Spreading Her Wings : Versatile Starbird Gives Stanford Reason to Believe It Can Fly to Top

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her coach calls her "our Jerry Rice," for the aplomb with which the one-time Army brat plays arguably the best women's game in college basketball.

Her teammates call her "Bird," in part because of her name, in part because of her birdlike legs and in part because she really can fly right through transition defenses with her sprint dribble.

Meet Catherine Evelyn Starbird, a.k.a. "Kate the Great."

She's Stanford's skinny wonder woman, whose game is so complete she figures to be a marquee name in the first bidding war between the country's two women's pro leagues, beginning March 31, the day after this season's Final Four.

She can shoot from outside--she leads the Pacific 10 Conference in three-point shooting at 41%--inside or medium range, and she's 83% from the free-throw line. She can pass, rebound, block shots and, best of all, dribble baseline to baseline with the speed you expect from a 5-foot-2 point guard, not a 6-2 wing player.

She also has America's ugliest shot, although she describes it as "unorthodox." Starbird shooting strongly resembles somebody putting the shot. But that's how you learn when you're 14 and playing against 20-year-old soldiers.

And whatever she does on the court she does with a facial expression that is no facial expression. Makes you wonder if she's having any fun out there.

An interviewer jokingly asked her the other day if Stanford was forcing her to play basketball against her will.

She not only smiled, but laughed as well.

"People ask me that all the time," she said.

"It's just concentration, I guess. When I was young, my coaches always told me, 'When you do something good, forget it and try to visualize what's happening next.'

"Anyway, I smile when a teammate does something good. Don't I?"

Tara VanDerveer, her coach, talked about Starbird's game demeanor. To her, it's the perfect game face.

"I love that part of her game," she said.

"In our last game, against Arizona, Charmin Smith made a three-pointer late in the game for us, and celebrated. She threw a party for herself. I had a long talk with her afterward.

"One of the things I pointed out to her was this was a game where Kate had just scored 37 points and made five of 11 threes and had not even smiled.

"Kate's our Jerry Rice. He scores a touchdown, puts the ball down and goes about his business. That's her game too--she'd rather play it than talk about it. Being the center of attention is the last thing on her mind.

"She's an intuitive basketball player. You don't have to explain a lot to her.

"And she's really a great fit for us. When our inside players are productive, she's open for shots. And [point guard Jamila Wideman] is very good at breaking down defenses and pitching off to Kate."

Starbird and the Stanford women, 14-1 overall, 2-0 in the Pac-10 and ranked second and third in two polls, are on their annual Los Angeles visit this weekend. They will play at UCLA (7-4, 1-1) tonight and at USC (8-3, 2-0) Sunday at 2 p.m. Last season, Starbird had 44 and 29 points against USC.

The women's basketball world has turned over several times since then. First, Stanford has its coach back. VanDerveer returned after a yearlong, 60-0 march to the Olympic gold medal, and two U.S. pro women's leagues have surfaced.

Seniors such as Starbird, USC's Tina Thompson, Connecticut's Kara Wolters and Alabama's Shalonda Enis will find themselves in much the same position as the college football stars of the early 1960s, who were pursued with bags of money by the established NFL and upstart American Football League.

Starbird figures to be a Women's National Basketball Assn. signee, since the up-and-running American Basketball League has most of the country's best women players signed, leaving the WNBA, which begins play June 1, in need of marquee players.

Starbird says she hasn't given pro ball much thought.

"I really haven't had time to look closely at either league," she said. "I'm just happy that women's pro ball is finally here. And I do want to play."

She carries a 3.30 grade-point average--she was a first-team academic All-American last season--in computer science. In high school, she was one of 1,400 National Merit Scholarship finalists.

Said VanDerveer, "Kate takes classes the rest of us can't even pronounce."

Before the ABL was formed 16 months ago, Starbird saw herself as a Silicon Valley computer whiz.

Now, the young woman who learned the game in an Army gym looks to the next level.

In 1989, her next level was the U.S. Army. So she decided to be all she could be.

That was the year now-retired Col. Ed Starbird and his wife, Margaret, and their five children--Kate is the middle daughter--were transferred to Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash.

"Kate had just become interested in basketball and the first thing she wanted to know was, 'Where's the gym?' her father recalled.

"Turned out it was just across the parade ground, which was across the street from our house on the base.

"She was just a tall, skinny 14-year-old then. I took her over there and she got in a pickup game with some 19- and 20-year-old soldiers. When I could see they were careful not to knock her around like they were each other, I let her play. And after that, she was there almost every day."

In that gym was born America's ugliest shot.

"Those guys were much taller than I was, I wasn't real strong and I had to get my outside shot off fast," she said.

"Those guys also forced me to develop my dribbling skills too. At first, sometimes I wouldn't get picked for a game. Then when I would get chosen for a four-man, halfcourt game, that was great. And when they'd choose me to play in a full-court game, that was a really big deal for me."

She quickly established herself as a star at The Lakes High School in Tacoma, Wash., where she averaged 26 points a game for her high school career.

"I love coaching a player who's a scorer," VanDerveer said.

"I never saw her play in person, but I saw her on two videotapes. Based on that, we offered her a scholarship. I could see she knew how to get the ball into the basket. Coaching someone to score is the hardest thing in coaching. Teaching everything else is much easier."

VanDerveer was a coach in absentia last year. While she coached the Olympic team, assistants Amy Tucker and Marianne Stanley directed Stanford to the Final Four, with frequent phone consultations with VanDerveer.

Starbird, by averaging 20.7 points the rest of the season--she's at 19 this week--would become Stanford's all-time scoring leader.

She's a major reason why the women's game is booming at Stanford. Average attendance is up by almost 2,000 a game, to 6,858. Stanford's men (8-2) are averaging 5,319 but have played only two home games.

She's the only notable athlete in her family, but not in her family tree.

"I failed with my little brothers," she said, laughing. I just couldn't teach them anything. They're terrible. They can't even rebound and throw the ball back to me."

Both of her grandfathers, Alfred Starbird and Charles Leonard, competed in the modern pentathlon in the 1936 Olympics, Leonard winning the silver medal. But for Ed Starbird, that his skinny daughter found a sport she loved to play is reason enough to smile.

"Soccer was her first sport," he said. "She was doing great with that. Then she started getting so tall, the ball was just too far away.

"People ask me how proud I must be, that she made All-American--I'm just happy that she found a sport she loves as much as she does."

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