Maine Stay By deciding to play at home, soft-spoken Cindy Blodgett has used her deadly shot--she has a 25.4-point career average--to fire up a team and a state

March 09, 1998

Folks in Maine speak often of Cindy, by whom they mean no one
but Blodgett. For four years she has played basketball for the
University of Maine in Orono, but for longer than that, people
from Kittery to Caribou believe she has played for them, too.
Review the record of the Blodgett legend--from the whispers that
a featherweight third-grader in the Kennebec Valley was lighting
up 14-year-olds for double figures, to accounts of the freshman
who led Lawrence High of Fairfield to the first of four
consecutive state titles, to the two biographies in print by the
time she was a college freshman--and the eyes, like so much of
Maine during this terrible winter, glaze over.

The day in February 1994 that she became the leading high school
scorer, boy or girl, in Maine history, had to be the 14th.
(That's her uniform number. Also Valentine's Day.) Since her
arrival in Orono, where she's now a 5'9" senior point guard, the
women's team has outdrawn the men's. The Black Bears have made
three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Sporting-goods
stores across the state stock her jersey. A girls' rec league
bears her name. Retirees who once lit out for Florida each
winter don't snowbird anymore, lest they miss a basket by the
woman who won NCAA scoring titles as a sophomore and a junior
and this season stands third, at 27.1 points per game.

Going back to the time she began playing Police Athletic League
ball in the second grade, Blodgett had not missed a game until
Jan. 8 of this year, when an inflammation of tissue in her left
heel, plantar fasciitis, kept her out of the Black Bears' 72-52
win at Towson. That day and night a hard freezing rain fell over
Maine. Roads and trees and power lines iced over, paralyzing the
state and plunging half its population into the cold and dark.
For six, seven, eight days and more, Blodgett sat. Birches
bowed. Nearly half a million people went without power. On Jan.
19 she was practicing again, and by Jan. 22, when she returned
to the lineup and scored 23 points in a 69-64 loss to Drexel,
all but a few thousand households had their electricity back.
Heaven's inner dome had fallen and been raised again. "Everyone
blames El Nino," says Bruce Cooper, Blodgett's high school
coach. "I blame plantar whatever-it-is."

Or blame Maine alumnus and Bangor resident Stephen King, from
whose mind both the storm and the entire Blodgett saga might
have sprung. King could be seen in his skybox at Alfond Arena in
Orono on Jan. 29 taking notes as Blodgett scored 32 points
during the Black Bears' 76-64 upset of then No. 15 Western
Kentucky. What words might he have been jotting down? Talisman,
perhaps. Maybe firestarter. Or just it.

Blodgett's limbs jangle randomly, her toes pigeon inward, her
knees (barely visible below the hem of her uniform shorts) all
but knock. She has a gym rat's pallor and a 137-pound frame so
slight it seems at risk of breaking in two. The ball sometimes
knuckles its way to the hoop, yet no coach would dare take her
floor-model jumper any way other than as is. Even basketball
neophytes can see in her style and smile a radiant passion for
what she's doing. In a state of hard work and low wages, women's
basketball is a felicitous fit. In recognizing how Blodgett
toiled to make herself a player--and showering her with the
bonus of their approbation--Mainers are also, in a sense,
recognizing themselves.

"Maine people have never fallen for the superficial," says Black
Bears coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie. "Cindy has the honesty and
integrity people here respect. A lot of kids play the game for
scholarship opportunities, for a shot at the pros--for reasons
other than sheer love of the sport. But Cindy has never played
to get things from the game. Only for the game."

Having grown up in thrall of Larry Bird, Cindy, then 15, wore
Celtics boxer shorts under her bridesmaid's dress at her sister
Jill's wedding. She cites Bird's autobiography, Drive, as her
basic text. (She may well play for his old coach, the New
England Blizzard's K.C. Jones, in the ABL next season.) But she
suggests Bobby Hurley, the elfin point guard on Duke's national
champion teams of 1991 and '92, when she's running the floor.
She turns two, sometimes three balls a year threadbare from
pounding them on her driveway. "Shoes?" says her father, Thayer.
"I don't even want to get into that." In Playing Like a Girl,
one of the two lives of Blodgett in print, the author--King's
wife, Tabitha--describes a road-trip pit stop during Cindy's
senior season in high school, when she emerged from a bathroom
stall dribbling a basketball.

In 1991, only days after winning the first of her state titles
at Lawrence High, she tried to dunk, vaulting off the back of a
friend crouched helpfully in the lane. She fell and broke both
wrists. A photo in the Blodgett family album shows Cindy lying
in bed, with rigging keeping her wrists slung high. She looks
like a puppy, begging. It's a posture she assumed metaphorically
whenever she couldn't play. Cooper tells of fielding complaints
from custodians who repeatedly tried to kick her out of the high
school gym after it was supposedly locked up for the night. (He
prevailed upon them to let her be.)

Thayer Blodgett was a pipe fitter at a paper mill in Winslow
until late January, when Kimberly-Clark Corp. shut the place
down. Cindy's mother, Evelyn, boxes shirts at the C.F. Hathaway
& Co. plant in Waterville. "My mom and dad work eight to 10
hours a day," Cindy says. "Then my dad's building a fire in the
woodstove, and my mom's fixing supper. Even after a long day at
work, the work day isn't over. So if I'm tired, I'm not so quick
to complain."

Much is made about Title IX daughters redeeming their
opportunity-deprived moms, but that template doesn't fit the
Blodgett household. Thayer loved basketball growing up. Had
quite a knack for it, too. But he was the youngest of seven kids
on a farm, and his father brooked no hoop foolishness when
chores needed to be done.

When Cindy was three, Thayer cut a length of scrap pipe,
attached a backboard and a goal 10 feet up it and planted it in
the driveway. Then he told Cindy, "You want to practice, here
you go. When you hit the rim, it means you're close."

"I never pressured her, but I was lucky," Thayer says. "Cindy
fell in love with something I was in love with."

In fact, most of Maine adores the game. The best boys and girls
teams, bearing nicknames like the Lumberjacks and the
Shipbuilders, converge on Bangor or Portland to play for the
Gold Ball emblematic of a state title. TV follows the first
rounds of the tournament from dawn till midnight, and old-timers
talk of the time in 1947 when Patten Academy (enrollment 88)
sent its boys' team to the Class B New England Championship at
Boston Garden, and the Eagles beat 1,800-student Boston Latin.
Welcome to Maine: Indiana with moose.

It's a state with a split personality. To the south it's tidy
and comfortable, a land of sea breezes, muffins on the porch and
Angela Lansbury padding around Cabot Cove. Here people see a
tree and want to behold it. But head north and you'll come upon
another Maine. Here are the paper mills and potato farms, the
vast swaths of undeveloped lands, the forlorn trailers and
intermingled bloodlines of Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt,
Maine. Here people see a tree and want to log it. The line
dividing the two Maines might be drawn west to east roughly
through Blodgett's hometown of Clinton (pop. 1,485). No one
could be a more symbolic turnbuckle conjoining the two Maines
than she.

When Blodgett arrived in Orono in 1994, Maine's only Division I
school hadn't yet had its women's sports consciousness raised.
Following Blodgett's freshman season, when the Black Bears made
the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, Long
Beach State made a play for Palombo-McCallie. For a week Maine's
dailies bannered the negotiations across their front pages--less
because Palombo-McCallie might be leaving than because Blodgett
said that if her coach left, she'd be gone, too. "As everything
unfolded, there were editorials saying I was holding the
university hostage," Palombo-McCallie says, "but I was just
asking questions about where the school stood [on upgrading
women's athletics]."

For her part, Blodgett says, "I didn't want to be at a place
that wasn't committed to women's sports." Blodgett doesn't
regard herself as a feminist, but, she concedes, "Looking back,
it was more powerful for Coach to have had me behind her."

At the same time she says, "I can be quiet off the court, but on
it I can be confident because I've spent so much time between
the lines. It's like going to take a test. If you don't cram--if
you've studied as you've gone along--you're not nervous. You
don't doubt what you can do."

At its annual dinner last June, the Maine Sports Hall of Fame
gave Blodgett its Outstanding Achievement Award. She scurried
quickly off the dais, preferring not to say a word. "You're not
going to get away with that!" boomed the emcee, former New
England Patriots coach Dick McPherson. "Come on up here and say
something." Blodgett returned, but she still needed prompting.
"How do you feel before you go out for a big game?" McPherson
asked. "Before you go up against a top team?"

Blodgett fidgeted. "About like I do right now," she said. The
room erupted.

Says Palombo-McCallie, "She does remind people of Larry Bird.
You're not going to get a lot of fluff with Cindy. Only the
truth."

Evidence can be found at Bear Necessities, the souvenir shop at
on-campus Alfond Arena, which stocks a line of Blodgett regalia
graced with her first name and uniform number. Proceeds benefit
the women's basketball program. "I was into the idea of a Cindy
doll," says Maine athletic director Sue Tyler, "but she felt it
wasn't her. And she was right. It wasn't her. She wanted simple
things, things people could afford. So we sell pencils and
T-shirts. And socks. Socks are Cindy."

You could score a lot of points with Cindy socks. Cindy socks
would also wick away moisture and lock out the cold. "When we
get the big teams up here, and when we beat them, it gives so
much hope to the state," Blodgett said on the eve of the upset
of Western Kentucky. "It helps people get through the winter."

Especially the winter of 1998, the year that Cindy went down and
the power went out.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Cindy Blodgett] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER UNSTOPPABLE Despite having drawn constant double teams, Blodgett has twice been national scoring champion. [Cindy Blodgett in game]

"She does remind people of Larry Bird. You're not going to get a
lot of fluff. Only the truth."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)