She Got Game

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

It's the beginning of summer for many high-school kids, but a group of gangly teenage girls files into a Thornton school gymnasium one May evening for a different type of summer school. Each of them carries athletic bags and half-gallon Thermoses full of ice water. Once inside the gym, some of them stretch on the sidelines in loose groups, others shoot baskets languidly, limping after stray balls like cheetahs loping on the Serengeti. They hold back on the sprinting until it's time for business.

All of these teens are standouts on their high-school and junior-high basketball teams. They've come together tonight to scrimmage against each other in preparation for the start of the second season: the growing phenomenon of club basketball. Instead of lounging by the pool this June, they'll be matching up against other talented basketball players in tournaments across the country. And instead of spending time flirting with boys at the mall, these girls will be ogled by hundreds of college coaches.

As the scrimmage starts up and the nets start popping from pinpoint jump shots, three players immediately step forward to take over. Jamie Carey, a senior-to-be from Horizon High School in Thornton, is the flashiest and most vocal player on the floor. With the sleeves of her T-shirt rolled up to her shoulders and shorts hanging past her knees, the 5-foot-6 Carey jets across the court throwing no-look passes and hitting double-clutch layups over taller players. She jumps into the stands to fight for a loose ball.

Matched up against Carey is a 5-foot-5 guard named Alli Spence from Chatfield. Spence nearly negates Carey's spectacular play with fundamentals. She makes the right play almost every time down the court: bounce passes right to the cutter's hands; pull-up jumpers when the defense sloughs off; and sticky, on-the-ball defense. Throughout practice, both Spence and Carey exhort the younger players to work harder and keep the scrimmage running tight.

Carey and Spence are considered two of the best guards in Colorado. Carey is nationally renowned; she's attracted attention from powerhouse schools like Stanford and has gotten an invitation to try out for the U.S. women's junior team.

But there's a younger girl who walks into the scrimmage late who is really turning heads. According to her club-team coach, fourteen-year-old Ann Strother from Castle Pines is already receiving handwritten letters from Pat Summitt, coach of the national-champion University of Tennessee Lady Vols. At least one college coach has called Strother "the white Chamique Holdsclaw," a reference to the Tennessee star.

As she laces up her sneakers, Strother looks like any other 6-foot-1 girl about to become a freshman in high school. A little shy about her slender frame, she smiles nervously as she waits her turn to play. But the moment she steps onto the court, it's easy to understand why coaches like Summitt are getting writer's cramp.

Strother outruns the guards. She can touch the rim. She plays good defense. She dribbles the ball like a pro point guard--it's an extension of her hand. Her head's up and she scans the court. A 6-foot-2 defensive player steps up to meet her at the three-point line and gets broken off with a between-the-legs crossover dribble. Strother floats up for a three-pointer that's all net. She glides back on defense, her self-conscious smile replaced by a smirk.

Although Carey, Spence and Strother stand out during the scrimmage, it's impossible to look around the gym without seeing other players pull off an amazing move, a wicked blocked shot, a turn-around jumper. Midway through the run, a team of middle-school boys swaggers into the gym to check out the action and talk some smack. They walk out two minutes later, silent and somber-faced.

Practice wraps up, and most of the girls slip back into their flip-flops and head out into the warm spring night. Spence and Carey hang out for a little while, shooting jumpers and joking around. When a reporter walks up to them at half-court, they suddenly get very serious. They size him up as a player (at 6-foot-3, he played a year at the University of California at San Diego). Like a couple of velociraptors, they glare at him as he stands on their court in his street clothes--as if they're checking for weaknesses in his game, figuring out how to break him down off the dribble.

He asks if there's any player in the country whom they're worried about matching up with during next week's tournament in New York City. Yeah, right, fool.

"There's not one girl in the U.S. who frightens us," Spence says with a serious tone. "Jamie is one of the best in the country, and I play her every day. So why would I be afraid of anyone else? The competition here in Colorado is as tough as anywhere. If I can play here, I can play anywhere."

Over the past six years, there has been at least one girl from Colorado named on the annual Parade High School All-American basketball team. This year Colorado boasted one of the best prep players in the country in Keirsten Walters, a 5-foot-9 point guard. The Class 5A player of the year from Heritage High School in Littleton will play next year for the University of Connecticut, a perennial Final Four participant. Local coaches estimate that for every Colorado boy basketball player who gets a Division One basketball scholarship, three girls sign on to play D-1 hoops.

"I'm completely staggered by the level of talent in Colorado," says Brooke Meadows, a Boulder High graduate who is now an assistant coach of the University of Nebraska women's team. "When I graduated in 1985, there were just a few of us who could really play and got national attention. Now there are dozens. My recruiting list is so full of Colorado players now that it's hard to get a handle on them all. The Denver metro area is close to L.A., talent-wise."

Bob Ottewill, commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association, is equally amazed by the talent surge in girls' hoops. "Population-wise, it makes no sense," says Ottewill. "It's a phenomenon we can't explain."

The rise of the women's game in Colorado is attributed by many insiders to the influence of club basketball. There are currently four major club teams in the state; they barnstorm the country in the summer playing the top girls in other regions. It's a bonanza for college scouts to see the young players showcase their talents at tournaments and all-star camps. Many observers say that summer club basketball--currently dominated by the Hoopsters, who draw from throughout the metro suburbs, and the Rockies, who concentrate on the Boulder area--has become even more important than the wintertime high-school season.

Along with the increasing talent has come intense scrutiny. The recruiting has reached a fever pitch usually associated only with the men's game. Scouts flock to Colorado in search of talent. Joe Smith, director of New York City's Women's Basketball News Service, ranks the talent pool of Colorado's girls in the top ten nationally.

And the girls know the scouts are watching. Katie Flecky, a 6-foot-1 sophomore-to-be at Highlands Ranch who was selected the most valuable player at a national fourteen-and-under tournament in Virginia last year, seems almost blase about the recruiting process as she leans against the bleachers after a recent scrimmage. "I guess it's exciting to get letters from colleges, but I don't like to brag about it," says Flecky. "So I try to keep it low-key. You get a big head and it ruins everything."

College coaches aren't allowed to contact high-school players by phone until their junior year, but Flecky says that she's already received letters from schools like the University of Connecticut and the University of Virginia, as well as scores of letters from what she describes as "little schools." Such as? "Oh," says Flecky with a shrug, "schools like Texas and UCLA."

Keirsten Walters has been playing basketball competitively since the seventh grade, but what really made her into a star player was the competition she experienced with her four older brothers.

"They beat me up every day," she says, laughing as she recalls it. "I'd go running into the house crying, but my mom would never baby me. She said that if I wanted to play, I had to take the abuse. So finally, I just made up my mind that I was going to be the one handing out the beatings. It's gotten to the point where I won't play against them anymore because I don't want to hurt them."

Coaches who have worked with Walters attest to her fearless play, but Walters admits that she was a little blown away by the competition when she played in the Nike All-American game this past spring. "The game wasn't that different except for the fact that there were some unbelievable athletes out there," she says. "Some of the other guards and I were joking that we were afraid to pass the ball to the wing--the girls were just that quick to the ball."

College scouts were even quicker than that when it came time to start recruiting her. But the process wasn't as hard on Keirsten as it was on two other people: her mother and the mailman. "Keirsten was getting forty to fifty pieces of mail from college coaches every day," says Barbara Walters. "The poor mailman was sick to death by the time the whole thing was over."

Keirsten eventually signed early with Connecticut, avoiding what scouting guru Joe Smith describes as "the most vicious recruiting period; the period where all the chicanery begins." But even though she avoided the worst of the wheedling by committing early, her mother still sounds weary when describing the process. And Barbara Walters had been through it before with her oldest son, Chris, a heavily recruited offensive lineman who eventually went to Arizona State on a football scholarship and played in the Rose Bowl.

"After the process we went through with Chris, I said that if it ever happened again, we'd move to a motel where nobody could find us," says Barbara Walters. "When Chris was getting recruited, we had coaches literally camped out on our front porch.

"And the demand for Keirsten was much larger than with Chris. I can't think of a D-1 school that didn't write to her. It was interesting at first, but it got tiresome very quickly. Finally, by last June, she had her list of schools she was considering down to 25. You can imagine what a relief it was when she finally decided on UConn."

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."

Ten years ago, Smith says, there wasn't a women's coach in the country with a $100,000 contract. Now, he says, there are forty to fifty coaches with base salaries better than that. The top echelon coaches, like Tennessee's Summitt and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, earn more than $400,000 annually. Smith also points out that it is now standard for a program to have two full-time assistant coaches, a personal assistant and a secretary.

LaTonya Watson, an assistant basketball coach at the University of Colorado, says recruiting wasn't nearly as intense when she signed up to play for Eastern Michigan in 1988. "My experience was nothing like what Walters went through," says Watson. "The intensity has increased because people are getting paid more now. And you get paid for wins and losses, so that means that you'd better get some talent into your program. But even though women's basketball can now make as much money as the men's game, I still don't think you can compare the ethics of the women's game to the ethics of the men's game, because we don't do what they do as far as recruiting. People in the women's game know that they'll be found out if they violate the rules. And if you get caught, it's an automatic boot out the door. I know it's happened in the men's game, but I sincerely hope that it doesn't get to that point in the women's game."

Former star players who are now coaches marvel at the distance the women's game has traveled.

"When I got recruited," says Caryn Jaroki, a former University of Denver player who coaches the Highlands Ranch High School girls' team, "you had to write to colleges and send them film. There weren't anywhere near as many clubs or tournaments where college coaches could come see you play. Now these kids get nationwide exposure on a regular basis. I've got freshmen here at Highlands Ranch who are getting letters from college coaches before they even walk on the high-school court. A lot of that is because of the club teams."

John Meadows, coach of the Boulder Rockies club team and father of Brooke Meadows, agrees that summer basketball has been instrumental in getting the word out on Colorado talent. "Our team is going to Oregon, Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C., this summer to play in tournaments," says Meadows. "Not only will this provide my players with an opportunity to play against some of the best competition in the U.S., but it will also allow them to be seen by hundreds of college coaches. In small-population states like Colorado, if a college coach flies in to watch some kids play, they've got to drive great distances to see all the talent. It's not like L.A., where all the talent is concentrated. That's one of the biggest advantages of taking a team to a national showcase."

Traveling to national tournaments also gives young players increased confidence in their abilities, according to former Colorado Xplosion assistant coach Gail Hook. "In the long run, travel prepares the kids for the college level," says Hook, who is now a talent consultant for the college-level Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "When I first came out here from Maryland seventeen years ago, the major colleges didn't even bother coming to Colorado. Although today you don't have to worry about coaches not finding a young player in Colorado, it still helps to go out and sell yourself at camps and tournaments during the summer where there are going to be 250 to 300 college coaches in the stands."

However, as club coaches play a bigger and bigger role in getting young players national attention, Joe Smith worries that the door could be opened to trickery.

"As the girls' club programs get more important, you run the risk of seeing the coaches assuming the same grandiosity that you see in the men's game," says Smith. "In places like Chicago, you've got to pay the men's-club coach cash just to get a chance to talk to a player on their team. It could happen to women, too. Especially as the shoe companies start pouring more and more money into the women's game at the club level."

There's another danger resulting from the rise in the importance of summer basketball. Gail Hook says she's distressed to see some of the weaker high-school programs suffering. Because Colorado public schools have an open-enrollment policy, kids can transfer to whatever school they want. As a result, Hook says, parents are no longer willing to send their kids to a lower-echelon basketball program after a summer playing with the best. "I've been seeing a lot of parents shopping their kids around to programs that are more successful than their home school," says Hook.

Sports official Bob Ottewill says he's heard rumblings about certain programs getting the best players. A lot of this, he says, is because of friendships formed on the club teams. "I've heard complaints about kids playing on club teams and then wanting to continue playing together during the regular season," says Ottewill. "But as far as actual violations, there haven't been any. The only situation that really sticks out in my mind concerns Heritage High School back in 1996. They won the girls' 5A championship by thirty or forty points that year. Four out of five starters on that team played at different schools the year before. But like I said, it wasn't really an accusation of recruiting. It was just that the kids decided they wanted to go to school together."

Still, Hook sees the potential for more abuses of the open-enrollment policy. "I just hope it doesn't get to the point where none of the top-school kids are going to the schools they're supposed to," she says. "It would be hard to see the recruiting get as bad at the high-school level as it already is at the college level."

A more immediate problem for the athletes themselves is that the club teams don't include all the best players. Because a summer of travel with a club team can cost thousands of dollars, there are quite a few high-school players--especially inner-city kids--who can't afford to pay for the experience and exposure.

One mother watching her daughter play during a local club-team scrimmage says she has three kids playing club basketball right now. "Even with all the fundraisers," she says, "it gets very expensive. That's why my husband and I tell our kids that this is their summer job. If they're not going to play hard, there's no point in paying this kind of money."

Rick Lopez, coach of the Hoopsters, one of metro Denver's most successful club teams, admits that national exposure comes at a price. "Basketball isn't a country-club sport," says Lopez. "A kid can play for free at any high school, rec center or playground. Becoming a good player isn't a money issue, and if you can play, the college coaches will find you. Now, to play club ball and travel all around the country could be another story."

Lopez estimates that it costs a Hoopsters player anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per summer. He says that's one of the main reasons why his club teams are made up primarily of suburban white kids.

"It isn't by design that a lot of black girls from the Denver Public Schools league don't play club ball," says CU's LaTonya Watson, who is black. "It's got nothing to do with race. It's just what's accessible and available to some of these low-income kids. The fact is that girls who play on these high-level club teams get as much exposure in one summer as they would in two years of regular high-school basketball. But in light of that, kids also have to realize that if they have talent and are willing to work hard, they will be found, regardless. Their names will get out."

Lopez agrees. "If you're a player like Keirsten Walters," he says, "you're going to get recruited hard whether you play on a club team or not. The girls that club basketball is going to help are really the second-tier kids. For them, it could mean the difference between having five schools recruit them and 55 schools. But as to why we don't have more African-American kids playing for our club, it's a question I'm asked at every tournament we play in across the country. I guarantee you that if I could get more inner-city kids involved in our program at a young age, by their senior year they couldn't be touched."

Lopez has no trouble rattling off the names of top DPS players like Manual's Kenyada Frasier and East's Atim Otti. "Those kids can play with anyone," says Lopez.

Former Xplosion coach Hook, who runs two major summer camps in Chicago, says the inner-city kids are really missing out. "We still need to get more DPS kids involved in the summer programs," she says, "because the bottom line is that you can tell the kids with traveling experience, because they're that much more confident in their games. It really shows.

"But at the same time, you can't say that playing for a club team makes success a given. In all the professional players I coached while working with the Xplosion, I saw one thing that separated the great players from the rest of the pack: a pure love of the game. There's no substitute for that.

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