VanDerveer is the immensely likable and learned Stanford coach who transformed a group of athletically underachieving smart kids into teams that won national championships in 1990 and 1992. She coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, a seminal event that helped launch the WNBA. Admissions standards at Stanford restrict VanDerveer to recruiting eight players at Nike Camp, all of whom must have strong academic records. Even for some of those, she will have to plead.
According to VanDerveer, what is preserving women’s college basketball for the moment is the lack of corrupting sums of money; the WNBA, with starting salaries of $26,500, isn’t making anybody rich yet.
Nike Camp counselors try to impart a sense of reality to the players. The three-day schedule includes seminars on balancing academics and sports and choosing a college. Guest speakers such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, broadcasters Ann Meyers-Drysdale (ESPN) and Fran Harris (Lifetime) come in to talk to the girls. During one seminar, Harris throws out a question: “How many women do you think are playing basketball around the world?”
The campers guess: Five million?
“Eight million,” Harris announces. She repeats it. “Eight million girls play basketball. How many players are in the WNBA?”
“One hundred and twenty,” Harris says, adding, “You do the math.”
VanDerveer offers her own math lesson: She says that no more than 10 of the 80 campers will make it to the WNBA.
“These kids are all a stubbed toe away from being regular students,” she says. “They need to understand words like mortgage.”
Anne O’Neil is a Nike Camp veteran. Two years ago, she made a splash as a sophomore, but now she is a prime example of how fortunes change. According to the buzz in the coaches’ bleacher, O’Neil has struggled to live up to her billing. She averaged 28 points and 10 rebounds a game for John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but is having a disappointing camp. “It’s hard to play your best here, because everybody wants to show their stuff,” she admits.
Despite her underwhelming performance, O’Neil is bold when she talks about her expectations of a college coach. “I don’t want [my shot] broken down,” she says. “I don’t want someone to tell me I have to start from scratch. I want someone to carry me further.”
The next afternoon, O’Neil can’t make a basket. She shoots 0 for 4 in a scrimmage. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one coach says. “But it looks like it’s broke.”
Jody Conradt sits in the bleachers with the air of a headmistress. She may have won more games than any other coach in women’s basketball, but she is feeling the pressure.
As many as 10 top prospects will graduate from high schools across Texas this year–among them Ashley Robinson–and Conradt is fighting to keep the talent from defecting out of state. “Recruiting is not fun,” she says. “If I’m going to live with a kid for four years, I have to like her. I’m not into ego management.” Conradt doesn’t make promises. If a recruit asks her about playing time, she tells her she’ll get off the bench. “For the national anthem.”