Local drivers tend to rubberneck when passing the Powell Home Center in West Lebanon (pop. 760), Ind. Next to the parking lot is a pixel board that flashes not only the time and temperature and specials on plants and hardware, but also the latest stats for the town's most famous resident, Purdue senior guard Stephanie White-McCarty.
Bulletins like SCISSORS 99�...WHAT A DEAL...WILD BIRD SEED $2.99... PURDUE 83 NORTHERN ILLINOIS 55...STEF'S STATS...20 PTS 9 RBS 2 ASTS...59�/ 2:54 P.M.—which have been a staple for the last three-plus years—remind the residents of West Lebanon and the rest of Warren County of the Y2K problem they share with Purdue. While the thousand or so folks who have spent many Fridays and Sundays donning gold-and-black garb and piling into cars for the 45-minute drive north to the Boilermakers' Mackey Arena wonder what they'll do with themselves next winter, Purdue worries about maintaining its women's basketball attendance, which averaged 8,592 in the Boilermakers' first seven home games this season, nearly double what it was before White-McCarty arrived in 1995. "There's no question that a lot of people—a lot—come to the games just to see Stephanie," says Purdue sports information director Tom Schott, "and they're not just from Warren County."
White fever was a statewide phenomenon long before she married high school sweetheart Brent McCarty last May; long before she became the Boilermakers' leading scorer (20.9 points per game this season, through Sunday) and three-point shooter (50%) and their second-best rebounder (6.1) and playmaker (4.1 assists); long before her 24 points led Purdue past top-ranked and allegedly invincible Tennessee 78-68 and ended the Lady Vols' 46-game winning streak on Nov. 15. What White-McCarty has done for Purdue, which at week's end was 13-1 and ranked third in the country, pales next to what she did for a certain segment of Indiana's population while playing for Seeger Memorial High. "It would take me an hour to tell you what Stephanie White has meant to me," says Boilermakers freshman Kelly Komara, who was Miss Indiana Basketball of 1998. "She was the first female hero in Indiana. She was the first to get national recognition. She paved the way for the rest of us."
White-McCarty's high school career is documented in several books, including the second edition of Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana, by Phillip M. Hoose. On the cover is a drawing of Indiana basketball's Mount Rushmore as envisioned by Hoose: The figures carved in stone are Larry Bird, Bob Knight, Oscar Robertson and Stephanie White. Among those who didn't make the cut: Steve Alford, Damon Bailey, Rick Mount and John Wooden.
"I don't think we have a copy of that book around," says White-McCarty, sprawled on her sofa, as she lazily pokes her foot through a pile of papers, magazines and folders on a coffee table in the off-campus apartment she shares with Brent. In fact, there's nothing in the place to suggest that a basketball hero or even a Purdue student lives there. Coasters and a blanket bearing the logo of nearby Wabash College, where McCarty studies economics and played defensive back for the Division III Little Giants, are the only rah-rah stuff in evidence.
There are probably some well-worn Wabash playing cards around, too. White-McCarty and her husband are addicted to euchre. White-McCarty likes the game so much she makes playing it part of her pregame ritual. Her postgame ritual includes signing autographs, sometimes for hours. "I want to sign for everyone," says White-McCarty. "To be able to say that I had an impact or made someone smile, that really means a lot."
Case in point: When White married McCarty in Lafayette, 800 people attended the wedding. That, she says, was a pared-down invite list. "We probably still offended people," says her mother, Jennie, a grammar school teacher and high school softball and volleyball coach. "If Stephanie had had her way, she would have just taken an ad out in the paper and invited anyone who wanted to come. That's basically what she did when she graduated from high school, and 500 people showed up for the party. So many people have supported her, and she wants them all to know she appreciates it."
Still, it's a relief to get away from all that support once in a while, which is one reason White-McCarty will occasionally take to the air. She chose Purdue over Stanford and Vanderbilt, in part, because of its aviation program, which she was in long enough to get her private pilot's license before switching majors to communications. She hasn't flown in about a year, and she misses the solitude. "That's the one place I found real peace," she says. "I didn't really learn anything about myself, I didn't have any scares, thank goodness, it was just the one place where I felt I could get away from ball, get away from school, get away from everything."
As Indiana high school basketball legends go, Damon Bailey may have been bigger, but White-McCarty was a pioneer. Before she scored 66 points in one game, grabbed 30 rebounds in another and passed for 17 assists in a third for the Lady Patriots of Seeger Memorial, few folks in Indiana were paying attention to her sport. "When people who had never seen a girls' game saw Steph play, they decided they liked girls' basketball," says her high school coach, Tom Polf, "and they came back for more."
White-McCarty grew up with two younger sisters in the same house in which their father, Kevin, who works in the receiving department of Quaker Oats, had been raised. Like a lot of kids in town, she played soccer, baseball, softball and basketball, rode dirt bikes and played euchre. But unlike most of her peers, when she attended basketball games, she paid rapt attention or worked on her ball-handling skills on the sideline. "In fourth grade she was dribbling better than a lot of our varsity guys," says Polf. By practicing constantly on her backyard court, with both Jennie and Kevin rebounding for her, Stephanie also became a deadly shooter. At 10 she led her under-16 AAU tournament team in scoring.