She Got Game

The hoops and dreams of Colorado's budding girl basketball stars.

Keirsten Walters sounds a little more amused by the process than her mother. "The first day I could get calls from coaches," she says, "I made sure that I had a friend over at the house to answer the phones and tell the schools that I didn't like that I wasn't home. I was too chicken to tell them myself. Even though most schools were respectful when I told them to stop calling--that they weren't in the running--it was still hard for me to say no. I realize it's business and their livelihoods depend on getting good players.

"The crazy thing was that the schools I narrowed it down to were the schools like UConn that didn't write me that much. I knew that I liked UConn, but I wasn't sure they even wanted me until I went to the Nike All-American camp and the UConn coach called me up and said, 'Do you want to commit to my school today? I know you do.' I guess that pretty much let me know that they wanted me."

But the madness didn't stop after she signed. Since there are no major professional sports teams in Connecticut and the women's basketball program at UConn is a consistent winner, anything having to do with the team is big news for the three newspapers that cover the women's squad year-round. A prime example of this occurred late last season when star Nykesha Sayles tore an Achilles tendon when she was only two points shy of the school scoring record. At the next game, UConn's opponent, with the full cooperation of school and conference officials, allowed Sayles to start with an uncontested layup so she could set the record. That charitable move sparked a controversy that reached all the way to Keirsten Walters.

"UConn basketball is crazy," she admits. "They call anytime anything happens. I got calls from every paper out there to get my opinion about the Nykesha Sayles free shot when it happened."

Walters got her first up-close look at the Connecticut hoops frenzy when she flew out for the High School All-American game in Hartford. She talks about the autograph table the university set up for her after the game, about how her mother and brother were approached constantly in restaurants and the hotel to talk about her, and about how she felt like she was being watched "every minute of every day" by the local media.

But Walters insists that she hasn't let the spotlight distract her from her purpose. "All of the attention just comes along with playing for UConn," she says. "But I know that the only people I have to play for are my teammates. The public's expectations don't bother me."

And Barbara Walters says that despite the demand for Keirsten's services, the women's basketball coaches were far less bothersome and far more law-abiding than the football coaches who had come knocking for Chris. "The women's coaches never got out of line," she says. "They were always by the book. When the UConn coach came out to dinner, we couldn't even ride to the restaurant in the same car. And, of course, we had separate checks. The women's coaches definitely followed the rules and were not nearly as aggressive. I guess the only thing that seemed out of line was that Vanderbilt and Notre Dame got past the rule that you could only send one letter a week by using e-mail. There aren't any rules for that."

Some observers say recruiting for women's basketball hasn't gotten as out of hand as the men's game only because the women's game isn't profitable enough--yet--to warrant outright cheating.

"Except for the actual cash being offered to kids," says Joe Smith, who has published the Women's Basketball News Service since the Seventies, "the recruiting for the women's game has caught up with the men's game. They use the same pressure tactics, like telling a girl that they'll go sign someone else if she doesn't commit right now, and they spend about the same amount of time and money on recruiting. They'll use negative recruiting, like categorizing a certain school as 'gay' to try to scare recruits away.

"What we haven't seen yet is the 'Sign with us and we'll give you $20,000' sort of thing in the women's game, simply because the programs don't have that kind of money to spend. They soon will. I don't think the ethics are any different in the women's game or that there's a greater degree of integrity in the women's game. I think it could also be a thing where a lot of the recruiters for the women's programs don't yet have the experience in the machinations of crooked recruiting. But if the NCAA can't stop the tricks in the men's game, it can't do it in women's, especially as the sport starts making more money from TV and shoe contracts."

As an industry, women's basketball is flourishing. Brooke Meadows says there are more opportunities for women to work around the game they love, even if they can't play at the highest levels.

"It's hard to get a scholarship in men's basketball because it's already saturated," she says. "But it's still wide open for women. And I'm not just talking about scholarship opportunities. Even dinosaurs like me have opportunities now, with the professional leagues and college programs giving better and better compensation to coaches. And then you add in all the marketing and PR jobs around the game. The fact that women can now get paid well to be involved in the game legitimizes it for a lot of parents. It's the real deal now. And Colorado is right at the front of the pack."

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