Devil's Due Overlooked by mighty UConn and Tennessee, Duke's determined do-it-all guard, Alana Beard, is out to make them pay this year

November 25, 2002

In certain hallowed women's basketball offices, Alana Beard is a
sore subject. "Do we have to bring this up again?" says
Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey, a tad defensively.
At the sport's other magnetic pole, in Knoxville, Dailey's
counterpart at Tennessee, Mickie DeMoss, confesses that coach Pat
Summitt "glares at me every time that name comes up."

How different things might have been had either of these elite
programs recruited Beard out of Southwood High in Shreveport,
La., three years ago. But because Beard and Duke found each other
instead, the basketball topography has shifted, and the 5'11"
junior guard has all but forgotten that Tennessee never responded
to a tape her AAU coach sent and that UConn, relying on bad
intelligence, never called. As Beard might say, that was so high
school. What matters now is this: Beard is the preseason favorite
to be player of the year, and the Blue Devils, for the first
time, are the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Thanks in no
small part to Beard, the Dukies figure to be in the thin mix of
perennial favorites for a long time to come.

"Everyone who comes on campus says they want to play with Alana
Beard," says Blue Devils coach Gail Goestenkors. "It's not
because of her abilities, it's because of [the person] she is."

That's saying a lot, because Beard's abilities are rare. Last
season, in which she played every position at one time or
another, she averaged 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 steals and
4.4 assists, was named to several All-America teams and was the
conference player of the year. No matter where Beard is on the
floor--posting up, launching from beyond the arc, faking and
twirling her way to the basket or smoothly passing out of the
double teams and junk defenses she routinely faces--she has a
whole Crayola box full of ways to create for herself and her
teammates.

"She scores inside, outside, all kinds of ways, but her defense
changes games," says Duke assistant coach Gale Valley. "If you
know Alana Beard is going to be guarding you, you can't possibly
sleep well the night before. It's not just the physical
things--her long arms [Beard's wingspan is 76 inches], her
quickness. It's how smart she is. She'll [pin] you on the
sidelines, where you are in trouble. She won't let you reverse
the ball. She'll make you dribble with your nondominant hand."
And that's just in practice. In fact, her coaches make sure
someone different goes against her every day in drills, otherwise
it would be too exhausting, too demoralizing, "too much for the
other player," says Goestenkors.

Despite such encomiums, Beard retains a certain childish
innocence about her own achievements. "We had this very good high
school player on campus for an unofficial visit this summer,"
recalls Goestenkors. "We're all sitting around having lunch, and
Alana is sweating. I asked her why, and she said, 'I'm nervous
because this player is really good. I really want her to come
here.' Of course, that high school girl was in awe of her. But
Alana doesn't get it. Thank goodness. I hope she never gets it."

Beard's unshakable humility is rooted in her upbringing in a
tight-knit family back in Shreveport. She is the youngest of
three children of Leroy, a truck driver, and Marie, a supervisor
at a facility for the mentally handicapped (and a good high
school player in her day). Alana (pronounced a-LAY-na) loved
playing basketball on the dirt court with her parents and
brother, Leroy Jr., now 22, and sister, Megan, 24, but she was
too shy to try out for her school team in sixth grade. The next
year she forced herself, and she made the second string. From
then on no other organized sport could turn her head. Nor could
music, hobbies or, usually, even friends. From middle school
through her days at Southwood, Beard would go to class (she was
an honor-roll student) and to practice, go home to do her
homework and then don the jersey of her once-and-never-again
idol, Reggie Miller. ("He whines too much," she says now.) She
would go out back and shoot on the family's unlighted court until
long after the sun had gone down, the darkness only sharpening
her focus.

At Southwood, Beard's coach, Steve McDowell, preached defensive
fundamentals, and she says he also taught her the textbook form
she displays on her jumper. In Beard's four years the Lady
Cowboys won four Class 5A state championships, the last of which
Alana punctuated with a Class 5A state-record 48 points.

Colleges in her region--Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana Tech--all
wanted Beard. But to Tennessee and UConn, which rely heavily on
AAU tournaments and All-Star camps for their national scouting,
Beard wasn't even a rumor until near the end of her junior year.
The AAU traveling team she played for in the summer, the
Shreveport Heat, didn't have a big budget and didn't play in a
national tournament until after her junior season.

Early in high school Beard had longed to go to Tennessee.
Sometime during the spring of '99 Heat coach John Rennie sent a
videotape to Knoxville that showed Beard scoring 24 points
against a team of All-Stars two years her senior. It was, alas,
one of about 15 unsolicited tapes the Lady Vols receive every
week. DeMoss, a Louisianian, says that Beard's tape, regrettably,
was mislaid in the film room. (For her part, Connecticut's Dailey
did see Beard play but had heard she didn't want to leave
Louisiana. "My mistake was not to at least make a phone call,"
Dailey says.)

In any case, Duke had picked up Beard's trail in the spring of
'99, when Goestenkors attended the Deep South Classic tournament
in Birmingham. Wandering around the gyms, she caught sight of
Beard, who was playing for a Mississippi AAU team that had
offered her the chance to travel with them and increase her
visibility. Looking Beard up in her tournament book, Goestenkors
scribbled a note by her name: "Best player I've ever seen."

Beard didn't want Duke to make a home visit, however. She had
been unimpressed with Coach G's sideline behavior during the Blue
Devils' televised upset of Tennessee in the Elite Eight that
March. The measured gestures, the calm, all that smiling--Beard
could never play for a coach that nice. Besides, Durham, 885
miles from Shreveport, was too far away. Even after a home visit
had been arranged, Alana tried to cancel it. Adding her two cents
for the first time, Marie said, "Keep Duke."

Beard tried to scratch the Blue Devils off her list after the
home visit too, but this time Leroy spoke up. He liked
Goestenkors and Valley, mostly because it wasn't that obvious
which was the head coach. "For my dad to say anything, well, I
listened," says Beard.

Unfortunately, she wasn't prepared for the transition to college
life. During her freshman year Beard remained a virtual recluse
in her dorm, where schoolmates addressed her, "Hi, Antisocial!"
On the team she was the most acutely afflicted of a flock of
homesick freshmen. Once, former Duke player Sue Harnett, who
worked on campus, received a call from assistant coach Joanne
Boyle begging Harnett to go on a date with Harnett's boyfriend
(now husband), Rich Scher, so Beard could fill in for a night as
babysitter for Scher's kids. "[The coaches] were afraid if they
didn't get Alana into a family situation right away, she would
leave," says Harnett.

Babysitting helped. So did basketball. In her first season at
Durham, Beard averaged 17.0 points and 3.5 steals per game and
was named national freshman of the year. But she could never work
hard enough. She would enter Cameron Indoor Stadium as late as 2
a.m. using the special key she had borrowed--and would eventually
inherit--from All-America guard Georgia Schweitzer. Beard never
took a break. She sandwiched her freshman season between summer
tours with the USA Basketball team that won the junior world
championship in 2000. By the time the Blue Devils reached the
Final Four in San Antonio last March, Beard was whipped. In an
86--71 loss to Oklahoma in the semifinals, she could barely move
and scored only 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting.

At her coaches' urging, she took this past summer off from
organized basketball and, much to her surprise, enjoyed it. "I'm
trying to find myself outside of basketball," says Beard, a
sociology major. Prodded by a group of nonathletes she calls her
"petite, prissy" friends, she is coming out of her shell. "She
even went to a party by herself!" says one pal.

Nevertheless, Beard is maintaining her focus. Beyond a national
championship at Duke and a long and prosperous career in pro
ball, she would like to give women's basketball a boost in
Shreveport. "Someday I want to set up an organization, a place
where girls can show up in the middle of the night and shoot
baskets," she says. "I want their talent to be known. I don't
want them to have to go play for a team in Mississippi to be
seen."

UConn and Tennessee might appreciate that too.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA FLOOR LEADER Her team's hardest worker, Beard has single-mindedly refined her game for the last three years. COLOR PHOTO: JON GARDINER/DUKE UNIVERSITY ARMS AND DANGEROUS A 76-inch wingspan enables Beard to put the clamps on flummoxed foes and shoot over them.

"If you know Alana Beard is going to be guarding you, you can't
sleep well the night before," says Valley.

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)