Eight weeks ago fans at Salt Lake City's Delta Center thought they had witnessed 7'2" Utah Starzz newcomer Malgorzata (Margo) Dydek's first attempt to slam her way into history. Playing against the Houston Comets, Dydek caught the ball in the low post and rolled toward the basket. As her long arms telescoped up, up, up toward the rim, the first dunk in WNBA history seemed imminent—until she released her shot a few inches from the hoop and the ball glanced off the back iron and fell away. Asked about it a few days later, Dydek said, "I don't try to dunk yet in a game."
A soft-hearted girl nicknamed Ppych—the Polish word for a sweet, whipped-cream-covered cake—the 24-year-old Dydek grew up near Warsaw and played professionally in Europe, but when she came to the WNBA's predraft camp in April, only one coach, Washington's Jim Lewis, had seen film of her. Two days later several coaches said that she could become the greatest player the women's game has seen, and not only because she's 7'2".
With an 85-inch wingspan to go with that height, Dydek doesn't call a layup a layup—she says, "I lay the ball down." During pregame warmups she often takes two steps and flips in a one-handed dunk as easily as the Starzz' locker room attendant throws socks into a hamper. Yet except for one dunk while playing for Madrid last season, she has refused to throw one down in a game. She doesn't care that a dunk would bring her national attention, or that Utah teammate Chantel Tremitiere has offered a $1,000 bounty for a slam. "Some people want sensation," Dydek explains, "but I don't like the newspapers or the interviews or the cameras." Besides, she says with a shy smile, "I saw a video of my dunk, and I don't like it. So I prefer to leave that to Jordan."
Before joining Utah, Dydek played six pro seasons in Europe—two in Poland, then two in France and two in Spain. But the WNBA didn't learn about Dydek until she arrived at the predraft camp last spring. She was listed as 6'6", a clerical error that was quickly exposed when she walked into the dining hall the night before play began. "Let's just say that nearly all the coaches were suddenly flipping through their rosters with great, great urgency," says Cleveland Rockers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald. The Starzz, the league's worst team last year, made her the first pick in the draft.
Dydek is half a foot taller than 6'8" Los Angeles Sparks center Haixia Zheng, the WNBA's tallest player last season, but unlike the 254-pound Zheng, Dydek is not moored to the floor. She's athletic, runs the court well, isn't afraid to dribble and passes with either hand. She can palm a basketball easily and has a pillowy soft jump shot. She has a solid post-up game—spin moves left or right, a baby hook, a nifty reverse layup and an up-and-under move that regularly sends overzealous defenders flying by, their stricken faces betraying surprise at getting juked by a woman who can almost touch the rim while on her tiptoes.
When told that in a recent game Dydek had spun for a turnaround jump shot and actually hung in the air, her legs pulled up like an airplane's landing gear, Lewis laughed and said, "I know, I know. Who's to say she won't change the game globally? Right now she makes moves that guys her size can't make." Utah didn't qualify for the playoffs, but, through Saturday, with one game left in the season Dydek had averaged 12.9 points and ranked in the league's top 10 in four categories: blocked shots (first, with 3.86 per game), rebounds (third, 7.7 per game), double doubles (third, with eight) and field goal percentage (sixth, .483). But Dydek's tendency to have a dominating game followed by two or three nondescript performances probably cost her support among voters for the Newcomer of the Year award.
Coaches are clearly awed by Dydek, but Large Marge—as one Utah teammate dubbed her—remains unimpressed with herself. Off the court she is timid, gentle. She has an engaging smile and blushes like a schoolgirl whenever her 28-year-old sister, Kashka, a 6'7" center who played one year in the American Basketball League and now studies at Salt Lake Community College, tells stories about her. "She cheats at cards," Kashka says. And? "She likes to make Magic Johnson no-look passes. She loves Magic Johnson. She'd marry him if she could."
"Kashka!" Margo gasps.
Kashka presses on: "Did you know when Jay Leno had Margo on TV, he said she was very sexy?"
"He doesn't say I'm sexy!" Margo says.