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Women’s Basketball Is Passing the Torch : Teresa Edwards Comes Into Her Own as Miller’s Successor, Team’s Catalyst

Times Staff Writer

The queen is gone--long live the queen--banished to the broadcast booth of life while women’s basketball, casting around for a savior successor, alights on the shoulders of Teresa Edwards, the laid-back, souped-up, crowd-pleasing sprite from south Georgia, the latest U.S. nominee for the title of world’s top player.

But it’s not that easy. Who picked up the fallen mantle of Babe Ruth? They kept on playing, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Thus, women’s basketball post-Cheryl Miller.

Miller was a scorer, a flamboyant player, a media figure. Edwards cares nothing for points or publicity, plans no future with any network. She just likes to play.

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“There were a lot of great players who were overshadowed by Cheryl,” said Lynn Norenberg, assistant director of the U.S. Amateur Basketball Assn.

“Miller was a scorer. Teresa got the ball to Cheryl and was content to do that. With Cheryl gone, Teresa really has to emerge.”

But Edwards will have to emerge in her own way, low-profile until the need arises. The leading U.S. scorer is likely to become Katrina McClain, the 6-foot 2-inch power forward from Tennessee with the deft touch in the low post.

Edwards, a 5-11 off-guard, will content herself with pushing the ball upcourt, guarding the opponent’s best guard or small forward, and making the occasional razzle-dazzle drive down the lane, unless the game gets tight, when she will promptly try to take it over.

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Or as Edwards said, after an exhibition against Cuba: “I don’t consider myself a great player when we’re 20-30 points ahead.”

Said her old University of Georgia coach, Andy Landers:

“You’ll see a different fire in her eyes, a different zeal in her game. If a game gets close, she’ll take it over, which is extremely hard for a guard to do.

“I’ll tell you a story. We’re playing Long Beach at UCLA in the regionals in ’85. We’re up 17-18 and they cut it to 10, really had some momentum going.

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“I could see Teresa’s burners start to kick in. She couldn’t get enough of anything--points, rebounds, anything.

“I called time out and called Edwards over before she got to the huddle. I said, ‘Do you want us to run a clearout for you?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and sat down.

“So I told the team, ‘If Edwards waves her arm, get her the ball and all of you go to the other side of the floor.’

“We did it three times in a row. Three baskets, game’s over.

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“She’s such a competitor. But she’s not a player who has to score. She’s not a player who has to be in the limelight. She just wants to win.

“There have been times when I literally had to lead Teresa to postgame (interviews). It wasn’t rudeness. It wasn’t brashness. If she didn’t play well, it was hard for her to face the media. It was hard for her to face herself.

“This is a wired-tight individual. She couldn’t shrug it off between the locker room and the media room.

“She’s geared to compete. She’s not geared for flashbulbs.”

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Who remembers the game before Cheryl Miller?

Don’t too many of you raise your hands. We have attendance figures that say otherwise.

The Soviet Union dominated for decades, with the immovable object, 7-2 Ulyana Semenova, anchored in the middle. The United States never beat a Soviet national team after 1947. The first time they met in Olympic competition was in 1976, when women’s play was introduced, and the Soviets flattened the U.S. by 35.

But then came the U.S. women’s movement, and stars emerged, such as Miller and the great Kansas guard, Lynette Woodard, generally considered the game’s 1-2 players, in whatever order. The U.S. romped to a gold medal in Los Angeles in ’84, with no opponent getting within 28 points, but, of course, you know what comrades were boycotting.

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Then, faster than you can say, “The Soviets weren’t there,” the U.S. snuffed them, too.

In the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow, they beat the Soviets in the final, 83-60.

They met again in the final of the ’86 World Cup, also in Moscow: United States 108, Soviets 88.

How had they passed in the night?

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“It could have happened before that,” Norenberg said. “In ’84, they didn’t come. In ’80, we didn’t go.

“Maybe it happened prior to ’86, but that was the first time we played when we had our best team and they had their best team.

“We had just gotten so much quicker and stronger. They were still playing a slowdown game with very large players like Semenova.

“We just took advantage of their lack of quickness. We were essentially playing five on four. We’d get it out and run, and Semenova was still coming upcourt.”

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The U.S. resurgence was led by several women, but at home, Miller single-handedly raised the level of attention.

Women, of course, are no match for men. This U.S. basketball team recently split two scrimmages with the men’s handball team.

“We beat them the first one, but they took it to us in the second,” U.S. Coach Kay Yow says. “I think we kind of snuck up on them in that first one.”

However, they are trying to find an audience, as have women in tennis. For so much of what they have now, they have one woman to thank.

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“It’s hard to give Cheryl enough credit,” said Anne Donovan, an Olympian in 1980, ’84 and ’88.

“She added a spark to the game that we didn’t have before. We had great players. We had Lynette, we had Nancy (Lieberman), we had Carol (Blazejowski). We had a ton of players, but we never had a player where people said, ‘Wow, let’s go watch her!’ ”

But in April, 1987, Miller blew out a knee playing pickup. Her attempt to come back from reconstructive surgery ended in August, when Yow cut her. The U.S. women are into their post-superstar phase now.

The year Miller left Riverside Poly High for USC, Edwards left Cairo (pronounced KAY-row) High in Cairo, Ga.

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Miller was already famous, the first woman dunker.

Edwards was rated by one recruiting service as the nation’s 11th-leading small forward.

“That’s not 11th-best player, 11th-best small forward,” Landers said.

“She’s from south Georgia, by and large, the rural part of the state, and from a very small town. She’s not a metropolitan-type person. She’s very family-oriented. She’s from a very close-knit family.

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“When she was here, she was an officer in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She’s really just an excellent, excellent person. She’s a jewel.

“I’ve never seen Teresa intimidated by anything. She’s such a competitor. She was a 3.0 student and she’d get upset if she made a C. That’s pretty much her approach in life.”

Edwards always had a metropolitan-type game. Considered a better athlete than basketball player when she got to Georgia, she was quicker than everyone she played, and she took everything inside. A jump shot was something she left in warm-ups.

As a freshman, she led the Lady Bulldogs to the Final Four, and she became the youngest Olympian. She and Miller were the only ones with college eligibility remaining.

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Miller starred.

Edwards sat.

“She was taken because of her outstanding potential,” said Yow, an assistant to Pat Head in ’84.

“I don’t believe she had ever played in an international game. But you could see the potential coming out everywhere. Teresa has just incredible quickness and speed for a woman.

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“So we took her because we felt she could be a very valuable player in practice for us to go against.

“Then she just went all-out, all the time. You know, she had one gear then, and it was there all the time, full speed.”

Full speed hit the wall. Edwards played only a few minutes during the Games.

“Twelfth man on a 12-man squad,” remembers Landers.

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Edwards said: “It was hard at first. You don’t really understand, being a young player, a young kid. You don’t really understand the value of experience.

“But I learned a lot. It was a role I had to accept. Coach finally just came out and said, ‘You’re not going to play much.’ ”

And being out there with the best players in the game, wasn’t this 18-year-old bumpkin intimidated?

"(Smiling) I think I was too young to be intimidated. You don’t really think about how good the next person is. You think about ways to beat that person. I felt inexperienced but not intimidated.

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“In ’86, I felt like a much older player. I would like to be a very important player on this team. I feel like there isn’t much that I should go up against that I don’t know. According to the rest of the girls, I’m really experienced. Everybody pretty much looks up to me, and I pretty much owe that respect to my teammates.”

Does she feel she can step up, now that Miller is gone?

“It won’t be hard if I don’t put pressure on myself, if I don’t tell myself I have to do that. I just have to go out and play ball like I’ve always done.

“I really believe in my teammates. I believe this is a 12-man team, or a 12-woman team, and I’ve always played like that. I don’t think anything’s changed. I don’t think Cheryl could ever win an Olympic Games by herself.”

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Landers said he suspects that Edwards would like to go out acclaimed as the game’s best. Whatever, it does seem that at 23, Edwards is on her way out.

Women’s basketball is a short career, as there is little economic incentive to prolong it. There is no U.S. pro league. Donovan prolonged her career by playing in Japan, which she says was too much calisthenics, not enough joy.

Edwards has played two seasons in Vicenza, Italy, where she earns around $50,000, or about 25% of what a top U.S. male gets.

She may retire. She may coach. Whatever, the world has more challenges waiting than a rematch with the Soviets and a bunch of writers asking her if she’s the next Ms. M.

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That’s easy.

No.

She’s the first Teresa Edwards.


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