Desperation Shot

Time was running out on Nikki Teasley ’01, and more than a game was at stake. With the help of her coach and her school, the basketball star beat the clock, won her life back – and opened some very heavy doors in college athletics.

The moment the end begins is the most important moment, of course. Nobody understands that better than Nikki Teasley.

She had missed her first four three-point attempts in this game, and her 11 assists – a record though they were for the WNBA Finals – would be little more than a footnote if her team, the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, didn’t win the ending. It’s funny, really, how you can play 39 minutes of basketball and treat each of those minutes like it was the last and still find the score tied with a minute to play. The ending – that’s what really matters. That’s where the future is written.

Had this been any other time in her life, Nikki Teasley might have been distracted by thoughts of the doubts people had when her coach, former L.A. Laker Michael Cooper, traded a veteran point guard, a championship point guard, for her – a rookie who couldn’t keep her head on straight enough to play at the college level, much less with the Sparks.

Had this been any other time in Teasley’s life, she might have thrown the ball to the other team just to avoid the responsibility of losing. Or winning.

That was once true. All of that was true, not so very long ago.

Twelve, 11, 10 …

The score was tied at 66, and Teasley took an inbounds pass from her teammate. She dribbled in front of the Sparks bench at Staples Center and looked for MVP Lisa Leslie under the basket. But New York Liberty players had the 6-5 Leslie swarmed – and even Teasley’s defender, Liberty guard Teresa Witherspoon, had left her alone, figuring Teasley’s four earlier misses made her too cold to shoot, let alone score.

Nine, 8, 7, 6 – The seconds ticked away. Teasley clearly had no other options. But she’d known this feeling before in her life – being out of options, being the architect of an ending – and this was just a basketball game. This was nothing like planning the premature end to your life.

The female answer

Teasley’s older brother, Ernie, signed her up for a recreational basketball league in Washington, D.C., when she was 9. She had watched her older brothers play in a parking lot that masqueraded as a playground there, and she had learned the game, progressing from neighborhood star to AAU legend – she was an 11-year-old playing on the boys’ 14-and-under team. Back then, it was about a gym and a girl and what she could challenge her body to do there; it was about a parking lot that rose above the poverty and violence surrounding it whenever she stepped onto it. Basketball was freedom to her. It was defense in the face of struggle.

Teasley was street-savvy, an artistic ball-handler, and most boys couldn’t keep up with her. As she grew into a prep phenom, many men couldn’t either. Tales of how she humiliated players on the boys’ team at her high school, the nationally ranked St. Johns at Prospect Hall, made her an early target for the nation’s women’s basketball coaches – and those tales only grew to larger legend when the boys she was defeating in one-on-one games started turning up at major Division I men’s programs themselves; former Carolina forward Jason Capel ’02 was one. By the time she was 16, she knew she would become a collegiate star. Everyone – coaches, family, teammates and strangers in the neighborhood – told her this was so. She would be the female Allen Iverson, Lady Magic.

At North Carolina, Sylvia Hatchell, like most women’s coaches, had never seen a female player like Teasley before. She was easily the most high-profile recruit Hatchell had ever wooed. Hatchell knew the shy girl with two older brothers and a deep devotion to her mother wanted badly to go to school near her home, now in Frederick, Md., and Hatchell thought Carolina had a good chance of landing her. So while Teasley finished her senior year in high school – where she often worked out with the boys’ team for a challenge – the UNC coaching staff followed her closely. “Nikki” became a frequent word on their lips, one loaded with expectations.

“If we get Nikki Teasley,” Hatchell repeatedly said, “look out.”

On April 9, 1997, the Tar Heels got Nikki, officially. UNC had won an unlikely national title in 1994 that had propelled the program into the national spotlight; but Carolina still had some catching up to do with longtime powerhouses like Tennessee and Connecticut. The team Teasley would be joining was to boast not only the returning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, senior Tracy Reid ’98, but the player who would become the world’s fastest woman, future Olympic track gold medalist Marion Jones ’97, who had been the freshman point guard on the 1994 title team. Championships were a presumptive part of the future.

But there was no doubt who was the true basketball star among them. In the release announcing her commitment to UNC, Hatchell said, “Nikki is the kind of player who can take women’s basketball to a new level.” The phrase is used a great deal in sports, but with Teasley the implication was not that she would perfect the current reaches of the women’s game; rather, she would extend them, transcending gender barriers.

Plenty of women’s players had helped the game progress in popularity and played a part in the drive to develop the WNBA, which began in 1997. But Teasley, just 18, was different still than the veteran players, because her intuitive skills surpassed the concept that always seemed to segregate men and women – that women could be technically sound, good shooters but not flashy ball-handlers. Teasley by now was accustomed to making behind-the-back passes to herself on the way in for a lay-up just for the pure sport of it, or losing opponents on a dribble-fake.

The combination of Jones’ explosive speed and athleticism and the rookie’s preternaturally gifted playmaking skills were sure to vault the Heels to new heights. And, no doubt, some hoped that the steely competitor in Jones would serve as a kind of example to Teasley of how to channel pressure, something that had dogged Jones since she, too, was 16 and won a spot as an alternate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic track team.

But less than a month after Carolina got Teasley, it lost Jones, who chose to give up her final year of basketball eligibility to become a professional track athlete. Although it was a blow to the program, Hatchell was prepared to move forward. She had an immediate and eager response for naysayers, one that would reach Teasley’s ears before she had ever put on a Carolina uniform, and echo in her mind for the next four years.

“We’ll be all right,” Hatchell said, over and over, “we’ve got Nikki.”

Brilliantly inconsistent

On Jan. 4, 1999, the Tar Heels defeated Clemson at home and returned to their Carmichael Auditorium locker room, which had been remodeled to reflect a program clearly focused on becoming part of and remaining in women’s basketball’s elite governance. Hatchell strode through the large lobby area and past the lounge with the gigantic television set on one wall and study carrels on the other and walked through the door to the players’ changing areas.

She found Teasley, now a sophomore, in the middle of a self-stirred hurricane. Shoes, socks, shorts were hurtling from her locker as she sweated through its contents with nothing short of gripping fear on her face. The sight was enough to send Hatchell into mother mode.

“I’ve lost Ernie’s driver’s license,” Teasley panicked, words tumbling out on top of each other. Hatchell, who knew that Teasley had kept her older brother’s license tucked into her playing socks ever since he’d died in a car accident in 1994, tried to reassure her.

“We’ll get another one from your mother,” she said calmly, knowing that Ernestine Teasley would have a spare.

But Teasley wailed – she was “just devastated,” said Hatchell. Three days later, the Heels were preparing to take the floor for pre-game warm-ups at N.C. State. Hatchell looked around at her team. No Nikki.

“She was still on the bus,” she said. “She wasn’t going to play the game because she didn’t have that driver’s license. It was a mental thing, because she sees Ernie as a part of her, an extension of herself. I mean, that was …” Hatchell stopped, shook her head and looked down at her blue shoes. “I thought, ‘Man alive.’ ”

For a while, Teasley’s successes overshadowed such episodes, masked her troubled mind. She was ACC Rookie of the Year in 1998, set records for assists, led all freshmen in scoring, continued to haunt men’s players like Vince Carter ’99 and Ed Cota ’00 in one-on-one games on campus and made Tar Heel fans forget about Marion Jones. She helped direct the Heels to a near defeat of defending national champion Tennessee, and national player of the year Chamique Holdsclaw, in the NCAA regional in Nashville. It was the farthest Carolina had gone in the tournament since it had won it all in 1994. In Teasley’s sophomore year, it was more of the same: She earned all-conference tournament honors and led the ACC in both steals and assists; and, as in most other years, she was a preseason candidate for the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award.

While her ACC opponents marveled at her panache, and her fans wondered what she would do next, Teasley slowly began slipping. In her junior year, class attendance was spotty at best, and there were more “Nikki moments” than the “Nikki games” the UNC coaching staff had expected from her. As often as she was smiling, she was sullen and brooding, her responses mere grunts, her head of braids tucked beneath a hooded sweatshirt, her eyes full of worlds she let no one else into.

“I wasn’t talking to anybody,” Teasley says. “It was to the point that I would sit in my room, and my phone would ring, and I would never answer it. [Assistant] Coach [Tracey] Williams, she’d come and knock on the door – and they know I’m in there – and I wouldn’t even answer the door. I didn’t want to face anybody. I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to … get away.”

By her junior year, says Jan Boxill, assistant chair of the philosophy department at UNC and the women’s basketball team’s academic adviser, Teasley was repeatedly threatening to quit the team. The refusal to complete the team’s physical requirements – running a mile was one – and the fact that she continued to miss practices made her teammates grow ever more resentful, Boxill says, and made her coaches wonder, in the backs of their minds, if something more serious was happening with the young woman whose college career once held so much promise.

Near-tragedies have the power to alter memories. Hatchell today remembers all those times when Teasley seemed oddly superstitious, or obstinately lazy, as a cry for help that went unheeded. “I knew that she had been struggling up and down,” Hatchell says. “I knew that there were a lot of family issues she was dealing with. And I knew that she had never really dealt with her brother dying in a healthy way.”

“I think we did recognize,” Boxill says, “that she was depressed. But it’s hard to see it coming.”

The train rumbled through on Jan. 4, 2000 – a year to the day that Teasley had broken down over losing Ernie’s driver’s license. Carolina had played N.C. State the previous evening, losing by seven points at home in a nationally televised game. The newspaper accounts that day were less than kind to Teasley – even though she had scored 17 points and had six assists – and this was nothing new to her. After her freshman year ended, it seemed that she was both savior and burden; when she wasn’t playing, she was the team’s best hope for victories. When she was playing, she was its biggest letdown. A late December 1999 story in USA Today listed the season’s biggest disappointments at the time. Among them: Rutgers offense; UCLA’s floor game and perimeter shooting … and North Carolina’s Nikki Teasley. It wasn’t that her shooting was off or that she needed to work on defense. It was simply that what she had to give wasn’t enough.

“It just happened,” Teasley recalls. “I was always the ‘best’ player on the team, whatever team; I was always expected to do well. I held the pressure in for so long that it finally broke me.”

Basketball is life

Teasley went home that night, her mind dark with thoughts. She was to leave the next day for Charlottesville to play Virginia. She began to consider all the ways she could end this torment. She had spent many a night before this one, praying that she would get seriously injured so she wouldn’t have to play anymore, thinking about how she could hurt herself. But now she was cooking up a scenario about taking her own life, and, trembling, she started praying that someone could stop her.

She reached for the phone, done with telling herself that she would be OK, ready to admit that her negative thoughts had become deafening.

“Coach Hatchell,” she began, “I don’t want to go to Virginia. I don’t want to be Nikki Teasley anymore.”

“What?” Hatchell retorted. It was the next day now, and the coach was preparing to board the team bus to Charlottesville. “Nikki, what are you talking about? Come on over here.”

Minutes later, Teasley walked into Hatchell’s office and presented her with the most achingly difficult challenge she’d seen in her 28 years of coaching.

“I don’t want to play right now,” Teasley told the coach. “I can’t handle it anymore. I don’t want to be Nikki Teasley, and I don’t want to be here.”

“And when she said ‘here,’ it wasn’t North Carolina,” Hatchell says. “It was in this world, alive, a person. When a kid says something like that to you, you better take it seriously.”

Hatchell immediately started calling everyone she knew, “trying to find help, asking questions.” Teasley missed the Virginia game, and the athletics department announced she would be taking a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons.

“People were coming from everywhere,” Teasley recalls. “From her church, doctors from sports medicine, her husband, former players. Many people were knocking on my door.”

And, for a change, Teasley began to let them in. The most significant of these was Dr. Bradley Hack, a clinical psychologist who at the time was working with the campus counseling and psychological services office. The team’s physician, Dr. Tom Brickner, told Hack about Teasley and asked if he could use his background in sports psychology to speak with her.

Hack knew that, based on what he had learned about Teasley from Brickner and from his first meeting with her, she would need more time than he could provide her within the framework of the campus counseling system. So Hack met with Teasley in private sessions off-campus, working through emotions that were years in the making.

“It was just really clear that she was struggling quite a bit, and that some of the reasons she was struggling had been in her life for a while,” Hack says. “She talked of family issues, the death of her brother being a part of it, and feeling a lot of pressure from different places. It was the sort of conflict that a lot of us experience – but on top of that, she was dealing with the pressure of being a highly skilled athlete and having lots of expectations and coming to a program that’s very well-known, having the spotlight on you at all times … she was experiencing depression and she was experiencing anxiety.”

She felt the pull of influence from four areas, and none of them was intrinsic. “One was from the coaches,” Boxill says, “because here she was, No. 1 out of high school, and the message was that they would give her every kind of break – including writing off the physical requirements and her absence from practice – but she had to win games. Then she had her family, who asked the coaching staff to be hard on her and then babied her themselves. They really wanted her to succeed, but they didn’t know how to help her. She had no discipline, and that made the other two pressures, academics and the team, hard to manage as well.”

Hack said Teasley was “very open from the get-go” with him, and they continued to meet regularly while she started on the anti-anxiety medication Paxil, talking about ways to cope with pressure. Meanwhile, her teammates struggled without her on the court, dropping from 9-3 to 10-9 during the seven-game absence Teasley took. Hatchell knew that, if she were to return to the team, they would need to come to terms with Teasley’s illness, too. She brought in a counselor for them as well.

“The team wasn’t interested in taking Nikki back,” recalls Boxill, who frequently travels with the Tar Heels and serves as their public address announcer at home games.

“They thought Nikki was bailing on them,” Hatchell said. “I told them they had to understand that this was not what Nikki wanted to have happen, that it had nothing to do with them.”

Because she had no friends, not even on her own team, the only people surrounding her were people vested in Teasley’s performance on the basketball court. When she returned home to Maryland on breaks, said Hack, “that’s the way people relate to her: ‘How are things going on the team? How are you playing?’ Not, ‘How are classes? Are you making good friends?’ They were not focused on how she was growing as an individual.”

“A lot of people tried to use her,” Hatchell says. “It’s hard to know who to trust. And then her background, you know. She’s been in some real tough environments and situations and was dealing with a lot of things before she should have been.”

Teasley’s neighborhood in Washington was the sort where one dodged bullets on a frequent basis. And Ernestine Teasley was a single mother who struggled at times to do right by her children, something she later admitted in a Sports Illustrated article. It was a recipe for hurt and confusion for an inward girl like Nikki, who took to the courts for refuge and won recognition, validation of self-worth.

Teasley’s identity was so wrapped up in basketball that she began to define herself by it. “A lot of times,” Hack says, “that will happen before athletes get to Carolina. In order to get here in the first place, they’ve had to devote a tremendous amount of time and energy and effort to their sport – and that means forgetting about acting, or art, or science. When that happens, we get a foreclosed identity. Psychologically, that’s risky, because if something comes along to threaten that identity, we feel like we’re left with nothing.”

In late January, Teasley returned to the team while still seeing Hack and helped it reach the ACC Tournament title game, winning most-valuable-player honors despite the fact that the Tar Heels had lost to Duke. Carolina reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, the season ended – and the Nikki Teasley who had appeared on the road to recovery simply closed for business. She stopped going to counseling, stopped taking Paxil, stopped going to class.

“I thought I was doing good,” she recalls. “I stopped taking the medication, and I got back right where I was again. That was when I said, ‘Let me just get away from this, please.’ ”

Learning to be

Plenty of people agreed that Teasley was in no condition to play basketball. But Hatchell was unwilling to dismiss her entirely from the team, and hence, the University. She went to bat for her struggling point guard, fighting for a one-year leave of absence from the team and from classes that would allow her to come back when she’d had time to collect her emotions.

“I had several people say to me, ‘Hey, don’t bring her back here to play. She’s not worth it. She’s just a problem,’ ” said Hatchell, who got full backing from the University. “And a lot of other places would have done that, too, just kicked her out on the street. But you know what? She might have still been on the street, or worse.

“If she had stayed, sure, we probably would have won more games. Was the decision right for wins and losses; was it right for the team? Maybe not. But was it the right thing to do for Nikki? Yeah. Without a doubt. Without a doubt.”

For Boxill, who was a women’s basketball player at UCLA and a coach herself before coming to the University 17 years ago, the moment was revealing. Hatchell always has told parents that she will not give up on their children when she recruits them, and she had fought to help athletes of lesser skill work through very different challenges. But Teasley’s breakdown presented a show-your-soul dilemma for Hatchell, she says.

“I don’t think Coach Hatchell up until then had thought much about depression or mental illness of any kind,” she says. “Many of us confuse it with laziness or boredom, because sometimes you can’t tell the difference. But it is very real. Nikki is the one who made Coach Hatchell realize that there are more things than just basketball, something that’s easy to forget at times no matter how much you realize it in the pit of your soul.”

The message to Teasley, too, was one that made competing again seem like a possibility: “Once she realized that Coach Hatchell wasn’t just about her playing basketball, she learned to let more people in,” Boxill says. “That was a breakthrough.”

Teasley could have abandoned any goal of coming back to Carolina for her senior year, maybe played professionally overseas. Instead, armed with enormous support, she issued a press release to the media in late July 2000 explaining that she would take the year off due to a “stress-related illness.” She left the gossip to the media and the chat rooms about what had happened to her – that she was pregnant, that she had quarreled with Hatchell, that she planned to transfer anyway – and she returned to Maryland with a great deal of homework on how to be Michelle Nicole Teasley.

She started by getting two jobs – one at a construction business, and the other, selling children’s clothes at J.C. Penney at Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Md. Teasley – whose nametag read Michelle – rose at 5 a.m. every day and returned home late, playing pickup basketball whenever she could on the grounds that had once set her free. Her days were filled, but strangely open, too; she now had time to compare the disparate worlds of her young life.

“I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a lot easier on the other side,’ ” Teasley says. “I realized that I had been given a gift, a talent that could also help me graduate from a great university. Being young isn’t so bad. I found out I wasn’t ready for the real world yet.”

Teasley stumbled upon a revelation that year: There’s more real pressure on an anonymous two-shift worker with milk to buy than on a star basketball player who’s been granted the opportunity to earn a degree from college. All those choices her mother had to make while raising her – she understood them a little better now. She knew the psychological difference. Pressure to win was manufactured and controllable. Pressure to clothe and feed and house a family was not. She would see to it that her talent absorbed the latter.

She also would open doors.

To mark the beginning of Teasley’s senior season at Carolina – the one she had fought so hard to keep – she confused her opponent, this fame of hers, by beating it at its own game. On Nov. 21, 2001, her story – the good, the bad and the D word – appeared in Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview issue. Coming quickly on the heels of former Heisman Trophy winner and current NFL running back Ricky Williams’ admission of social anxiety disorder in the spring, Teasley was the first collegiate high-profile player to be so up-front about the stigmatized condition of depression. The gates flung wide open.

“Let me tell you,” says Hatchell, her voice rising, “you cannot imagine the phone calls and the coaches who have talked to me. I got a call last year from a Division I men’s basketball coach who said he’d read the Sports Illustrated article about Nikki and recognized her symptoms in his own player.”

Hatchell would go to clinics, to the Final Four convention, and coaches would come up to her eager for information on how to handle a player of their own. “I feel almost like I’m a mentor now to coaches who find themselves in similar situations. It’s just been unbelievable,” Hatchell says. “This is a problem that is a lot more prevalent than people would think.”

For her part, Teasley believes the NCAA should provide or require schools to provide more help for student-athletes at a big-time academic and athletic program such as Carolina’s. Although she was lucky to have support when she needed it, Teasley says that “for the most part, people assume that you already know how to handle everything that comes along with being a college athlete.”

Hatchell agrees. “There needs to be preventive counseling on dealing with the spotlight,” she says. “We could do a lot more to help kids cope with the expectations and pressures of performing.”

Hack isn’t so sure the NCAA should bear responsibility for such an individual problem. “You have to look at both sides,” he says. “It really comes down to the athletes and their families, who hopefully are focused on helping their kids become well-rounded adults. These students make a choice to be athletes, and if it doesn’t feel good, they have the option of stepping down. Should there be this much pressure? In general, we put too much emphasis on outcome and winning in our society – that’s sort of how we’re set up as capitalists – and it misses the boat a lot. Everyone is a critic.

“But to change that? You’d have to talk about a paradigm shift, which I don’t think Americans are too interested in.”

The NCAA has a program called Life Skills, aimed in part at assisting “student-athletes in building positive self-esteem.” UNC has a version of the program, as well as ACT – Athletes Coming Together – that holds mandatory meetings to discuss drug and substance abuse, among other things, and pairs freshmen with mentors when they reach campus. But Boxill says she doesn’t believe the athletics department has ever done a very good job of “helping with the transition from big fish to small fish,” easing them into their independence and expectations at a large institution.

“We do have programs, but the problem is that these are meetings that are required over and above the duties they already have with academics and basketball,” she says. “Their time is already regulated from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Now you’re going to give them more? The motivation, because it’s required, doesn’t work.”

The best thing any institution can do, Hack says, is to have a clinician on staff to talk to athletes and then make them aware that he or she is available to them. The focus, he says, should be on providing athletes with coping skills to accompany their physical skills. “They are really working double-time relative to many other non-athlete students.”

The UNC athletics department took notice of the need and gave Hack a full-time position as its clinical psychologist after the Teasley episode, opening the possibility of ongoing counseling with athletes struggling with the spotlight. He characterizes Teasley’s admission as being a “huge” factor in helping other student-athletes seek help, and he says his days are busy with athletes from every varsity sport on campus.

“It takes a lot of courage to do what Nikki did with the SI article,” he says. “She started to realize that this was nothing that she needed to keep in, that it was actually hurting her to do so. She found it very beneficial to wipe the stigma from herself, and it’s freed her.”

Growing up

When Teasley returned to the team after her yearlong absence, she had the most consistent year of her career, again leading the Tar Heels to the ACC Tournament championship game and to the NCAA Sweet 16, earning all-conference tournament team honors for the fourth time. She finished her career as the school’s all-time leader in career assists with 728. Off the court, she continued to improve as well; though she lacked the credits she needed to graduate on time, she seemed to have found a way to cope with her old demons. Her narrow circle of confidantes widened, and she began seriously dating a local Wachovia Bank branch manager, Collis Arrick.

When it came time for the WNBA draft in spring 2002, Teasley was hopeful she’d be chosen by a team perfect for her, one where she would have the resources to continue on the road to recovery. When Portland chose her as the fifth pick overall – and then quickly traded her to the Los Angeles Sparks for their popular point guard, Ukari Figgs – she wasn’t sure what to think. She left Hatchell six messages on the coach’s cell phone while Hatchell flew back from the draft. Teasley was hoping for reassurance that the trade that had happened while Hatchell was in the air was a good thing. After all, she would be playing for the defending WNBA champions in a city whose sports legacy had been built on basketball titles. It almost seemed like a mistake that the Sparks would want her.

“I told her they had to value her tremendously to trade their starting point guard for her,” Hatchell says. They see you as a Magic Johnson, she told Teasley – something Michael Cooper, who had played with Johnson, had said in the past. And when, to her surprise later that night, Teasley got a welcome-and-congratulations phone call from Lisa Leslie, she started to feel a good vibe, too.

“Lisa has become sort of her mother figure,” Boxill says. “She helps keep Nikki on course.” Leslie and the Sparks have given Teasley discipline in many ways. Not until she reached the Sparks did she realize how much she wanted her African-American studies degree from Carolina: All of her L.A. teammates already had their diplomas. Teasley always had found academics a struggle because she feared speaking up in class when she had a question, assuming everyone else understood what she did not.

But with Boxill’s help and with one-one-one tutoring, she made a commitment to finish her classes, taking 17 hours of coursework last semester in Chapel Hill during the WNBA off-season. She learned to love learning. She’s down to one course, psychology, which she is taking by correspondence this spring. Teasley plans to be in Kenan Stadium in May to be conferred with a long-awaited slip of paper that will help her find meaning in her life when basketball is no longer there to shape it.

“Last year there was a lot of growing up for me,” Teasley says. “A lot of growing up.”

Is she cured? No, not completely; she never will be completely. You can’t cure yourself of an identity. But you can get up every day and work on it, like everyone else. And you can begin to redefine what greatness means.

“Greatness is everything,” she says today. “My life is almost complete. I’m playing professionally. I’m engaged to be married. I assume one day I will have kids. My mom, thank God, is still living to see all of this.

“I’m about to become the first in my family ever to get a college degree,” she says, smiling ever wider, “and I’m healthy.”

Last September, Teasley began her own basketball camp for girls in the Baltimore area. It is, she proudly says, the only one of its kind in the region – and she, the only woman from the D.C. area to be playing in the WNBA. She wants to give little girls dreams, a reason to feel good about themselves.

From her vantage point on the sidelines, watching the girls challenge their bodies to do things only men were once thought to do, Teasley gets a funny feeling. “I’m seeing some girls out there who are coming up fast. And it’s amazing to watch them, and to think, ‘That was me, a few years ago, out there running around, trying to beat the world.’ ”

Redemption and joy

The most graciously unfolding endings leave room for infinite beginnings. Teasley was due for one of those. She’d never hit a shot at the buzzer to win any kind of championship before; though of course, like many little girls, she’d dreamed of it. Even at her lowest points, she’d dreamed of it. And even in her dreams, she never made it. Now, here she was, a rookie playing for the women’s professional championship, faced with the prospect of reaching the pinnacle of her sport in front of 14,000 fans and 1.1 million more on television, most of them aware of her past.

“Is there ever a time when I’ll start thinking about being great again? Yeah, maybe someday,” she says, sheepishly. “Right now, it’s easier to think of myself as just being average.”

Five, 4, 3, 2 –

Twenty-one feet from the basket, 3,000 miles from home, four all-star teammates on the court with her, Teasley stood alone behind the arc with the weight of her team and coaches and family and friends tucked neatly into the elastic band of her shorts as company to Ernie’s driver’s license – the past ever-present but never all-consuming. She raised the ball above her head, then let it go from her fingertips with excitement and fear flowing through her veins like a river to the future.

She knew who she was now. She was Nikki Teasley. And that was more than enough to win.

Copyright 2003 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, May/June 2003