Yolanda Griffith had that baffled expression Tuesday like, “Ouch! What did I just step on? Where is it?” She looked at the space on the Conseco Fieldhouse court where her left foot had just been, trying to find what apparently had ended her career a few months ahead of schedule.
There was nothing there.
And so it goes rather often with those two injury “monsters” of basketball: the ruptured Achilles’ tendon and the ACL tear. Sometimes there’s contact or an awkward fall/landing, a distinctive moment you can re-watch, cringe and say, “Well, sure, that would hurt somebody.”
But other times, as with Griffith on Tuesday, you really don’t see anything happen. It’s just that a part of an athlete’s body has had enough. There is no warning, no means of prevention. It’s a step on a basketball court, a player looking puzzled, then pained, then crumpling to the floor.
How many steps has a 39-year-old professional basketball player taken, do you think?
This step came in the Indiana Fever’s game against Seattle, which is the team Griffith spent last season with after nine years in Sacramento. She had said coming into this season that it would be her last, and if she sticks with that decision to retire, then we’ve seen her final game.
How to define this career? Remarkable perseverance. In fact, that’s how you’d define Griffith’s life.
Her numbers went down in recent seasons, of course, yet she was still a valuable veteran presence. It was strange to see her in a Storm uniform last season, and stranger still to see her this year in the Eastern Conference, playing for Indiana.
But that’s not how we’ll remember her as a player. We’ll always see her in our minds as a Monarch.
Griffith was, at her WNBA peak, as tough a post player to stop and to score/rebound against as there was. No WNBA championship team has been as blue-collar as Sacramento, which won the title in 2005, and no one better symbolized that than Griffith.
She came into the league in 1999, when she was already 29 years old. She’d played overseas and in the ABL. She was not a familiar name, because she hadn’t played Division I in college. The birth of her daughter, while Griffith was still a teen-ager, changed the course of her life and college career. She had been at Iowa, but left and played in junior college and Division II.
The WNBA gave women’s basketball fans a chance to get to know and appreciate Griffith, who became one of the league’s most popular players. Fans admired her for coming up, as she once put it, on the “back road.” She was an underdog because of circumstances in her life, and yet she had triumphed over that with talent and determination. She’d reached the top of her profession, all the while knowing just how far she’d had to travel to get there.
You could see her tears Tuesday night as she was taken off the court, and that was crushing. This is a woman who was only 13 years old when her mother died, someone who’s felt deep loss, someone doesn’t cry unless there’s truly something to cry about. So you knew that she knew this was bad.
Perhaps Griffith may change her mind and try to make one more comeback, play one more full season. She’ll be 40 next March, so the odds are long. Not that she isn’t used to that.
But if she stays with her plan to retire from the WNBA as a player this year, there should be a spot on the sidelines somewhere if she wants that. Everything you need to know about being a post, Griffith can teach. And any young basketball player (at any position) with a lick of sense would listen to her advice about how to play the game.
If we’ve seen the last of Griffith as a player, with this premature end to the season, that’s sad. But it’s also inevitable for every athlete to have to stop sometime. Let’s hope we will soon see the other ways Griffith can impact this sport in another capacity.
Finally, below is a story I did for ESPN.com in August of 2004, before the Athens Olympics. I’d had the chance to talk to Griffith in person in Sacramento for this piece. Although this is from five years ago – and it was the season before the Monarchs’ title – re-reading this story made me appreciate once again the difficult journey Griffith went through _ and why it was so moving the next season to see her win a championship.
Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, you’ll see the U.S. Olympic team that hopes to defend its 2000 gold medal. They’ll be six Olympians who’ve won at least one NCAA title: Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Ruth Riley, Sheryl Swoopes and Diana Taurasi.
They’ll be two, Dawn Staley and Katie Smith (recovering from a knee injury), who played in the Final Four. Two others, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, went as far as the Elite Eight in their college careers. DeLisha Milton-Jones, who had to be replaced by Riley because of a knee injury, also made the Elite Eight.
Shannon Johnson, who stayed in her home state to play at South Carolina, never went to an NCAA Tournament, but did experience four seasons of the SEC.
Then there’s Yolanda Griffith. As she says, “I did come up the back road compared to everybody else.”
Things could have worked out very differently. We might have seen Griffith at a Final Four wearing Hawkeye black and gold. But it didn’t happen. Griffith was a high school star in Chicago in the late 1980s, recruited by C. Vivian Stringer to Iowa. But Griffith wasn’t eligible to play her first season, became pregnant with her daughter and then went to Palm Beach Junior College in Florida.
Then, while Smith and Swoopes were on a collision course toward an unforgettable Final Four meeting in Atlanta, Griffith spent the 1992-93 season playing for Division II Florida Atlantic. A role for which she was, of course, immensely overqualified. She stayed there because she thought it was best for her daughter, Candace.
So Griffith didn’t get a national stage or even regional stage when she was in college. She headed overseas to Germany, and basketball became her job.
“Then the ABL came along,” Griffith said recently after a Sacramento Monarchs’ practice. “My daughter was missing her cousins, and I wanted to come back for her sake. Also, so people wouldn’t think that I’d vanished. Because basically, that’s what they thought.”
Actually, when Griffith returned to play for the ABL’s Long Beach Stingrays, leading them into the league finals, a lot of folks who follow D-I college hoops were saying, “Oh, isn’t that Yolanda from … no, that’s not her. Wait, didn’t she go to … uh, no. Hey, isn’t Florida Atlantic in that one conference I can never remember the name of, and doesn’t it recruit a bunch of foreign kids, and … nah, that’s not right, either. OK, I give up, who is she? Why don’t I remember her from college?”
Griffith made the move to the WNBA when the ABL folded, and her averages over her first five seasons with the Monarchs were 16.2 points and 9.7 rebounds. She was the WNBA’s MVP her first season, 1999, made the Olympic team in 2000, battled through a neck injury that limited her to 17 games in 2002.
This year, she’s averaging 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. And she is just one of those players who’d be on the short list if you needed a rebound to save your life.
A great quote to sum up Griffith came from former Iowa player Amy Herrig when she was in Monarchs training camp fresh out of college in 1999. After going against Griffith, she said what went through her mind was, “If everyone in the league is this good, I’m in trouble.”
The 6-4 Griffith is that wiry type, deceptively strong. That, a certain fearlessness and soft hands with long fingers helps explain _ physically _ why Griffith is such a great post player, particularly on the offensive glass.
But then there’s that “wanting it” factor. A lot of the time, that’s just a cliché that means nothing … in Griffith’s case, it’s a phrase that finds its true core.
Whenever you’re talking about someone who had a child at a relatively young age, when the pregnancy really re-routed the course of the mother’s life … it’s a delicate situation.
Obviously, it’s something that most adults would discourage a teen-ager from doing, and for the kindest of reasons. Parenting is the world’s hardest job. And school/basketball are big enough jobs to have for four years for someone who agreed to a scholarship.
These are things Griffith herself would advise. Yet, she has made her life and her daughter’s life very good. Yes, she took the “back road,” but she traversed every inch of it on her own two feet.
Candace is 15 now. She loves basketball and had a very good freshman season in high school. Griffith is asked how Candace’s life and perspective now might be different that Griffith’s was when she was 15.
“At that age, my mom had passed away and my father was working. I had sisters, but they had their lives, too,” Griffith said. “I was 13 when she died. I didn’t have my mom then, but Candace has me. So I’m trying to take her down the right path.
“In 2000 when we went to Sydney, she was overwhelmed. So many different countries and players there, and she got to see the NBA guys. She was smiling 24/7. This year, she understands that ‘My mom is on the Olympic team.’ It’s like, whoa. That’s something she can dream about.
“It just takes hard work. That’s why I’m always on her about education. You can be great in basketball, but stupid in life. And I don’t want her to be like that; I want her to be balanced, to know that education will get her farther than picking up a basketball and throwing it in a hoop.”
Griffith knows for every success story like hers, there have been countless teen-aged girls for whom detours down “back roads” became dead ends. Most people don’t have her talent. But everyone, she’s certain, can work hard the way she does.
So that’s the message she imparts every time she steps on court. She’s going for her second gold medal. The Monarchs are 12-13 at the Olympic break, but they’re still in playoff contention and were a second-half-of-the-season team last year.
“I have a winning attitude. And I have a couple of years left to help the Sacramento Monarchs and the national team,” Griffith said. “I’m missing one thing: the WNBA championship. I have many awards, but I’m missing that and I want that before I retire. Whether I get it or not, if I give 100 percent every day, the young players will see I appreciate this game more than anything. When I finish my career, people are going to remember who I am.”