"I'll never forget the night of my senior prom," she says. "My date and two friends came to pick me up, and soon we were moving furniture in the living room, and my dad was saying to my ma, 'C'm'ere, hon, set a pick.' I finally said, 'Dad? No. I am not going to pick-and-roll in my prom dress.' "
Mike Tighe's detailed memory of basketball games amazed Sheila. So in 1987, the year she moved to L.A., she noticed immediately when her father began to act absent-mindedly. The doctor's diagnosis was Alzheimer's. It would be 10 wrenching years before the disease killed Mike, at age 75, last June 25. "That absolutely had an effect on me," Sheila says. "If you interview 100 doctors, 50 will tell you Alzheimer's is hereditary. So I decided if there's something I want to do, somewhere I want to go, I do it. Now. I'm not going to wait or have regrets." After a pause she adds, "At the start of this whole thing, I thought it was just about basketball. But it became so much more."
Last summer, when the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks launched their first season, Tighe was just a standout in her Saturday-afternoon recreation league. A few of her pickup-game friends said, "You should be playing pro," and Tighe replied, "Yeah, right"—until she attended a Sparks game, and something stirred in her. Soon she was having heart-to-heart chats with her sister Lynn, a fine point guard for Villanova from 1984 to '88 and now director of basketball operations for the ABL's Philadelphia Rage. One day Sheila was on the phone with a rec league acquaintance named Ann Donohue, a 43-year-old TV writer and the producer of series such as Picket Fences, Murder One and China Beach. Donohue kept asking Tighe, Why not come back?
As Tighe recalls, "I said, 'Ann, you don't understand. I haven't played in 14 years. I'd have to quit my job to train full time.' And Ann just said, 'Yeah, so?' Then she said, 'How much would you need—$10,000 a month, $15,000 a month?' And I nearly choked."
Donohue, laughing hard, says, "What did I know about what it would cost? I've lived in Hollywood a long time. I was like, 'You don't have a gardener, a landscapes a masseuse?' " Still, Donohue agreed to sponsor Tighe, paying her living and training expenses.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Lynn Tighe's boss, Cathy Andruzzi, then the Rage's general manager, offered Sheila a place to train. (In 1980, when Andruzzi was the coach at East Carolina, she had recruited Sheila and been turned down.) So last December Tighe moved back East and began rising each day at 5 a.m. for 2½ hours of weightlifting, aerobic work and basketball drills with Andruzzi. Tighe would then practice with the Rage for two hours, grab a quick lunch, put in an hour or two of shooting practice by herself, have an early dinner, then play two hours of pickup games, usually against men. "I'd fall asleep by 9:30 p.m.," she says. "The next morning I'd call Cathy at five and say, 'You up yet, Sunshine?' and do it all over again."
In five months of training, Tighe took just three days off. When asked by her mother on a mid-April trip home if she'd been to confession recently, Tighe rolled her eyes and cracked, "Ma, I wish I had time to sin."
Thanks to a call by Andruzzi, Tighe landed one of the 66 spots at the ABL's April 22-26 predraft combine at the University of San Francisco—no small feat considering that 350 players had been considered for a precious invitation. In the two-a-day workouts, the competition was fierce. Players flung themselves into every drill, every scrimmage, every suicide sprint with their teeth bared. The tension was thick.
One coach estimated that the ABL's nine teams eventually might keep only a dozen players from the combine. (In the end 26 were drafted.) The long odds were what drove 5'6", 131-pound point guard Laurie Byrd, 38, who played sparingly last season for the San Jose Lasers, to disdain stitches and slap a butterfly bandage on a nasty slice over her right eye so she wouldn't miss a minute; they were what sent former Stanford guard Christy Hedgepeth bounding up the steps outside the gym two at a time for a quick visit to the dentist after two of her front teeth were nearly knocked out during the first evening session. Hedgepeth was back playing the next morning.
When May 5—draft day—arrived, the New England Blizzard selected Byrd, but no organization chose Tighe or Hedgepeth. For Tighe, the combine confirmed that she was in great shape. What hit her hard were the things she couldn't simulate in training: defenders flying out to challenge her shot, the physical pounding, the games all run at full speed. She played solidly, but, she admitted after the session, "I didn't stand out."