As I watched Game 3 of the WNBA finals with such admiration for Sue Bird and Swin Cash _ what terrific people they are, not just great basketball players _ I didn’t know that a player who’d competed against them in that unforgettable 2002 Final Four lay dead at age 30.
I was writing late into the evening about the Seattle Storm’s triumph and the Atlanta Dream’s also-fine season when I got a message about Rosalind Ross’ death.
The former Oklahoma standout was fatally shot outside a restaurant in her hometown of Milwaukee on Wednesday night. Police said a 27-year-old woman was in custody, and knew Ross.
I wanted to write a column today about my memories of Ross, the kid who played despite a torn-up ACL that never was really fixed, who always seemed to be smiling, who stood up the best she could, along with her OU teammates, against the greatest women’s college basketball team I’ve seen, 2002 UConn, in the championship game.
But I found that this morning, as I tried to write it, tears kept stopping me. For Ross, and for every other young woman I’ve covered in my career who I knew dealt with difficult circumstances that were beyond anything I’d ever experienced. Young women who found basketball as a ticket away from hardship. Some of them really, truly got out of bad situations permanently. Others were out for a while, and maybe experienced the best days of their lives while on a college team, but then went back to struggles they’d always had to deal with.
I don’t know what happened in Ross’ life after her brief time in the WNBA when drafted in 2002. I don’t know what specifically happened on Wednesday. And ultimately, the details of that probably don’t make any difference. We all weep for the loss.
I would like to say more now, and will try to later. But the story below will tell you at least something more of Rosalind Ross’ too-short life. It’s a column I did about Ross at the 2002 Final Four for the Kansas City Star. Now, I must say, it breaks my heart to read it.
March 31, 2002
SAN ANTONIO _ Of all the stories written about her and her Oklahoma women’s team, senior guard Rosalind Ross easily can pick her favorite.
It’s the one that her brother, Kenneth, wrote not long ago. He’s 10 years old, living in the same Milwaukee neighborhood Ross grew up in. Ross is far away now, and she worries.
She knows about the dangers lurking as he walks to and from school. Ross has had four friends die in the last two years, victims of violence on the streets that she got away from.
But she can be sitting in a quiet room on a quiet campus in the quiet city of Norman, and the scary sounds will still be in her head. Ross’ family _ including her mother and her other brother, 19-year-old Spencer _ is there for Kenneth. But Ross, 22, wants to be there, too. She’s a strong woman now, and she can be a guardian angel for him.
“He just wrote a story on me for class,” Ross said. “He read it to me on the phone, and I just started crying. I never knew how much of an impact I really had. He said, `My sister is the best person, I know she loves me. She has done something with her life, and I’m proud of her. When she comes home, she’s gonna teach me to play basketball, and we are going to get ice cream.’
“I just wanted to go home so bad then.”
But Ross has been home just once since the school year started, during Christmas. Her mother, Pamela Collins, wanted to come to the Final Four, but couldn’t take off work. So the family watches on television, and saw Ross score a career-high 26 points in a semifinal victory against Duke on Friday.
Collins had to make herself push her oldest child away from home. She knew basketball would get Ross an education, and an education could get her anything she wanted.
Ross went to junior college first, at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where she was an all-American as a sophomore. She came to Oklahoma last season, quiet and unsure if she could fit in.
“She was slow to trust,” Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. “I knew intellectually why, but emotionally … I’d never been exposed to anyone who had lost so many people that they loved.”
Coale is a small-town Midwesterner, as are many of her players.
“For the most part, our backgrounds are pretty similar,” Coale said. “Here’s this group of kids who really trust each other, and then here’s this one that’s stiff-arming them.
“It took the greater part of last season for her to let down her guard; to let you in. But these guys learned once she does that, she is there for you. And if you broke basketball down, the biggest factor is trust.”
Coale doesn’t need to say it, but obviously it’s the same if you break down life. Who can you depend on?
Ross hurt her right knee, badly, her junior year of high school at Milwaukee Tech when she was running sprints. She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, but for almost four years it went undiagnosed until Oklahoma’s training staff figured out what had happened. What the doctors couldn’t figure out was how Ross could play basketball with an injury that keeps many from being able to walk until it’s surgically repaired.
“She’s a kid that learned how to compensate, and not everyone is physically capable of doing that,” Coale said. “She’s a medical marvel. Our doctors are amazed by her pain tolerance. But when this is said and done, she will have surgery to fix everything that’s wrong.”
Ross laughs and says she has no idea just what they’ll find when they go into her knee. She wants to see what her WNBA prospects might be before she decides when to have the surgery.
Pain? She gets the knee iced as much as 12 times a day sometimes, but she said after Friday’s game, it didn’t hurt at all.
Ross smiles a lot; unless you asked, she wouldn’t tell you about everything she’s seen that could have taken away that smile for good if she’d let it.
Teammate Stacey Dales, who grew up in suburban Canada, was asked what she’s learned from knowing Ross.
“The true value of love, the meaning behind it and life,” Dales said. “To cherish what you have and enjoy it.”
Ross is doing this for more than herself and her teammates, though.
“I’m trying to show my brothers that if they work hard, they can do anything,” she said “And let other kids know you don’t have to go to gangs or drugs.
“When I went home for a little while last summer, I talked to some girls at a camp. And I was very straightforward with them: I said, `Look, you don’t have to go out and have sex just to get attention. You don’t have to do things you don’t want to do. It’s all about how you want to lead your life.”
Ross knows what she wants. If her basketball career doesn’t extend past tonight’s championship game, she’ll be OK. She hopes to become a child psychologist. She wants to be there for kids who need her.
One in particular.
“My little brother is at such a young age, and I’m scared some of these people that are bad influences might get to him,” she said. “I talk to him about that all the time. He says, `I go straight home from school, I do my homework and then I go outside and play.’
“I tell him, `You keep doing that, and you’re going to go somewhere far in life.’ ”