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Maine Stay
Alexander Wolff
March 09, 1998
By deciding to play at home, soft-spoken Cindy Blodgett has used her deadly shot—she has a 25.4-point career average—to fire up a team and a state
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March 09, 1998

Maine Stay

By deciding to play at home, soft-spoken Cindy Blodgett has used her deadly shot—she has a 25.4-point career average—to fire up a team and a state

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Folks in Maine speak often of Cindy, by whom they mean no one but Blodgett. For four years she has played basketball for the University of Maine in Orono, but for longer than that, people from Kittery to Caribou believe she has played for them, too. Review the record of the Blodgett legend—from the whispers that a featherweight third-grader in the Kennebec Valley was lighting up 14-year-olds for double figures, to accounts of the freshman who led Lawrence High of Fairfield to the first of four consecutive state titles, to the two biographies in print by the time she was a college freshman—and the eyes, like so much of Maine during this terrible winter, glaze over.

The day in February 1994 that she became the leading high school scorer, boy or girl, in Maine history, had to be the 14th. (That's her uniform number. Also Valentine's Day.) Since her arrival in Orono, where she's now a 5'9" senior point guard, the women's team has out-drawn the men's. The Black Bears have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Sporting-goods stores across the state stock her jersey. A girls' rec league bears her name. Retirees who once lit out for Florida each winter don't snowbird anymore, lest they miss a basket by the woman who won NCAA scoring titles as a sophomore and a junior and this season stands third, at 27.1 points per game.

Going back to the time she began playing Police Athletic League ball in the second grade, Blodgett had not missed a game until Jan. 8 of this year, when an inflammation of tissue in her left heel, plantar fasciitis, kept her out of the Black Bears' 72-52 win at Towson. That day and night a hard freezing rain fell over Maine. Roads and trees and power lines iced over, paralyzing the state and plunging half its population into the cold and dark. For six, seven, eight days and more, Blodgett sat. Birches bowed. Nearly half a million people went without power. On Jan. 19 she was practicing again, and by Jan. 22, when she returned to the lineup and scored 23 points in a 69-64 loss to Drexel, all but a few thousand households had their electricity back. Heaven's inner dome had fallen and been raised again. "Everyone blames El Ni�o," says Bruce Cooper, Blodgett's high school coach. "I blame plantar whatever-it-is."

Or blame Maine alumnus and Bangor resident Stephen King, from whose mind both the storm and the entire Blodgett saga might have sprung. King could be seen in his skybox at Alfond Arena in Orono on Jan. 29 taking notes as Blodgett scored 32 points during the Black Bears' 76-64 upset of then No. 15 Western Kentucky. What words might he have been jotting down? Talisman, perhaps. Maybe firestarter. Or just it.

Blodgett's limbs jangle randomly, her toes pigeon inward, her knees (barely visible below the hem of her uniform shorts) all but knock. She has a gym rat's pallor and a 137-pound frame so slight it seems at risk of breaking in two. The ball sometimes knuckles its way to the hoop, yet no coach would dare take her floor-model jumper any way other than as is. Even basketball neophytes can see in her style and smile a radiant passion for what she's doing. In a state of hard work and low wages, women's basketball is a felicitous fit. In recognizing how Blodgett toiled to make herself a player—and showering her with the bonus of their approbation—Mainers are also, in a sense, recognizing themselves.

" Maine people have never fallen for the superficial," says Black Bears coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie. "Cindy has the honesty and integrity people here respect. A lot of kids play the game for scholarship opportunities, for a shot at the pros—for reasons other than sheer love of the sport. But Cindy has never played to get things from the game. Only for the game."

Having grown up in thrall of Larry Bird, Cindy, then 15, wore Celtics boxer shorts under her bridesmaid's dress at her sister Jill's wedding. She cites Bird's autobiography, Drive, as her basic text. (She may well play for his old coach, the New England Blizzard's K.C. Jones, in the ABL next season.) But she suggests Bobby Hurley, the elfin point guard on Duke's national champion teams of 1991 and '92, when she's running the floor. She turns two, sometimes three balls a year threadbare from pounding them on her driveway. "Shoes?" says her father, Thayer. "I don't even want to get into that." In Playing Like a Girl, one of the two lives of Blodgett in print, the author—King's wife, Tabitha—describes a road-trip pit stop during Cindy's senior season in high school, when she emerged from a bathroom stall dribbling a basketball.

In 1991, only days after winning the first of her state titles at Lawrence High, she tried to dunk, vaulting off the back of a friend crouched helpfully in the lane. She fell and broke both wrists. A photo in the Blodgett family album shows Cindy lying in bed, with rigging keeping her wrists slung high. She looks like a puppy, begging. It's a posture she assumed metaphorically whenever she couldn't play. Cooper tells of fielding complaints from custodians who repeatedly tried to kick her out of the high school gym after it was supposedly locked up for the night. (He prevailed upon them to let her be.)

Thayer Blodgett was a pipe fitter at a paper mill in Winslow until late January, when Kimberly-Clark Corp. shut the place down. Cindy's mother, Evelyn, boxes shirts at the C.F. Hathaway & Co. plant in Waterville. "My mom and dad work eight to 10 hours a day," Cindy says. "Then my dad's building a fire in the woodstove, and my mom's fixing supper. Even after a long day at work, the work day isn't over. So if I'm tired, I'm not so quick to complain."

Much is made about Title IX daughters redeeming their opportunity-deprived moms, but that template doesn't fit the Blodgett household. Thayer loved basketball growing up. Had quite a knack for it, too. But he was the youngest of seven kids on a farm, and his father brooked no hoop foolishness when chores needed to be done.

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