Mildred Edwards resigned herself to the fact that her only daughter, Teresa, would never be the kind of little girl to dress in ruffles and ribbons. From an early age Teresa liked to hang out with the boys in her Cairo, Ga., neighborhood, playing softball and tackle football on the street in back of her house, romping through made-up track and field meets at a nearby park and shooting baskets through an old bicycle rim nailed to a pine tree in the front yard.
Most evenings Mildred would yell for Teresa from the front steps, calling her home from the park, where she also played pickup basketball games. Despite all the hours of practice, even in rain and cold weather, Mildred never thought Teresa would be good enough to play organized basketball. When Teresa asked for permission to try out for the Washington Middle School seventh-grade team, Mildred said, "Bring yourself home, girl." But her daughter wouldn't listen.
"She kept coming home late from school and laying it off on some teacher: 'I'm helping Miss So-and-so,' " Mildred recalls. "Then one day she said, 'I need a new pair of sneakers because I made the team.' I said, 'Girl, you can't play basketball.' And Teresa said, 'Mama, I made the team.' "
Now 28, Teresa is one of the best female basketball players in the world, a performer often referred to as "the Michael Jordan of women's basketball." A 5'11", 155-pound guard, Edwards played on the U.S. Olympic gold-medal-winning teams in 1984 and '88, and in Barcelona she will become the first American basketball player, man or woman, to play in three Olympics. In Seoul she was the U.S.'s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game, and she led in field goal percentage (61.1), assists (3.4) and steals (4.6). She also was a member of the gold-medal-winning 1986 and '90 world championship and Goodwill Games teams. Last summer she averaged a team-high 18 points per game for the U.S. team that was upset by Cuba 86-81 in the Pan American Games and finished with a bronze.
"I've never been surrounded by this much talent, experience and maturity," says Edwards of the 1992 Olympic team. "Since our loss in the Pan Ams, we couldn't wait to get back together to prove we're the best."
Following a sparkling career at the University of Georgia, where she was named a consensus All-America in 1985 and '86 as a junior and a senior, Edwards turned professional, first playing in Italy for two seasons at a salary of $50,000 per year and then, for the past three seasons, in Nagoya, Japan, starring for a team sponsored by Mitsubishi. Edwards makes $200,000 a year in Japan. Because she spends six hours each day in the gym, she has never found the time to learn either Italian or Japanese, and consequently she has had to battle through loneliness, isolation and culture shock.
"Playing overseas has made me mentally tough," she says. "But, my god, if it hadn't been for the professional leagues, my best years as a player would have been wasted. I got so much better after college. I'm at my prime."
When it comes to material things, Edwards prefers to spend her money on her family rather than herself. She drives around Atlanta in the off-season in a 1988 red and black Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 and dresses, in her words, "like a bum," in athletic attire that has been given to her.
Says Theresa Grentz, the coach of the '92 U.S. team: "Someone of her stature, who is as good as she is, you'd expect to be more involved with herself. Teresa's down-to-earth. She can't be bought. Values are important to her. Her humility and her simplicity of life make her very special to be around."
Edwards learned the value of a loving family and a strong work ethic from her mother. At 16 and halfway through her sophomore year in high school, Mildred became pregnant with Teresa and was forced to drop out and go to work in the vegetable fields around Cairo, which is 240 miles south of Atlanta.
"At the time, I felt like my life was all over," Mildred says. "I knew I wouldn't and couldn't go back to school. I had wanted to become a nurse, but I decided to take care of my responsibility."
Although she and Teresa's father, Leroy Copeland, were never married and have never lived together, they eventually had four more children, all boys. Copeland offered some financial assistance, and Mildred took any job she could get. She is currently a machine operator in Cairo at the Torrington Co., which manufactures bearings.
The children had their own household jobs. During the basketball season the boys took turns washing the dishes so Teresa could do her homework. On weekends Teresa was in charge of cleaning the house.
"I'd do it so fast my mother would get so mad," Teresa says. "She'd tell me, 'If you're not going to do it right—and do it hard—don't do it at all.' That's the way I started to look at basketball, and life."
Mildred imparted plenty of other words of wisdom through the years. She and Teresa had to share a bedroom, and they talked for hours about life. There have been times, Mildred says, when the demands of basketball and the distances of its playing sites threatened their close relationship. When Teresa was in the ninth grade, Mildred remembers taking her daughter to the airport for a trip to her first National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs. "I stood and watched that plane until I couldn't see it anymore," Mildred says. And although Mildred herself is afraid of flying—her first plane trip was to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—she gave Teresa her blessing to play professionally, provided she return to Georgia and complete her degree. In 1989 Teresa graduated with a B.S. in recreation.
"I was the first in my family to graduate from college," Teresa says. "That's the biggest example I could make for my brothers. It means more than any shot I could ever take."
Three years ago Teresa bought her mother a car and a modern three-bedroom house with a deck, across town from the house she grew up in. Teresa's maternal grandmother, Frances King, lives in the old house, which is on Teresa Edwards Street, as it was named following the 1984 Olympics. Teresa also wants to help her two younger brothers, Reginald, 18, and Kelvin, 14, with their college tuition, and she's pitching in some cash for Mildred's trip to Barcelona.
"My family is bigger to me than basketball," Teresa says. "My attitude changed when I went overseas. I earned money so I could give back to my mom. It's my turn to accept the responsibility of supporting her. What are you living for if you can't provide somebody with a better way of life? There's no mom like my mom. They don't make them like her anymore. She's not my best friend. She's my best mom."