A banner day for Baylor

Updated: December 6, 2005, 5:34 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

You've probably never heard of Cile Stokes.

When she played at Baylor from 1979-81, she never reached the 1,000-point plateau. She doesn't hold any records there. And in fact, Baylor won just four games during her first season in Waco, Texas.

But since the Lady Bears women's basketball program started 31 years ago, Stokes and more than 150 other letter-winners dribbled until they dropped, lifted weights until their bodies ached and ran sprints until they thought they might collapse. Their hard work and dedication, even during some lean years, paved the way for future champions.

So it was only fitting that every former Baylor player, including Stokes, was invited back to campus a couple weeks ago for one of the program's most historic nights. On Nov. 18, Baylor unveiled three championship banners from last season, commemorating the 2004-05 Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles and, most significantly, the Lady Bears' NCAA title.

Before that memorable Friday night last month, Stokes' finest memory from her days at Baylor might have been her second season, when the team won 29 games. That team set Baylor's single-season wins record, which held for 25 years -- until last spring, when the Lady Bears tallied 33 victories en route to the program's national championship run in Indianapolis.

But as the NCAA banner was dropped, Stokes' face brimmed with pride. Unlike Chelsea Whitaker, Baylor's senior point guard last year, who stood a few yards away, Stokes hadn't been on the court for any of those games. But deep down, Stokes, now 45, felt she had been a part of that championship.

And in that instant, though I have no ties to Baylor, I got the chills. I was reminded of just how inspiring Baylor's success is. A lot of stories were written last April about how the women's basketball team's success finally brought something to cheer about to a university stained by scandal.

But I think Baylor's win sent another message, a reaffirmation that it's OK to decide not to sign with such established programs as Duke or Tennessee or Connecticut or Stanford. These days, it seems, we are seeing more young athletes take a risk and go to other schools because they want to help build something, to be a part of the process rather than just a part of a legacy. And that's a good thing. That's why we're seeing more parity. Alana Beard never won a national championship at Duke, but she's part of the reason the Blue Devils are so good now.

Even just five years ago, nobody thought Baylor could win a championship. In 1999-2000, the season before coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson arrived, the Lady Bears won just seven games. After unveiling their banners last month, they hung a 93-85 loss on UCLA in front of more than 9,000 fans -- Baylor's largest opening-night crowd in program history.

The crowd was unbelievable, and served as another reminder of how far the game has come. When we unveiled our AIAW championship banners at Old Dominion in 1979 and '80, maybe a couple hundred people showed up. And when administrators used a microphone for the ceremony, the echo only emphasized how empty the arena was.

That was not the case at Baylor, where just getting to the Ferrell Center meant navigating bumper-to-bumper traffic on University Drive. Judging from the police presence needed to help move traffic along, you might have thought you were attending a major college football game. That alone caused chills.

The scene inside was even more compelling. Seeing former players who hadn't talked to each other in 20 years was amazing, as was seeing the older generation of Lady Bears meet today's generation. That's what this game is all about. If you don't think you can win, you won't. But if you think you can win, there's a chance you will. Don't buy it? Just look at Baylor.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.