Monday, June 01, 2009

Jennifer Azzi Changed My Life

As Jennifer gets ready for her Hall of Fame induction the weekend of June 12-14, she reflects-
check it out here

Her thinking got me to thinking about her. Needless to say, it would be difficult to imagine how Stanford would have become a national power had Jennifer not had the faith to come across the country to a struggling program. I trust that Tara & Company would have found their way, but Jennifer was the kick-start that got everything going.

And it also came to mind how her life has affected mine. It is interesting how someone you brush paths with can make such a big difference in your life as well as in the lives of others around you.

I remember the first time I saw her play. In 1988, I saw a hand painted sign on a fence on Foothill Expressway that there was a game coming up with the Washington Huskies. What the heck, I thought--let's go! I had never seen anything like it! And that dark haired girl! Wow! What was her name again? (added bonus--first time I got to boo Chris Gobrecht!) Unfortunately, that was the last game of the season--but we vowed to come back. Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

I contacted the ticket office and got season tickets--at that time, it was a card good for every game and you could sit anywhere you wanted. The 88-89 season was a glorious rise and, because I knew virually nothing about the college game, I thought nobody could beat them. Jennifer continued to captivate and kept getting better and better. Another 3, another assist. How distraught I was when they lost in the Regional Finals to Louisiana Tech (added bonus--the game was on TV!).

The next week I was driving home from work on Highway 280 and saw a car stopped on the side of the road. As I drove by I realized--
I just about ran off the road, but scooted around to get off the highway and go back to find her. When I got there, she was running across 4 lanes back to her car. Criminy, I thought, the best basketball player in the world is just about to get crushed right in front of me. She had run out of gas, something I thought was impossible having seen the way she played. While she stayed, I went to get some gas. By the time I returned, an assistant coach had arrived to help out. I told Jen I was sorry that they had lost. She then realized that I knew her and she got the biggest smile. We chatted about the upcoming Final Four and I said I hoped Tennessee won (added bonus--I have never had that thought since). At that point, I had no idea about Jennifer's history (remember, it WAS the dark ages), and she demurred and didn't make a pick. She thanked me and was on her way.

The next day, I read in the paper that Jennifer had been named an All-American. She was on her way to Tacoma and the Final Four to pick up her award. She had said nothing to me about it. That was classic, understated Jennifer.
The next summer we got a miniature schnauzer puppy--we named her Jennifer.
1989-90 was one of the most compelling seasons I have ever had as a sports fan. The team had added Val Whiting and was now the complete package. Tennessee was defeated at Maples. I loved the announcer's "From A to Z" when Jennifer made an assist to Julie Zeilstra. Katy Steding and Trisha Stevens were studs. I remember the night of the Regional Final so clearly--the air outside was fresh and warm, the air inside was full of pure emotion. I still remember that as the best game I've ever seen--Stanford 114, Arkansas 87.

In those days, I didn't even give a thought to going to the Final Four (added bonus--saving $$!). So we parked ourselves in front of the tube and cheered every move. And they won! It was unbelievably satisfying to have been a fan of this growing program. Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

We went to Maples to celebrate. Then it hit me--Jennifer was gone now. With no professional basketball in the US, I was certain I would never see her play again.

I was distraught when Jennifer was one of the last cuts for the 1992 Olympic team. That was going to be a chance to at least get a glimpse of her.

In the meantime, I had made so many great friends through basketball. I joined the Fast Break Club. Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

So when Margie and Harriet started planning to go to Atlanta for the Olympics, I knew we had to go. Then Tara was named the coach and that sealed the deal. Then Jennifer made the team. No one was going to stop us from going now!
The Olympics were remarkable. We went to every game (even had to buy tickets from very nice scalpers!). There is never a better moment than the US flag being raised and the anthem being played for your team (added bonus--champagne after the game). As a lifelong sports fan, it was a dream come true to go to such an amazing event. Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

While we were in Atlanta, we heard rumblings of a professional league in the United States. There were t-shirts being sold, which meant it must be true! There was Jen's picture, front and center. And when we heard a team was to be in San Jose and Jennifer was on it, we gathered with 16 friends and bought a block of season tickets. We were the imfamous SECTION THREE! (added bonus--getting to yell at Larry the ref and seeing Melissa Barlow in her formative years). I remember seeing Jennifer and Teresa Edwards dancing the Macarena on opening night.

It was Professional Women's Basketball in the United States of America! Every game was a blast and the community of Laser fans grew. Many more new friends were made. Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

After the ABL folded, I was not quite ready to hop on the WNBA bandwagon. I felt a bit betrayed by the summer season and the two-colored ball. But then Jennifer signed on, so I knew it was ok. I had a friend in Cleveland that I had not seen for many years, so a road trip to re-acquint with her along with a chance to see Jennifer play against the Rockers was just too perfect to pass up. We sat courtside, right behind the Starzz bench and the week spent there cemented a lifelong friendship (added bonus--great seats at an Indians game). Jennifer Azzi changed my life.

As I watch other Stanford Alums make their way into the WNBA, I realize what a great gift it is to have the opportunity to watch them progress and grow after their college careers. Visionarys like Jennifer Azzi changed their lives and, in turn, mine.

Jennifer continues to inspire today, working for the NBA and making motivational speeches across the country. She regularly talks to groups of many kinds moving them to make positive changes in their lives.

In reflecting on any Hall of Fame career, it might be easy to look at stats and titles, but the true test of someone being so honored may be in the way that they have taken their gifts and made the world a better place. It doesn't have to be building a school or making grand donations--it can be in the small way that they affect the lives of others. It can be the joy given by watching a two hour game, or having the courage to go to a school off the national radar, or inspiring others to get involved. It can be persevering to bring professional basketball to the US, or adjusting when the original plan falls through, or making us all feel like dreams can come true.

Jennifer Azzi is a true Hall of Famer.

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