In certain hallowed women's basketball offices, Alana Beard is a sore subject. "Do we have to bring this up again?" says Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey, a tad defensively. At the sport's other magnetic pole, in Knoxville, Dailey's counterpart at Tennessee, Mickie DeMoss, confesses that coach Pat Summitt "glares at me every time that name comes up."
How different things might have been had either of these elite programs recruited Beard out of Southwood High in Shreveport, La., three years ago. But because Beard and Duke found each other instead, the basketball topography has shifted, and the 5'11" junior guard has all but forgotten that Tennessee never responded to a tape her AAU coach sent and that UConn, relying on bad intelligence, never called. As Beard might say, that was so high school. What matters now is this: Beard is the preseason favorite to be player of the year, and the Blue Devils, for the first time, are the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Thanks in no small part to Beard, the Dukies figure to be in the thin mix of perennial favorites for a long time to come.
"Everyone who comes on campus says they want to play with Alana Beard," says Blue Devils coach Gail Goestenkors. "It's not because of her abilities, it's because of [the person] she is."
That's saying a lot, because Beard's abilities are rare. Last season, in which she played every position at one time or another, she averaged 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 steals and 4.4 assists, was named to several All-America teams and was the conference player of the year. No matter where Beard is on the floor—posting up, launching from beyond the arc, faking and twirling her way to the basket or smoothly passing out of the double teams and junk defenses she routinely faces—she has a whole Crayola box full of ways to create for herself and her teammates.
"She scores inside, outside, all kinds of ways, but her defense changes games," says Duke assistant coach Gale Valley. "If you know Alana Beard is going to be guarding you, you can't possibly sleep well the night before. It's not just the physical things—her long arms [Beard's wingspan is 76 inches], her quickness. It's how smart she is. She'll [pin] you on the sidelines, where you are in trouble. She won't let you reverse the ball. She'll make you dribble with your nondominant hand." And that's just in practice. In fact, her coaches make sure someone different goes against her every day in drills, otherwise it would be too exhausting, too demoralizing, "too much for the other player," says Goestenkors.
Despite such encomiums, Beard retains a certain childish innocence about her own achievements. "We had this very good high school player on campus for an unofficial visit this summer," recalls Goestenkors. "We're all sitting around having lunch, and Alana is sweating. I asked her why, and she said, 'I'm nervous because this player is really good. I really want her to come here.' Of course, that high school girl was in awe of her. But Alana doesn't get it. Thank goodness. I hope she never gets it."
Beard's unshakable humility is rooted in her upbringing in a tight-knit family back in Shreveport. She is the youngest of three children of Leroy, a truck driver, and Marie, a supervisor at a facility for the mentally handicapped (and a good high school player in her day). Alana (pronounced a-LAY-na) loved playing basketball on the dirt court with her parents and brother, Leroy Jr., now 22, and sister, Megan, 24, but she was too shy to try out for her school team in sixth grade. The next year she forced herself, and she made the second string. From then on no other organized sport could turn her head. Nor could music, hobbies or, usually, even friends. From middle school through her days at Southwood, Beard would go to class (she was an honor-roll student) and to practice, go home to do her homework and then don the jersey of her once-and-never-again idol, Reggie Miller. ("He whines too much," she says now.) She would go out back and shoot on the family's unlighted court until long after the sun had gone down, the darkness only sharpening her focus.
At Southwood, Beard's coach, Steve McDowell, preached defensive fundamentals, and she says he also taught her the textbook form she displays on her jumper. In Beard's four years the Lady Cowboys won four Class 5A state championships, the last of which Alana punctuated with a Class 5A state-record 48 points.
Colleges in her region—Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana Tech—all wanted Beard. But to Tennessee and UConn, which rely heavily on AAU tournaments and All-Star camps for their national scouting, Beard wasn't even a rumor until near the end of her junior year. The AAU traveling team she played for in the summer, the Shreveport Heat, didn't have a big budget and didn't play in a national tournament until after her junior season.
Early in high school Beard had longed to go to Tennessee. Sometime during the spring of '99 Heat coach John Rennie sent a videotape to Knoxville that showed Beard scoring 24 points against a team of All-Stars two years her senior. It was, alas, one of about 15 unsolicited tapes the Lady Vols receive every week. DeMoss, a Louisianian, says that Beard's tape, regrettably, was mislaid in the film room. (For her part, Connecticut's Dailey did see Beard play but had heard she didn't want to leave Louisiana. "My mistake was not to at least make a phone call," Dailey says.)