Polk's death is a true heartbreaker
Monday, I did a sad search on my laptop files. I typed in "Shawntinice Polk," looking for a file from March 2003, on the day before Arizona played its NCAA Tournament first-round game against Notre Dame in Manhattan, Kan.
Being based in the Midwest, I have limited occasions to talk in person to kids from the Pac-10 conference. But that wasn't the only reason I remembered the day so well. The interviews with Polk and Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini that day had stuck with me -- the looks on their faces, the general tone of their comments, if not the exact words.
It's what I thought about upon hearing that Polk had died Monday morning.
I'm a ridiculous "saver" of files and media guides and scraps of paper and box scores and things that I know most would call "clutter" but that I can't seem to part with.
"Didn't she say," I thought as the search went through the finding process, "that Polk was unlike anyone she'd coached before?"
The file came up. I went to Bonvicini's comments, then on the eve of Polk's first NCAA Tournament. There it was.
"I've coached some excellent post players, but I never coached anyone like her," Bonvicini had said that day. "She brings a different dimension, with her size AND her quickness."
I had asked, of course, about power forward Cindy Brown, the two-time Kodak All-American for Long Beach State in the 1980s when Bonvicini coached there. A great player, absolutely. But at 6 feet 2 inches, different than the 6-5 Polk.
Bonvicini said that once Polk was in as good a shape as she could be and had a little more experience, she would be one of the most difficult players in the country to guard. Actually, Bonvicini acknowledged, she already was as a rookie. She could pass, shoot and had the rare combination of bulk without being slow. In other words, she was very hard for anybody else to move, but she could move very well herself.
Polk that day talked mostly about how she was adjusting to opponents always double-teaming and sometime triple-teaming her. That's where patience and good passing were necessary. Polk was naturally adept at passing and was learning about patience.
Then there was the whole other learning curve of how to defend when you're bigger than most of the people you go against. How not to get frustrated when it seems like you're targeted by the officials. How to maintain your aggression even when you were in foul trouble.
"It's been frustrating at times, a lot more banging inside," Polk said.
"You have to be ready mentally; that's a big part of adjusting to the game. It hasn't been easy, but I've done all right. I'm adjusting pretty well, I guess."
In short, Polk was still a work in progress, but so MUCH progress had been made in one college season. She had been Pac-10 freshman of the year and had a school-record 21 double-doubles that season. And she was listening all the time. That helped a lot.
"We don't have to repeat ourselves," Bonvicini said of herself and her coaching staff about teaching Polk. "It's incredible for someone that young to absorb things so well; even for a senior, it would be. And a lot of kids, when they're young, any success goes to their head. She deflects everything to her team. You can ask her any question about herself, and she'll talk about the team."
The next night, a very smart and adept defensive effort from Notre Dame did a good job on Polk in an Irish victory. Notre Dame had watched a game tape of what Stanford had done against Arizona, surrounding Polk at all times. It had worked in part because the rest of the Wildcats hadn't been able to take advantage of the defensive attention given their center. But it was obvious what a weapon Polk was and would continue to be. Her potential, as Bonvicini said, was unlimited.
The summer of 2003, Polk played with several of the best of the college ranks on the USA team that won gold in the FIBA World Championship for Young Women in Croatia. She was the team's third-leading scorer (8.4) in the tournament and shot a team-best 61.2 percent from the field.
And there would be no sophomore slump back in Tucson, as she averaged a double-double for the second season in a row. Of course, injuries are always the great unknown with athletes. In Polk's case, knee problems plagued her during this past season as a junior, with her scoring and rebounding averages dropping to 12.7 and 8.0.
Always a big woman, she was working now on getting back into better shape. Polk was on the Wooden and Wade watch lists. Folks were speculating how high she would go in next April's WNBA draft. She was preparing for a senior season in which guard Dee-Dee Wheeler would no longer be around to deliver the ball. The Wildcats would be depending all the more on Polk this season. There was a lot on her shoulders.
Now, her team is facing an avalanche of emotions there is simply no way to ever prepare for. There is, foremost, almost overwhelming grief. There's anger, disbelief, fear, uncertainty, regret.
Teams re-bond in the fall, begin forging that particular season's identity. Leaders are affirmed and/or emerge. I don't know anybody involved in basketball in whatever capacity who doesn't start getting a little tingling, joyful feeling as September turns to October, and your daily anticipation of the coming season grows, with all its possibilities getting sharper into focus.
What the Arizona women's basketball team and staff faces is trying to even recall what any of that is supposed to feel like. Trying to care about the everyday of practice and school and team meals and functions and why any of it matters when a 22-year-old friend and teammate and pupil is finished with her life on this earth so horribly, unfairly early.
As reported by the "Tucson Citizen," Polk's death was caused by "a blood clot in her lungs that resulted in essentially a sudden cardiac death," according to the Pima County deputy chief medical examiner. In the coming days and weeks, there will be questions and issues that need to be examined in regard to Polk's health and her care after knee surgery last season.
Many times, the investigations after athletes' deaths, no matter how sincerely and sensitively and thoroughly they are done, result in another ordeal for their families and friends and teammates and coaches to go through. At a time when many people in severe pain need to comfort each other, sometimes they are divided by the mechanisms of investigating what happened.
We all hope that doesn't happen in this case. Whether it does or not, the hard times are just beginning for everyone who knew and loved Shawntinice Polk.
We mourn all death, but we mourn untimely death, the passing of a young person, with our most agonizing and acute grief of all. Because when we lose those people, we lose all their potential. We lose what Polk would have achieved as a human being and an athlete for the many years we assume a 22-year-old should have left.
And yet, this young woman with her big smile did leave a lasting mark in the time she had. If nothing else, we can be grateful for that.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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