Wildcats gear up for season without star

Updated: October 30, 2005, 2:57 PM ET
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona women's basketball players are still grieving, but coming to realize that life must go on without their beloved "Polkey.''

"Polkey was a very close friend and we'll always remember her,'' junior Joy Hollingsworth said. "There's not a day that goes by we don't think about her. We think about her all the time in everything we do, so this season we're just going to play for her.''

Center Shawntinice Polk was more than a three-time All-Pac-10 performer. She was the warm, outgoing, playful heart of the program, a 6-foot-5 senior with a personality that lit up McKale Center, where she collapsed and died a month ago at the age of 22.

"There is no athlete in McKale, man or woman, that would ever be considered in the same breath in terms of somebody that everybody knew,'' Hall of Fame men's coach Lute Olson said, "because she made it her point to get to know you.''

Replacing Polk on the court is a challenge for coach Joan Bonvicini. Replacing her as a person is impossible.

"We definitely miss Polkey as a player. We don't have anyone like her, I mean, very few teams in the country do,'' Bonvicini said. "But the thing that I miss her most is as a person. I miss hearing her laugh, and I know the players do.''

Polk was a high school junior in Hanford, Calif., when Bonvicini began recruiting her. She was a very big player with good moves, a sweet shot and an obvious weight problem. She lost 60 pounds after leaving high school, but always had to work on keeping her weight down. The autopsy report said she weighed 271 when she died.

Eric Peters, the Pima County chief deputy medical examiner, said her weight might have been a factor in the numerous blood clots blamed for her death.

Polk complained she wasn't feeling well when she arrived at McKale the morning of Sept. 26. She collapsed in front of the team trainer and was taken to nearby University Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead. The shock and grief were overwhelming, especially among her teammates.

"That week was surreal,'' Bonvicini said. "We were numb, we made it through it.''

For athletes in their late teens or early 20s, death is rarely a subject of concern.

"Me and Polkey went through our injuries together,'' sophomore guard Jessica Arnold said. "She always was excited when I told her I was able to play. When I look back, none of that even matters. We stood together as a team, and I think that's the best thing you can do in this situation, stay together as a family.''

There was a memorial service at McKale, and the funeral was in the high school gymnasium in Hanford.

A Tucson-area couple, Jeannie and Coleman Davis, donated $1 million toward a proposed basketball practice facility on campus that will incorporate Polk's name.

The McKale Center ticket office is selling "Polkey bracelets'' for $2, with profits going to a scholarship in Polk's name. All Arizona athletic teams will wear patches with her number "00'' in her honor.

Meanwhile, returning to the practice court has helped the team heal.

"That's what we live to do,'' Arnold said. "We love basketball. Polkey wouldn't want us to sit around. She'd want us to get on the court and start playing and working hard, because that's what she did.''

Polk was one of 25 preseason candidates this season for the Wade Trophy, presented to the country's outstanding woman college basketball player. She was part of the 2003 U.S. women's team that won the gold medal at the world championships for young women in Sibenik, Croatia. After being slowed by a knee injury last season, she was prepared for a big final college campaign and expected to be drafted by the WNBA.

Senior guard Natalie Jones roomed with Polk as a freshman.

"When Polkey was here, she was kind of my backbone to everything. When I'd go into the media room, she'd answer all the hard questions,'' Jones said. "I was looking at myself and wondering how am I going to lead this team. But I don't have to do it by myself. There are a lot of young people on the team and they are going to be right by my side.''

The Arizona women's basketball media guide last season had each player answer a few light personal questions:

• The most interesting non-sports aspect of her life, Polk said: "I like to buy shoes, lots of them!''

• Her advice to teammates? "Be yourself, don't let anyone change you.''

• The teammate most likely to have her back? "All of them!''

• The actress who would play her in a movie? "Nobody could play me,'' she said, "because I'm original.''

The players are trying to get through the unanswerable question of why this had to happen, why someone so alive, with that devilish grin, would have to leave so soon.

"Polkey was a very kind person,'' Hollingsworth said. "She loved children. She was very blunt about a lot of stuff. She wasn't scared to tell you her true feelings, whether it was on AOL IMs [instant messages], on the phone, whatever. I'm just going to miss her smile and the advice that she'd give you every day, about life or little things about basketball.''

Olson, a major college coach since 1973, said he could not fathom what faces Bonvicini.

"It's not just the challenge of not having her but the emotional thing, because not only was she so good, but she was so popular with such a great team spirit,'' he said. "McKale was like her home. It seemed like you couldn't come in here and not see Polkey.''

But Olson understands the pain, because he lost his wife of 47 years, Bobbi, to cancer in the middle of the 2000-01 season.

"Sometimes, life isn't fair,'' he said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press