If you happened to be pool-side at La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., a couple of weeks ago, perhaps you noticed the 36-year-old woman wearing the god-awful black toenail polish—black because, she joked, she'd just been to war. Or perhaps you glimpsed the bruises exploding like tiny fireworks on her arms, or the angry red scratches around them. Perhaps you gasped at the half-dollar-sized blisters on the bottoms of her feet, or the parchment-colored dead skin that was peeling off because of the countless miles she'd recently run. As she lay there on her chaise longue for four days, reading a mystery novel and not wanting to move, those marks were the only clues to who she once was. Or to what she'd just been through.
"And I gotta tell you," Sheila Tighe says, lapsing into her best Staten Islandese, "when I started this five months ago, I was saying the same prayer every friggin' night: 'Please, God, just let me make it through.' "
You see, once upon a time Sheila Tighe was one of the best players in college basketball, a fiery 5'9" guard who scored 21.3 points per game at Manhattan College in New York City, a two-time All-America who earned an invitation to the '84 U.S. Olympic Trials and was a Wade Trophy finalist in 1983 and '84. Before college, at St. Peter's High, Tighe was a teenage basketball phenom whose face daily adorned a front-page corner of the Staten Island Advance with only the word SHEILA underneath, no last name necessary.
Tighe (pronounced TIE) was the most recruited player in the New York City area since Nancy Lieberman four years before. She received mail from 125 schools. But she stunned everybody by choosing nearby Manhattan, a tiny Catholic school where her family could see her play. Back on Staten Island, her fans shrieked, "What was she thinking?" They asked the same question in 1984 when Tighe, partly because she was despondent over her boyfriend's sudden death from an aneurysm, quit basketball cold turkey, even as offers from the European pro leagues rolled in.
The question What was she thinking? came up again last December when, after a 14-year hiatus from topflight basketball, Tighe closed up her Los Angeles apartment, put her successful career as a production manager for TV commercials on hold, moved into a one-room, $550-a-month efficiency in Philadelphia and embarked on a five-month odyssey to win a job on a team in the WNBA or the ABL.
"I'm not going to say someone doesn't have any chance at all if she hasn't been competing [at a high level] either here or overseas," Lin Dunn, head coach of the ABL's Portland Power, said at one of Tighe's tryouts. "But let's just say a player's chances of walking in here from nowhere and getting drafted are slim and none."
Tighe knew that. Yet she was undaunted. When she started training, she had no guarantee she'd land the three tryouts that she did. "I don't know if I came back because I just never played enough, or because of the way I quit," she said before the tryouts began. "Sometimes I think I was just born too soon."
To really understand Tighe's thinking, however, you have to go back to the Rock, Staten Islanders' nickname for their borough. Because more than anything, Sheila Tighe is Iron Mike Tighe's kid.
Though Mike and Mary Tighe had 12 children—eight girls and four boys—sports bound Mike to Sheila, his ninth child, more than to any of the others. Sheila was just like him: square-jawed and extroverted, willful and demanding and proud, with the same brown eyes that hardened in the heat of a game, then softened at the slightest wisecrack later.
As a child, she heard all the stories about how her dad had been the best high school playmaker in New York City, how he'd starred for Georgetown, then lasted until the final cut with the 1946-47 New York Knicks. On nights that Sheila had games, her father would pace the living-room floor until she got home, then they'd rehash every detail, often butting heads. She remembers that a boyfriend of hers would drop by and, before long, he and her dad might be reenacting some basketball play.