Time is not a problem for Stanford center Val Whiting, All-America and premed student. There's too little time, sure, but that's no hindrance—she simply squeezes the last drop out of every moment. Some days Whiting brings her books to the court and studies until the last possible minute before practice. She runs conditioning sprints and then, between gasps, discusses her chemistry lab with a teammate. For Whiting, you see, time is only a problem if you waste it.
"All-America and premed student" doesn't begin to tell the story of Val Whiting. That description sounds too neat and ordered. The truth is, the boundaries blur and each pursuit—books and basketball—constantly intrudes on the other, making her a sort of hybrid: Val Whiting, All-premed-America. That's closer to the way her life really is.
"Val carries the weight of the world on her shoulders sometimes," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer says. "She takes life very seriously. She wants to be the best player possible, and she wants to be a doctor, and when anything seems to get in the way of cither one, it gets to her."
Is this Tuesday? For Whiting, that means chemistry lecture and lab, homework due in ecology and genetics, an hour and a half of basketball practice, studying until at least midnight. And the basketball season hasn't started yet. Wait until finals week bumps up against the NCAA tournament, the way it did last year, when she had to complete a physiology exam during the West Regional. "I know I've bitten off a lot," says the 20-year-old Whiting, who hopes to specialize in pediatrics or sports medicine. "School and basketball are both so demanding. When I'm involved with one, the other is always there in the back of my mind. But my ultimate goal is to be a doctor."
That doesn't mean she's not passionate about basketball. A 6'3", 185-pound senior. Whiting is a combination of bulk and quickness, which makes her a nightmare to defend near the basket and a relentless force as a rebounder. Her grit and drive have made her a crowd favorite at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. Last season she averaged 18.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, but those are just numbers. More telling is the fact that she was the best player on the country's best team, the heart of Stanford's national champions. And with all live starters from last season returning, the Cardinal is a favorite to repeat as champs. A national title this season would be Whiting's third in four years with the Cardinal, and it doesn't take a Gallup poll to determine that she's the leading preseason candidate for player of the year.
Last year, Washington coach Chris Gobrecht said Whiting was the best player in the country. "She embodies so many of the qualities coaches look for—intensity, unselfishness, constant effort," Gobrecht said. "You just want to hold her up to other players as an example of what's possible."
Whiting the athlete and Whiting the student are very much the same: unspectacular, but solid and hardworking. "The trick is to keep at it," she says. "It's not who runs the race fastest, but who finishes." Nevertheless, Whiting will put up an argument it you try to characterize her as a driven, humorless woman. She will tell you that she considers herself "a serious person who likes to laugh." Her lighter moments usually occur late at night when she's punchy from studying, or when she's cruising in her battered Porsche 914, a 19-year-old car with an engine so noisy that the campus police once pulled her over because they simply couldn't believe their ears. Could a person with no sense of humor drive a car like that?
And yet when the student and the athlete clash, when one role has to be chosen ahead of the other, Whiting genuinely suffers. When asked why she turned down an invitation to the Olympic trials last spring, she will politely reply that she would rather not talk about it. Her father, Reginald, reveals that the trials conflicted with final exams, "it still bothers her that she couldn't find a way to do it all," he says. "That's the way she is. I know I can expect a phone call when a game or a road trip forces her to miss class time. That upsets her, the thought that she's going to fall behind. I have to say, "Valeria, calm down. Pretend you're at the foul line shooting a free throw. Take a deep breath and relax."
She will pursue another NCAA championship the way she approaches everything else: "Like a fullback," Reginald says. "Valeria tends to take the ball and run straight ahead...whether there's a hole there or not."
As a seventh-grader in Wilmington, Del., Whiting wanted more than anything to be a member of the Talley Junior High cheerleading squad. "It was the thing to do," she remembers. "Athletic women weren't seen as attractive in boys' eyes, but cheerleaders, they were something." Whiting, naturally, prepared diligently for cheerleader tryouts, practicing cartwheels and cheers for weeks. But a gangly, awkward 12-year-old who is pushing six feet isn't usually considered prime cheerleading material, and Whiting didn't make the squad. She was devastated, and she was not cheered up when her math teacher suggested that a girl with her height should try basketball. But Reginald thought it was a good idea. If you get to be good enough, he told her, those cheerleaders will be working for you one day. "So I tried it, and I didn't like it, at least not at first," says Val. "I felt uncoordinated and uncomfortable."
But Reginald, too, has a little bit of fullback in him. A few weeks later he woke his daughter at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and took her to Talley's outdoor courts, where he put her through drills—shooting drills, dribbling drills, rebounding drills, passing drills, agility drills, conditioning drills. "She caught on quickly," he says. "Valeria has always had an intensity for regimentation and practice." And when boys began showing up at the courts hours later, Reginald told Val to get herself included in their pickup games. "I would have to go up to these guys and ask if I could play, with my father standing there watching," Whiting says. "They didn't know what to make of me at first, but eventually I got to play."
The next day she got the same wake-up call from her father and went through the same routine, as she did nearly every Saturday and Sunday for months thereafter. She remembers thinking her father had become a madman, but he says that on those rare weekend days when he didn't wake her up, "She would come looking for me, wanting to know why."
Whiting improved steadily, so much so that she began to embarrass the boys who played against her. Some of them refused to try their best, letting her score easily so it would appear that she was succeeding only because they weren't taking her seriously. Sometimes the boys on her own team would pass her the ball only as a last resort. Once, after a particularly good move, she heard a boy yell, "She's not a girl, she's a man." Whiting knew it wasn't meant as a compliment, but her only response was to keep playing. "You don't let that kind of thing hold you back," she says. "You let it push you forward."
That sounds like something she might have heard from Reginald. Although she draws support from her mother, Claudette, and her younger sister, Kristina, there is something special between father and daughter.
Almost everyone calls her Val, but to her father she is Valeria, named after his sister. "Too pretty a name to shorten," he says. Since instituting those 6 a.m. sessions on the school courts, he has never really stopped coaching her. In high school, where she led Ursuline Academy to four straight state championships, Whiting would call her father a few hours before a game, sometimes for advice, sometimes just to hear his voice. Often he would decide to leave work—he owns a marketing research firm—to meet with her and give her advice for that night's game.
Even today, father and daughter talk by phone, coast to coast, almost every day. What could there be to say? "He always finds something." she says. "He's my toughest critic. Sometimes when I think I've had a pretty good game, he'll have something to criticize, and I'll say. 'Dad, come on." But he'll tell me when I've done well, too, and when he does, it means a lot."
VanDerveer says Reginald is Val's "ace in the hole," because he helps her handle the pressures of being the top player in the country. Still, she thrives on the challenges of that role. Whiting's best performances often come against the best competition, such as the 28-point, 12-rebound effort she put together last season in the Cardinal's victory over NCAA tournament favorite Virginia in the semifinals at Los Angeles Arena. When Stanford played in an off-season tournament in France in August and September, her best game was against Kiev, the Ukrainian team that has to be considered as good as any U.S. college team. Stanford lost by 27 points to Kiev early in the tournament but won the championship game against Challes, a French team, 96-85 behind Whiting's 25 points.
"I'm not sure Val knows how good she really is," says Stanford point guard Molly Goodenbour. And maybe Whiting is half afraid of being too good. After a three-game stretch last year in which she scored 33 points against California and 35 each against USC and UCLA, she went to VanDerveer to ask if she was shooting too much. "The one thing I've never wanted is to bethought of as a gunner," she says.
Whiting's plan is to win another championship, then play professionally in Europe or Japan for a few years, just long enough to earn the money to pay for medical school, I know that the only sure thing about most plans is they don't work out as planned," she says. "Sometimes I wonder if it's all really going to happen. Questions start going through my head. Am I smart enough? Do I really want to be a doctor? The only thing that's easy is to remember that nothing comes easily." And even as she says it, the future Dr. Valeria Whiting gives the impression that she wouldn't have it any other way.