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SCARRED PAST : For Basketball Star Tina Hutchinson, Line of Demarcation Begins With Knee Surgery, Continues on a Troubled Course

Times Staff Writer

The scar on Tina Hutchinson’s left leg runs from just above her knee to just below, 8 inches of a jagged, twisting line.

More than three years have passed since her surgery, and the wound itself has long since healed. But the impact it has left on Hutchinson, once premier among U.S. women basketball players, is one not so easily repaired.

If only one could read this scar as a fortuneteller reads a palm. Few lifelines could match the story to be found along its crooked course.

Follow it as it runs through Hutchinson’s turbulent teens and troubled 20s. Each curve is another detour, each stitch a pitfall.

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See it tell poignantly of her early years in Birmingham, Ala., and her move to East St. Louis, Ill., to be with a new high school coach who later became her legal guardian and then her coach at San Diego State.

Trace it through her selection as the 1983 Parade magazine girls’ high school basketball player of the year, and her brief but spectacular collegiate career, highlighted by her memorable duels against Cheryl Miller of USC.

Wince as it recounts the on-court collision that shredded her left knee, the failing grades that forced her to leave San Diego State after her sophomore year and the lost year spent trying to regain her eligibility and rehabilitate her knee.

Watch it fill with worldliness and renewed enthusiasm in retelling of travel to Italy and Switzerland in search of a professional basketball career, and finding maturity and responsibility along the route.

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And try to follow as it twists between hope and frustration in revealing her thoughts of the moment.

“I’m getting myself back together,” she said. “I’m doing something with my life now.”

She is happy to be back in the San Diego area among friends, studying French and playing in a summer basketball league. She plans to return someday to Europe to play professionally again.

It would be almost perfect were it not for one complication: Hutchinson faces the probability of yet another operation on her tender left knee.

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This one would be to remove loose cartilage and possibly repair ligament tears, byproducts of the constant pounding her knee absorbed during the nine-month Swiss season that ended in May.

The operation would be her fourth on that knee since she injured it in December of 1984 and, given its arthritic condition, probably not the last.

“My leg,” she said, shaking her head as she runs her hand along the length of the scar. “I’ve only got two, and one of them is bad.”

Forty minutes of a recent summer basketball league game turned her left knee into a throbbing, swollen, lump. The pain forced her to limp around the Grossmont College gym at El Cajon.

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She pulled the blue knee brace down around her calf, revealing not only the long scar, but her kneecap, which looks as if it has been split in two.

“Seeing my knee like this is very frustrating,” Hutchinson said. “Basketball is my career, so whatever it takes to keep playing, I’m going to do. But I’m not going to play at the expense of my leg. That would be stupid.”

Hutchinson said that she intends to take a year off to allow her knee adequate time to heal. A younger Hutchinson, she said, would not have passed up the opportunity to make money playing basketball to remain in San Diego for rehabilitation. But at 23, she said that she realizes a few careful months spent resting could mean greater rewards in the end.

“I’ve grown up a lot,” she said. “I’m taking responsibility for my actions. I’m not going to go back (to Europe) with my leg looking like this.”

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But, as is frequently the situation with Hutchinson, there is more to her predicament than she allows. It just may be that her stock in Europe is down. She has had only one recent offer to play there.

Neither of the European teams that Hutchinson played for the last two seasons want her back. Both are concerned about her knee and the difficulty in providing insurance to cover further damage.

In late June, the Swiss team she played for in Nyon, a small city near Geneva, chose not to offer her a contract. This although Hutchinson had averaged about 35 points and 15 rebounds a game and led the team to the final of the Swiss Cup tournament.

Swiss insurance regulations would have required a separate and costly policy if the team wanted to insure Hutchinson’s knee. The premium would have added considerably to the cost of retaining her. Already, her $18,000 salary and use of an apartment and a car made her the highest compensated player in the league, according to her former agent, Bruce Levy of New York.

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“The premium on the policy would have almost exceeded the value of her contract,” Levy said. “The team just couldn’t do it.”

But insurance was not the team’s only problem with Hutchinson.

Sponsors were upset with her because of what they considered a lack of hustle and her frequent foul trouble, said the team’s general manager, Christian Udasse.

Early foul problems limited Hutchinson to only 28 minutes in the Swiss Cup final. Though she scored 27 points, Nyon lost the championship game by a point, 72-71.

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“Off the court, Tina is a lovely girl,” Udasse said. “She has a good attitude. She has star qualities. But on the court, Tina’s attitude is not very good.

“At the beginning she didn’t perform as she is capable. As an example, she didn’t like to play defense. She stayed on the attack. That happened only once or twice during the games, but the sponsors saw that.

“I am sure, though, we could have spoken with Tina and resolved this problem.”

According to Levy, it might be too late. He said Hutchinson already has worn out her welcome in the best European leagues.

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Only recently has a lesser league in France inquired about her availability.

“There isn’t a team in Italy, Spain or Switzerland that would touch her because of her reputation,” Levy said.

Udasse said he made his offer last year only because he was not aware of the seriousness of Hutchinson’s knee problem. She reported just a week before the start of the season after having had off-season arthroscopic surgery to remove loose cartilage. Udasse said Levy never mentioned the surgery to him.

“I never would have agreed to make a contract with Tina if I knew what I know now,” he said.

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Levy said he, too, felt duped because he took Hutchinson’s assurances over the telephone that her knee would not be a problem. He also is angry because he said she owes him $1,900 in fees and expenses for the last two years.

Hutchinson acknowledges that she has not paid Levy but said she has refused because he did not make sure she had adequate medical insurance to play in Europe.

Levy said that Hutchinson knew that team-provided policies would not cover surgery in the United States, but that she returned after her first season in Parma, Italy, to have surgery in San Diego anyway.

“I don’t let anybody touch my knee except Dr. (Gary) Losse,” Hutchinson said. “When I was in Italy, a couple of times they said, ‘We can fix it. We can do it.’ It was like, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. You’re not touching my knee.’ ”

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The dispute may be central to Hutchinson’s future. Until she can settle an outstanding $800 hospital bill from her operation in San Diego last summer, Hutchinson said, the hospital will not give permission for Losse to use its facilities for her next operation.

“My whole thing is not to give up,” Hutchinson said. “Basketball is something that has given me a lot. I got to where I am today because of basketball. I’m not going to give up fighting. I’m fighting my knee, and I’m fighting mentally not to let down.”

This is only the latest of what has been a series of setbacks for Hutchinson. If playing basketball better than almost any other woman were enough to assure success, Hutchinson would have been well on her way long ago. But life is not that simple, as Hutchinson says she has only begun to understand.

She grew up in Birmingham with her mother and grandmother. “My father was not part of my life growing up,” Hutchinson said. She learned basketball from an uncle but spent most of her youth without the guidance of a fatherly influence.

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She found one in Earnest Riggins, who later became her coach and guardian.

She met Riggins at a summer basketball camp in Georgia the summer after her freshman year of high school. Riggins was an instructor and had brought with him much of his team from Lincoln High School of East St. Louis. The team had gone 31-0 and won the state championship the previous season, thanks to the play of Jackie Joyner, who went on to UCLA and, as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, is the world record-holder in the heptathlon.

Hutchinson and Riggins developed an immediate rapport. A month later, Riggins got a call from Hutchinson. She had an aunt in East St. Louis and wondered if Riggins would be interested in her moving there and joining his team.

Soon, Hutchinson was on her way north. But once she arrived in East St. Louis, she said, she found it difficult living with an aunt she hardly knew. Riggins ultimately decided to become her guardian and have her move in with his wife and three children.

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The arrangement was difficult at first. Hutchinson lacked the manners and refinements Riggins expected from his children. He found himself playing parent, coach and Prof. Higgins to his newest star pupil.

On the court, Hutchinson developed into a versatile 6-foot 3-inch player who could play strong inside or move outside to make the long outside shot. But off the court, she sometimes strayed from accepted behavior--such as the time she was caught at school with a group of girls, smoking marijuana. She vividly remembers Riggins’ reaction.

“He took me over his knee and hit me so hard if I think about it now, I still feel it,” said Hutchinson, laughing. “I wasn’t going to lie to him. If I was going to get hit, I was going to get hit telling the truth.”

The bond between them was strong enough that when Riggins accepted the Aztec coaching job in the spring of 1983, Hutchinson turned down offers from several national powers, including Tennessee and UCLA, to follow him to an unproven program at San Diego State.

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The initial success was impressive. In her freshman season, she averaged 29.9 points, 10 rebounds and 6.2 steals in leading the Aztecs to a 24-6 record and a berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.

Among the season highlights were the two memorable games she played against USC’s Miller. At USC, Miller had 36 points, 17 rebounds and 6 assists to Hutchinson’s 41 points and 5 steals. In the return match at a sold-out Peterson Gym, Miller scored 28 to Hutchinson’s 29 points. The Aztecs lost both games, but Hutchinson had established herself as an offensive player with few equals.

“Those games against Cheryl were something I’ll never forget,” Hutchinson said. “They are something I will always cherish in my memory.”

Hutchinson had hopes of teaming with Miller that year to win an Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles. But she never had the chance. Although she was invited to the trials, she missed the deadline for returning her application. Riggins blamed the oversight on a paper-work mix-up, but a subsequent appeal to allow her into the trials was denied.

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The experience left Hutchinson soured on the Olympic ideal.

“From then on, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Olympic team, even though it is my country,” Hutchinson said. “But you know when I look back on it, with Cheryl Miller and I on the same team, there would have had to have been six balls out there, because I want to shoot, and she is going to want to shoot. Maybe it was best she and I weren’t on the same team.”

Hutchinson and the Aztecs started strong again the next season, winning their first eight games. But that changed suddenly on Dec. 15, 1984. In a game against Southern Illinois, Hutchinson jumped to stop a layup. She came down hard on her left leg, twisting her knee and tearing cartilage. Four days later, she underwent arthroscopic surgery, and although she returned to game action 2 1/2 weeks later, she was not the same.

She was in and out of the lineup for much of the next two months as it became clear a more extensive operation was needed. She finally agreed to reconstructive surgery just before the start of the NCAA tournament. Losse performed what at the time was a relatively new operation in which a torn ligament was replaced with synthetic material and tendon from her kneecap.

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Losse judged the operation a success, and the scar on Hutchinson’s left knee is the only outward reminder of that surgery. But in other ways, Hutchinson has never fully recovered. The surgery devastated her.

“It was a lot of tears,” recalled Dee Dee Duncan, her college roommate. “She was just convinced there was no way she was going to get over it. She would say, ‘There is no way I’m ever going to be able to walk again.’

“Then when she was able to walk again, it was, ‘There is no way I’m ever going to be able to run again.’

“And once she was able to run again, it was, ‘There is no way I’m ever going to play basketball again.’ It was a constant, I wouldn’t be able to do this; I wouldn’t be able to do that.

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“She got to the point where she was going to the therapy, doing what she was supposed to be doing. But as soon as she got to the point she could play some again, she knocked off the therapy.”

She stopped going to rehabilitation, stopped going to class, stopped caring about much of anything.

She flunked out of San Diego State after the spring semester in 1985, then failed to complete courses at Palomar College in San Marcos that would have qualified her for consideration for readmittance to San Diego State.

“I’m not going to point any fingers,” Hutchinson said. “If I had gotten my butt up and gone to class, I never would have been in that situation. I guess I thought that because I was so good in basketball that people were going to give me something.

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“So many people were telling me, ‘Tina, go to class. Tina, go to class.’ It was like a broken record. I kept hearing it and hearing it, and it never hit home.

“When they said I was finished, with my knee still hurt, it just messed my head up. I was just 19 or 20 years old. I didn’t know where to go.”

Previously, her troubles had always led her back to Riggins. But college life had complicated their relationship. She was no longer living at his house, and she was beginning to show the kind of independence that many people do in their early years away from home.

“There were more and more parties, more and more things to do, and that took away from her school work,” Duncan said. “She got out here to sunny California, and now she had people telling her, ‘Come on, Tina, let’s do this. Come on, Tina, let’s do that.’ She got caught up in all of that. It got into her head, and she forgot about what got her there.”

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Even Riggins became annoyed at Hutchinson’s lack of discipline concerning her rehabilitation and her schoolwork. Their relationship grew strained and they sometimes communicated only through Riggins’ older son, Earnest Jr.

“I was torn between playing father and playing coach,” Riggins said. “My heart went out to her. But she didn’t want to hear me preaching. These were lessons she had to learn on her own.”

Hutchinson spent a year drifting, sporadically attending classes at Palomar and working as an assistant basketball coach.

“There were times when (Riggins) was mad at me and times when I’ve been mad at him,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not a perfect item. It’s like a husband and wife. Sometimes they fight and drive each other away, but then there is that love and respect that you know will probably bring you back together.

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“It was just that I wasn’t ready to be out on my own so soon and so fast. I felt lost. I felt like a nobody. I had just come from San Diego State, where I was used to being on top, to sinking down so low. I couldn’t see how I could be up so high one day and down so low the next.”

Short on money and with little interest in trying to resume her college basketball career, Hutchinson decided to turn pro.

The 1986-87 season already was under way in Europe, but Levy, an agent who specializes in placing U.S. women in foreign leagues, was able to find an opening for Hutchinson. Parma needed someone to replace an injured player.

“My family isn’t rich by no means,” Hutchinson said. “I wasn’t going to steal or do anything to put me in jail. The thing I decided to do was to go somewhere where I could make some money. Some legal money.

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“I figured it was better to be paid to play basketball than to do it for free.”

In a year, her priorities had radically changed. Gone were hopes of becoming an All-American, a trip to the Final Four and an Olympic gold medal. Basketball had gone from a game to a livelihood.

Playing in Europe had its benefits. Not only was she able to make a living, but Hutchinson said the experience enriched her culturally and helped her mature by proving to her that she could care for herself far from home.

But it also led to yet another disappointment. After two controversial seasons, she is left with a dwindling bank account, a chronically sore knee and an uncertain future.

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She faces an operation without the means to pay for it. She talks of the need to find a job soon because money is tight, but she lacks a college degree or any occupational training. Her only summer plans were to study French at Palomar and play in San Diego’s Supreme Court Pro-Am basketball league.

Riggins, when he looks back on where Hutchinson came from and where she is now, takes comfort in seeing just how much she has accomplished.

“In retrospect, maybe we all were asking too much of Tina,” he said. “Here was a kid who came from a home with no male role model. I have to be thankful she has gotten this far. She finished high school, she had two years of college, and she has traveled the world.

“Tina made a lot of mistakes, but she has grown up. I’ve never given up on Tina.”

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And through all her difficulties, Hutchinson managed to keep an upbeat outlook about her future. She softens the hardness of her story with an easy laugh, an engaging smile and disarming openness.

“The one thing I have learned is that I can’t afford to lay down and give up on life even though there have been a couple of times that is what I wanted to do,” Hutchinson said. “I’m a winner, and I’m never going to give up easy. I’m not going to let anything stop me from what I really love, and that’s playing basketball. If I had to play on one leg, I would.”


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