With family, coach's support, Bales blossoms into star
DURHAM, N.C. -- Almost everyone knows when their parents are telling "that story" for the millionth time.
Duke center Alison Bales was sure exactly which one her mom, Dr. Mary McCarthy, and dad, Charles Bales, told about her as a fledgling basketball player.
"That I'd just hold the ball up over my head and not know what to do with it, right?" Bales said, smiling. "That's one of their favorites."
Her parents came up with a solution to spur their "taller-than-everybody-else's-kid" daughter.
"We started paying her a quarter to take a shot," Charles said. "Second year, we only paid a quarter if she made them."
There have been times at Duke when coach Gail Goestenkors might have wished she could do that. She has had to help coax the 6-foot-7 Bales into shooting more, into blocking shots, into developing into the All-American candidate she is and the high WNBA draft pick she will be on April 4, her birthday.
Now Bales and the top-seeded Blue Devils head into the Sweet 16 in Greensboro, N.C., looking to go back to the Final Four. A senior from Dayton, Ohio, Bales is averaging 11.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and has blocked 147 shots this season.
Her career block total, 430, is the best ever in the ACC and third best in NCAA history. Her 58 blocks in NCAA Tournament games are the most by anybody. She has become a premier defensive player.
"She didn't really block that many shots in high school; they sat in a 2-3 zone," Goestenkors said. "We had to get on her to be aggressive enough to block shots."
Yes, it has taken work for Bales to arrive to where she is. But Goestenkors is so happy she was part of the process.
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(3) Georgia vs. (2) Purdue
(5) Geo. Washington vs. (1) UNC
"I think Ali has grown more as a person and a player than anybody I've ever coached," Goestenkors said. "And I've seen great growth in so many people. But the confidence that she now carries herself with -- on and off the court -- is remarkable."
No, this is not going to be just another one of those, "It's hard being a tall woman," stories. Obviously, Bales' height is a critical part of who she is. Like anyone who stands out for any reason, she has had her issues.
"But it's not a big deal to me anymore," she said. "With everything that my height has given me, it's a blessing."
Still sometimes it seems like all that many people see about Bales is that she is 6-7. But there's so much more to know. Besides being a tall woman, who is Alison Bales?
"I'm a daughter, a sister, a teammate, a friend, just a regular college student," she said.
Well, that's a start.
Charles Bales likes to joke that when he married Dr. Mary McCarthy, "I kept my maiden name."
He's from Azle, Texas, just north of Fort Worth, and played football at TCU. She's from the San Francisco Bay area, did her undergrad work at Stanford and went to medical school at Indiana, where her parents had moved when her father took over as chairman of elementary education at Indiana State.
She did her residency at Parkland in Dallas, forever famous as the hospital JFK was rushed to when he was shot. It has a renowned trauma center, and Mary had decided in med school she wanted to be a surgeon. This was in the 1970s, when women doctors were becoming more common, but
"Being in surgery was still rare," she said. "I guess I wasn't aware too much that it was something that women 'didn't do' until I got to Parkland for my residency, and I was saying, 'Where did all the women go?' They finished 10 residents a year, and I was the only woman. I was the second woman to ever go to Parkland -- the first had finished 15 years before me. But I was blessed with having supportive faculty."
While she was at Parkland, she met Charles while both were serving on jury duty.
"That was our first disagreement," Charles said. "The guy was charged with stealing three boxes of steaks. Being a California woman, she thought he was just hungry. And I'm saying, 'Hang him up.' Because three boxes was enough to make it a felony."
On their first date, she went to watch him play church-league basketball. Little did she know how much more hoops-watching was in store for her.
Alison is the first of four children; there is a second daughter, Sarah, and twin boys, J.D. and J.R. Charles is 6-3, Mary is about 6-foot. Alison came into the world weighing around 10 pounds. And as she grew
"If you look at the doctor's charts, it has in the upper-left corner, 'explanations,' " Charles said. "She was in the explanations. She was that far off the chart."
A pediatrician suggested to her parents that they give her birth-control pills as a child to try to halt her growth. Forget it, they said, let nature take its course.
Alison gravitated to basketball, to the immense delight of her father.
"He always said he was a basketball player in a football player's body," Alison said.
Charles had a furniture repair and upholstery business, and it worked out that he could stay at home with the kids while Mary was at the hospital. A year after the twins were born, in 1991, Mary started working at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, where she's now director of trauma services and professor of surgery at Wright State.
She's asked how she has juggled all that.
"With a lot of support from my man," she said, chuckling. "I always knew I wanted to have kids and to have a career. Trauma, in particular, is so rewarding. You have the opportunity to save lives every day.
|“||I think she's always wanted to fit in, but because of her size, she's always going to stand out. But she's always loved defense, because you can do great things there and not have the spotlight on you. So it has been a battle on offense. And it is still a battle. But I've learned to adjust, because she can shoot the 15-foot shot as well as anybody in the country. I've said, 'Let's not try to make her too much something she is not.' ”|
|— Duke coach Gail Goestenkors on senior Alison Bales|
"The most common question I get from young women medical students now is, 'Can you be a surgeon and still have a life, too?' It's not easy, but yes, you definitely can."
Charles watched the kids, became a great cook -- "His homemade pies are just out of this world," Goestenkors said -- and took care of much of what needed to be done at home.
"That movie 'Mr. Mom' had a lot of extra meaning to me when I saw it," Charles said. "I laughed at a lot of things. Back then, there weren't that many men staying home with their families. I found that I didn't talk to too many adults during the day.
"I don't think Alison remembered it that much until this year; she wanted me to find a tape of her as a kid. She was sitting there, Mom was filming us, and I was talking to her. Watching that, the interaction, she remembered how much time we'd spend together."
Alison thinks Charles knows her and her game better than anybody.
"He watches every game on tape -- he probably watches them twice," Alison said. "He comes to practices when he's out here, and has seen me grow. We talk about basketball on a more personal level.
"He really did a good job, and all of us kids benefited so much from having him as a father. And my mom being such a strong woman, she gave my sister and me, especially, a great role model.
"My memories of the hospital when I was little are my brothers and I wrestling in the doctors' lounge while she was doing her rounds. During last summer, I went in and saw patients and went into a couple of [operating rooms]. I got to see what she does on a regular basis, which was pretty amazing. She's big-time. All the students are trying to learn from her, which is cool to see. Because she's my mom, and it makes me proud."
Sarah Bales -- aka "Crazy Cape Girl" at Duke games -- is sitting in Cameron Indoor Stadium looking on as her older sister practices.
"Sometimes, I estimate I've spent about two-thirds of my life watching Alison play basketball," she said.
It's not a complaint. A sophomore biology student at Wright State, she laments the fact that her schedule kept her from being at the Final Four last year, when Duke lost a gut-wrenching title game on Alison's 21st birthday. And Sarah says if Alison had gone to college a bit closer to Ohio, "I'd have seen even more of her games."
Duke was a fine choice, though. Sarah's favorite color is blue, and she thinks Duke blue is especially pretty. About the cape thing she went to a Renaissance Festival in Ohio, where lots of folks dressed up in period costumes. She ended up with a blue cape, and then before one game last year, a thought hit her.
"You know, I could be cooler than the Cameron Crazies," she said, laughing. "So I started wearing it, and the band started doing their cheer, I think, the first time I wore it."
The band chants, "Crazy Cape Girl!" -- a matching cheer to the one the band does for the "Crazy Towel Guy" at Cameron.
Sarah is quiet at first. Then the stories about Alison, trickling out initially, begin to pour out. And it becomes obvious how much Sarah adores her big sister.
"You know those long, full-court passes that she makes? Those have always been a favorite of hers," Sarah said. "I think she got it from soccer. She played most every sport. We did little league soccer, and she did great out-of-bounds passes; she could throw it anywhere on the field."
Sarah remembers just about everything: how Alison took the prize of Spider-Man tennis balls at tennis camp -- "She was always a winner" -- and all the AAU basketball games and the college coaches' recruiting visits.
Alison isn't just older, she has always been the big sister in personality, too.
"She'll make anybody feel comfortable around her," Sarah said. "She has always given me help when I needed it. She was the peacemaker between me and our brothers."
So the twins, now 17, could be little terrors, huh?
"They were," Sarah says, laughing again. "Now they're big terrors. Alison's the only one who can handle my brothers, except for my dad. Because I'm like the runt of the family."
Sarah is right at 6 feet tall, by the way.
All the siblings know how to crochet -- yes, including the brothers; J.D. also plays football and hopes to go Division I. Sarah used her skills to make her sister a scarf, a hat (she doesn't think that turned out very well) and -- what she was most proud of, as it took about a year to finish -- a blanket that says "Duke."
"It might be my imagination," Sarah said, "but I think she cried a little when she saw that."
Sarah, who also has an interest in medicine, spent the past week in Durham and watched Duke's first- and second-round games in Raleigh. She's already looking forward to when Alison might next have some free time: the fall.
The Blue Devils headed to Greensboro on Thursday night, but Sarah decided to stay another day in the house Alison shares with teammates Emily Waner and Lindsey Harding before going home to Ohio.
"Even though Alison's not going to be there," Sarah said, "being around her stuff, at least, I can feel closer to her."
A moment comes in practice when Bales looks to be stopped dead cold. Two of the practice guys have converged on her inside, one of them as big as she is, and are smothering her. In that split second, you imagine if there were thought bubbles above everyone's heads, one would be a collective, "Come on, Ali, you can do it!" and hers would be, "All right, $@%!"
Her second effort powers her through the practice guys, and she scores. The practice guys smile, her teammates and coaches erupt, and even Bales has to grin. It's what everyone loves to see.
"Coach G has been on me from the beginning to be more aggressive," Bales said. "It's been a slow process, but I think I'm there. I've become more outgoing off the court and more aggressive on the court at the same time."
Goestenkors really does understand.
"I think she's always wanted to fit in, but because of her size, she's always going to stand out," Goestenkors said. "But she's always loved defense, because you can do great things there and not have the spotlight on you. So it has been a battle on offense. And it is still a battle. But I've learned to adjust, because she can shoot the 15-foot shot as well as anybody in the country. I've said, 'Let's not try to make her too much something she is not.'
"I talk to the pro scouts, and they really like her because she has such a unique skill set for someone her size. I told all of them -- because I want her to be happy -- that if you want her to sit down on the low block for 40 minutes every game and be a banger, it's not going to happen. But if you want her to post up some on the low block, but also be that trail post who's a great passer, who can shoot that 15- to 17-foot shot, who sets great screens and is willing to do whatever it takes for your team to win, she's the person you want."
However, the simple fact is -- sometimes when you're 6-7, you just gotta be 6-7. You have to find that "inner Godzilla." Harding is asked how the team has helped Bales with that.
"Really, last year in the [NCAA] tournament, she found it herself," Harding said. "And throughout this season, she's been more consistent with it. We just keep pounding it into her and showing her we have confidence in her."
Having teammates is part of why Bales loves basketball so much.
"It's all about relationships with me," she said. "My teammates have always been my best friends."
Bales might want to follow her mother into a career in medicine. She hasn't decided yet. Pro basketball is on the front burner.
Goestenkors thinks back to when she first saw Bales, who was playing in an AAU tournament the summer after her eighth-grade year. Bales was about 6-5 then. You can guess what that was like sometimes.
Goestenkors wanted to start the recruitment, so she took the youngster on a tour of Duke's campus.
"She did not say a word. She just smiled and got embarrassed," Goestenkors said. "I spent a lot of time with her, but I told my assistants, 'She's not coming here. There's absolutely no interest.' But I found out later how excited she was, and she was just extremely shy.
"Now she's the one who I would trust to lead any tour -- she's great with parents, great with recruits. She fits in, and can talk with anybody and feel comfortable in any situation. So it's really been fun to watch and be a part of."
Bales knows she'll be asked about her height the rest of her life, and, really, it's OK. No, it's a lot more than OK. It's great. She wouldn't give back an inch.
Goestenkors said, "She's really comfortable with who she is -- and it's in large part because of basketball. She's seen success. People admire her. She's become a role model for young people with size. Lots of things forced her outside her comfort zone. And so she's really expanded her comfort zone."
You might have heard the story that now if Bales feels like it, she wears 3-inch heels without hesitation.
"When she dresses up, she's dressing 'up,' " Goestenkors said. "She's like 6-10 then. She takes great pride in it. And it's so neat she's beautiful. She really is a beautiful girl."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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