NBA legend's daughter Khalia Lanier: 'Volleyball is much bigger than just a sport'

The outside hitter chose a different path than her father Bob, an eight-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer. After signing a contract in Italy, the American plans to chase her Olympic dream and leave a legacy off the court.
By Alessandro Poggi

Volleyball prodigy Khalia Lanier certainly inherited the talent for sports from her illustrious father Bob, one of the biggest National Basketball Association stars in the 1970s and 80s.

However, the 22-year-old Arizona native has decided to find her own path.

"I didn't want to play basketball because I didn't want to be in his spotlight," Khalia said during a video call from her apartment in Bergamo, Italy, while holding her French bulldog Blues.

"And just the comparison is so hard, especially as a woman coming up under a male professional athlete. So I wanted to kind of find my own way, find my own sport."

That sport was volleyball.

After a successful college career with the USC Trojans, this season she moved to Volley Bergamo, one of the most renowned professional clubs in the world with eight national Italian league and seven CEV Champions League titles.

"It's so different, going from college and being the oldest girl. I'm kind of working my way into the lineup and trying to help my team in whatever way I can," the American, who's currently playing as a hitter, said.

Khalia represented the USA at junior level and this summer joined a training camp with the senior team. Tokyo 2020 may come too soon for her, but making her Olympic debut in Los Angeles is definitely a goal for her.

"I think every girl playing volleyball can dream about going to the Olympics.

"I think to represent USA and be in that elite group of girls would be so amazing. Also, to win the first gold for US, that would be even more amazing."

Inspired by her father

Bob Lanier was the first overall pick of the 1970 NBA draft and went on to become an eight-time All-Star during his career with the Detroit Pistons (1970-80) and Milwaukee Bucks (1980-84).

The 2.11m (6ft 11) centre was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992 and served as the interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 1994-95.

Khalia considers her dad as her biggest sports hero and even wears the number 16 jersey as a tribute to him. But his sporting accolades aren't what she remembers most about his playing days.

"He was just so big, we had chairs that were just huge, his bed was huge!

"When people would walk into our house, like in his office, he had his retired jerseys and his All-Star MVP trophies and just like things like that. But of course, I'm like, 'No, that doesn't really matter. What I care about are the big chairs!'

"The biggest piece of advice that he that just has stuck with me, like one of his his dad quotes, has been: 'put the extra in ordinary' " - Khalia Lanier on her father Bob

"In life, in sports and whatever I'm doing, it can be like an ordinary day. But you can kind of make it your best and make it special in whatever way that you possibly can. This has been one of the biggest pieces of advice growing up," she added.

Khalia agreed that being the daughter of a former NBA legend presented its challenges.

"There was definitely a lot of pressure that I felt being compared to him, and there was definitely a lot of talk in our house about who's the best and stuff like that, and definitely a lot of competition. So that has always been fun, but kind of drives you crazy at the same time."

But the fact that Bob used to be an elite athlete also has its pros.

"I think the biggest thing that I learned from him is just that he's kind of been through the same experiences that I have. Lately I've been talking to him about not doing well and how he handled that, how on a professional level you're getting paid to perform at a certain standard, and how you kind of deal with that pressure yourself.

"Knowing that he's been through the same road is really helpful." - Khalia Lanier

Bob Lanier playing for the Milwaauke Bucks (1980-1984). Source: NBAE/Getty Images.
Picture by 2013 NBAE
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Left) and Bob Lanier (Right), playing for the Detroit Pistons (1970-1980). Source: NBAE/Getty Images.
Picture by 1974 NBAE

"I just think he's just a really great person to find inspiration from." - Khalia Lanier on her father Bob

"I think it's super special that he was able to change the way his kids grew up from how he grew up. And not only with the money that he earned in his career, but also for what he did with that money after becoming a businessman, educating himself on all these different things, how to make that last for his kids and teaching us those values.

"When he had just retired from the NBA, he did a lot with 'Basketball without Borders', going to different countries and doing community service, he did reading programs and things like that. But it's amazing when we see normal people, who didn't know me but knew my dad, and they come up to me saying, 'Hey, your dad changed my life.'

"I learned how he impacted the schools in Detroit and how he got black people representation in the referees in the NBA... They are just things that I didn't even know because I wasn't old enough to know.

"It was just like really inspiring to see how he used his platform to make it bigger than just basketball and hopefully one day I can do that and I can reach more people than just the people who watched me play volleyball."

"Volleyball can take you places and from there you can use that platform to reach more people. He's shown me that it can be done." - Khalia Lanier on her father Bob

Khalia and Bob Lanier at a USC Trojan game.
Khalia with her family and friends. Courtesy of USC Sports Information.
Picture by © 2019 Katie Chin/USC Athletics

Life goals beyond volleyball

Khalia Lanier wants to impact the world and lives of other people like her father did.

She plans to use her sporting talent to achieve this goal.

"Volleyball is my platform to reach other people. And if I do well in volleyball, then I have all these different opportunities to meet different people, different cultures, different ways of life that are really important for me to experience."

"I just made it a life goal of mine to try to reduce suffering in any way I can." - Khalia Lanier

It is a very personal mission for the young American.

"During my sophomore year of college, I was just struggling with family issues, family health, with volleyball...I had a really bad season and school wasn't going the best for me. Honestly the biggest thing for me was talking to people and being vulnerable and letting people know that I was struggling and letting those people help me.

"Finding inspiration from other people and having gratitude for the people around me and their stories and their struggles and not feeling alone was one of the biggest things."

When living in Arizona, Khalia spent time with the Desert Mission Food Bank, to help provide emergency food assistance to families in North Phoenix. In 2014 she volunteered in an orphanage in Komga, South Africa, teaching preschool-aged children.

"Scottsdale, Arizona, is a pretty sheltered town. A lot of the people look the same, a town with pretty good money. So there's not a lot of variation in the way people live compared to somewhere like South Africa," she explained.

"So that was something that I did in my sophomore year of high school. That really opened my eyes to not only wanting to experience other people and what they've been through and listening to their stories, but really wanting to experience different cultures.

"Volleyball has allowed me to do that. So I'm so grateful and want to keep playing for that reason because it's so much bigger to me than just a sport."

Khalia in 2014 when she volunteered for an orphanage in Comga, South Africa.

Experiencing La Dolce Vita

Last summer Khalia signed for Bergamo Volley, her first professional club and her first experience overseas.

"I really love it. I mean, the food is amazing, the people have been really great. I think we have like a really amazing group of girls. The only thing I have been struggling with is the weather lately, because in Arizona and California, like where I've lived, it does not snow ever. That was like so scary and surprising for me!"

The 1.86m-tall spiker admitted she initially struggled playing in one of the hardest leagues in the world.

"The girls are bigger. They hit harder just athletically. You can't just rely on your own natural talent to be better than people, whereas I think sometimes in college you can get away with that and you can get away with just hitting the smart shots and getting a kill.

"While here you have to hit the smart shot, you have to hit it hard and you have to hit it fast. And it kind of all has to come together in the right time for you to get that kill.

"I do think just the biggest difference is the level of play, the quickness, the intensity. It's all definitely something that you kind of have to adjust to and you have to slow the game down for yourself. I feel like when I first got on the court, I was like, 'I can't even see the ball!', things are going so fast.

"I don't know if I'm nervous or if the play is really this fast, but now I think it is slowing down a little bit and I'm more comfortable and not freaking out as much."

And the performances show that: Khalia is currently sitting in seventh position in the comparative rankings of the best hitters of the league.

Lanier joined Volley Bergamo over the summer.

USC excellence

Lanier made a name for herself at the University of Southern California, where she majored in human biology.

In Los Angeles she collected several accolades, including All-America honours from the AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) and Volleyball Magazine.

"I think that atmosphere at USC is like one of greatness and winning. You're kind of thrown into this network of amazing people, of people who have done so much, both in athletics and in just like the real world. So sometimes you do feel a high standard and you have to kind of push yourself to live up to the people who have been before you and to kind of carry that legacy in your own way."

She used to play at the Galen Center, sharing the same facilities with the other teams of the college.

"We were always super close with each other. I think it was like having a bunch of brothers and sisters sometimes. It's just been awesome to see all the other athletes that I went to school with and what they're doing now and all the success that they're having.

"And even the athletes who didn't go on to play professionally are becoming doctors and lawyers because the academics were so amazing. So I think that was the most amazing thing to see and also so inspiring to be a part of that legacy."

Khalia Lanier spent 4 seasons playing for USC Trojans. Courtesy of USC Sports Information.
Picture by © 2019 Katie Chin/USC Athletics

Olympic dreams

Some of the USC facilities, including the iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, will be used during LA 2028.

How special would be for Khalia to be there?

"I remember telling my mum and dad when I was like 13 or 14 that they were going to see me in the Olympics one day. And it's just something that I think would be like really amazing for me to accomplish."

"It's definitely a dream of mine and something that I would definitely want to do. I know I have to get a lot better and a lot of different things, but I really do love learning and love improving both in volleyball and in life too.

"So I think it's kind of a challenge to myself to see how great I can be, and how much I can learn from playing overseas and getting to meet all these other girls who do the same thing as me."

A view of the Los Angeles Swim Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Picture by 2020 Getty Images