Posted: Tuesday September 27, 2005 12:45PM; Updated: Tuesday September 27, 2005 12:45PM
Shawntinice Polk is being mourned by friends all across the University of Arizona campus.
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When I heard the news that Arizona's 6-foot-5 senior center Shawntinice Polk had collapsed and died at McKale Center on Monday morning, I was shocked and saddened. I wasn't surprised to learn her sudden passing had left football players in tears and university president, Peter Likins -- who was from her hometown and kept a photo of her in his office -- vowing to cherish her "for the rest of my life." Polkey had more friends than any other athlete I've ever met.
Two years ago I flew to Tucson to interview Polkey for a college basketball preview story. She had just won the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award and was already one of the most dominant post players in the nation. Our preview plans changed and I never wrote the story, but I kept my notes because I hoped we'd come back to her. Yes, she was a good player with great upside. Yes, she had an inspiring story, but beyond that, she had one of the most appealing personalities I'd encountered in sports. She was funny, self-deprecating, attentive, generous. She punctuated stories with a tittering laugh and a theatrical, fluttering hand to her throat, surprising, I suppose, in a person her size. I liked her instantly and could see she had that effect on a lot of people. In a 30-minute conversation that started at McKale and ended at the student union, we were interrupted 10 times by friends of hers who wanted to say 'hi', exchange mild barbs or just bask in the fuss she made over them. She introduced me to every one of them by name, usually with the honorific "cousin" or "brother" attached. Everyone was family to her.
The youngest of seven children, Polkey was raised by a single mother and started playing basketball in junior high in her hometown of Hanford, Calif., a dairy town near Fresno that she described as a "That '70s Show kind of town." She played not because she was taller than everyone else, but because that's what all her friends did. She learned the game playing pickup against guys at an outdoor court in town. "When you play with guys you have to be really smart," she told me. "They'll block you, they'll go around you on defense. They never cut you any slack."
Her junior year her mother, Johnny Little, took a job in Bakersfield, but Polkey wanted to stay with her team, an emerging power in California's Division II. So when her mom left, she settled in with friends and cried for a week.
Polkey's senior year, she led Hanford to the Division II state title. Her debut at Arizona was delayed a year because of academic eligibility issues arising from a belatedly diagnosed learning disability. She attended a community college for a semester before going to Tucson, and then spent the rest of that redshirt season dropping 80 pounds and getting up to speed academically through a tutor-based program on campus. She cried the first week of weight training, too. She spent her first months at Arizona, "with her head down, talking to nobody." But after shedding the excess weight and learning how to thrive academically, she blossomed. She made friends everywhere -- in class, in line at McDonald's, in the weight room. Among many other athletes, she was tight with men's players Hassan Adams, Andre Iguodala and Channing Frye, whom she bugged for tips on post moves. Somewhere in my notes I have this confession from her: "Yes, I'm boy crazy."