The season began just where you hope it will end, with the
country's top two teams meeting in a tip-off "classic." Of
course, this particular game was promoted by an insurance
company, and not all aspects of the tip-off were truly classic.
Still, what better way to extend the franchise created by the
1996 Olympic gold medal team than to start the college season
with a Stanford-Alabama matchup?
Men's college basketball doesn't get tip-offs like this. Season
openers are usually just complicated scrimmages for the guys;
November and December amount to exhibition play. But the women
play a bolder game. They are eager--almost desperate--to attract
as much attention as possible to their burgeoning sport. They
seem pressured to build on the popularity that the 60-0 U.S.
all-stars established last August.
"We hoped," said Alabama coach Rick Moody, whose team was picked
No. 2 to Stanford's No. 1, "we could do justice to the game,
'cause it's really ready to take off."
These women do not shy from such pressure. "Number 1 versus
Number 2?" asked Stanford guard Jamila Wideman. "It can't get
November 25, 1996
To a woman, and the one man, everybody was looking forward to
the State Farm Tip-Off Classic in Palo Alto, Calif., less as a
do-or-die harbinger of the season to come than as an opportunity
to create even more exposure for women's basketball. TV,
national media--come on down! Stanford guard Kate Starbird, a
returning All-America, said last Saturday, "This is obviously a
big thing, all this coverage." She seemed to like it.
She liked it even more on Sunday afternoon when Stanford, with
10 players from last season's Final Four squad, held off a much
more physical Alabama team 74-65. The game was not quite what
the matchup promised: Stanford had a double-digit lead most of
the time, and Alabama shot 29% from the field. But for a season
opener, you could do a lot worse.
Anyway, this game seemed less about a team than it did about a
sport. Every women's game these days is a reverberation of that
amazingly successful Olympic campaign (two professional leagues
have even been developed to catch that wave of popularity). This
match had an added tie-in: The Stanford coach, Tara VanDerveer,
had coached the U.S. Olympic team. If there had been any more
reverberation in Maples Pavilion, State Farm would have had to
pay off on new glass backboards.
VanDerveer, who brought two national championships to Stanford
before taking on the world, has tried to downplay her Olympic
sabbatical. When the editors of Stanford's media guide chose a
cover picture of her in her USA shirt, she made them airbrush
out the letters and write in Stanford. "I have to show this team
that they are now my priority," she said. But global success and
its implications cannot be airbrushed away.
"That whole Olympic thing," says Wideman, "legitimized the
women's game in a lot of ways. You always heard complaints about
the game not being above the rim, but when they were able to
show this incredible level of athleticism, well, it got
Wideman is just one of the players basking in the Olympic
afterglow. Starbird, who had a quiet eight points to Wideman's
more noticeable 12 against Alabama, says she isn't just thinking
about this season. "Three years ago," Starbird says, "I never
really thought of playing basketball after college. Now I don't
think I can do anything else."
VanDerveer probably would be horrified to hear such talk. First,
she is skeptical of the long-term prospects of the American
Basketball League, which started play last month. Mostly,
though, she doesn't want the Olympics to detract from Stanford's
primary mission: winning the NCAAs. She recognizes, however,
that she may be just as vulnerable as her players on this subject.
She admits she may not have taken enough time off after the
Games and wonders about the "emotional cost of the Olympics."
She says, "It may be that you only have so much emotional tread
on your tires. I don't want to have a flat in the middle of the
year." The excitement of the Olympics and their aftermath
(VanDerveer's favorite letter was from UCLA legend John Wooden;
she noticed it in a pile of mail because the return address was
decorated with puppies) will no doubt exact a toll this season.
With this Olympic obsession and talk of international conquests,
perennially underrated Alabama couldn't help appearing country
next to Stanford. There was all this talk about Stanford's
barnstorming trip to Italy in August, on which the players
studied architecture and visited museums, and here comes the
Tide, whose coach got his first celebrity endorsement from the
Worm Shack, a fishing-supply store in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Moody may wear flashier ties than his NBA brethren, but he
doesn't do much to help his team's image. He has used his rising
profile in Alabama athletics to land his own cable show,
Outdoors in the Heart of Dixie, a huntin' 'n' fishin' program
that he does strictly to indulge his own proclivities. "For a
fishing show," said someone who has seen it, "it may be good."
Moody is unapologetic. "How many basketball shows are there?" he
asks. "Anyway, there's a good chance we might get this on the
Alabama Cable Network."
But if Alabama is a little bit country, it's a little bit
pick-and-roll, too. Playing without point guard Brittney Ezell,
whom Moody suspended for the Stanford game after she missed
three classes, the Tide put up a pretty good fight,
outrebounding the Cardinal 47-41 and pretty much outmuscling
Stanford. VanDerveer had taken one look at the Alabama women,
who have more width than height, and decided, "This had better
be a track meet, not a wrestling match."
The Tide seemed to get every offensive rebound, but it was
handicapped by pitiful shooting. Also, foul trouble kept star
center Yolanda Watkins out for more than half the game. "And we
still got close," said Moody, whose team rallied to within six
points in the second half. "That's got to be encouraging."
Stanford has to be encouraged as well, considering that it got
so much firepower from an unlikely source. While the widely
heralded Starbird was all but invisible until late in the second
half, Stanford was having fun under the basket with its other
Olympian: Olympia Scott. Scott, who got her name because she was
born on the last day of the 1976 Summer Games, surprised Alabama
All-America Shalonda Enis with her quickness, scoring a
team-high 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
So what if the game wasn't as dramatic as the circumstances
demanded? It was still a nifty start to a season that, if the
pollsters really do know anything, could end with the very same