The other evening, Stanford point guard Jennifer Azzi—who plays basketball with a frenzy that has propelled the Cardinal from mediocrity to, possibly, tops in the land this year—was sitting on a bench .outside the Cookie Habit at the Stanford Shopping Center, devouring chocolate chip cookies. Azzi, 21, loves basketball, but she is fanatical about cookies. Indeed, she proclaims that her affection for them is burned into her soul. "Everything else in life is just a substitute for a chocolate chip cookie," she says. Azzi confesses to minor affairs of the stomach with peanut butter fudge, frozen yogurt and malted milk balls, but they were only flings, nothing more.
Never have a woman and a cookie been so well-matched. Above all, both are old-fashioned. Consider that last season, when Azzi was the only non-senior selected for the 10-member Kodak All-America team, she was the only player to rank in the top 10 in the Pac-10 in six statistical categories—most significantly, she was first in assists, with 6.6 per game. What better example could there be of old-fashioned virtue than making assists? Azzi was also second in the conference in free throw percentage (.787), third in field goal percentage (.544) and in three-point percentage (.495), fourth in steals (2.2 per game) and eighth in scoring (16.6). In other words: the classic all-around player.
Yet she is seriously undervalued.
"I've always felt I was underrated as a player," Azzi says. She's right. None of the top schools, including perennial power Tennessee, in Knoxville, just 20 miles away, showed much interest in her when she was a senior at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) High. And even her own coach at Stanford, Tara VanDerveer, quickly ticks off at least five players she thinks are better, most notably Louisiana Tech's Venus Lacy. Deep in her heart, VanDerveer probably doesn't believe that anyone is better than Azzi. She's only trying to motivate her star.
Not that Azzi (pronounced ay-zee) needs to be motivated. VanDerveer requires each team member to shoot 45 minutes a week outside of practice; Azzi gets in between six and eight hours.
Make no mistake, Jennifer Azzi is as special as a chocolate chip. She's an elegant point guard in the mold of Magic Johnson, willing to give it all up in a heartbeat for the good of the team. To her, an assist is a little slice of heaven.
Azzi, now a senior, has made all the difference for Stanford. When VanDerveer—who arrived in Palo Alto four seasons ago after seven years at Idaho and Ohio State—convinced Azzi to travel nearly 2,100 miles from home, the Cardinal was only a year removed from a 9-19 season in which attendance averaged a mere 100 fans per game. Last year Stanford won all its conference games, and home crowds averaged 1,550. If the prognosis for this season is accurate, the Cardinal will pack them in for the next few months. Along with SI, Women's Basketball News Service has selected Stanford as its No. 1 team in the preseason, while Street & Smith's has ranked the Cardinal third. Says VanDerveer, who is 82-37 at Stanford, "We have a realistic chance to be national champs. One reason is that Jennifer has confidence. She has lots of it."
Such lofty prospects are a far cry from the realities that faced the Cardinal when VanDerveer began recruiting Azzi in 1985. "We were nothing, so we could take a chance on her improving," says the coach. The team was so weak back then, VanDerveer made sure that Azzi did not see the women practice and did not view any films of the Cardinal games. "At that time," says VanDerveer, "our players were excited when they lost by only 20 points." Azzi was also wooed by Vanderbilt and Ohio State but decided on Stanford, largely because of the university's academic reputation, a huge plus with her mother, Donna, a high school English teacher, and father, Jim, a department head in a home furnishings store. It wasn't long before she started showing her teammates what the work ethic was all about. "What I like about basketball is clicking together," Azzi says. "It's not that I don't get tired running. It's that I forget about it."
Initially, Azzi hated everything at Stanford. On her first day there, her new $150 10-speed bike was stolen from outside the gym. She called home, crying, and said to her mother, "I'll come home and work at K Mart the rest of my life and be happy." Though she was serious at the time, Azzi now admits she would not have followed through. "Deep down," she says, "I knew I had to stay."
In 1986-87, Stanford went 14-14; in 1987-88, 27-5; and last year, 28-3, with an average victory margin of 19.6 points. Last March the Cardinal reached the round of eight in the NCAA tournament, its best showing ever.
This kind of success is nothing new for Azzi. At Jefferson Junior High her teams were 50-0. At Oak Ridge High, 85-11. But the recruiting hysteria for Azzi was dampened because, though she averaged 19 points per game and made 57% of her field goal attempts as a junior, she dropped to 15 points and 51% in her senior year. To the recruiters this indicated that she was afflicted with senioritis.
In fact, Oak Ridge was so good during Azzi's senior season—the team was 34-2, runner-up in the state championships—that she played only about 50% of the time, according to her Oak Ridge coach, Jill Prudden. Still, Prudden concedes, "She was good at a lot of things, not great at anything." An old-fashioned generalist. "She was not a complete package when she arrived here," VanDerveer says. Notably, the 5'9", 140-pound Azzi lacked a quick first step to enable her to drive around opponents. That's no longer missing from her game.
Until recently, few people seemed to notice how innovative Azzi was. It was obvious early to her mother, when she sent Jennifer and her older sister, Susanne, to the Scarboro Day Care Center. Nearly all of the other kids at the center, which was directed by Yvonne Bohannon, were black. "I wanted them to have interaction with other kinds of kids," explains Donna.
So, one afternoon, Jennifer broke the news to her mother: "We would like for Mrs. Bohannon to be our mommy. We really love her."
Donna, calm in the face of her imminent firing, said, "I'm glad you do, girls. But what would you do with me?"
Said Jennifer, trying to think of a promotion, "You could be our grandmother." The story remains a family treasure.
Oddly, if you talk to Azzi and VanDerveer about Azzi's game, it sounds as though she was lucky to make the team. For openers, she slings her shot from beside her head rather than overhead. "Not a pure shooter," concedes VanDerveer. Azzi thinks she needs to improve in a number of areas. "Like shooting with my left hand," she says. "I also need more range on my pull-up jumper, I have to get better on getting the ball into the post, and I could be a more vocal leader. Rebounding, too. I definitely need to get better at rebounding. The only thing I have ever wanted is to be really good."
VanDerveer is, by nature, a pessimist. Pinned to her bulletin board is a box score of last year's 83-60 loss to Tennessee, in which the Cardinal was outrebounded 50-32. "I'm not sure we'll ever beat them," she said after the game. "The top looks so far away for us."
But this season, suddenly, it doesn't. The Cardinal's prospects are bright not only because of the quantum leaps Azzi has made in her game but also because three other first-rate starters are returning: guard Sonja Henning (10.1 points per game) and forwards Katy Steding (14.8) and Trisha Stevens (13.0). With the arrival of Val Whiting, a 6'3" freshman center from Wilmington, Del., who will shore up the weakest position on the team, the starting five looks almost perfect. Thanks to VanDerveer's national recruiting strategy—team members hail from such towns as Nashua, N.H.; South Aiken, S.C.; Hudson, Wis.—there is lots of depth. But should ill fortune befall Azzi, the Cardinal would have a hard time overcoming the blow.
Still, women's basketball succeeds at Stanford not because of a star like Azzi but because of firm support from the university. Athletic director Andy Geiger says the school will spend $615,330 this year on the sport, against anticipated revenues of only approximately $50,000. "I'm not a star-syndrome guy," he says. "Jennifer is marvelous—and so are the others. But in a community where everyone has achieved and succeeded, Jennifer goes beyond that—and the rest of the players dare not let her down."
Who knows what the future holds for Azzi? She is an economics major but says, "I don't want to be an economist." Her education, however, has not been wasted. "I've learned how to learn," she says. "But I'm not one of those people who fill their heads with knowledge and then tell everybody about it." She would like to play basketball in Europe, and one observer, New York-based agent Bruce Levy, believes the fact that she is of Italian extraction could help her land a contract worth as much as $70,000 annually. "Things have always fallen into place for me," she says. "Now, let's go get us some chocolate chip cookies."