Michelle Greco’s legacy still expanding after retirement
Already arguably the greatest female basketball player in area lore, Michelle Greco retired with a legacy that spans much more of the globe.
When Greco recently made the call to end a professional playing career that spanned eight years and three continents and came on the heels of prolific stints at Crescenta Valley High and UCLA, she did so wistfully, but with no regrets.
“Just basically that it was time,” Greco says of her motivation for retirement. “Physically and mentally I just came to a point in my life where I wanted to be home, I wanted a change and I felt like this past season ending on a championship and with amazing teammates, it was a great way to end my career.
“It was a great last four or five years for me. It was a great experience over there and it certainly wasn’t an easy decision for me to retire.”
Greco went out a winner — her Cras Basket Taranto squad won the Italian League Serie A championship for the third time in the last four seasons earlier this year — sticking with a theme that permeated the bulk of her days on the court.
After starring at Crescenta Valley, where she still holds the all-time career scoring mark with 2,397 points, Greco, who graduated in 1998, brought a winning touch to every team she joined.
Thrust into UCLA’s starting lineup as a freshman, Greco’s play at point guard sparked the Bruins to the brink of a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament and she finished her five-year stint there 15th on the all-time school scoring list with 1,158 points and second inPacific-10 Conference history with 288 steals.
Her role as a reserve player for the Seattle Storm in 2004 helped that team capture the WNBA championship in her first and only season in the WNBA and she has thrived as a key starter for one of the premier clubs in Europe for the last seven years.
But those are rarely the first things that come to mind for those who have encountered Greco at various stages along her career odyssey.
“She’s just a genuinely great person,” Greco’s UCLA teammate Marie Philman says. “As a teammate and a friend, she brings out the best in you and I think she’s just one of a kind, really.”
Greco has made friends and fans everywhere she has gone and the two are often one in the same. And as impressed as they are by the player, they always remember the person.
“There’s only one Michelle Greco, but her success wasn’t because of her ability, which, obviously, is enormous,” says Greco’s former tennis coach at Crescenta Valley, Tom Gossard. “Her success was because of who she is and the class that she carries herself with. She understood that her ability had to be made better by working hard.”
Tania Adary remembers hearing Michelle Greco’s name well before the two clashed in Pacific League battles between Greco’s Falcons and Adary’s alma mater Glendale, where she is currently the girls’ basketball coach.
“I had no idea who she was, my coaches were all telling me, ‘Oh my God, Michelle Greco’s on this team,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Who is this kid and why is she so good?’” Adary recalls of the day that her YMCA Panthers were getting ready to play Greco’s youth basketball team. “Michelle finished with something like 34 of their 40 points. By the end of the game, I knew who she was.”
Greco’s reputation as a phenomenal athletic talent preceded her, but Greco never relied on talent alone in developing into a two-sport standout at Crescenta Valley. Tennis may have been Greco’s second sport, but she approached it with the same dedication and focus as she did basketball and it resulted in three Pacific League doubles titles and a singles crown as a senior.
“Every practice, every shot meant something to her,” Gossard says. “She didn’t go out there and play tennis as a second sport just as something to do. She showed up for practice, she showed up on time and she worked hard.
“There wasn’t one teammate that did not like her, there wasn’t one teammate she treated disrespectfully. She liked everybody and everybody liked her. It comes from her parents, [John and Carmela]. Her mom and dad are two of the greatest people I’ve ever known. Her parents did a heck of a job.”
Greco’s high school basketball career was nothing short of spectacular. She was named Pacific League Player of the Year and Cal-Hi Sports state player of the year all four years and earned CIF Player of the Year honors as a senior after averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds. She once scored 54 points in a game. It all attracted plenty of attention from major college programs, including from Kathy Olivier, who coached Greco at UCLA from 1998-2003.
“When we were recruiting her I saw her play in a game for Crescenta Valley, I forget who it was against, and Michelle just lit them up, she had probably 40,” says Olivier, who now coaches her alma mater UNLV. “It was unreal, she could not miss a shot.”
Greco made the jump from high school star to unproven college freshman, but quickly won her new teammates’ respect with her hard-nosed work ethic and team-first play.
“We thought we were just the best, we were thinking that we were older and wiser and here comes this freshman and we were going to make her earn everything in practice,” says Philman, who was a junior during Greco’s freshman campaign. “But she just had a lot of confidence and she was able to put that in the games and she really helped us.”
Before long, Greco got a chance to really put her skills to use for the Bruins when starting point guard Erica Gomez suffered an injury.
“Michelle had to come in and play point and was amazing,” Olivier said. “She was hitting all her shots and was such a worker.”
The Bruins advanced to the Elite Eight, where they held a second-half lead over Louisiana Tech before their Final Four dreams were dashed. Greco was named to the All-Pac-10freshman team, as well as the All-NCAA West Regional team.
“The point guard position is not something you can throw just anybody into,” Philman says. “That’s a difficult position and she came in and we gave her a lot of respect for what she did. Looking back, it was pretty incredible.”
During her time at UCLA, Greco established her Michelle Greco Girls’ Basketball Camp, which was held each summer in the Crescenta Valley High gym and continued to serve the community until its final running in 2008.
Hundreds of girls passed through Greco’s clinics over the years, often with tales to tell of being inspired by Greco’s example and her teaching. Cassie Pappas cites Greco, whom she has known since she was 6, as a formative influence in her own stellar career on the court for Crescenta Valley, which saw her leave with 1,596 career points en route to the University of Pennsylvania after graduating in 2010.
“She was the first woman coach to put together a basketball camp and still the only one that’s done it in our community,” says Pappas, who attended Greco’s camps for seven years and also worked privately with Greco on her game. “I think that’s really something special that she was able to keep it going for so many years.
“I think it’s really great to have someone in our community that little girls can look up to like that because [sports] is so much focused on the men and football and basketball and baseball at CV. It’s really nice to have that name floating around that people can look up to as a role model.”
Says Adary: “Absolutely, she’s a role model. I know from Day One she was doing that. It’s cool of her to give back to where she came from.”
Greco made it to the Storm a year out of college, but it was far from an easy road. A history of concussions in college, which contributed to her redshirting the balance of the 2002 season, made WNBA teams wary and, even through some tryout and training camp invitations followed her out of UCLA, nothing materialized immediately.
Greco would first have to prove herself over again in some stints abroad in 2003 starting with one month spent in Israel playing for the Maccabi Raanana, a pro club in Israel’s First Division, and then Apollon Ptolemaidas of Greece’s First Division as a mid-season replacement, where she averaged 18.0 points and was an all-star.
It paid off when the Storm came calling for a tryout prior to the 2004 season.
“People don’t realize, and this is a testament to her character, but she had to battle a lot of injuries,” Philman said. “Those are hard places to play, she wasn’t playing in the top area in Greece, she was in a remote area away from home.
“She could have given up several times, but she stuck with it. She’s had a great career and she earned every bit of it.”
Greco played a reserve role for Seattle, but had several key plays in the team’s playoff run and was on the court when the team clinched against the Connecticut Sun on Oct. 12, 2004.
“Every team she gets on is successful,” Olivier says. “[Her] freshman year we went to the Elite Eight with her, she goes into the pros, gets on Seattle’s team and they win a championship, she goes on to starring in Italy and they win championships — she’s just a winner.”
Greco found a home with Cras Taranto in 2005 and has flourished there ever since, as the team transcended from contender to dynasty in the Italian League, while also capturing the Copa Italia title in 2012 and reaching the quarterfinals of the Euro Cup in 2011.
“The championships stick out, and I know it’s cliche and a lot of people say it, but really, the friendships I made,” Greco says when asked to identify the highlights of her career. “I had such amazing teammates and I’ve met so many people from all around the world and traveling and seeing so many wonderful cities. That’s the part that I’ll never forget.
“I look at the world map and I can’t believe I’ve been to so many places. I think when I look back at my basketball career, I’m so thankful that basketball has taken me to so many different places, but most of all, through those journeys I’ve been able to meet so many amazing friends.”
But all journeys must come to an end. Greco, however, wanted to make quite sure hers ended with a championship.
“From the moment the season started, I was always thinking about winning the championship,” Greco said. “We had won three out of the last four and the one that we didn’t win was the previous year, so it left a bad taste in my mouth losing in the finals in Game 5.
“The whole summer I thought about it. I worked my butt off all last summer with a trainer, I was constantly in the gym working on my game. I wanted to retire with a win.”
Greco is back in Los Angeles now, but hasn’t skipped a beat in transitioning to the next phase of her life. She’s continuing her education and recently joined the staff of the USC women’s basketball program as a video and scouting coordinator, in what she hopes is a precursor to her ultimate goal of becoming a college coach.
“I definitely want to get into coaching,” Greco says. “Once I finish my masters and get some experience under my belt, I would love to be a head coach at a DI school or a junior college and teach also. That’s kind of the future goal there.”
To those who know Greco, these aspirations are no surprise and certainly well attainable.
“Michelle has an incredible work ethic and does an incredible job with people,” Olivier says. “She always worked our camps for a number of years and the campers loved her. She’s very personable. I can see her doing nothing but positive things for the community. She’s one of a kind.”
Only time will tell just how many lives Greco will touch in a positive way as a coach and mentor going forward, but it’s clear her past is littered with them at every stage.
“I learned a lot from her, being able to train with her,” Pappas says. “I knew that I wanted to play college basketball and she was the only real female role model I had that was in that position already, so I asked her to just tell me everything I need to know about what it takes to do what [she] did in college and I think that’s really what got me in the right mindset for wanting to compete when I was in high school and in club.
“She was just so helpful in every way, whether it was just about classes or sports or dealing with family or friends or whatever. She always had some insight to give to me.”
Perhaps the most valuable insight Greco can pass on is the trait that seems to come most naturally to her. The enthusiasm and passion that has made her a success at every stop, combined with the humility and selflessness that has made her so endearing, have never let Greco lose touch with the pure enjoyment of playing basketball. Nor of the journey of life itself, wherever it has taken her.
“I think when I look back at my years of having my camp, the one thing that I always try to stress to the young girls was having fun,” Greco says. “That’s the main reason why I’ve enjoyed my career for so long, because I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and that was always something I tried to stress.
“It’s about really enjoying yourself and having the confidence to do what you believe and that’s your dream. I look back at my career and I really was living a dream.”