The godmother of women's basketball polishes 'The Princess of Hoop'
by Brooks Clark
With 3:52 to go and the score tied at 63-63, UT's Michelle Marciniak is just inside the three-point line, one-on-one with Louisiana Tech guard Kendra Neal.
"Take her!" exhorts coach Pat Summit from the bench.
Marciniak charges around Neal, reverses direction and goes up for a turnaround jumper. The crowd of 11,188 stands and loses its collective mind. The Lady Vols were not only going to upset the number one team in the nation, they were on fire.
"You talk about being in the zone," says Marciniak. "I hit that little turnaround jumper, and when the crowd went nuts, I got chills as I was running down the court I felt it so much. All I knew at that point was my teammates and winning that ball game."
What was apparent that evening, and had been apparent in the 77-72 upset of No. 2 Vanderbilt three nights earlier, was that a chemical reaction was taking place. The same team that had been ambushed by Stanford, Connecticut and Georgia had shown that on the right night it could beat anyone. The elements include six-foot-two forward Chamique Holdsclaw, a freshman who has improved from fabulous to unstoppable in two months; scoring guard Latina Davis, whose heroics on a sprained ankle sparked the victory over Vanderbilt; and forward Abby Conklin, who provided 12 clutch points in the second half against the Techsters.
But the heartbeat, the leader, the quarterback, who holds in her hands exactly how far this team can go, is Marciniak."
"Great point guards will have a team in the palm of their hand and bring a team to another level," says Summitt. "I say that about coaches. But with this particular team, I think Michelle can really have a lot of influence on the destiny of this team."
Over the next month and a half, it will also become clear that Marciniak, who made honorable-mention All-America last year, has reached the moment when she can realize her basketball potential, combining the Pete Maravich ball-handling, the desire, and the ability to make the team play together and believe.
I want a championship so bad it hurts," she sighs.
Marciniak has always had plenty of flash. As a senior at Allentown (Pa.) Central Catholic High, she was featured in the 1991 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in a story entitled "The Ponytailed Princess of Hoop." She has always carried a picture of Michael Jordan in her sock, and her signature spin move earned her the title "Spinderella." No-look passes. Behind the back passes. Long passes.
Not exactly Pat Summitt basketball.
"I'm sure it's been hard for her to play for me," says Summitt, "and at times it's been a real challenge for me to coach her, because I expect perfection, and her style does not always lend itself to that type of game. Michelle had a lot of what I would call street ball in her game. She does a lot instinctively, and sometimes she doesn't have a conscience with the ball. But when you're the point guard you have to learn to play one possession at a time and take into account situations, time, score, all of the above, not just go play. This has been a process in which Michelle has learned to look at four other players and what she needs to bring to them to make them play better. It's a mental game, not a physical game at that point. I've been really tough on her, but I think Michelle knows why. I see the potential for her to be one of the best point guards to play in this program, one of the best point guards nationally."
"Pat was determined to make me her point guard," says a grateful Spinderella, "and she's put everything on the line for me. She's held me. She's yelled at me. She's fussed at me. She's screamed at me. She's patted me on the back. She's hugged my neck."
Marciniak grew up in Macungie, Pa., playing one-on-one with her older brother, Steve. Her father, Whitey, was a fullback at Maryland; her mother, Betsy, a cheerleader there. Michelle played golf, soccer, softball and volleyball, and scored 3,025 points in her high school basketball career. She was a two-time Parade All-America and Gatorade, Naismith, and Street & Smith's player of the year.
Summitt has said from time to time that Marciniak was destined to play at UT. This feeling comes in part from Summitt's 1990 recruiting trip to the Marciniak home. Summitt, then seven and a half months pregnant, had just begun to describe the glories of Lady Vols basketball when her water broke. She quickly caught a plane home to make sure that her son Tyler was born in Tennessee.
In Marciniak's senior year, Summitt was also in the process of recruiting a class that included several others from that same Parade All-America team--Vonda Ward, Dana Johnson and USA Today's player of the year, Tiffany Woosley--along with forward Nikki McCray.
"I really liked Michelle the first time I saw her play," says Summitt. "I think she was in the ninth grade at an AAU tournament. I just loved her game and I thought she would be a great player for our program and a good fit.
"As we went through the recruiting process I wasn't so sure, because Tiffany Woosley was coming here, and with the returning players we had and the players we signed with that class, I just wasn't so sure, with Michelle's game and her desire to be a go-to player and make the difference for a program. I've always said that as a great high school player you can be a showboat, or come here and be on the showboat. I think Michelle really felt like being the showboat--and I don't mean that in a negative way at all. She wanted to be that go-to player. She wanted the responsibility of being the impact person at Notre Dame. She had to experience that to know she wanted to come aboard a traditionally strong program."
Says Marciniak, "I took the other route. I already took the fancy, do-whatever-you-want-to-do route, and I lost 17 times, and that's not what I want in my college career."
After a year at Notre Dame, Marciniak transferred to Tennessee and sat out the 1992-93 season. In 1993-94 she backed up Tiffany Woosley at point guard and played mostly the number two guard, wowing the crowds with flashes of showtime and often getting her feelings hurt.
"I didn't know how to take Pat," Marciniak says. "I took everything personally. She would yell at me and I'd cry. I was going through a whole change. We were both trying to change the way I looked at the game, how I saw the game and approached the game, and on top of that she was yelling at me and fussing at me and I didn't know how to handle it. It's experience and maturity. Now she yells at me, I say, 'OK, I got it,' and I go back and do what I was supposed to do."
Then came the Mideast Regional playoff game against Louisiana Tech. The entire team, perhaps looking ahead to the Final Four, was flat. With the team behind by 17, Marciniak came off the bench to spark a rally, scoring 17 points, including three free throws in a row in the final seconds before the Lady Vols finally succumbed 68-71. As she got on the bus, Summitt said to Lady Vols publicist Debbie Jennings that "there are going to be some changes in the line-up."
"First of all, in that game they keyed on our starting point guard," says Summitt, "and when Michelle came into the game she posed some problems for them--regardless of their speed and quickness, she physically could hold her own. Secondly, we made a run with her on the floor. I saw a competitiveness and an attitude under adversity that I thought would enhance her ability to be a point guard. We talked within a day and I just said, 'You're going to be my point guard.'"
"It was after that game that I knew she believed in me," says Marciniak. "She saw something in me that she really liked, and she took a chance with me. I'm not a true point guard. I'd never played point guard for a full game in my life up until last year. I'd played the two all through high school. She just said, 'The team is yours if you want it.' After Pat told me that, it was all over for me. I was so excited. I worked my butt off in the summer. I was totally psyched."
The point guard is the hardest position to play on a Pat Summitt team. "You've got to have a thick skin," says assistant coach Holly Warlick, who defined the position when she played between 1976 and '80. "You've got to be able to accept the criticism."
"I know for me that's where I start," says Summitt. "I look at the point guard as an extension of the coach. If it's broke, you fix it. If it's not, you get a lot of credit. Therefore there are a lot of expectations at that spot. We look at tapes and we look at execution and invariably I come back and I say, 'It starts with you.'"
How much does Pat Summitt expect from a point guard? One example came during last year's title game against Connecticut. At one point in the first half, Marciniak zipped a long pass to center Dana Johnson under the hoop. After the ball went through Johnson's hands, the CBS-TV national audience saw Summitt chide Marciniak.
"In that play," says Summitt, "I felt like you have to know who's receiving the basketball. That's a part of being a point guard. To me it's like a quarterback: This guy's not fast enough to run under a ball and catch it; this player doesn't have the hands to complete the play. You've got to deliver it right on target. Michelle just over-led on that play. But the whole thing was that when she passed the ball, she made a 30-foot pass. We're constantly talking about shortening your passes. That needed to be about a 12- to 15-foot pass."
"I pretty much get the brunt of everything," says Marciniak cheerfully. "If there's a pass to the post and they don't catch it, for the most part, most of the time, it was because I didn't deliver the ball to them at the right time or to the right spot. I've accepted that. That's my role on this team--to give them a perfect pass--and if it's not perfect, then it's not good enough. I've just learned to handle the fact that Dana didn't catch the pass and Pat yelled at me. I've learned to accept that."
An example in black and white came during Marciniak's comeback against Louisiana Tech two years ago. "She'd just hit a three and she gave up a lay-up," explains Summitt. "As she ran by me I grabbed her uniform and I said, 'You don't hit a three and give up a lay-up.'"
That scene--ponytailed Spinderella cruelly castigated by the evil stepmother--was captured by a photographer and disseminated across the country on the Associated Press wire.
"I got a couple of nasty letters and phone calls," says Summitt. "I called her mom--we have a great relationship there--and told her, 'I promise it wasn't child abuse.'
"It's really interesting," Summitt continues, "because you have to be on the inside to know how we function here. I think we have a special relationship, our staff and our players, in that it's tough love at times. Discipline is tough love at times. In coaching you have to have a combination. They know that when you step over the line onto the court, you're a player. When you step off the court, now you're a person, and there are times when we may be dealing with problems academically or personally or whatever, but you have to be able to switch those roles and understand where we're coming from.
"Michelle is a terrific competitor. She's a hard worker. She's also a very sensitive person. I'm sure at times my style has probably been very hard on her. But I think the important thing is she knows I care very much about her as a person. I think you can handle criticism better when you know it's coming from someone who really cares about you. You know, your mom and dad can hurt your feelings but you know they love you, and that's important."
Marciniak took the AP picture of herself and Summitt and taped it to the dashboard of her red '91 Honda Prelude.
"It was there all last year. I didn't really understand why I put it there," says Marciniak who graduated in December with a B.S. in psychology "I mean, why would you put a picture like that on the dashboard of your car so you see it every day? I think it was there for a reason and the reason was motivation. Pat really wants this for me very badly, and I just have to keep plugging no matter how hard it gets. In a warped kind of way that's the way I interpreted that picture."
It may have surprised both Summitt the disciplinarian and Marciniak the wild pony when they compared results on the Predictive Index personality test and saw in objective measure how many character traits they actually have in common.
"We're very similar in that we are very competitive people," says Summitt. "We have a high energy level, strong work ethic, hate to lose, love to work with other people. Because there are a lot of similarities in our personalities, it's almost like there are times I know what she's going to do before she does it, and she probably knows what I'm going to say before I say it."
"I think ever since we found that out," says Marciniak, "she just expected a whole lot from me, because that's how she would react if she were in my shoes."
Summitt may also have more in common with Marciniak as a player than she lets on.
"Pat's not one to talk about her playing days," said Holly Warlick in a 1994 newspaper story. "But one time she went on what a great passer she was, how she hates fancy stuff, only like fundamental passes. So toward the end of a film session a few days later [assistant coach] Mickie [DeMoss] and I slipped in a tape of her playing for UT-Martin. It was hilarious. She was throwing hook passes and all this crazy stuff."
"I'd like to see those tapes," says Marciniak.
Last season the Lady Vols ran into a Connecticut team of destiny that would not be beaten. The Huskies' 35-0 season and the accompanying hoopla rocketed women's basketball into a new era as a featured sport. Rebecca Lobo was featured in People magazine. ESPN signed to cover regular-season games for the first time. The tickets for this year's title game--an event that didn't always sell out just three years ago--were gone last April.
Against the Huskies, Marciniak went nose to nose and kneepad to kneepad with All-America point guard Jen Rizzotti, who played 39 minutes out of 40 and, with the scored tied 61-61 with 1:51 to go, took a long rebound at the top of the key, spun Marciniak with a crossover dribble and drove the length of the court for the go-ahead lay-up. In a remarkable piece of sportsmanship, Marciniak wrote her a note afterward saying, "Congratulations. You deserved it."
"What Jen has been able to do is make big plays in close games," says Summitt, "and to me Michelle has been able to do that in our last two games [Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech] by getting the ball to the right people at the right time and, if they're not open, making the shot. The other thing Rizzotti does is to bring a competitiveness and a confidence to that team, conveying to everyone, 'Hey, we're not losing.' And I've seen that in Michelle. Her physical stature (five feet nine inches) is really an asset at that position. She's not one to be intimidated or bumped around. She brings a lot of confidence to our team just with her body language."
At times Marciniak moves like John Wayne in Hondo. Other times she sways her shoulders like Popeye. Her play is always physical: "I've always got welts and bruises I don't even remember getting," she says.
Last season Marciniak kept the words "Finish" and "Leader" on her wristband. They refer to completing plays offensively and defensively, and her mission as field general: "To make the people on the floor with me better. To be a leader, not just some of the time but all the time."
That mission is essential to this year's Lady Vols because they are young.
"Last year Michelle didn't have to worry about raising everybody's level of play," observes Summitt, "because she was playing with one of the most talented teams in the history of our program. McCray was there every night. Dana Johnson was there every night. We had a lot of weapons. She probably didn't realize how easy she had it."
The all-star team atmosphere had its disadvantages, too. "There was a lot of unspoken pressure last year," says Marciniak. "You just knew it." (Not surprising when the motto for the year was "One Team, One Goal.")
"Even though we had a pretty good chemistry last year," says Marciniak, "we've got an even better chemistry with our entire team this year. This year we knew we were going to be the underdogs going into the season, so that was our mindset; and it's probably going to be our mindset for the rest of the year, no matter what. And we've all kind of meshed together."
That has occurred in the past several weeks. "I started out the first half of the season being real intense," says Marciniak. "If we needed a kick in the butt out there, I'd give it to whoever wasn't playing well or I'd say, look, you need to do this or do that. Whereas, in the last few games I started taking a different approach. I decided to get in the huddle and calm everybody down--just say we're doing a good job or we're not doing a good job. I'm using a different tone right now, and I think it really helped, since we won three very big games. I think that had a positive effect because I guess Pat's the one who does the butt-kicking and yelling and screaming. I didn't do that, but I think my tone sometimes made everybody nervous."
That makes sense, considering the personalities involved. The two guard, Latina Davis, doesn't say much on the court. "Latina will show you through her actions that she wants to win and that she loves this game," says Marciniak. Centers Tiffani Johnson and Pashen Thompson are by nature (in Summitt's judgment) passive and need below-the-hoop aggressiveness drawn out of them.
The key to the postseason may well be Chamique Holdsclaw, who came from Christ the King High in Queens, N.Y., as the most highly recruited player in the nation and last week became the first woman ever to be cited as ESPN's player of the week. But she admits that earlier in the season she was tentative, as in "Oh, let me see what Latina, Michelle and the upperclassmen will do." Against Louisiana Tech she scored 23 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and prompted Lady Techsters coach Leon Barmore to compare her to Cheryl Miller, one of the greatest female players ever. For the Lady Vols to make the Final Four, Holdsclaw must continue to produce like a seasoned veteran.
"Michelle's a psychology major," says Summitt, "so she should be able to experiment and figure out something. I think the important thing we're seeing is that she's making an effort to get everybody else better."
The other day Marciniak slipped the wrong tape into the video machine and saw herself playing at Notre Dame.
"It's just like night and day," she says. "You can't even compare the way I'm playing now to the way I was playing out of high school."
Still, there's a time for the flash. "There are times when I don't want her to be so structured that she's not aggressive and attacking," says Summitt. "When she's in her zone and she's clicking, then I just need to shut up. Late in the Vanderbilt game she made that spin move, and she knows I don't like the spin move, and in the film session I said, 'Even I thought that was a nice move.' I want to give her some leeway, or give her some rope, so to speak, but I want to have a hold of the end of it just in case I have to pull it back. Having a player like that is a great challenge because she can do a lot of things with a basketball, she can bring to the floor a style unlike any point guard that I've had."
And the work continues: "What I recognized about Michelle's game is that up until this year she shot three-pointers or lay-ups. So we've tried to create a short game for her. She's not been a rebounder for us at all, so we've tried to get her on the boards more this season. I think I understand her better. I think she understands the game of basketball better. She'd make a good coach."
After this year, Marciniak will continue to play basketball, perhaps in pro leagues abroad. There's one spot open on this summer's U.S. Olympic team, but it will probably go to six-foot-seven center Kara Wolters of Connecticut.
"The year 2000 is my goal," says Marciniak. "I've played USA Basketball for seven years. In the year 2000 it will be the Olympics or not be the Olympics. I've got four more years, good years, left in me."