Hall trio leaves lasting legacy
This won't be on their Women's Basketball Hall of Fame plaques. But it so happens that Janice Lawrence Braxton played in the first women's college basketball game I saw in its entirety on television and Katrina McClain Johnson played in the first women's game I ever taped on a VCR.
Lawrence Braxton and McClain Johnson were just Lawrence and McClain back then. Pre-marriage, pre-overseas career, pre-Olympics. They were college kids, just enjoying basketball. Not at all aware they were at the beginning part of a long bridge that would lead them one April day to Knoxville, Tenn., and a permanent place among the best ever in their sport.
Lawrence Braxton laughs remembering something her former coach, Leon Barmore, said when she played at Louisiana Tech.
"He told us these were going to be some of the best years in our lives," Lawrence Braxton said. "And we were young and dumb. We're thinking, 'What?! You all are trying to kill us in practice! This is the best time?'
"But it was. I didn't know then. When you're young, you don't think like that. And you don't think about being the 'first' to do anything or what impact you're making. You just want to play well."
When do players finally think about those things? At a time like this. Lawrence Braxton, Georgia's McClain Johnson, Texas' Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil and Brazil's Paula Goncalves da Silva -- aka "Magic Paula" -- are being inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame as players this weekend. Being enshrined as coaches are Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Division II Bentley College's Barbara Stevens.
They all have great stories, and that's the reason these ceremonies are so important. It gives everyone an opportunity to think about what each of them has done for women's basketball.
For me, Lawrence Braxton and McClain Johnson represent people connected to two seemingly ordinary Sunday afternoons in my life -- which, in fact, weren't ordinary at all. They were special, and they stand out in memory like buoys do in an ocean, marking a particular place in the vastness.
Lawrence Braxton played in the first NCAA Tournament championship game, nationally televised on March 28, 1982. That happened to be my 17th birthday, but I don't have the slightest recollection of what I got for gifts. I do remember it was a sunny day. And I can't forget that on the living-room floor where I always sat watching sports on television, there was the most absurdly bright green shag carpet -- the kind of stuff that likely would make me start screaming if I saw it on my floor now.
And I remember Janice Lawrence.
She seemed hugely tall then -- she was 6 feet, 3 inches -- and unstoppable. I was used to seeing high school girls of 5-11, at most, post up, turn around and shoot. This was something else entirely.
Lawrence had 20 points and six rebounds in Louisiana Tech's victory over Cheyney State in the title game in Norfolk, Va., and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem that long ago -- and sometimes it does," she says now. "I think I see now how big a deal it was, being in the first NCAA Final Four. We had a parade and a police escort when we came home. The whole school and community came out; we had a great fan following. I remember that part like it was yesterday."
Louisiana Tech had won the AIAW title the year before, beating Tennessee, and that game also was televised. But I hadn't seen that. The only televised women's basketball I could recall seeing was a clip or two during the 1976 Summer Olympics. Lawrence was a freshman on that 1981 Tech team, a kid out of tiny Lucedale, Miss.
"When I chose to go to Louisiana Tech, I didn't know anything about it," she said. "But it turned out to be just like being at home. The players that I played with then are still like sisters. We could go years without seeing each other, but then when I see them again, it's just like we'd been around each other that whole time and nothing's changed.
"We were all we had then. And the things that coach Barmore instilled in us, I carry them to this day."
Technically, Barmore wasn't elevated to "co-head coach" with Sonja Hogg until the 1982-83 season, but in actuality he was running the team on the floor well before that, having started with the program as an assistant in 1977. Lawrence Braxton talks about him the same way McClain Johnson speaks of Georgia coach Andy Landers.
"He's a great person; he's more than just a coach," McClain Johnson said of Landers. "It's not just about playing with him. I can always call him. Even now, all these years later, he's still willing to do anything to help me."
|The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2006 includes two coaches and four Olympians:
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, Texas' Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil, Brazilian legend Paula Goncalves Da Silva, Janice Lawrence Braxton of Louisiana Tech, Georgia's Katrina McClain Johnson and Barbara Stevens, the winningest D-II women's coach.
Landers would tell you that McClain Johnson, a 6-2 center, gave everything she had to Georgia, where she finished with 2,195 points and 1,193 rebounds. She was a sophomore on Georgia's 1985 Final Four team.
By then, I'd already covered Missouri's women's basketball team for a full season and was already far down the road to hopeless-hoops-addict status. The Tigers had played at Northeast Louisiana -- which also made the '85 Final Four -- in the NCAA Tournament that year, and three of us Mizzou student-journalists had driven down to Monroe, La., in an all-night trip with one stop at Waffle House.
When I got back, school was in spring break. I went home and convinced my mother we absolutely had to get a VCR. This was back when salespeople still acted as though there was a legitimate debate between VHS and Beta, but our guy finally said, "Look, honestly, if it were me, I'd go with VHS."
Was anybody else ridiculously amazed the first time you taped something and played it back? Like, "Oh my God! It is exactly what we just saw on TV!"
I taped the Georgia-Old Dominion women's championship game. Georgia led by one at halftime, but ODU ended up winning 70-65. McClain Johnson had two more seasons in Athens, Ga., and in her last year, 1987, Japan started making inquiries about her playing professionally over there.
McClain Johnson, who is from Charleston, S.C., couldn't believe it. No way, she thought, I have to finish my education.
"Here was an opportunity -- you can always finish school a little later," she says now. "But I didn't comprehend that. And my dad couldn't believe it, either. The idea of me going to Japan was unreal -- he didn't want his daughter all the way over there."
As it turned out, McClain Johnson loved her professional experience in Japan, saying she felt taken care of as a player and admired the culture. After her first season there, she did indeed come back and finish college.
McClain Johnson also played professionally in Italy, Spain and Turkey, although Japan was her favorite. She was on three U.S. Olympic teams, winning gold in 1988 and 1996 and bronze in 1992. And she played in the World Championships three times.
"I guess what I remember most is all the friendships and all of the talent on the court around me," McClain Johnson said of her vast USA Basketball experience. "I'm so competitive, and I played with a lot of competitive people. When we played international ball, it always made you so proud to represent your country. The opening ceremonies at the Olympics things like that are always going to be with you.
"And on the court, I guess I would say the best moments were beating teams like Russia and China. They had big players, like 6-8, and it was always tough to beat them. They were challenging."
Lawrence Braxton, who lives in Cleveland now, finished her Tech career with 2,403 points and 1,097 rebounds. She won a gold medal with the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. She played 15 seasons in Italy, nine with Vicenza, which is where she met her husband when he was stationed there in the military.
She became fluent in Italian, made many friends and could tell you the best places to eat across the whole country.
"If you could have seen how the fans came out there for us -- we would have standing room only in our gym," Lawrence Braxton recalled of her years in Italy. "All games were big games for us."
Like Lawrence Braxton and McClain Johnson, Davis-Wrightsil, a 6-1 post, also was an Olympian (1992), and she played in Italy, Turkey and Japan. Lawrence Braxton and Davis-Wrightsil played in the WNBA at the end of their careers. Davis-Wrightsil and McClain Johnson spent some time in the ABL before it disbanded.
As a freshman, Davis-Wrightsil was the Final Four's most outstanding player in 1986, when Texas finished 34-0. She scored 2,008 points at Texas -- despite playing in just nine games her junior year because of a knee injury.
Former teammate Kamie Ethridge, an All-American senior point guard on that Texas title team, said of Davis-Wrightsil, "She was phenomenal. If she were playing today for any team, she would be a star. She was the only one on our team that could walk into the rec center and the Texas men would be playing -- and she could play with them.
"She was able to hit jump shots; she could jump over people; she had guard skills, total body control; she was strong, had great hands, could tip the ball in. Things players do now -- she could do all of that back then."
It's important to realize that: Lawrence Braxton, McClain Johnson and Davis-Wrightsil are among the most talented women's college players ever. What's sad is that we didn't see most of what they did for the length of their careers. Such were the times. There are people in Italy with more on-court memories of those players than most folks in the United States might have.
One night earlier this week in her Atlanta home, McClain Johnson had just finished getting sons Malachi and Emmanuel and daughter Genesis to bed. She was thinking back on her basketball days while looking ahead to the upcoming ceremony.
"I played with Clarissa; we were on the 1992 [Olympic] team," she said. "Janice -- I never played with her, but always admired her. I looked up to her."
But McClain Johnson doesn't think about how her career might have been different if she were coming into her prime now.
"It's never good to wish you were someplace else in time. You are where you're supposed to be," she said. "It was up to us to pave the way for the younger generation. It's the audience in the U.S. that should have regrets because they didn't get to see most of the best years of so many players. We helped put the game on the map. Now we look at where it can go and how it can get better."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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