Teiko Nishi stood out when she played basketball at North Torrance High School. The South Bay all-star averaged 15 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists a game. She was an all-league cager and though it may seem hard to believe because most players tower over her now, she was the tallest player on her team.
Today the 20-year-old is still noticed, not because she scores or grabs rebounds and definitely not because she's tall.
The 5-8 UCLA point guard is rare. She's the only Asian playing women's Division I basketball in Southern California.
"When we played at a tournament in Hawaii," Nishi said, "the people couldn't believe we had an Asian player. When I was checking into the game, the guys at the table said, 'No way! You're Oriental!' They were so happy to see a Japanese playing basketball, especially for a big school like UCLA."
That's how it's been in college for Nishi, who is a Japanese major with an emphasis in business. Her ethnic origin has made her most noticed because her statistics sure haven't.
High school marked the end of the glory days for Nishi. In college she rarely scores or rebounds. During her first two seasons at UCLA she averaged one point and close to a rebound a game. So obviously it's not Nishi's figures that make her valuable to the Bruins--it's her ball handling and court leadership.
"She's just a great play-making guard," said Steve Kavaloski, Amateur Athletic Union girls basketball coach, who coached Nishi for two years in summer leagues. "She's excellent with the ball and she's a team player."
Nishi was the starting point guard in 1983 when Kavaloski's team won the girls 16 and under Basketball Congress International championship and in '84 when the team placed second.
"She had walked in off the street," said Kavaloski, who recruits high school stars for his team, "but she could play defense and turned out to be our best ball handler."
Nishi may have been a walk-on, but she played like a veteran because she had been playing in Japanese leagues around the South Bay since she was in the fourth grade. The leagues are top-notch development programs for girls.
"I played on the guys team too," she said, "because they needed size."
The experience helped her career at North Torrance where she was a four-year starter on a team that won the Bay League title and went to the CIF playoffs every year. Nishi played against USC's Cheryl Miller--who played for Riverside Poly--in front of a sellout crowd during the CIF playoffs in her sophomore year.
Miller, a senior, was about half a foot taller than Nishi. "I was the tallest one on my team so I got to cover her," Nishi said rolling her eyes. "The thing I remember most is that she was real big and intimidating."
The Saxons lost by 40 to taller Riverside Poly, but Nishi was still a standout player just as she was in summer and Asian leagues.
She's admired for dribbling, muscling in the key for an assist and hustling on defense, but the fame is gone.
At UCLA, Nishi is not a star. She's had to adjust from being queen of the court to just another of Coach Billie Moore's players.
On top of that, this is her first season in full force after knee surgery in 1985 forced her to redshirt the '85-86 season and limited her game time last year.
"It was a difficult time for her," said Moore of Nishi's first season back. "It always hurts when you sit out a year, then try to play to your potential."
As if that isn't enough, Nishi is competing against highly recruited freshmen Michelle Miles and Rachelle Roulier.
"I've learned to handle it," Nishi said. "I realize I could do more coming off the bench because I can see what's going on. Besides, not starting is nothing compared to my first year in college.
"My first year was really tough," she said, shaking her head. "Billie really got on me. She corrected me all the time. When you're doing badly, she lets you know it.
"I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but I wasn't used to it because I was brought up differently. Japanese use more body language, I guess. No matter what you do wrong, certain things are not said, and even when you're being scolded you don't make eye contact.
"Billie makes you look at her when she's telling you."
Even in Nishi's third season as a Bruin, Moore doesn't hesitate to let her know she's messed up. She occasionally interrupts drills during the two-hour practice at Pauley Pavilion to do just that.
"No no no no no no Teiko!" Moore said while clenching her fists during an afternoon workout. "You can't just hold the ball forever. You're getting lazy. Why do you just want to dribble, dribble, dribble?"
Each time Nishi stopped, looked at Moore and nodded her head as drops of sweat rolled down her forehead and she put her hands at her hips. Nishi is used to it now.
"Yeah," said Moore, who enters her 11th year as the Bruins' head coach, "her freshman year was really difficult. She struggled. But she's worked a lot.
"Last year she came off the bench and helped us win crucial games in conference. I'm very pleased with her play. She's made tremendous progress and she's taken her game another level from last year to this year."
This season, Nishi has gained the confidence and speed she possessed prior to surgery and lacked last year.
It was evident in her performance against defending NCAA champion Tennessee earlier this month. Nishi proved with great agility, fancy dribbling and consistent passing that she's back in full force, even if she does wear a thick brace over the eight-inch scar on her right knee.
"Last year she couldn't keep up on defense," said UCLA all-conference guard Dora Dome, who played in summer leagues with Nishi and against her in high school. "This year she looks just as good as when we were in high school. She's got her quickness back and feels better about herself. She's more assertive, and it shows."
Tennessee was a big game for Nishi because it was her first as a starter since her operation and it was against a top team.
"I was more nervous than usual," she said. "I was thinking things out and was a little tentative. But it felt good to start, even if there is more pressure."
Starting may not last too long for Nishi, though. Not with Miles, a point guard from Colorado who is averaging 14 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists, in the picture.
It's a good thing Nishi has adjusted to sitting on the bench when the game starts, because when Miles recovers from knee surgery, that's probably what Nishi will be doing.
"I'll just be another Michael Cooper," she said, smiling.