Cardinal duo set for next chapter
Kayla Pedersen, picked No. 7, discusses being drafted by the Tulsa Shock.
The day before the WNBA draft last month, Stanford's Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen got an appreciative email from a father of one of their big fans.
"It was someone who has a daughter who really looked up to us and had been following Stanford basketball even before we got there," Pohlen said. "We took a picture with her at the Final Four this year, and it made her so happy.
"He sent some pictures with a really long email explaining how much we affected his daughter. It had a lot of nice things to say."
Pohlen spoke of this a week after her college career had ended against Texas A&M in the national semifinals. She'd been on the bench as the horn sounded, in pain from an ankle injury that had been tweaked in the closing moments.
Pedersen was on the court when the game -- and the duo's last chance at an NCAA title -- concluded. She'd briefly put her head down, her hands on her knees, gathering herself as Texas A&M's players celebrated. Then fully composed, she went through the handshake line, talked to reporters and later, in the early morning hours after the loss, encountered the Aggies again.
Pedersen was getting some comfort food at the downtown Indianapolis Steak 'n Shake that's open 24 hours. The Aggies were still on a high after their victory. They exchanged friendly greetings.
A week later, A&M seniors Sydney Colson and Danielle Adams, along with Pedersen and Pohlen, were all in the same boat. Regardless of who had won the NCAA title, their college careers had concluded. It would soon be time to prove themselves all over again, now at a different level -- one where there were really no assurances at all.
Beginning a new chapter
The WNBA, entering its 15th season, has been around since this year's rookies were children. Both Pedersen and Pohlen turned 8 just before that summer of 1997 when the league launched, so they grew up knowing the WNBA was a possible goal.
Admittedly, with 12 franchises and 11 roster spots for each, making a WNBA team in 2011 is exceedingly difficult. The vast majority of players who compete in women's college basketball will not play in the WNBA. But the best at least have a chance to play professionally in the United States, which is something that even legends didn't used to have.
On the eve of the draft last month, I had the chance to talk at length about a variety of topics with Pedersen and Pohlen, who were in Connecticut along with family members. It was essentially the last opportunity to regard them as the Stanford teammates they'd been for four years, two standouts in that program's history.
The next day, Pedersen was selected by Tulsa with the No. 7 pick in the draft. Two spots later, Pohlen went to Indiana. But on this night, their destinations were still unknown.
A lot of this story would be the same for any of the college seniors who hope to be WNBA rookies this season; it's told, really, with all of them in mind.
One thing that is unique to Pedersen and Pohlen, though, among this year's draftees is they are in a very small group of athletes who came so close to an NCAA title all four years of college, but didn't win it.
It seems an unfair twist of fate that Stanford, by being successful enough to make four consecutive appearances at the Final Four, then had to go through the disappointment of not getting that ultimate triumph. But Pedersen put that into a healthy perspective.
"The personality of the team was a lot different this year," Pedersen said. "We were calmer; it was more mature, very realistic. We handled both wins and losses with grace. This team kind of got that it was more than basketball.
"We were all upset about leaving each other. We cared so much about a national championship, but we couldn't get it done. So we accepted that it wasn't meant to be. We gave it our all; we're done. It's tough knowing that we were capable of it. But every year, on one night, we didn't do it."
Yet that isn't how the girl whose father sent the admiring email to Pedersen and Pohlen will ever think of them. It's not what she'll remember of their careers. They are heroes to her.
"We try to set the best example that we can," Pohlen said. "We try to keep good attitudes and not do anything careless."
But to that latter point, I was curious how today's athlete regards the potentially harsher consequences there are when someone is careless. In our current technology world, anything you do might be caught on camera and instantly put on global display. Or something you say -- perhaps without really thinking it through -- can reach so many people so quickly.
Facebook and Twitter and every other form of social media are great connecting tools for people of similar interests. And they can be an effective way to publicize a sport, along with raising the profile of its participants. But for any progress, there is a price tag of some sort.
"The one thing I'm not comfortable with is that anything can be taken and used in the wrong way: pictures, what you say," Pohlen said. "You could be quoting somebody from a TV show, and people may think you said it. That can be blown out of proportion. For that reason, my tweets are very plain, very simple. None of my tweets will be anything that you could read something else into."
Pedersen regards the increased transparency of an athlete's life as usually a good thing. She truly wants to be held to the highest standard.
"My goal is to make sure that anything I do, if anybody looked at it, they'd be totally fine with it," she said. "There might be something about me that may be inspiring to somebody, especially a kid. Or maybe some girl will get interested in our team because she reads that I like Cheerios. And she likes Cheerios, too. OK, that may not be the best example but I mean, she sees some connection."
(Note to new WNBA president Laurel J. Richie: If you're looking to get with the Cheerios people for a sponsorship, here's the spokeswoman for you.)
My, how times have changed
In March 1997, Stanford lost in the national semifinals. It was the third consecutive Final Four the Cardinal had made it to, but all three ended with semifinal losses.
At that time, the short-lived ABL had completed its first season, but the WNBA had yet to begin; it was on its way that summer. Attempts at a viable women's pro basketball league in the United States had not lasted before. The seniors in the Class of '97 had gone through most of their scholastic careers thinking their only possibility of playing professionally was overseas. Even with the advent of email and Internet connections as they were 14 years ago, that seemed potentially a lonely existence.
Our class, and the team this year specifically, left their mark [at Stanford]. Going undefeated at Maples and in the Pac-10, beating UConn -- it really was amazing. We may not have thought it was, since we didn't get that 'ultimate' goal. But we did look at it and say 'Wow.'” -- Jeanette Pohlen on wrapping up the season at Stanford's basketball banquet
The emotions in the Stanford locker room after that '97 semifinal defeat in Cincinnati were raw and painful to witness. The team was exceptionally close, with vibrant personalities that wanted desperately to put a happy ending on something they actually never wanted to end. The loss made the inevitable goodbyes all the worse.
The feeling in this year's Stanford locker room, while sad, did not have that same level of abject despair -- even though these seniors had been through four losses at the Final Four, not three.
I've thought about that a lot since, theorizing why it was but knowing there is no exact answer. How much of it was the personalities involved? How much was it the fact that the WNBA's existence offers the chance of continuing to play right away? How much was the advances in technology that college students today can take for granted in being able to communicate all the time? In other words, the knowledge that it's a lot simpler to keep in touch these days, at least technologically speaking.
"You can even do video chats on your cellphone now," Pohlen said.
But about those cellphones they've become ubiquitous, like an extension of people's hands. Some college athletes might have had cellphones in 1997, but most did not.
"I was thinking about that on the bus ride back," Pohlen said of the trip to the draftees' hotel in Hartford, Conn., from a tour they had taken of the ESPN campus and studios in Bristol. "I would be just sitting here on the bus if I didn't have my phone. I'm checking Facebook, Twitter, looking at my bank account. It is really crazy to think how much you can do just on your phone, let alone your computer.
"I think it's good and bad. I am on my phone more now, and I feel like I'm maybe not 'all there' with people in person. That's one of the things we talked about in communications classes."
Pedersen said before she went to college, she never brought her phone to the dinner table. Her parents didn't allow it.
"And I notice it now; I'll be at dinner with my teammates or other friends, and everyone is texting. I do it, too, now," Pedersen said. "But I find this thought going through my mind a lot: 'It would be cool if none of us had our phone right now.'
"It will be like, everyone is texting, and sometimes I just pick up my phone to look like I'm doing something. But when I go out with my parents, I leave my phone at home. And it's wonderful."
Because that phone separation is short, of course. Pedersen added with a grin, "I couldn't survive without it."
Jeanette Pohlen talks about being selected by Indiana in the WNBA draft.
New teams, new homes
Now, it's five weeks after the WNBA draft; a little over two weeks until the season begins. Pedersen and Pohlen, along with other rookies, are with their respective new teams, working to make the rosters.
Pedersen, a versatile 6-foot-4 player who played all over the court for Stanford, should reasonably believe that she is a lock to be on Tulsa's squad this season.
For most guards, though, there's no getting around it: They usually have greater worries. There are more of them, and thus they face increased competition for jobs. The 6-foot Pohlen is confident in her ability to help a pro team, but she also knows there's nothing guaranteed, even for a first-round pick.
Pedersen, a cheerful pragmatist, had said before the draft that she was "prepared for the worst" when it came to the idea of what a "team" felt like in the WNBA. Maybe players wouldn't be that friendly, or the camaraderie would be markedly less than it was in college.
But after just a short time in Tulsa, she says by phone that she's quite comfortable. Never mind that she's from Arizona and has lived in California for college. Oklahoma is fine with her. She's highly adaptable.
"Coming here, I didn't know anybody except [North Carolina's] Italee Lucas a little bit," Pedersen said. "It's very different, but honestly it's been great. I already love all the girls, and it's a cool city, too. I don't know yet how I'll fit into the team with basketball, but socially and living in a new place is easy for me."
For Pohlen, a Southern California native, the move to the Midwest is her first time living outside of the Golden State. And it's a return to the arena, Conseco Fieldhouse, where her last memory wasn't very pleasant.
"The arena and Indianapolis looks different to me from when we were here for the Final Four," she said by phone. "There's all the Fever and Pacers stuff up now, and when you're there for the Final Four, you don't notice anything but the Final Four stuff.
"I'm pretty excited to branch out and live somewhere new for a period of time, because I've been in California my whole life. I'm excited to experience what Indianapolis has to offer."
They are finished with school, but will miss graduation ceremonies in June -- a common thing for WNBA rookies. They did have the Stanford basketball banquet last month, though.
"It was a little bittersweet, but people were happy," Pohlen said. "Our class, and the team this year specifically, left their mark. Going undefeated at Maples and in the Pac-10, beating UConn -- it really was amazing. We may not have thought it was, since we didn't get that 'ultimate' goal. But we did look at it and say 'Wow.'"
Pedersen already had completed all classwork and had gone home to Arizona in April before her May move to Tulsa. But she returned to Stanford briefly for the banquet.
"I flew up that afternoon and left the next morning. I got to see all my friends and the campus," Pedersen said. "It was a very nice way just to say goodbye to everything."
Speaking of goodbyes, Pedersen and Pohlen are both big fans of the NBC comedy, "The Office," which Steve Carell's character Michael Scott exited recently. They both admitted tearing up watching his farewell episode, as millions of "Office" fans probably did.
"When he took off the mike at the end, I was like, 'Oh, jeez, it's really done,'" Pohlen said. "It's not going to be the same."
And it might have hit her -- as with anyone in any school's Class of 2011 -- that it coincided with her being done with something, too.
There is usually a mix of emotions when one big part of your life is completed, the last chapter written and never to be opened for revision. But the end of everything is always the beginning of something else, although you might not be entirely sure what it is.
No matter where the sport takes Pedersen and Pohlen and their fellow seniors from here, there is something it has achieved in addition to paying for a college education and providing the experiences it has.
Go back to the grateful father's email. Athletes are able to touch a child's life that much. And that's its own kind of triumph.
"That's one of the reasons I love playing this game -- the impact you make, the platform you have to set a good example," Pedersen said. "I think that means more to me than basketball itself."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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