Versatility is Pedersen's calling card
STANFORD, Calif. -- Did you ever face one of those miserable-weather days in the winter when you were chilled to the bone? And maybe you thought to yourself, "Why do I live here? I'm moving somewhere warm."
Of course, many people think that but don't actually do it, right? But Gary and Kelli Pedersen, then living in Flint, Mich., felt that way once and decided to do something about it.
"We had an ice storm, and I couldn't get either car out of the garage," Gary remembered. "And I said to my wife, 'Remember that place we went on vacation? Let's just pack up and move.'"
Which is why their daughter, Kayla, grew up doing her ballhandling drills in a garage in Arizona that was never impeded by ice. She was around 4 when her parents and younger brother, Kyle, headed to the southwest.
Kayla says she doesn't remember the snow and ice. But she does recall one cold, hard fact her parents told her would be the key to her basketball success: versatility. Now who would actually grasp that in early elementary school? Well, Kayla Pedersen did.
The senior will be playing in the Sweet 16 with No. 1 seed Stanford on Saturday, with hopes of getting two victories in Spokane, Wash., and advancing to a fourth consecutive Final Four. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has said for the past four years that Pedersen's ability to play any position that's needed during any point in a game has been one of the biggest factors in this significant run of success for the storied Cardinal program.
"My parents told me, 'We know you're going to be tall no matter what.' Because they're tall," the 6-foot-4 Pedersen said. "So they said, 'If you really want to play basketball, what will separate you is your ability to dribble or step outside and shoot. If you want to be the best, this is what you have to do.'"
They really didn't have to convince or cajole her. They didn't need to light a fire to get her going. If someone had asked her back then what she wanted to be when she grew up, she already had an answer.
"At 8 or 9, I probably would have said I was going to be a Stanford basketball player," Pedersen said. "I had a whole Stanford outfit -- the jersey and shorts and everything. I didn't really know that much about Stanford. I knew it was somewhere in California. And my parents told me it was really hard to get in."
Which is what made it most appealing to Pedersen. At the time she didn't even know that the Stanford women's basketball program was very good.
"It was a great academic school, so I wanted to go there," she said, then added with a laugh, "and then I figured, of course, I'd be on their basketball team."
To that end, her parents laid out the process for her.
"We said, 'If you do these dribbling drills, you work on your defense, you develop your left hand, your dreams will come true,'" Gary said. "She's an analytical thinker. Just tell her the facts of what she needs to do. She'll digest them."
Gary played college basketball, too, and he's got a similar poker-faced personality to his daughter. But the chip is actually even more determined than the old block.
"I was different. I grew up on a lake with three older brothers that were water-skiers," Gary said. "My dad worked a lot. I really didn't pick up a basketball until eighth grade. I just enjoyed it through high school. It wasn't a passion I had to do all the time. I was not first-born driven like Kayla.
"She was 8 when she started playing. She would always say, 'What does it take to get from point A to point B?' We literally had charts in the garage, basketball dribbling drills. And she would do those and mark her progress each time she did it."
If you've ever talked to Pedersen, you can very easily picture the younger version resolutely doing her drills when other kids might have been eating Oreos and watching TV.
"I like to get everything right, stay organized, be on top of everything," she said. "I remember coming home from a club practice and crying my eyes out because it wasn't perfect. I'd missed three layups or something, so I was really mad at myself.
"But my parents paid me no attention when I did that. They told me to toughen up."
She laughs again then, because it's a good memory, not a bad one.
"They really did, and it helped me," she said. "I had to mature and understand nobody was perfect."
It's how she recounts this story that tells you that Pedersen -- despite her high-achiever personality -- is not any kind of joyless drudge. Laughter bubbles up from her quietly but constantly. She's a contrast of being all-business and yet -- despite that serious on-court visage -- never really all that far from breaking into a big grin.
"I am very stoic-looking, but my teammates know me," she said. "They know I can be a goofball at times. I think I've opened up a lot. I was more shy and reserved when I got here. My teammates have helped me be who I am, and not be afraid of it."
Pedersen has been an important part of the Cardinal's attack from the time she arrived at Stanford. She has started every game all four seasons, save one this season when she sat out at DePaul in December after hitting her head the previous game. Without her, Stanford lost to the Blue Demons.
Pedersen is averaging 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds. And throughout her career, over the course of 147 games, she's averaged 31.6 minutes.
"We had to tell her to take time off when she was younger. She ran herself ragged," Gary said. "One club season, she lost so much weight and she became anemic. It's a little bit of the insecurity she has: Am I training hard enough? Doing everything I need to do? She wouldn't take a day off; she'd feel horribly guilty."
In that way, she's much like VanDerveer. And in other ways as well. They both like to break down film. Pedersen doesn't just wait until sessions with the coaches to watch that.
"Tara loves to study the game, and I do, too," Pedersen said. "I think about different matchups and situations, what would happen at the end of the game. I get a DVD of every game afterward. I don't watch it right away. I let it sit for a day or two, and then watch it. I look at different ways I could have scored, my footwork, my defense. Should I have passed the ball here?
"I think one bad thing about my personality is I'm too passive, and that's hurt me on the basketball floor. Opening up more has allowed me to go for more risks."
With an NCAA second-round victory over St. John's, Stanford finished a perfect 63-0 at home in Maples Pavilion during the careers of Pedersen and follow senior starter Jeanette Pohlen. The Cardinal previously ended UConn's 90-game winning streak at Maples on Dec. 30. Pedersen will be drafted and play in the WNBA this summer, and then compete in basketball overseas, too.
While some players dread going abroad, she is eager to experience it.
"I love different cultures and learning about them," Pedersen said, then added with her usual self-deprecation, "I'm more of a superficial learner, but I like going to museums. I won't read every plaque, but I'll get the gist of it."
Actually, she'll likely understand and retain more than most who do read every plaque. That's just who she is: The kid who gets it, and always did.
There's just one more thing she really wants to get at Stanford, but it's a big thing: a national championship. The Cardinal lost in the NCAA final to Tennessee her freshman year, to UConn in the semifinals when she was a sophomore, and to UConn in the title game last year.
Pedersen said as much as she wants that title, she is not totally consumed by the disappointment of not winning it. She is very motivated internally independent of all that.
"For the most part, I don't really need that," she said. "But that little ounce that I do need, it fuels the fire."
She thinks back to the move her parents made when they were just plain tired of the icy cold. She wonders if her family had stayed in Michigan, would she still have ended up at Stanford?
It's kind of hard to imagine her fitting in more perfectly anywhere else.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.