On the day in 1986 that Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication, a 12-year-old ponytailed blonde from Macungie, Pa., was walking around with Bias's photo in her sock. "I was at basketball camp when I heard the news," says Michelle Marciniak, "and I cried and cried." Michelle had connected with Bias partly because she had seen him play several times at the University of Maryland—her father, Walter, was a former Terrapin football standout who occasionally drove the family to games at College Park—but mostly because there was something in Bias's playing style that galvanized her adolescent attention.
"You know what I remember about Lenny?" says Michelle. "The way he hit that baseline J. Wham! That jumper was the shot I liked even back then. The lift he got. It was like he stepped up on a platform."
The average 12-year-old girl does not know from baseline J's, but Michelle Marie Marciniak was not your average 12-year-old girl. Five years later, she is not your average 17-year-old. By most accounts, the Notre Dame-bound guard is the top scholastic female basketball player in the country, a 5'9" bundle of energy and talent who has no discernible weakness on the court, baseline J's included.
Or in almost any other athletic arena. At Central Catholic High School in Allentown, Pa., where she is a senior, Marciniak has excelled on the boys' soccer and golf teams, and on the girls' softball and volleyball teams. Actually, her first love was gymnastics, but she abandoned it several years ago when she found team sports, especially those involving a lot of sweat, more to her liking. These days basketball, the very sweatiest, is her favorite.
February 11, 1991
Whenever she plays she still has that ponytail flying—she ties it up even' day with a wristband she calls a "scrunchie"—and she still carries a photo of a basketball player in her sock. "Actually, it's in my sneaker now because I've started wearing short socks," says Michelle, as she digs into her left Nike and removes a small action photo of Michael Jordan. "See, I always have him facing outside, toward the court." In her bedroom at home, Jordan faces everywhere. Her room is a shrine to him, with at least 30 posters and photos on the walls and a couple of dozen pairs of his namesake Nikes—some old, some new, some given to her as presents and even some that she bought herself—cluttering the closet.
She wants to make it clear that her feelings for the Chicago Bulls star are strictly aboveboard and between the lines. She is a player, not a lovestruck teen. "Michael became my hero after Lenny died," says Michelle. "I just admire his ability, his approach to the game." When she goes on road trips, Michelle carries a "traveling poster" of Jordan for inspiration.
Should Jordan ever get the chance to watch Michelle in action, the appreciation would likely be mutual. "A legit five foot ten in my sneakers," Michelle can't dunk, but she can touch the rim after a running start. She is both a slasher and a three-point shooter (180 career treys through games of Jan. 14), who has averaged 22.5 points per game as a four-year starter. She has already outscored every player, male or female, in the history of the East Penn Conference (one of those she passed was a former Central Catholic boys' star, Bill McCaffrey, now a sophomore starter at Duke). Moreover, her 23.9 points per game this season would be much higher if she played into the fourth quarter. Her undefeated Vikettes (13-0 through Jan. 14) are steamrollering their opponents by an average of 29.7 points a game, and Michelle can usually be found squirming on the bench by the end of the third period. "She wants to play every minute," says her coach at Central, Mike Kopp, "but what can I do?"
Yes, her passing is sometimes overly creative and her free-lance defense—she has averaged 4.5 steals a game over her career—will have to be reined in at the college level. But these are criticisms frequently made of athletes who are superior to their competition. And that most assuredly describes Marciniak, who was one of the state's top players even as a freshman.
Only at the last two U.S. Olympic Festivals, in fact, has Marciniak not been ponytail and shoulders above the pack. In the summer of 1989 she became the youngest basketball player in the history of the festival when she made the East squad as a 15-year-old. Her competitors in Oklahoma City, mostly top college players, saw nothing cute about the skinny teen, and they went at her hard. "I was a little bit overwhelmed," says Michelle, who during one game against the North made only 1 of 10 shots for her silver medalist East team. Last summer at the festival in Minneapolis she was back, and that was quite a different story. Again the youngest player on the court, she scored 11 points, had four assists and made four steals in 18 minutes to spark the East to a 76-54 rout of the West in the gold medal game.
Marciniak's surprising announcement last autumn that she would attend Notre Dame, which recently crept into the Top 25 in women's basketball for the first time ever, ended one of the keenest recruiting battles in the history of girls' scholastic sports. Consider: There are few athletes so highly coveted that a very prominent and very pregnant coach would continue a recruiting visit after her water had broken. Such was the case when Tennessee's Pat Summitt came to Macungie on Sept. 20 (SI, Nov. 19, 1990). The Marciniaks were more nervous than Summitt throughout the hour-long visit. "We kept asking if she wanted us to drive her to a local hospital," says Walter Marciniak. Summitt gave birth to a boy after returning to Tennessee that evening—she called the Marciniaks at 1 a.m. with the news.
Thanks to Summitt's labors, Michelle strongly considered Tennessee, as well as Rutgers, Texas and Stanford. But she surprised everyone, her parents and Irish coach Muffet McGraw included, when she chose Notre Dame. She hadn't even visited the campus when she made her verbal commitment. "Frankly, I never thought we had a shot," says McGraw. But beyond the fact that McGraw directs the wide-open, transition-game style that Marciniak loves, Notre Dame did have a few hidden advantages. For one thing, Michelle's father, a highly recruited scholastic fullback 28 years ago, had turned down the Irish in favor of Maryland. Although he didn't push Michelle, Walter voiced the opinion that, "I really didn't want two Marciniaks saying no to Notre Dame." Michelle felt some subtle parochial-school pressure, too. This is a girl, after all, who has played her entire scholastic career on the court of Rockne Hall, named for Knute. The final factor in the decision was supplied by McGraw, who made that most alluring of recruiting pitches. "We made no secret of the fact that she would start here immediately," says McGraw. "We need a freshman to come and take us to the next level."
Given her track record in all sports, Marciniak will do just that. Although she grew up as the alien in the boys' games, Michelle remembers few cases of gender prejudice, simply because her ability and enthusiasm broke down barriers. She wasn't just an adequate centerfielder as the only girl in Little League—she was an all-star. She wasn't merely a 12-year-old starter on the boys' CYO basketball team—she was its best player, perhaps the best player in the entire league. The Marciniaks remember sitting behind the coach of an opposing team who wondered, "Jeez, is this the first time we've ever played a box-and-one on a girl?"
In high school, she had to play with the girls—in softball and volleyball, anyway—and was honorable mention all—conference in both sports. As a center-forward on the boys' soccer team, Michelle was the team's second-leading scorer as a freshman. She concentrated on golf and basketball as a junior and senior. This past fall she played in the No. 4 slot on the boys' golf team, and finished 14th among girls in the state meet. She was one of five finalists for the 1990 Dial Award—former U.S. Women's Amateur golf champ Vicki Goetze won it—which is presented annually to the top female prep student-athlete in the country.
"Everything about her is perfect," says her sister, Kim, a 21-year-old senior at Penn State who was an excellent high school diver. "Good student, good daughter. Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink." Brother Steve, a 19-year-old sophomore at the Penn State—Allentown campus, nods his head in agreement. "Good grades [3.5 cumulative average], good person, popular, good sister," Steve says.
Come on, she must be bad at something! Kim and Steve look at each other and snap their fingers. "She can't sing!"
And, oh yes—she can't handle Steve (a former high school football player who is 6'2", 220 pounds) in the brutal one-on-one games they play on the Marciniak's backyard court. "We must've played a thousand times, and I've only beaten him once or twice," says Michelle. "He posts me up and just overpowers me. I can't do anything with him. But it's made me a lot tougher. I owe a lot to Steve." And Michelle's success has made Steve's life richer, he says in turn. In fact, he chose a college close to home expressly so he could attend his sister's games, and he's now trying to transfer to Notre Dame so he can keep up the practice. Kim has done her share of cheerleading, too, having frequently made the 320-mile round-trip drive from State College to Allentown so she could watch her sister play. Michelle's parents never miss a game, and tucked away in Betsy Marciniak's purse is a little black book containing all of her daughter's basketball statistics.
Michelle does a good job of dealing with the attention, but even she admits she was taken aback this summer when she spoke at a basketball camp and saw dozens of little Michelles staring back at her. "I looked out in the crowd and all these little girls had their hair tied back in ponytails with scrunchies," says Michelle. "It was kind of spooky." And who knows how many of them had photos of Michelle Marciniak tucked away in their socks?