Out Of Nowhere

4/15/2009 - Baylor Lady Bears

You can hear it from all over Baylor's campus: the low, steady thrum of Interstate 35, the reminder that Waco lies halfway between Austin and Dallas. On Sundays, when the traffic dies down, a makeshift congregation gathers under a highway overpass to pray to Jesus. Druggies and prostitutes show up, sing and disappear by 1 o'clock. Even the homeless just seem to pass through on their way to somewhere else, somewhere better.

How loud the noise from the interstate must have been in the long summer of 2003, as reporters in rental cars flocked to the city, scavenging for clues to the murder of basketball player Patrick Dennehy. How quiet the campus must have been as students walked around whispering, Have you seen Patrick? What happened? And, finally, They found his body. How shocked they all must have been to learn that former teammate Carlton Dotson stood accused.

"Just a very bad cloud over us," says junior volleyball player Kelly Spriggs, who knew Dennehy. "SportsCenter every night."

As coach Dave Bliss and his program crumbled amid revelations of payments to players, Waco became Wacko all over again, just as it had a decade earlier, when David Koresh was a national story. What did the people in those cars on I-35 mutter when they sped past? "We were wondering what the country must think of us," says Erin Werley, a senior English major from Stockdale, Texas. Baylor seemed destined forever to be a place where kids just somehow wind up, not a destination they dreamed about.

Kim Mulkey-Robertson wound up at Baylor. She led Louisiana Tech to four Final Fours as a spitfire guard and gave 15 years to the Lady Techster staff in the hopes of succeeding legend Leon Barmore. She wanted a five-year contract but didn't get it. "Crushed," she says, in a voice that still carries the hurt. She came to Waco in the spring of 2000, because that's where the next call came from. "I didn't know anything about Baylor." While her husband and two kids packed up their house back in Ruston, she spent three months in an apartment in the shadow of I-35, falling asleep to the thrum.

Sophia Young wound up at Baylor. The junior forward didn't even play basketball growing up in the West Indiesshe preferred volleyball and track. But a coach there convinced her to go to America for high school, and she landed in Shreveport, La., where she learned hoops at Evangel Christian Academy. One day she called a local AAU coach for some pointers; he just happened to be the father of one of Mulkey-Robertson's assistants. Coach Kim saw Sophia play and signed her as quickly as she could. That's why the bio of the Final Four Most Outstanding Player says she chose Baylor over Nicholls State, Centenary, Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas-Monticello.

Abiola Wabara wound up at Baylor. The sophomore forward grew up in Italy, but she had an aunt at Baylor's seminary. The aunt called the basketball office. Might as well schedule a campus visit, Mulkey-Robertson figured. It's not like recruits are beating down the doors. The coach couldn't try out Abi because of compliance rules, but she signed her anyway after seeing the size of the girl's hands.

Down the roster the stories go. Senior guard Chelsea Whitaker, a native of Dallas, signed with Virginia, played a year, then transferred to Waco. Sophomore forward Emily Niemann, a Houstonian, has two parents who attended Texas and a brother who went to Rice, but she found herself at Baylor, because "I know God wanted me here." In fact, on the team's website, few of the players list winning as a reason for winding up in Waco.

And yet here they were, the Lady Bears, a group of girls who never expected celebrity status, never demanded the ball. "They're innocently honest," says Mulkey-Robertson. "They're just sweet girls." Girls who didn't visit UConn or Tennessee. Girls who didn't mind playing for a program that, until this season, had never won a conference title or sold out the Ferrell Center, and for a 5'4" coach who jumps and gestures as if her shoes were on fire. Girls who listened when, after that disturbing summer of 2003, she held her only meeting about the murder and said, "Don't let it define you."

After those girls thumped Michigan State for the NCAA championship, students at Baptist Baylor streaked and burned couches and yelled loud enough to drown out all the traffic. And when Coach Kim and her squad rolled down I-35 the next day, they ran into a bottleneck of cars off exit 335B. They snaked down the ramp and past the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, with all its exhibits of deeds done somewhere else, somewhere better. They got off the bus and walked into a basketball arena filled with babies in green shirts and old folks making bear claws and students with bloodshot eyes and a restaurant manager from Odessa who drove six hours to get there. Just had to see it, he said.

And it didn't matter one bit that some of those drivers on the interstate must have wondered what could possibly bring so many people to Waco.