Mildred Edwards resigned herself to the fact that her only daughter, Teresa, would never be the kind of little girl to dress in ruffles and ribbons. From an early age Teresa liked to hang out with the boys in her Cairo, Ga., neighborhood, playing softball and tackle football on the street in back of her house, romping through made-up track and field meets at a nearby park and shooting baskets through an old bicycle rim nailed to a pine tree in the front yard.
Most evenings Mildred would yell for Teresa from the front steps, calling her home from the park, where she also played pickup basketball games. Despite all the hours of practice, even in rain and cold weather, Mildred never thought Teresa would be good enough to play organized basketball. When Teresa asked for permission to try out for the Washington Middle School seventh-grade team, Mildred said, "Bring yourself home, girl." But her daughter wouldn't listen.
"She kept coming home late from school and laying it off on some teacher: 'I'm helping Miss So-and-so,' " Mildred recalls. "Then one day she said, 'I need a new pair of sneakers because I made the team.' I said, 'Girl, you can't play basketball.' And Teresa said, 'Mama, I made the team.' "
Now 28, Teresa is one of the best female basketball players in the world, a performer often referred to as "the Michael Jordan of women's basketball." A 5'11", 155-pound guard, Edwards played on the U.S. Olympic gold-medal-winning teams in 1984 and '88, and in Barcelona she will become the first American basketball player, man or woman, to play in three Olympics. In Seoul she was the U.S.'s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game, and she led in field goal percentage (61.1), assists (3.4) and steals (4.6). She also was a member of the gold-medal-winning 1986 and '90 world championship and Goodwill Games teams. Last summer she averaged a team-high 18 points per game for the U.S. team that was upset by Cuba 86-81 in the Pan American Games and finished with a bronze.
"I've never been surrounded by this much talent, experience and maturity," says Edwards of the 1992 Olympic team. "Since our loss in the Pan Ams, we couldn't wait to get back together to prove we're the best."
Following a sparkling career at the University of Georgia, where she was named a consensus All-America in 1985 and '86 as a junior and a senior, Edwards turned professional, first playing in Italy for two seasons at a salary of $50,000 per year and then, for the past three seasons, in Nagoya, Japan, starring for a team sponsored by Mitsubishi. Edwards makes $200,000 a year in Japan. Because she spends six hours each day in the gym, she has never found the time to learn either Italian or Japanese, and consequently she has had to battle through loneliness, isolation and culture shock.
"Playing overseas has made me mentally tough," she says. "But, my god, if it hadn't been for the professional leagues, my best years as a player would have been wasted. I got so much better after college. I'm at my prime."
When it comes to material things, Edwards prefers to spend her money on her family rather than herself. She drives around Atlanta in the off-season in a 1988 red and black Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 and dresses, in her words, "like a bum," in athletic attire that has been given to her.
Says Theresa Grentz, the coach of the '92 U.S. team: "Someone of her stature, who is as good as she is, you'd expect to be more involved with herself. Teresa's down-to-earth. She can't be bought. Values are important to her. Her humility and her simplicity of life make her very special to be around."
Edwards learned the value of a loving family and a strong work ethic from her mother. At 16 and halfway through her sophomore year in high school, Mildred became pregnant with Teresa and was forced to drop out and go to work in the vegetable fields around Cairo, which is 240 miles south of Atlanta.