Abrosimova didn't buy that return ticket, though life in Storrs was a challenge. She breezed through math, but she would have to stay up until 3 a.m. translating her sociology, psychology and English assignments into Russian so she could understand them. One page of text might take her an hour to read; a five-page essay would take 10 days to write. But Abrosimova did well, with a 2.8 average her first semester. A business major, she has been a solid B student since.
On the court, she faced different obstacles. Though she was easily the most aerobically fit among the Huskies, she was also the weakest. Having never lifted a barbell in her life, she dreaded both the weight room and the paint. On her first venture into the key in practice, she tried to post up forward Stacy Hans-meyer and landed in a heap on the floor. Because she had rarely played anything but zone, her defense needed work, too. But Abrosimova could shoot, she could pass, and she gobbled up offensive rebounds. "Her skill level was much higher than that of most 17-year-olds," says Auriemma. "I remember saying to someone, 'By the time she gets out of here, she may be one of the best we've ever had.' You get kids who are talented, but she had talent and this burning desire to be the best."
During her freshman year, Abrosimova led Connecticut in rebounds (6.4 per game) and was second in scoring (14.5, behind Big East Player of the Year Nykesha Sales), setting UConn freshman records in both categories. Her second year was equally dazzling: Abrosimova was named All-America and Big East Player of the Year and became the first Huskies sophomore to reach 1,000 points. But she also led Connecticut with 132 turnovers and, for the second year in a row, had more turnovers than assists, a downside that didn't sit well with Auriemma. "The single most frustrating thing with Svet was her insistence that she could make any pass under any circumstances," he says. "Whenever there was a turnover, it was always someone else's fault. The more I got mad about it, the more stubborn she got. It was a constant struggle."
When Abrosimova threw the ball away one time too many in a 1999 preseason game against a Russian pro team, Auriemma benched her for the last 15 minutes of the first half. Miffed, Abrosimova didn't speak to him for a week. Later in the season, when she refused to do a drill his way, Auriemma kicked her out of practice. "It was like a soap opera at times," says junior forward Tamika Williams. "She wouldn't listen to him. She'd make the wrong passes. She'd shoot when she wasn't supposed to. She wouldn't talk. She's incredibly stubborn, and so is he. People have no idea what we went through in practice."
All that Huskies fans saw was Auriemma screaming at their adopted daughter. The basketball office was flooded by letters and e-mails demanding that he stop. Auriemma's mother, Marsiella, who has a life-sized poster of Abrosimova on the back of her front door in Norristown, Pa., joined the chorus. "You need to stop yelling at her," she admonished her son. "Her parents are trusting you to look after her."
Last year, during her second All-America season, Abrosimova turned her assists-to-turnovers stat around, going from 3.7-to-3.9 in 1998-99 to 4.2-to-2.8. Even if the trend continues this season, don't expect silence from Auriemma on the sideline. "She likes me pushing her," he says. "Fact is, there are few players I've had a better relationship with in my 15 years at Connecticut. With all the best players I've had, there has been a lot of give and take. Nothing is more important than being hard on your best player. I don't think there's any better way to let your team know what your philosophy of coaching is."
Now that Abrosimova has returned from the Olympics, where she averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds as a reserve for sixth-place Russia, it's clear that his philosophy has finally sunk in. "I can't say that I'm a totally different player than I was when I got here," says Abrosimova, "but my decision-making is totally different. My freshman year I was only worried about scoring and making great plays. That's how I thought I'd get noticed." Then she adds, sounding like you-know-who, "Now it's about winning the game, doing your part. You don't have to play great to win the game, you just have to do the little things: Play defense, be in the right spot, make the right pass."
When Bob Sudyk wrote a story in the March 1999 issue of Northeast Magazine reporting that Oleg and Ludmila, who had never been to one of Svetlana's college games, were scrimping to save enough money out of their monthly salary (about $300) to fly to Storrs for Senior Night in February 2001, Connecticut fans responded in predictable fashion. Some of them offered to set up a fund to buy the elder Abrosimovas' airfare to America. "That was really nice of them," says Svetlana, "but they can't do anything, because of NCAA regulations. So I've been saving my meal money from here [about $40 a day for away games] and from the national team so they can buy plane tickets. They've never been out of Russia. I can't imagine what's going to happen to them, how they are going to fly over here. They are going to be just like me four years ago. Everything is going to be brand-new."
Even the one thing that will be familiar, their daughter, will have a new look by February—unless she bows to pressure from certain UConn fans. On the court and off, Oleg and Ludmila will hardly recognize what's-her-name.