While at home in Russia last summer preparing for the Olympics, Connecticut senior forward Svetlana Abrosimova finally tired of the pixie haircut she'd worn for 10 years and started to grow out her brunette locks. Word of the new 'do hit southern New England like a bomb. You would have thought Santa had gone Pritikin, or Charlie Brown had changed his shirt. As the Russian team played in Sydney, Connecticut women's basketball fans—the folks who put the nut in the Nutmeg State—bombarded Abrosimova with about 50 e-mails a day. Half the messages concerned her hair; half of those begged her to revert to the pixie look. Adding to the firestorm, The Hartford Courant ran a story headlined HAIR PEACE, and Channel 30 in Hartford began one sportscast with this teaser: " Svetlana Abrosimova will be returning from the Olympics soon: Will she cut her hair?"
"I don't know why it was such a big deal," says a resolutely barretted Abrosimova, 20. "Swin [Cash] changes her hair every week, and nobody says a word."
True, but Cash, a junior forward, isn't yet a UConn icon. She's not a two-time All-America whose vast talents have inspired fans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words SVET SHIRT and wave signs that read NO SVET and SVET SHOP. Cash didn't travel nearly 8,000 miles to Storrs at age 17, and she hasn't had to overcome language and cultural barriers to excel in the classroom. Nor has Cash regularly incited the ire of Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, whose courtside rants at Abrosimova seem to bring out the protective instincts in the parents and grandparents among Connecticut supporters. "The fans realize that Svet doesn't have any family here, so they've sort of adopted her," says UConn assistant Jamelle Elliott. "They treat her like their own."
Who wouldn't want to claim kinship with a player who has what Abrosimova has: looks, smarts, grace, talent, personality, drive and, as Elliott puts it, "a knack for getting the ball over the rim"? An agile perimeter player, the 6'2" Abrosimova averaged 13.4 points and 6.2 rebounds last season and is the best of many reasons to pencil in Connecticut for its second consecutive NCAA title. "It's not always easy to be a great player on a great team, but Svet has learned to be that," says Seton Hall coach Phyllis Mangina. "She's quick enough to guard guards, big enough to guard forwards. She can pass, she can steal, she can shoot from anywhere. She gives you all kinds of matchup problems offensively and defensively. She drives you crazy."
Abrosimova had never heard of basketball when, as a towering seven-year-old, she was picked out of her first-grade class in St. Petersburg and invited to attend a nearby basketball school. She was happy to go, mosdy because the school would have other tall girls. "My first year, I was so bad," she says. "I was kind of chubby, I wasn't fast, and I couldn't jump or dribble."
But she was determined. When she was nine, her coaches lined up the 30 kids who had been going to the school for two years and announced which of them would go on to the next level. After calling the names of 18 girls, one coach looked at Svetlana and said, "And I guess we'll try what's-her-name." Says Abrosimova: "That was the turning point in my life. I didn't want to be the person who is picked last, the worst on the team. I wanted people to know my name."
Neither Svetlana's mother, Ludmila, a physical therapist, nor her father, Oleg, a submarine mechanic, knew anything about basketball. When Svetlana was 10, Ludmila checked out what she could find at the library—a translated collection of the life stories of 1960s and '70s NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy that Svetlana would pore over late at night—and put up a hoop in the hallway of their high-ceilinged apartment building. As mirrors cracked and wall phones broke, Ludmila played defense while Svetlana practiced dribbling, shooting and passing.
By the time she was 14, Abrosimova was a rising star. She made Russia's 1994 European Cup team; two years later she would be the MVP of the European Championships for players 18 and under. In 1997, Boris Lelchitski, an international scout based in Columbia, S.C., sent a tape of the 15-year-old Svetlana to his friend Auriemma. Based on Lelchitski's word and that grainy video, Connecticut started recruiting her when she was 16. The first time Auriemma spoke on the phone with Svetlana, who had taken a few years of high school English, he felt a connection.
"As I'm talking to her, I can picture this kid sitting over there, trying to say the right thing, struggling not to sound stupid," says Auriemma, an Italian who emigrated to the U.S. when he was seven. "It really brought me back to when I was a kid. As I listened to her, I got this sense that this was going to work out."
Auriemma sent Svetlana a letter of intent before he or anyone on his staff had seen her play in person. Eager to play basketball and study in the U.S., she hired a tutor to help her improve her English enough to get a qualifying score on the SAT. When she told her Russian coaches of her plans, they vowed to have her banished from national teams and warned her that she was giving up the potential of a hefty Russian professional paycheck—the equivalent of $5,000 a month, they said, more than 10 times what Oleg made at the shipyard—to sit on the bench in America for no money. Undaunted, Svetlana flew west in August 1997 with two small bags and enough money to buy airfare home if the U.S. proved to be the wrong choice.