might win the title!”

“Did you hear about the time she made 3,000 kids yell her name and weep with joy at CSU’s school day game?”

It’s all verifiably real though, just ask the Horizon League, which has honored Perdue twice as its player of the week since December. Or the stat keepers, who can confirm that during HL play (which commenced right at the same time she unexpectedly became a starter), she has averaged 20.0 points per game across 15 contests, tops in the league.

Or ask Kielsmeier.

“Micky’s just a straight baller, she just flat-out loves the game,” he said. “She loves everything about it, and she chases success. Those are the kind of kids that you want to coach really hard.”

Central to all of it has been Perdue’s near-instant chemistry with Maples, her fellow backcourt starter. After those early struggles to figure out CSU’s Syracuse-style 2-3 zone defense, the duo has mastered most of its complexities and typically operates with a single brain, creating mayhem on opposing perimeters and quite literally feeding off each other. Several times during every game, Maples will come up with a turnover and lob the ball ahead to Perdue – already well in flight the other way – for an easy layup. Or it will be Perdue with the takeaway and pass to a streaking Maples. It doesn’t really matter which way it happens; after all, their pregame goals for steals and deflections are formed for the collective.

“We know it all starts with us on defense, so we give each other goals for things we should get done that night and stuff like that, but we also hold each other accountable,” Maples explained. “We know we have a big role on the team, and we gotta put each other up so we can get that every night.”

They complement each other just as well in the half court, with Maples able to beat just about anyone to the hole and Perdue serving in her customary sniper role, often firing from deep after Maples sucks the defense away from the three-point line on a drive.

“The connection Colbi and Micky have formed with each other is really special, and something that doesn’t happen as quick as what it did,” Kielsmeier said. “They’re both so unselfish, they both look for each other, feed off of each other, it’s really special to coach a duo like that.”

“At practice, just getting more reps with each other and learning each other a lot more helped us out on the court,” Maples added.

“My teammates, my coaches, the people around me, they make me better, I make them better, and we’re better together,” Perdue confirmed.

The story from here is still unwritten, but with Cleveland State now 22-4 overall and quite possibly in line for the first regular season conference title in program history, ideas that seemed impossible in late November have been resurrected.

Could the Vikings, somehow, find even greater heights this season than they did a year ago?

After a 30-win season and the third NCAA Tournament bid in school history in 2022-23, and without the leader of that team available, such a question still might seem out of reach. But from a false start at Toledo, to bouncing back as an underrecruited Division II phenom, to her unlikely path from near-ineligibility to stardom at CSU, very little about Micky Perdue’s story so far has felt predictable.

Just don’t tell that to Kielsmeier.

“When you lay a vision out, and that vision gets executed, man that’s really special in this business. It’s just really, really special. She believed in me, and we’re doing great things together.”

“We’re very fortunate as a program to have her, and I love coaching the kid.”

There’s that word again.

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