Edwards makes hope, optimism easier

Originally Published: June 10, 2004
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

I used to see the sky falling everywhere. There was no problem that couldn't be made hopeless, no road that wasn't about to become impassible. But, somehow, over a long time ... I've turned into an almost-optimist.

It started with the realization I'd been a closet optimist all along. Then, I tentatively began appearing in public as an occasional optimist.

Teresa Edwards
When it comes to women's hoops, five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards is one of the all-time best, and has competed at every level.
When that didn't kill me, I started to sometimes voice spontaneous optimistic thoughts.

I'm still not a real "half-full'' person ... but now, not a "half-empty'' one, either. It's enough to say, "Well, there IS water in the glass.''

So ... who's to blame for torpedoing my persistent pessimism? Well, basketball players such as Minnesota Lynx guard Teresa Edwards are on the list.

Journalism is supposed to make a person cynical. Or more cynical, as the case may be. But it doesn't always do that. Sometimes, it has a strange reverse effect. Such as when you talk to Edwards.

And it's certainly not because she sees only green lights. Edwards knows years and years of detours, logjams, pileups and sharp curves in life's traffic way. Yet she has remained behind the wheel, and she'll still give you a lift.

Edwards, who'll be 40 in July, has been on five Olympic teams, played in the NCAA title game, made pro stops in Europe and Japan, helped found the ABL, agonized as it died, and finally made her way to the WNBA last year.

She can tell you volumes about different cultures, playing styles, philosophies, dreams and disappointments. She could write a textbook on the late 20th Century (and beyond) sports experience for the female athlete.

"I haven't done everything in the game,'' she says, when you insist that she has. "OK, I've competed at everything. You've got me there.''

It would be enough if Edwards were just a great player who utterly lacked pretension. But she's funny on top of that, considerate, visionary, kind-hearted.

And hopeful. Even if -- like many of us -- she has had to work at that.

Being a part of and/or loving women's sports has its hazards. Things grow, and you can appreciate them so keenly. But things go awry, too, and that can be devastating.

Also, it's not a universal front; not everyone is pulling on the same rope. Not even with women's pro basketball in the United States. Edwards doesn't get that. She looks at some of today's women pros, especially some younger players, and she laughs while thinking it's not really funny.

"They've got their shades and their cell phones ... I don't know what they're doing,'' Edwards said. "Do they think this is anything like the NBA? They think we're there? Come on, we're nothing like that. We have our own fans, we appeal to different people.''

There are enough of those people, she believes, to make a successful league. But players, she cautions, cannot get caught up in themselves and some fantasy of what women's pro basketball is.

"We're still trying to sell this. Heck, we'll probably be doing that for the rest of my life,'' she said.

She's irritated by players who act big-time. Who don't always hustle. Who don't smile and really listen to what admiring fans say to them. Who won't engage folks in a conversation. Who are shortsighted and don't understand they're just a small cog in something much bigger. Who haven't bothered to learn the sport's history. Who don't grasp how much other people have done for them.

Edwards idolized predecessors such as Kansas' Lynette Woodard and Louisiana Tech's Janice Lawrence. They just went out and played. Never acted like they were "owed'' anything. They had class.

That's why Edwards is so fond of two of the rookies she has as teammates this year: Nicole Ohlde of Kansas State and Amber Jacobs of Boston College. They're humble, they love to play, they listen to their older teammates.

Ohlde said earlier this season of Edwards, "She can teach me something on every play. Even when I think I've made a good play, she can show me how to do it better.''

You hear this -- and listen to Edwards -- and think of the next stop. That she could, like her good friend Dawn Staley of the Charlotte Sting, become a coach. Edwards laughs.

Not a head coach, she says. Nope. Doesn't appeal to her.

An assistant, perhaps?

"Maybe ... but only at the pro level,'' she said, chuckling again. "Not in college. I guarantee I'd run off as many recruits as I'd bring to your school.''

Why? Because she thinks she couldn't bite her tongue during the "courtship'' process of recruiting. She'd be too tempted to pop the balloon of some self-absorbed youngster.

Besides, she adds, she's not a great teacher. She has little patience with slow learners. And she doesn't want to build from the ground up. She'd rather help fine-tune somebody who has already got pretty good skills. Which, of course, is exactly what the WNBA needs out of its coaches.

It took Edwards awhile to join the WNBA, of course. She stayed loyal to the end to the ABL, and then really didn't seem to want any part of the WNBA. It was less a money issue than the fact that Edwards does not give herself to something easily. She can't go in half-hearted.

There's no point now doing a lot of rehashing over how much the ABL was headed over the cliff anyway and how much the NBA/WNBA might have helped push it. I thought the ABL was doomed from the start and women's pro basketball's realistic hope was the WNBA and a summertime schedule.

Others believed differently, and their hopes died hard. Having been through that, they're still a bit gun shy of the NBA/WNBA. They're always waiting for the plug to be pulled.

Even those who didn't pick a "side'' in the ABL vs. WNBA debate are wary. I've heard so many people who are fans of or involved in women's hoops say, "Well, the WNBA is not going to last.'' When I ask why, they're not sure. They have no concrete facts, just the dread.

They seem to want to protect themselves emotionally by not getting too attached. And maybe they're not as attached as they expected to be. Pro ball is different than college; it takes time and effort to develop fondness for both.

But I've turned into an almost-optimist, remember. I believe the WNBA really does have enough forward momentum, and that enough new players will come into the league who do "get it.''

Edwards is more uncertain, she acknowledges that. She wishes there was just more of a "message from above'' that it's OK to relax and just go play.

"From the players' point of view, it seems fickle still, as if we're still on the bubble,'' she said. "The players have stopped crying over the money they don't have. They accepted a deal. You'd like to hear, 'Hey, we're here to stay.'

"But at the same time, you control what you can. You must do everything as a player to keep the fans enticed, keep them interested and bring quality basketball to the court.''

Edwards is doing that. The Lynx are .500 now, and still figuring out a few things. But she's enjoying it.

"I still have a desire, I feed off of winning,'' she said. "And these days, I feed off of other players around me getting better.''

I'll admit I was frustrated with Edwards for a while when she stayed out of the WNBA. Time was running out on one of the game's greats, and I feared many newcomers to women's hoops would never get to see her. Now, they've gotten that chance.

She's not sure how much longer she'll play, saying, "I figure as long as I have the opportunity and my body can do it, I should take advantage of it. But it's definitely coming to a close.''

And when it does? If the WNBA management is smart, it will reach out to Edwards. She's a wonderful ambassador and a better teacher than she gives herself credit for. Or maybe a smart team will add her to its coaching staff.

For now, though, enjoy Teresa Edwards still playing. As she hopes to do one day with kids who aren't even born yet.

"That's what I want,'' she said. "To be sitting in the stands, cheering, just watching this league, when I'm old. I'd love to be doing that.''

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.