One Last Shot Quitting her job and pounding herself into shape, scrappy former college star Sheila Tighe tried to break into pro basketball--after 14 years away from the game

June 01, 1998
June 01, 1998

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June 1, 1998

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One Last Shot Quitting her job and pounding herself into shape, scrappy former college star Sheila Tighe tried to break into pro basketball--after 14 years away from the game

If you happened to be poolside at La Quinta Resort in Palm
Springs, Calif., a couple of weeks ago, perhaps you noticed the
36-year-old woman wearing the god-awful black toenail
polish--black because, she joked, she'd just been to war. Or
perhaps you glimpsed the bruises exploding like tiny fireworks
on her arms, or the angry red scratches around them. Perhaps you
gasped at the half-dollar-sized blisters on the bottoms of her
feet, or the parchment-colored dead skin that was peeling off
because of the countless miles she'd recently run. As she lay
there on her chaise longue for four days, reading a mystery
novel and not wanting to move, those marks were the only clues
to who she once was. Or to what she'd just been through.

This is an article from the June 1, 1998 issue Original Layout

"And I gotta tell you," Sheila Tighe says, lapsing into her best
Staten Islandese, "when I started this five months ago, I was
saying the same prayer every friggin' night: 'Please, God, just
let me make it through.'"

You see, once upon a time Sheila Tighe was one of the best
players in college basketball, a fiery 5'9" guard who scored
21.3 points per game at Manhattan College in New York City, a
two-time All-America who earned an invitation to the '84 U.S.
Olympic Trials and was a Wade Trophy finalist in 1983 and '84.
Before college, at St. Peter's High, Tighe was a teenage
basketball phenom whose face daily adorned a front-page corner
of the Staten Island Advance with only the word SHEILA
underneath, no last name necessary.

Tighe (pronounced TIE) was the most recruited player in the New
York City area since Nancy Lieberman four years before. She
received mail from 125 schools. But she stunned everybody by
choosing nearby Manhattan, a tiny Catholic school where her
family could see her play. Back on Staten Island, her fans
shrieked, "What was she thinking?" They asked the same question
in 1984 when Tighe, partly because she was despondent over her
boyfriend's sudden death from an aneurysm, quit basketball cold
turkey, even as offers from the European pro leagues rolled in.

The question What was she thinking? came up again last December
when, after a 14-year hiatus from topflight basketball, Tighe
closed up her Los Angeles apartment, put her successful career
as a production manager for TV commercials on hold, moved into a
one-room, $550-a-month efficiency in Philadelphia and embarked
on a five-month odyssey to win a job on a team in the WNBA or
the ABL.

"I'm not going to say someone doesn't have any chance at all if
she hasn't been competing [at a high level] either here or
overseas," Lin Dunn, head coach of the ABL's Portland Power,
said at one of Tighe's tryouts. "But let's just say a player's
chances of walking in here from nowhere and getting drafted are
slim and none."

Tighe knew that. Yet she was undaunted. When she started
training, she had no guarantee she'd land the three tryouts that
she did. "I don't know if I came back because I just never
played enough, or because of the way I quit," she said before
the tryouts began. "Sometimes I think I was just born too soon."

To really understand Tighe's thinking, however, you have to go
back to the Rock, Staten Islanders' nickname for their borough.
Because more than anything, Sheila Tighe is Iron Mike Tighe's

Though Mike and Mary Tighe had 12 children--eight girls and four
boys--sports bound Mike to Sheila, his ninth child, more than to
any of the others. Sheila was just like him: square-jawed and
extroverted, willful and demanding and proud, with the same
brown eyes that hardened in the heat of a game, then softened at
the slightest wisecrack later.

As a child, she heard all the stories about how her dad had been
the best high school playmaker in New York City, how he'd
starred for Georgetown, then lasted until the final cut with the
1946-47 New York Knicks. On nights that Sheila had games, her
father would pace the living-room floor until she got home, then
they'd rehash every detail, often butting heads. She remembers
that a boyfriend of hers would drop by and, before long, he and
her dad might be reenacting some basketball play.

"I'll never forget the night of my senior prom," she says. "My
date and two friends came to pick me up, and soon we were moving
furniture in the living room, and my dad was saying to my ma,
'C'm'ere, hon, set a pick.' I finally said, 'Dad? No. I am not
going to pick-and-roll in my prom dress.'"

Mike Tighe's detailed memory of basketball games amazed Sheila.
So in 1987, the year she moved to L.A., she noticed immediately
when her father began to act absentmindedly. The doctor's
diagnosis was Alzheimer's. It would be 10 wrenching years before
the disease killed Mike, at age 75, last June 25. "That
absolutely had an effect on me," Sheila says. "If you interview
100 doctors, 50 will tell you Alzheimer's is hereditary. So I
decided if there's something I want to do, somewhere I want to
go, I do it. Now. I'm not going to wait or have regrets." After
a pause she adds, "At the start of this whole thing, I thought
it was just about basketball. But it became so much more."

Last summer, when the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks launched their
first season, Tighe was just a standout in her
Saturday-afternoon recreation league. A few of her pickup-game
friends said, "You should be playing pro," and Tighe replied,
"Yeah, right"--until she attended a Sparks game, and something
stirred in her. Soon she was having heart-to-heart chats with
her sister Lynn, a fine point guard for Villanova from 1984 to
'88 and now director of basketball operations for the ABL's
Philadelphia Rage. One day Sheila was on the phone with a rec
league acquaintance named Ann Donohue, a 43-year-old TV writer
and the producer of series such as Picket Fences, Murder One and
China Beach. Donohue kept asking Tighe, Why not come back?

As Tighe recalls, "I said, 'Ann, you don't understand. I haven't
played in 14 years. I'd have to quit my job to train full time.'
And Ann just said, 'Yeah, so?' Then she said, 'How much would
you need--$10,000 a month, $15,000 a month?' And I nearly choked."

Donohue, laughing hard, says, "What did I know about what it
would cost? I've lived in Hollywood a long time. I was like,
'You don't have a gardener, a landscaper, a masseuse?'" Still,
Donohue agreed to sponsor Tighe, paying her living and training

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Lynn Tighe's
boss, Cathy Andruzzi, then the Rage's general manager, offered
Sheila a place to train. (In 1980, when Andruzzi was the coach
at East Carolina, she had recruited Sheila and been turned
down.) So last December Tighe moved back East and began rising
each day at 5 a.m. for 2 1/2 hours of weightlifting, aerobic work
and basketball drills with Andruzzi. Tighe would then practice
with the Rage for two hours, grab a quick lunch, put in an hour
or two of shooting practice by herself, have an early dinner,
then play two hours of pickup games, usually against men. "I'd
fall asleep by 9:30 p.m.," she says. "The next morning I'd call
Cathy at five and say, 'You up yet, Sunshine?' and do it all
over again."

In five months of training, Tighe took just three days off. When
asked by her mother on a mid-April trip home if she'd been to
confession recently, Tighe rolled her eyes and cracked, "Ma, I
wish I had time to sin."

Thanks to a call by Andruzzi, Tighe landed one of the 66 spots
at the ABL's April 22-26 predraft combine at the University of
San Francisco--no small feat considering that 350 players had
been considered for a precious invitation. In the two-a-day
workouts, the competition was fierce. Players flung themselves
into every drill, every scrimmage, every suicide sprint with
their teeth bared. The tension was thick.

One coach estimated that the ABL's nine teams eventually might
keep only a dozen players from the combine. (In the end 26 were
drafted.) The long odds were what drove 5'6", 131-pound point
guard Laurie Byrd, 38, who played sparingly last season for the
San Jose Lasers, to disdain stitches and slap a butterfly
bandage on a nasty slice over her right eye so she wouldn't miss
a minute; they were what sent former Stanford guard Christy
Hedgepeth bounding up the steps outside the gym two at a time
for a quick visit to the dentist after two of her front teeth
were nearly knocked out during the first evening session.
Hedgepeth was back playing the next morning.

When May 5--draft day--arrived, the New England Blizzard
selected Byrd, but no organization chose Tighe or Hedgepeth. For
Tighe, the combine confirmed that she was in great shape. What
hit her hard were the things she couldn't simulate in training:
defenders flying out to challenge her shot, the physical
pounding, the games all run at full speed. She played solidly,
but, she admitted after the session, "I didn't stand out."

Tighe is most effective in a set offense, but the tryout
scrimmages were run-and-gun affairs. "I know how to play," she
said at the combine, "but I can't match some girls'
athleticism." She had to laugh when Aneta Kausaite, 27, a guard
from Emporia (Kans.) State, looked at her as they stretched one
day and said, "How old are you, anyway?"

Even before she heard from the ABL, though, Tighe was back in
Los Angeles for a May 3 tryout with the Sparks. By 8:30 a.m., an
hour before the daylong session began at Loyola Marymount in
L.A., she was bouncing in place. During warmups she drained
five, six, seven jumpers in a row. "I feel good," she said. When
play started, it was clear she had benefited from her ABL
experience. Her game was more assertive, more confident. The
coaches noticed: Tighe made the midday cut from 40 players to
24. But at day's end her name was not on the final list taped to
the gym door, and she inhaled sharply, heartbroken.

After a sleepless night, Tighe caught an 8 a.m. flight to her
two-day tryout in Sacramento with the WNBA Monarchs. By the last
scrimmage of the second day, she could barely hoist herself from
a courtside seat. Yet once on the court she fought through picks
and somehow kept her feet jitterbugging on defense. She even
elicited some applause when she posted up, stole a glance over
her shoulder and bounced a one-hop pass to a galloping teammate
cutting behind her for an easy layup.

On another play, Curtycine Jones, a rim-scraping 6-foot
guard-forward from Texas who would sign with Los Angeles, blew
by Tighe for a basket. The next time downcourt, Jones tried to
take Tighe again, but Tighe stole the ball. When Jones went
after her a third time, an irked Tighe didn't wait for her to
throw a move--she karate-chopped Jones hard across both
forearms. Players on both sidelines tittered and laughed.

Tighe later scored, and a teammate shouted, "I see you, Sheila."
A few minutes afterward, a coach's whistle blew to stop the
action. Tighe, sweat-soaked and spent, walked off and said,
"Well, it's almost over."

Then she blinked and said, "What am I saying? It is over."

Tighe's name won't be found in any WNBA media guide or ABL box
score this season. But let the record show that her last
basket--the one with which she said goodbye to her dream of
playing pro ball--was a sweet jumper launched from just to the
right of the key. She caught the ball and, in perfect rhythm,
sent it on its way, her calloused feet touching back down just
as the ball whispered through the hoop. No glass. No iron.
Nothing but net.

On May 11, the day that Tighe packed her rickety black 1990 Saab
and made the two-hour drive to Palm Springs, the WNBA's 10 teams
were convening for training camp. Though Tighe doesn't smoke,
she celebrated the end of her quest with a rebellious puff on a
Marlboro. Referring to the 30 or 40 phone messages on her
answering machine, she said, "How do I call everyone back and
say, 'Hey, I didn't make it'?"

Wedged among the how'd-you-do calls was one inviting Tighe to
play in a summer league at the Hollywood Y. Games started the
following Monday. "The first thing I thought was, Aw, I don't
know," Tighe says. "The last time I played there, I yelled at my
teammates in a huddle, 'Whoever doesn't want to set a pick for
me can just get off the court now!' and four other voices all
said, 'Sub!' I thought, Maybe I need a break. Maybe I should
think it over."

Who was she friggin' kidding?

"Count me in," she said.

B/W PHOTO: JAN SONNENMAIR NUMBERS GAME At the ABL combine, Tighe (second from left) and Byrd (far right) faced players roughly half their age. [Sheila Tighe, Laurie Byrd and others]B/W PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA NO RUN, NO GUN In scrimmages (here in Sacramento against another Monarch hopeful), Tighe found the pace too quick. [Sheila Tighe in game]B/W PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA ANGEL AND DEVIL Donohue (left) bankrolled Tighe's comeback, while Andruzzi tortured the player during their workouts. [Ann Donohue, Sheila Tighe and Cathy Andruzzi]
"I know how to play," Tighe said after one tryout, "but I can't
match some girls' athleticism."
When asked at home if she'd been to confession lately, Tighe
cracked, "I wish I had time to sin."