Thursday March 12th, 2009

Bill Veeck had nothing on Courtney Paris. The man who sent a midget to the plate and signed off on Disco Demolition night in Chicago would stand up and cheer -- were he not deceased -- the promotional instincts of Oklahoma's wide-bodied, 6-foot-4 Superwoman.

On March 4 -- Senior Night -- minutes after the final regular-game in a career that saw her redefine the center position while producing more double-doubles than In-N-Out Burger, Paris promised to refund the cost of her scholarship if the Sooners don't win a national championship.

One obvious beneficiary of her chutzpah: ESPN and ESPN2, which will broadcast all 63 games of the NCAA tournament, interest in which should be ratcheted up considerably, now that this daughter of an NFL player placed a $64,000 bet on herself.

What has Paris unleashed? She has given her teammates -- including her twin, Ashley, who starts alongside her, and who would be an MVP in most other programs -- some serious incentive to back her up. But since making that potentially pricey vow, Paris has also been criticized for hand-delivering to potential tourney foes -- one Nutmeg State-based team in particular -- a potent batch of bulletin-board material. Check out her actual oration, though. (She rolls the dice, so to speak, around 8:45.) See what you think.

"If we don't [win it all], which is not even an option, just to put something on the line -- and it might take me the rest of my life -- I will pay back my scholarship because I didn't do what I said I was going to."

There is no trace of trash-talking there. Paris is clearly motivated by a strong sense of accountability to the fans, the program, herself -- a sentiment expressed much more cogently here than I can in this space.

It still took guts. I don't care how well off her father might be. Bubba Paris may have three Super Bowl rings from his days on the offensive line with the San Francisco 49ers, but the man also has five children with his wife, Lynne (The twins are the babies). Yes, Ashley and Courtney will find gainful employment in the WNBA next season. But 64k is still a serious hit.

This is not going to sit well with those pay-for-play advocates who believe that college athletes get a raw deal; that they deserve a cut of the gate. Clearly, Ms. Paris missed the clinic on victim-hood and entitlement. Her notion that she owes the University, rather than the other way around, is as refreshing as it is quaint and outdated.

You know there are some buzz-kill suits at the NCAA holding this thing up to the light, racking their brains to figure out how the Paris proclamation violates one of their precious little bylaws. That's a big gamble the senior center is making. Perhaps she's violating a rule against student-athlete wagering?

But the real $64,000 question is this: Should the Sooners go down during the upcoming "March to the Arch," which starts March 21 and ends April 7 in St. Louis, will athletic director Joe Castiglione actually hold Paris to her promise? Or, if she insists on paying up, will the school take her money? (The AD didn't return my call). That would take a bit of chutzpah as well, considering everything that Courtney and Ashley have done not just for women's basketball at Oklahoma, but for women's hoops, period.

In 2004-05, the season before the Paris twins arrived from Piedmont (Calif.) High, the Sooners averaged a highly respectable 5,695 fans per home game. By 2008 that number had nearly doubled. With Courtney, Ashley and Co., the Sooners have also emerged as a major draw on the road, boosting the home crowds of their opponents by some 42 percent last season.

Courtney's skills and charisma have minted untold numbers of new fans. "Locally, regionally and even nationally," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coales recently told the Tulsa World, "she is single-handedly responsible for drawing in a large number of viewers that have never had any interest in our sport before."

She brought to the women's game a package it had never quite seen: a D-III offensive lineman's build -- she goes about 220 -- combining soft hands, sweet feet and (sorry Bubba) a middle linebacker's temperament. It's this simple: Down low, you cannot match up with her.

"You see bodies flying out of there," said KOKC radio's James Hale, a former radio analyst for the Sooners. "She throws girls out of the lane. At the same time she has the amazing ability to not get called for fouls. And she's got the best hands in the [women's] game."

Courtney broke 74 records as a freshman, becoming the first player in NCAA history to eclipse 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks. From the first game of her freshman season to last Feb. 2, when she posted nine points and 12 boards, she had an eye-popping 112 consecutive double-doubles. (Tim Duncan holds the men's mark with 87 at Wake Forest.) Who owns the second-longest women's streak? That would be Old Dominion's Anne Donovan, with ... 19.

That dominance has failed to propel the Sooners past the Sweet 16, a disappointment that Courtney confronted head-on before that Senior Night crowd. While the Sooners are built for a championship, they have a track record of stumbling in early round games. Even if OU makes its first Final Four in four years, one of the teams awaiting it is sure to be top-ranked Connecticut. A wire-to-wire No. 1 this season, the Huskies drilled the Sooners in Storrs by 28 points in November.

But there is hope. Oklahoma's backcourt play is markedly better than earlier in the season (That said, the Sooners sorely need the services of freshman two-guard Whitney Hand, who broke a finger on her non-shooting hand on Feb. 21 but is expected back in time for the tournament). If the Paris twins can win their battles in the paint, and if Oklahoma can somehow limit Huskies super-soph Maya Moore to, say, two-dozen points, OU-UConn II will be a much tighter affair.

It will also be the most-ballyhooed, anticipated and highest-rated NCAA women's hoops game in years, thanks to a big woman with an even larger belief in herself.

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