Kate Starbird Goes From College Heights To Pro Hoops 101

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Kate Starbird shuffles into the pressroom of Seattle's Mercer Arena and plops down in a chair near the door. Her team, the American Basketball League's (ABL) Seattle Reign has just lost to the San Jose Lasers by a single point.

But Starbird's night doesn't end with the final buzzer. She's been requested by virtually every sports reporter here to make an appearance after the game.

Named 1997's College Player of the Year by everyone from the Pac-10 Conference to The Sporting News, Starbird is used to being in the public eye. It's not surprising, since she was Stanford's all-time leading scorer, with 2,215 points and an average of 20.9 points per game.

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Courted by both the ABL and its competing league, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), she signed a three-year contract with her hometown team last spring. She says she chose the ABL because it gave her the opportunity to "play in Seattle, which is my home."

The opportunity for a woman to play professional basketball is in itself still novel - the ABL is wrapping up its second season and the WNBA will start its second season this summer. Previously, to continue playing basketball after college, women headed overseas, though attempts at professional women's leagues in the US have been made in the past.

"It's a full-time job," says Starbird. "My sister gets jealous sometimes because she'll come home for lunch and I'm just waking up. But she also gets to go out on weekends and ... we're usually playing games."

The nabbing of a local athlete who happens to be one of the nation's premier women's basketball players has set off a local media frenzy that has yet to diminish. Visibly exhausted after playing almost the entire game, Starbird is gracious while answering the stream of questions coming from the group clustered around her. "Do you think you're overdue for a win?" asks a reporter.

"Yes, we are overdue for a win," replies Starbird with a laugh. The Reign is at the bottom of the ABL's Western Conference. This evening's loss to the Lasers marked the seventh defeat in a row for the team.

But Starbird remains upbeat. "San Jose is really hot and we played them a great game," she says. "We stopped them defensively."

Seated, the 6 ft., 2 in. guard may not exude the athletic dominance it takes to be one of the league's most touted players. She looks more like the gangly, soft-spoken recent college graduate that she is.

It has been a year of adjustment for the rookie Starbird. A midyear coaching change, a longer season, and tough competition has left her struggling to find her "niche," she says.

"It's a big difference from college. It's a big step up," says Starbird. "You're very protected in a college atmosphere. In the professional realm you're kind of thrown to the wolves."

While Starbird was Stanford's all-time leading scorer, in the pros she ranks only third on her team in points per game.

And the expectations for one of last year's top college women's basketball players have been high. When two members of the San Jose Lasers enter the pressroom, the reporters first ask for their response to Starbird's performance, then their reaction to the game.

"She has a lot of ability, a lot of talent," says Lasers guard and 1996 Olympic women's basketball team member Jennifer Azzi. "She's somebody I'd like to play with. That's a compliment."

San Jose coach Angela Beck says Starbird's defense has improved over the season. "She's having to adjust her game, but so is everybody."

Starbird says she isn't as satisfied with her performance this year, despite the praise. "We had a lot more talent than we were able to display," she says. "It's been a motivational thing for what I need to work on personally."

For all the commotion Starbird's entrance into the professional realm has caused, she remains surprisingly unaffected by all the attention. "Oh, it's a hometown thing, I think," she says. "The fact that I'm from Seattle. That's really been quite an interest."

Many say Starbird reflects the integrity and workman-like attitude that have drawn a loyal and growing fan base to women's professional basketball.

"A lot of people appreciate the way we play basketball," says Starbird. "It's completely separate from the men's game ... because it's more about passing and screening and running plays and executing the offenses and defenses and less about one- on-one, take your man to the hole."

Starbird is certainly not after movie deals or recording contracts. Basketball is a job she happens also to love. "I see myself as a player out there doing my job," she says. "That's my career. That's what's paying the bills."

Everything comes back to the "team" for Starbird. When answering questions she has a difficult time remembering to refer to herself. A question asked directly about her inevitably slips into a "we" rather than an "I" response.

Her passion for the game is clearly rooted in the team bond. "It's probably the most important part of the game," she says. "To play with the team and have a common goal and work together day in and day out and perhaps suffer together, too. And to form those kinds of relationships and interactions."

As Starbird's first season in the ABL winds down, she is focused on the opportunity the off-season will offer to hone her skills. Besides working on her jump shot, Starbird talks of sleeping and "putting on about 20 pounds."

"The end of the season has really opened our eyes to what we could've been," Starbird says. "I'm going to take it into the off-season. I know what I need to improve."

While the Reign remains at the bottom of its conference, the team has won seven of its last 13 games as compared to only six out of 21 during the first half of the season. And Starbird is optimistic about the future of her team and the ABL.

"We had a crowd of over 3,000 after losing 10 games in a row," Starbird says. After breaking its longest losing streak ever with a win against the Atlanta Glory, "they [the crowd] gave us an ovation," she says.

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