PHOENIX – Shaylee Gonzales is the ultimate competitor.
Her parents were Division I athletes at Grand Canyon University. She is the oldest of five children – all basketball players. Her journey in basketball? Accomplished and unique – a testament to the standout from Mesquite High School in Gilbert, who dedicated her energy to building a basketball and social media empire.
The 21-year-old BYU redshirt sophomore has a combined following of roughly 417,000 people across the Tik Tok (210,000), YouTube (110,000) and Instagram (77,000) platforms. On the court, Gonzales was named the West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year in 2021, and led the BYU women’s basketball team to the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
She is competitive and courageous, a leader and a listener, an influencer on the internet, and a bonafide NCAA star for the Cougars. But Gonzales also knows how fragile it can all be.
Turning injury into opportunity
Gonzales spent her freshman season, as she describes it, “on cloud nine.” BYU won the 2019 West Coast Conference Tournament, and made it to the NCAA Tournament. She was also selected as an alternate for the USA U19 World Cup team that summer.
Just weeks after Team USA tryouts, she was in the midst of summer training. She took a routine charge, and heard a pop. Almost immediately, she knew it was bad.
Gonzales tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and lateral meniscus.
“It was probably the worst experience of my life, tearing my ACL. Because, you tear something, and then you’re out for nine months,” Gonzales said. “You just look back at what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve done. And you’re like, ‘Well, shoot.’ Like, I was literally on cloud nine (before the injury).”
The ultimate competitor faced her stiffest competitor yet: injury.
“Just tears started coming down,” Gonzales said, recalling the moment it sank in. “Because I just didn’t know what to say and didn’t know what to think. Mentally, it was super hard for me.”
It can take anywhere from nine to 18 months to fully recover from an ACL tear. Gonzales began rehabilitation the day after surgery and recovered in just nine months. But she had to medically redshirt the 2019-20 season. Her mother and former high school coach, Candice Gonzales, made sure she embraced her new role as a “coach.”
“I told her that ‘You need to not sit at the end of the bench.’ That was my big thing,” Candice said. “‘Don’t sit at the end of the bench, sit right next to the coaches, watch the game, see what needs to happen, what your teammate should be doing.’”
The competitor became a leader and listener as she graced the sidelines in anticipation of her return when – spoiler alert – she came back even stronger than before the injury.
Social media stardom, NIL opportunities
As Gonzales healed physically, she discovered her passion off the court for content creation on Youtube, Instagram and TikTok.
She documented her recovery journey through game-day vlogs, posting updates on everything from her rehabilitation to the time she was spending with her four younger siblings.
Whether it was a family vacation video she put on YouTube or random basketball trends she posted to TikTok, Gonzales realized she could utilize her platform as a basketball player to build a brand that inspires the next generation of athletes to control their own destiny.
“Coming into college, the first video that blew up for me was moving into my first dorm room,” Gonzales said. “I got over like 100,000 views on YouTube. So like, that’s when it started.”
Her social media success coincides with new NCAA Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) policies, which allow NCAA athletes to profit off sponsorships, merchandise sales or through their social-media platforms. Gonzales now has a partnership with Mountain America Credit Union, and has launched her own merchandise with a personalized logo.
“I’m super glad NIL has passed,” Gonzales said. “It’s been an awesome experience, and I’ve got a lot of fun things coming in the future.”
The passing of NIL rules allows athletes to create their own brands, logos, partnerships and merchandise based on their own popularity – essentially giving athletes a slice of the multi-billion dollar NCAA athletics pie.
Family bonds through basketball
In the long run, Gonzales wasn’t doing it for the money but because it was simply fun.
Gonzales’ younger brothers, Zaiah and Cohenj Gonzales, have frequented their big sister’s viral TikToks, Instagram posts and YouTube videos. The content ranges from popular dribbling challenges to modeling her latest merchandise.
Gonzales and her siblings portray an unmistakable bond rooted in their competitive spirit that was on display long before many of them even picked up a ball.
“We would get oversized shirts and oversized shorts, and stuff pillows in our shirts so we would have pads almost like football,” Zaiah said. “Cohenj would, too. Kahlia would, too. Shaylee would, too. And you just mess around; and it’s super funny thinking back, though.”
The same energy exuded in those pillow fights shows up in the Gonzales family today.
As Shaylee continues her rise, her mother remains in her corner as a mentor and leader. With no agency currently backing her, Gonzales’ parents help her balance her responsibilities as a full-time college student with the demands of a Division I athlete while managing her NIL opportunities and making sure she maintains a reasonable schedule.
“She’s a hard worker. She is determined. She is a perfectionist. She wants to be the best at everything,” Candice said. “She’s a ‘do it now’ type of person. She’s worried about other people’s feelings. She wants to make sure everybody’s okay.”
Candice and her husband, Josh, own five businesses and met while attending Grand Canyon University. Their family of seven bonds over their love for basketball.
Candice currently coaches at Mesquite High, where Shaylee played for her from 2014-2018. The two meshed perfectly in their player-coach, mother-daughter relationships.
“Living with my coach, I was able to sit down with her and watch film and really dive into the game more than just on the court,” Gonzales said. “I really like having my parents as my coach, because they’re such great coaches. I think that’s why I’m the player I am today, because of them.”
In such a big basketball family, it’s no wonder the ultimate competitor learned how to compete at the highest level early.
She started playing AAU basketball in the third grade with teammates five years older and thrived. After winning a 5A state championship at Mesquite in 2017, it is no surprise that Gonzales has continued to thrive at the Division I level.
Because of her medical redshirt and an additional year that players received because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzales has two years of eligibility remaining at BYU.
She has led BYU to a 7-0 record to start off the 2021-22 season. She was also recently named the ESPN National Player of the Week.
This makes it abundantly clear: Whatever the ultimate competitor is doing, it’s working.