GIBSONTON — East Bay High basketball player Shytina Harley isn’t used to looking into the stands during games, but for some reason she glanced into the bleachers at the Indians gym midway through her district home game against Plant City early last month.
And there was her mother, smiling back, watching one of her games for the first time in a year and a half.
“I was coming back to play defense, my hands in the air, and I just stopped,” Harley said. “I stopped playing. My arms dropped. I thought I was going to pass out.”
Harley, a senior, had been counting the days until her mother’s return. Clestine Harley, a computer analyst in the Army, was soon to be on a 45-day leave from a tour in South Korea. But Clestine returned a few days early to surprise her only daughter.
Clestine’s time home is brief. She has seen 12 games over her break, and she will be in the stands again Wednesday, when Shytina likely will score her 1,000th career point — she is eight points shy of the mark — then leave the next morning for Fort Bragg.
While her mother is gone, Harley should become the first player in school history to record 1,000 points — and 1,000 rebounds.
Clestine, a first sergeant who has been in Korea and Kuwait, has a landmark number in mind too: Eight, the number of months until September, when she will be able to leave the armed forces after 24 years of duty.
“I’ve missed a lot,” Clestine said. “She’s missed out on a lot not having me around. I don’t want to be all over the world when she’s in college. When you have a child you don’t get to see every day it’s difficult.
“The Army says it takes care of its own. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been hard for both of us. I’ve missed a lot of her childhood.”
Shytina was born in Germany and followed her mom, a single parent, around from place to place. Before her junior year, Clestine was going to be stationed in Texas for three years, but Shytina had already begun climbing up the school record lists, and she wanted to stay at East Bay. So Clestine opted for a shorter tour in Korea, and Shytina moved in with the family of a friend she has known since fifth grade.
“She made a sacrifice for me,” said Shytina, who has received interest from the University of Tampa and North Florida. “If I had to go to Texas, it would be like all the work I did here would have been for nothing. I’d have to start over again.”
And basketball is important to both. Clestine played on the all-Army team for three years and taught her daughter the game. Shytina would send her mother videos of her games so she could see her develop as a player along with shopping lists for Ed Hardy shirts and throwback jerseys, which are cheaper in Korea.
“She’s always been my No. 1 fan,” Shytina said. “Even though she hasn’t been able to be around, she’s been there to support me. I feel her support.”
Berkeley Prep senior soccer player Taylor Batye also feels the support — and absence — of her father, stationed in Iraq since September 2004.
Jondi Batye, who is in Camp Victory working in intelligence, hasn’t seen his daughter play a high school soccer game or run cross country.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to it,” said Batye, whose Bucs (15-4-2) open district tournament play this week as the top seed. “You think about it sometimes, like when we had our senior night and everyone else’s mother and father are walking the players down the field. I had my mother and my sister. It’s sad, but I know he’s there for a reason.”
Taylor’s mother, Marty, a retired nurse who also served in the Army, said her husband hopes to return this spring for Taylor’s graduation. Taylor, who considered going to colleges like Yale, Georgetown and Penn, has received an appointment to the Naval Academy, where she will also play soccer. She hopes to study pre-med or go into intelligence like her father.
“When you have a parent in the military, I think you get to see a side a lot of people don’t get to see,” Batye said. “I think you have a sense of duty. I’ve always wanted to do something in the military.”
For now, father and daughter communicate daily through several quick e-mails. Her mother sends Web links to game stories about their daughter.
“I want to impress him with everything I do,” Batye said. “I want him to know I’m over here, working hard.”
“She’s proud of him and proud to be an American,” her mother added. “A lot of people say it, but when you live it it’s a little different.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com
Photo: East Bay basketball player Shytina Harley and mom Clestine