On april 30, 2002, her 18th birthday, Seimone Augustus came of age with a decision that had been breathlessly awaited throughout her home state of Louisiana and beyond. A 6'1" shooting guard who's as slender as a clarinet, she had captivated fans with her seamless grace and dominating skill since she was in middle school. The Baton Rouge native was such a sensation that when she was 14, Sports Illustrated for Women put her on the cover of its inaugural issue with the billing the next michael jordan? Even her birthday parties were SRO. When she turned 16 and 17, some 500 people showed up at celebratory crawfish boils thrown by her daddy, Seymore. On her 18th birthday about twice that many people, as well as a dozen TV camera crews, squeezed around the sunken courtyard at Baton Rouge's Capitol High, the school she had led to two straight Class 4A state titles. This was the day she had chosen to announce her college choice. A lot of schools wanted her. The one in her hometown really needed her. ¬∂ On the day of the announcement LSU athletics director Skip Bertman had called Augustus "the most important recruit in the history of LSU," the same school, mind you, that had snagged Pete Maravich and Shaquille O'Neal. Bertman, a former LSU baseball coach then in his second year as AD, was poised to pour a lot of money into women's basketball, but not if such a beloved local kid chose to go elsewhere. Failing to get her, he said, "would be a bad sign for the program."
Sue Gunter, LSU's coach at the time, was acutely aware of this as she sat in her fourth-floor office listening to a radio broadcast of Augustus's announcement, the windows wide open "in case I had to jump," she says. Like everyone else in town, Gunter knew Augustus's choice had come down to LSU and six-time national champion Tennessee, an SEC rival. Mercifully, Gunter couldn't see what the Capitol High crowd saw as Augustus approached the microphone. She was wearing orange, in her sweater and in her hat. A ripple of despair pulsed through the crowd: She had picked Tennessee!
It was a classic Augustus head fake, a sly sartorial juke. When Augustus announced that she would forgo the championship tradition of Pat Summitt and Tennessee and instead try to raise LSU to the Lady Vols' level, a cheer went up around the city and a giant exhalation blew through Gunter's window. It was such a big story that local TV stations broke in on their programming to announce the good news.
Two and a half years have passed, and so far the Augustan epoch has been nearly all that the citizenry of Baton Rouge had envisioned. For one thing, attendance for LSU women's basketball increased by more than 2,000 per game her freshman season. Tennessee's appearance in town on Feb. 10 will probably inspire the same madness as happened two years ago, when 15,217 fans, the most ever for a women's game at LSU, jammed the 14,164-seat Pete Maravich Center.
The Lady Tigers are well worth watching. On the strength of two consecutive 29-point games by Augustus in last year's NCAA tournament, they made it to their first Final Four, in nearby New Orleans. They lost 52--50 to--whom else?--Tennessee, on a last-second shot in the semifinals, but making it that far was a watershed achievement. This year's team, with new depth and frontcourt size to go with its backcourt speed, is SI's favorite to win it all in Indianapolis. The only downer has been the poor health of Gunter, whose battle with acute bronchitis forced her to pass the coaching reins to former Lady Tigers point guard and longtime assistant Dana (Pokey) Chatman midway through last season. "Of all the years to have to retire!" wails Gunter.
After 22 years of Gunter's sometimes lonely nurturing, the LSU program is now a jewel of the school's athletic department. Over the next two years Bertman plans to sink $5.5 million into improvements at the Maravich Center. "Seimone did that," he says. "I wouldn't have committed that kind of money on the strength of the men's program alone."
If Augustus feels the pressure implied by such investments, her customary poker face doesn't show it. "I know there are expectations, but I don't let them affect my game or the team chemistry," she says softly as she sits on a buttery leather couch in the newly built players' lounge. "I just play basketball."
It can be argued that Augustus plays the game more completely than anyone in college today, male or female. She can do all the flashy things that mark most superstars, but she breaks out those moves sparingly. "You don't have to do all that shakin' and bakin' to get to the goal and make a shot," she says, sounding like a player John Wooden could love. Her forte is shooting, especially her feathery midrange jumper, which as a freshman she was sometimes reluctant to unleash. "When she first got here she was trying to feel her way through, learn the system and not step on any toes," says senior point guard Temeka Johnson, adding with a laugh, "She's overcome that."
After averaging 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds as a freshman, Augustus contributed 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists a game last season. In five NCAA tournament games she averaged 24.2 points. But such stats only hint at her gifts. What really sets her apart is the nimbleness of her mind.
The Lady Tigers run a motion offense that depends on high and wide spacing, which allows players to penetrate, cut to the basket or use screens. "I don't think people appreciate what a cerebral player Seimone is," says Chatman. "They see the end result, the jump shot, the finger roll or the double clutch. They don't watch how she came off the screen and made the correct read, that she knew to flare, not curl, or to back cut, not straight cut."
Augustus is no slouch on defense either. LSU likes to pressure the ball and disrupt offenses with deflections, a stat that's charted every day at practice, most often with Augustus at the top of the list. Ohio State coach Jim Foster, who coached Augustus on the gold-medal-winning young women's world championship squad last summer, sums her up this way: "A lot of good young players have attributes; Seimone has a game."
Augustus has been honing that game virtually her whole life. The only child of Kim, a bank teller, and Seymore, a newspaper pressman, Seimone could dribble well enough at age three to join a Bitty Ball team for five-year-old boys. Until Seymore started an AAU team for girls when Seimone was in middle school, she was the only girl and youngest player on boys' recreational and AAU teams.
She worked on her fundamentals with special drills that Seymore dreamed up. He tied one hand to her waist with a belt and had her dribble, pass and shoot with the other. He strapped on a bowling glove that forced her to keep her right wrist straight and exaggerate her follow-through on shot attempts. He had her wear blindfolds and goggles that prevented her from looking at the ball as she dribbled on the backyard concrete. In an attempt to sharpen her vision, the two often scrimmaged in the dark, sometimes until 3 a.m. Seymore, a former high school high jumper who never went to college, passed on a lot of useful advice to his daughter: Don't be a hothead, get an education, let the game come to you. But he says his most important piece of advice was this: "If you don't love the game, leave it behind."
Augustus still loves the game and still works hard at it, showing up an hour or two early for practices and workout sessions, even those that start at 6 a.m. "Anytime I mess up, even if it's a simple turnover, that affects me," she says. "The next week in practice I tell myself that I'm going to work that much harder. If I'm getting beat on the drive, I'll go against someone like Temeka, who is quicker than me, to work on that. Or if it's blocking out I need to work on, I'll go against someone like [6'1" power forward] Wendlyn Jones."
Her talent and industry have brought her so much fame that Augustus hasn't been able to go to a local mall unrecognized since she was about 11. She doesn't mind the limelight--"it's the norm," she says--though she doesn't see why the attention should be focused on her alone. When she is approached for an autograph, she always signs, even when the fan proffers a Bible, as a preacher did in a Piggly Wiggly recently. If a teammate is with her, Augustus introduces her. "She'll say, 'This is my teammate Marian Whitfield,'" says Whitfield, a redshirt freshman guard. "And then the person will ask for my autograph too. That's the kind of person Seimone is."
Polite, humble, fundamentally sound, Augustus is an old school soul. She admires the games of Julius Erving and George Gervin (having watched those greats on ESPN Classic), listens to R&B as well as rap and covets the long, fast muscle cars of the 1960s. Until she can make enough money to buy her dream car, a '64 Chevy Impala, she is content to roll around campus in her current ride, a metallic-blue former Louisiana state trooper car she bought at auction for $1,000. Taking a cue from MTV's Pimp My Ride, one of her favorite shows, she converted the '95 Chevy Caprice into an SS Impala by changing the paint, the interior, the grille and a few plaques and emblems. She rarely tests the car's horsepower. "I just like to cruise," Augustus says.
In most other matters she has pedal to the metal. Augustus had enough credits to graduate from high school in three years--she stayed a fourth year to play basketball and take a few electives--and by averaging 18 credits a semester at LSU and nine every summer (she is majoring in business marketing, with minors in fashion merchandising and design, and carries a 3.0 GPA), she will do the same in college.
Rumors circulate about her ambitions. Will she become the first woman to leave for the pros after just three years of college ball? When asked about this, Augustus--for once--makes a face. She says she'll be at LSU in her senior year, "taking classes like bowling and yoga, unless...." She stops to consider the scenarios that might keep her out of a Lady Tigers uniform. She lands on the unlikeliest: "Unless Coach kicks me off the team."
Augustus has been a star in Baton Rouge for so long, she hasn't been able to GO TO THE MALL UNRECOGNIZED since she was 11.