By Ellie Lieberman
Mari Somvichian started playing basketball in second grade, barely able to see the rim from her small stature. Already though, her competitive juices were flowing. Just a beginner at her new craft, Mari asked her mom to sign her up for three weeks of basketball camp in the summer. Eight years later, and now a sophomore at Oakland Tech, not much has changed: Mari is nothing if not a competitor.
Even when she was just in fourth grade, she caught the eye of an instructor at the Ohtani Basketball Camp in Berkeley. The instructor was leading a ball handling drill and watched Mari enthusiastically run through the motions on the court. The instructor went by the name of Packie Turner and he approached Mari’s mom, insistent on her potential, and eager to train her in private lessons.
From then on, the two would play at whatever court would have them. Mari describes them as hitting “random gyms in the Bay,” settling on church gyms and high school gyms in Walnut Creek, Berkeley, and Oakland. Initially the focus was floaters and instilling a work ethic of gold.
“Packie has always stressed being tough, being a competitor, never back down from anyone,” Mari said. “Be a dog. Compete.”
Somvichian immersed herself in the game, playing for her middle school teams and with Packie whenever she got the chance. She still remembers the games her middle school squad lost to her rivals. She remembers the early players who helped her fall in love with the game. Having two parents as Cal alums, the easy answer was Berkeley legend (and UPB staple) Asha Thomas.
“I used to watch Asha and being that she’s my height, I used to [think], “Oh I can do this too,”” Mari said of those early Cal games.
And surely anyone who’s watched Mari knows she can do whatever she sets out to do in the game of basketball. She won NorCals as a starting point guard for her Oakland Tech squad last year, only to be stopped short of State due to coronavirus. Now Mari has unfinished business and lists winning state as her biggest goal, one that she’s consistently eyed with Packie.
“I always want to be a leader on any team that everyone looks to to be consistent…. Kind of be the alpha on whatever team I’m on even if I’m the youngest,” Mari said.
And Mari continued inching towards that goal. With school online this year, she would head to UPB early in the morning and workout before classes. After hitting the gym with Packie, she’d tackle her course load from the UPB office.
Mari mentions changing her jump shot in the last year and working on her left, as well as finishing over taller opponents as recent focuses. She plans to play with West Coast Elite this summer on the circuit and already has demonstrated interest from a plethora of Ivy League schools for college.
Being at UPB, playing against the best, playing against Sabrina [Ionescu] in ones, Mikayla [Cowling], all of the pros… seeing them work too has really helped my confidence,” Mari said. “All of them teach me things and are like big sisters.”
Each one of these talented women have taught Mari something she is quick to rattle off. Oderah Chidhom taught Mari how to finish over taller defenders, and Asha Thomas has paved a way for Mari as a strong ball handler.
And just as Mari believed in what Packie had to offer from the get-go, she knows he will always believe in her. She mentions an important teaching: the regression to the mean, as always being in the back of her head.
“Packie always tells me if you miss 10 threes that means the next 10 are going in,” Mari said. “Even if they’re not falling, they’re going to fall eventually.”