There are advantages to being 6'7". After Connecticut won the East Regional final last March on the way to winning the NCAA women's championship in April, Kara Wolters didn't have to climb the ladder that her teammates used to cut strands from the net. She could reach the net standing on her tiptoes. And when UConn played the U.S. national team in Storrs on Nov. 5, Wolters barely had to jump to make the most memorable play of the day. Early in the second half, national team forward Rebecca Lobo—who before the game had joined her former Husky teammates in receiving their championship rings—took a shot from the left wing. In one deft motion Wolters cleanly blocked it, stole the ball and reminded Lobo what it's like to shoot against someone who's 6'7".
"Thanks for the homecoming present," Lobo said soon after as she and Wolters lined up to battle for the rebound on a free throw.
"Hey, it's the only good thing I've done all day," Wolters replied. "Don't take that away from me."
"Yeah," Lobo said, "but did you have to do it against me?"
Wolters had blocked the 6'4" Lobo before, only not in a game and not, as Lobo glumly pointed out, in front of a national television audience. The two first faced off in an AAU scrimmage when Lobo was a junior in high school and Wolters was a ninth-grader. (They played in the same Massachusetts program but on different teams.) Says Lobo, "I just remember she was so big and hard to guard." Four years later, that was a recurring theme as Wolters, then a freshman at UConn, battled the junior Lobo in practice and backed her up in games. Last season, with both Lobo and Wolters starting, UConn went 35-0 and beat opponents by an NCAA-record 33.2 points a game. "What made Rebecca into a two-time All-America was having Kara guarding her for two years," says Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "What made Kara able to run the floor was the fact that she had to chase Rebecca up and down the court." Says Chris Dailey, UConn's associate head coach, "I don't think either one would be where she is now without the other."
Besides her fervent belief that Elvis is alive, Wolters is perhaps best known among her friends for her love of health and beauty products. "She's always telling us, 'Makeup is your friend! You don't have to be afraid of hair spray!' " Lobo says. Thus it couldn't be more appropriate that Wolters, now a junior, has undergone one of the most dramatic makeovers in women's basketball.
The "after" picture shows one of the best players in college today. A third-team All-America last season, Wolters was the top vote-getter in preseason balloting to determine candidates for the Naismith Award, given to the college player of the year. Deemed the leading candidate to become the one collegian invited to play on the U.S. women's Olympic team next summer, Wolters is such a model of low-post fundamentals that Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster has his 6'7" center, Angela Gorsica, watch highlight films of Wolters. "Her footwork, her ability to move without the ball are just head and shoulders over anyone I've coached," Auriemma says.
To anyone who saw the "before" picture, the transformation is unbelievable. "Coming out of high school she had people telling her she didn't have the skills to play on the next level," says Stanford point guard Jamila Wideman, who played AAU basketball with Wolters from the time they were 13. "That's a lot of criticism to hear at that age."
What college coaches noticed most about Wolters during her years at Holliston (Mass.) High, a half hour from Boston, was not her height but her weight. Wolters would rather see her home phone number in print than have the reading from her scale known, but suffice it to say the needle used to sit closer to 300 pounds than 200. "When I first saw Kara, as a junior in high school, my reaction was not unlike everyone else's," Auriemma says. "I thought she was too big, too heavy, too slow. But I also saw the great hands and the great footwork, I watched her go to the foul line, and I saw the stroke she has and the touch around the basket. I closed my eyes and said, O.K., what if she loses the weight? What if we get her into great shape?"
Wolters showed up at UConn before her freshman season having done most of the work herself. During her senior year in high school, around the same time she decided she wanted to play for UConn, Wolters changed her eating habits, making chicken and salad the staples of her diet. She worked out religiously on an exercise bike and played lots of basketball. Eventually she lost 60 pounds.