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You're 17 years old, and they follow you everywhere. Chattanooga, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C. Look at them. One hundred, 200, as many as 250 college basketball coaches and their assistants show up in each city and study your every move on the summer trail of AAU tournaments and all-star camps. They sit in bleachers like birds on telephone wires, whispering comments into one another's ears, making discreet entries on clipboards and imagining you wearing their uniforms. Tennessee. UConn. Stanford. Notre Dame. North Carolina. UCLA. They're all here, along with colleges you've never heard of. You're 17 years old, your senior year of high school hasn't even begun, and virtually every college in America would kill to have you.
There's no break at home. If anything, it's more intense there, because the coaches know your address and phone number, along with the names of your pets, the lipstick your big sister uses, the hobbies your little sister enjoys in the summer. Anything that might give them an edge when they call. Watch George Williams answer the phone in the kitchen of his tidy split-level on the west side of Dayton. "Tamika?" he calls, holding the receiver 12 inches from his ear and summoning his daughter in a tone that says, Of course it's some coach. Call-waiting was invented for this girl.
All George wants to do is eat his breakfast in peace. Is that too much for a retired General Motors factory worker to ask of the world? Sometimes he doesn't even get his food to the table before the first ring. If it isn't the phone, it's the doorbell, another coach's daily prayer delivered by UPS, Federal Express, the U.S. Postal Service. Every time a truck pulls up to the house, Pooter, the miniature schnauzer many of the coaches know by name, goes nuts. "I understand my daughter's an outstanding basketball player, and I was a jock myself, but this is ridiculous," George proclaims. He is proud, for sure, but hungry, too. "Can I have just one uninterrupted meal?"
George's problem, which isn't really a problem, is this: His daughter might be the best female high school basketball player in the country this season. Ten years ago that was good for a plaque with a crooked nameplate, a pat on the back from the assistant principal and the promise of four more years of anonymity at a college that didn't charge admission to women's games. There was a time when colleges lured female recruits on academics alone. But those were the Dark Ages.
Today colleges make pitches to girls based on their conference's television contracts. They stress the size of their sneaker sponsorship deals. They list graduates who have gone on to the Olympics, the WNBA or the ABL. As they recruited the high school class of '98, the coaches were already looking beyond those girls—way beyond them. "It's not like you know only who the top seniors are," says Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose teams have won five NCAA championships, including the last two, and whose current squad is 17-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. "Now you know who the best eighth-graders are."
"It's a war," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, and in war you use everything you've got. On July 1, when the NCAA allows coaches to make their first phone calls to girls who have completed their junior year in high school, coaches pull out all the stops. "It's got to be a hell of a phone call," Goestenkors says. "You have to have your sales pitch ready. I hate to call it a sales pitch, but that's what it is."
What this means is that the best schoolgirl athletes have nearly all the opportunities that their male counterparts have and experience the same pressures. Tamika Williams, a 6'1" forward, a Parade All-America as a junior and an honors student who has somehow not let any of this go to her head, has had coaches all but beg her to keep them on her list of possible college choices. She isn't alone. It used to be that only 10 or 20 schools recruited nationally, says Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, one of the game's most prominent coaches since his 1994-95 team went undefeated, won the national championship and helped turn one of its star players, Rebecca Lobo, into a wealthy poster girl for the WNBA, not to mention Reebok. "Now everybody is out there trying to build a championship team," Auriemma says. But there aren't enough good players to stock all the schools. "The drop-off in talent between the 20th-best player and the 50th is huge," he says. So the pressure to grab one of the elite players is enough to keep coaching staffs awake at night for months. Enough to keep George Williams, a warm and engaging man still recovering from the loss of his beloved Cleveland Browns, from getting a bite of food into his mouth.
Tamika's friend and sometime AAU teammate Krista Gingrich, a lights-out shooter from Lewistown, Pa., is chased into her dreams each night by the soft-soled patter of coaches in relentless pursuit. The 5'7" Gingrich, widely regarded as one of the top five point guards in the nation, took her bouncing ponytail and feathery shot on the summer circuit for two weeks last July. Two weeks and she returned home to find 167 pieces of mail. She shoveled it into one of the 10 overflowing boxes that together hold between 2,000 and 3,000 pieces. "That's just from the last year and a half," says Krista. "I started getting mail when I was in seventh grade."
But regular mail just doesn't convey the level of urgency the coaches feel. And how does a coach who uses regular mail look next to one who sends a more impressive overnight package? Here's how crazy it is: Dayton UPS deliveryman Ron Atwater made so many visits to the Williams house, he became a family friend. Now he and his buddies go to Tamika's games at Chaminade-Julienne High.
You're 17 years old, and they're all after you. At times it is exhilarating, and you get that tickle of immortality's faint, weightless tease. These people will pay your tuition if you'll come to their school and play basketball. "I knew the game was progressing, and I knew my time would come, but I never dreamed all this," Krista says.