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March 2, 2016

When The Cats Played Against the National Champions

When The Cats Played Against the National Champions

WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – I came across an old pre-game poster this week that promoted the nationally televised 1993 Big Ten/ACC challenge, which was a big deal way back when it started in the 1990s. We had been selected and matched up against The University of North Carolina Tarheels. Their talent included a dunking center, Sylvia Crawley; an incredible strong 2-guard and Kodak All-American named Tonya Sampson (in the poster as one of the featured four players); a dunking 3-4 wing/post player named Charlotte Smith (who hit the shot that won the national title that year—and I also think she was an All-American); and then there was their point guard.

Marion Jones was the fastest woman in the world that time – or one of – and she was their starting freshman point guard.

In the pre-game shoot-around, Coach Perrelli looked at me and said, “Mo, you especially do not want her to steal the ball from you in the open court.”

The four-game tournament was hosted by the University of Virginia. The two things I remembered about pre-game was that the separate locker rooms were all connected by circular open room of showers, which was odd.

The other thing I remember is during our warm-up the crowd started “Oohing” and “Ahhing.”

I didn’t have to look at the other end. I knew what at least two of them – if not all three, including Marion – were doing.

Dunking. Or attempting to.

A few of my teammates looked down. They couldn’t help it.

“Don’t look!” I said.

The rest of the game was a blurry blowout with some highlights.

The highlights were for me that I had 20 points and 15 rebounds and was named one of two Chevy Players of the Game.

The truth is that as nice as those numbers were, I missed way too many really great shots, which is why I had 15 rebounds. I was one of those rabid rebounders who got so mad when I missed around the rim. I remember getting the ball off a missed shot by another teammate on an out-of-bounds play, and tipping it in with my left hand similar to a tap-tap and put it in drill that I’d practiced so many times by myself. I didn’t realize I did it until after the game and someone told me what I did.

A funny highlight and lowlight still hangs on my wall. It is this photo (see below) of me blowing by Charlotte Smith and her teammate for an awesome baseline runner. The crowd gasped when I did it. It was a totally awesome and cool move.

And I blew the easy bucket.

So the funny part to me is that it’s the only shot I have of me in my office playing, and every time I look at it, I know the truth.

A big part of the blur was really being struck by what a great leader Marion Jones was as a freshman. Fiery, smart and a cool cat. Smooth, slick and explosive.

I ran into Marion years later at her book-signing event after winning her Olympic medals and before the steroid story broke. She was gracious and supportive of my young adult girls’ sports series. I often reflect back and think of what it would mean to talk to her again and tell her when she played hoops, even though I was only out there with her for one game, I felt like she had such an innate sense of leadership and character. How and why did she change? Or maybe I was just wrong?

The rest of the blur was seeing our center, Tricia Babcock get into it with Crawley after we were down quite a bit early (there’s a photo included of Trish v Sylvia). Trish, who was quite a post player, was all worked up and I get it, but she was pushing too hard in a battle we were never going to win. She turned to me after some foul trouble, and I was like, “No. Not smart. We need to just play out the game.”
“Come on, Mo.”

We were on national TV. Losing was bad enough. Trying to start a grudge match of any nature with a team that could just smear us at another level was not my idea of a good time. Maybe Trish had a fair gripe that I was missing because she was a post and on defense my back was to her. And when I was on offense, I had one or two All-Americans on me.   I am sure things got physical, yet they just had so much ammo for us.

“Mo?” said after the final buzzer sounded.

The showers. Trish didn’t know I was thinking about the showers. And that was the weird part. After the game everyone was sort of connected and the last thing we needed was any tension with no coaches or referees around.

I think we lost by 20-25 points. No one got dunked on. Trish was mad at me or maybe just at the entire scene and feeling of getting thumped on national TV. The good news is that we all showered in peace and got on a plane back to Chicago.

That Tarheels team went on to win the national title that season. I remember not being surprised at all by this. They had such power and depth amongst them. They played like pros.

Years later, while I was playing in Israel, I ran into Tonya Sampson, who was one of my defensive assignments that game, along with Charlotte Smith. I was so relieved to see an American. I ran up to her and said, “I’m not sure if you remember me, but we played you on national TV the year you won the title.”

Blank stare.

“So how do you like Israel?”

“It’s alright,” she said. “The only thing is the players on our team are really weak. We (the other American) scored every one of the points last game.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She said something about living just outside of the city. I think we were in Tel Aviv, which was a treat except the team would not let us do anything, but go to the game and back. I asked why we couldn’t just go get a sandwich after the game and walk around the city. They said no. We don’t do that. It’s not safe.

(Note that my Israel experience ended a short time later with the assassination of the prime minister. Not just a story – but part of a book.)

Tonya asked where I was living in Israel.

“In a kibbutz about 45 minutes from Haifa,” I said. “Nazareth is 10 minutes away, but they don’t let me go many places. Our Russian center is my roommate. We communicate by acting out what we want or raising our voices in Russian or English and it never works.”

“I would love being out there,” she said.

“What? It’s out in the middle of nowhere. I do nothing but read and go to the gym and hang out with my stray dog.”

“But it’s so peaceful.”

That’s about where we left it. My had team lost to Tonya’s team again that day because the two Americans were too strong for our weak farm-based team. I am not even sure the name of her team. For a while I wasn’t sure of the name of my team because I could not read the name written in Hebrew on my shirt.

I did a google search of Tonya and found out that she played pro football for a fair amount of years after hoops.

Maybe I’ll catch up with Marion Jones someday and tell her what I remember about her, her team, her teammates. Or I’ll see Tonya or Charlotte or Sonia at the Final Four and say I won’t forget what you did to us.

I’ve won and lost many games in my life, but I know for sure my premonition about their talent was spot on or else I would never have remembered so many of the details of that game beyond the score.

Being in the presence of such remarkable athletes and women is something you never forget.