McClain reached for the stars with her feet firmly planted on the ground
Katrina McClain’s dream as a child was to be in a court, not on a court.
“Even when I was in high school, I never thought about playing basketball in college,” says Katrina, a two-time all-American for the University of Georgia from 1983 to 1987. “All I thought about was becoming a lawyer.
“The reason I played basketball was I loved it. I could play against anybody, even guys. That’s all that was important to me, just playing the game. I never thought past where I was at the moment.”
Just fewer than 30 years after her senior season in 1983 at Charleston (S.C.) St. Andrews High when she led her unbeaten team to the state championship, Katrina was very much in the moment last week when she was in New Orleans as part as the 2012 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction class.
She’ll be officially inducted on Sept. 7 in Springfield, Mass., becoming the 18th men’s and women’s player or coach from the SEC to earn basketball’s highest career achievement. And it’s all because she loved a sport so much that the sport loved her just as much in return.
The bouncing orange ball took her places around the world, from Athens, Georgia to Athens, Greece, from Baton Rouge to Barcelona, from Ruston to Rome, from Tuscaloosa to Tokyo. She certainly never imagined that could happen when she was a teenager playing on the outside cement courts in the West Ashley section of Charleston.
Katrina, now 46, is back living in West Ashley and the proud mother of three homeschooled children, two boys (age 12 and 10) and a daughter (age 8) that she says are “all tall and have big feet.” Her kids haven’t quite grasped the amazing amount of accomplishments that their mother packed into roughly a two-decade career.
At Georgia where Katrina still ranks second on Georgia’s all-time career charts with 2,195 points (17.6 ppg) and 1,193 rebounds (9.5), she helped the Lady Bulldogs go 116-15, win two Southeastern Conference championships, earn four NCAA Tournament berths, and reach the championship game of the 1985 NCAA Final Four.
She also played on 11 U.S. National Teams, including three Olympics (gold medals in 1988 and 1996 and bronze in 1992), three World Championships (golds in 1986 and 1990 and bronze in 1994), two Goodwill Games (golds in 1986 and 1990), two Pan American Games (gold in 1987 and bronze in 1991), and World University Games (silver in 1985).
Katrina professionally overseas for nine seasons including four in Japan (1987-91), one in Italy (1992), two in Spain (1993-94), back to Japan for a year (1995), to Turkey in 1996 after the Olympics and finally finishing her career in 1997-98 with the Atlanta Glory of the American Basketball League, a forerunner of the WNBA.
Along the way, she earned such honors as college basketball’s Player of the Year in 1987, and was selected as
USA Basketball’s Female Athlete of the Year in 1988 and 1992.
Katrina is already a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and is one of three Georgia women’s players to have their jersey number retired.
It seems like every step of the way in her basketball career, Katrina’s former Georgia teammate, Teresa Edwards, has always been close by.
“It seems like anytime either one of us go into a Hall of Fame, the other person follows the next year,” Katrina says with a laugh. “For instance, last year Teresa got inducted at Springfield, I told her, `You better pay attention to every thing that is going on. Because if you do, you’re going to be one of my presenters.”
When Katrina arrived at Georgia as a freshman in August 1983, she was surprised when she learned that Edwards, a sophomore guard, was to be her roommate.
“I was expecting to room with one of the other Georgia players I had met there that summer,” Katrina recalls. “I was very much an introvert and very shy, so it was fate that brought me together with Teresa.
“When I walked in her dorm room and saw all the pictures of all her family, I said, `This is not the girl I’m supposed to be rooming with. I was all freaked out. And now, we’ve ended up being best friends.
“We are total opposites, like day and night. But we meshed together. She was a guard and I was a forward, and she was pretty much my mentor.”
But the person who made Katrina into a world-class player was Georgia coach Andy Landers, whose patience was tried by Katrina during the recruiting process. The Charleston, S.C. native, who was highly recruited, didn’t decide where she wanted to go to college until late in the summer after her high school graduation.
Why wait so late? Maybe it’s because she never really looked at herself as a big deal.
Katrina didn’t start playing organized basketball until she was 10 years old, but she didn’t start sprouting until her last two years of high school. As her stats also grew and college recruiters came calling, she still didn’t think it was a big deal.
“They were like, `We want you to visit our campus’,” Katrina says. “I was like, `O.K. Why not?’ ”
Katrina says she didn’t pick Georgia because of Landers, who didn’t mince words in his recruiting spiel.
“He told me, `If you want it easy, don’t come to Georgia’,” Katrina remembers. “I thought at the time, `Are you kidding me?’
“But he was telling me the truth. And I appreciated his honesty. I spent almost entire summer after my senior year in high school at Georgia working in camps. I wasn’t getting paid, but I was getting comfortable being there. I was such an introvert, being comfortable and relaxed was important to me at that time.
“I still was considering signing with Louisiana Tech. I liked their coaches Leon Barmore and Sonja Hogg, and I liked the players they recruited that year. I enjoyed my visit to Louisiana Tech, but it was a brief visit. I was in Athens the whole summer. I finally signed a couple of weeks before school started. I didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t understand the magnitude of where basketball could take me.”
Katrina says she didn’t grasp that until she started playing professionally overseas. During her senior season at Georgia, a Japanese professional coach visited Athens and offered a $100,000 contract to play a four-month season.
“I said, `Okay, but I’ve got to finish school’,” Katrina says. “My Dad came over (from Charleston) to see if the offer was real, because he was suspect about the whole thing. But it was a good, legitimate deal. The season didn’t last too long and I was able to come back and finish school.”
Katrina says she didn’t ever play for a coach who cared more about his players than Landers.
“He taught all of us about not just the game, but he made sure we took care of our schoolwork,” she says. “Study hall was mandatory. Sometimes we peeked out the door to see if his car was outside and we’d sneak away every so often. He stressed the student before the athlete. He made sure we graduated. He was a people person and I love him for it.”
Landers, says Katrina, always knew what buttons to push to get her to play harder.
“He was hard on me,” she says, “because he knew I could give more than I was giving. He’d call me `Candy Butt.’ He’d tell (teammate) Janet Harris, `Eat Candy Butt’s lunch.’ I was like, `I can’t stand this coach.’ And that was my freshman year. I’m thinking, `I’ve got four more years of this?’
“But he knew exactly what he was doing. Because when he said stuff like that, he frustrated me and I took it out on the players I was playing against. Whenever he said something that got me mad, I’d start throwing elbows, I was getting rebounds, I was scoring, I was playing hard.
“I didn’t even know what he was doing while he was doing that to me, but he was smart enough to do it.”
Katrina says that Landers never told her or any of his players that he loved them, but she says he didn’t have to say a word.
“His actions let us know he loved us,” Katrina says. “He’d give us a little neck rub, he’s always laughing, always joking. He’s a great guy. I can even go to him today for advice and he says, `What do you need, Mac?’
“When we see him now, we tell him he’s gotten soft. We saw one of his players with her hands down on her shorts resting on defense and we told him, `Man, you would have killed us if we did that.’ We never got away with anything with him.
“It does hurt me to know that he’s never won a national championship. It hurts me even more that I couldn’t win one when I played for him, because I really wanted to do it for him. You always want the good guy to win.”
Katrina’s hard-nosed inside play, especially in post-college international competition, when she collected medal after medal, as much as anything got her into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“There is a large contingency of people, both in this country and worldwide, who think Katrina McClain could be women’s basketball’s best power player ever,” Landers says. “I hear that expressed over and over again when I talk with coaches who actually coached her or coached against her. She will go down as one of the all-time greats and induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame only validates that assessment.”
Katrina bypassed one last professional job with the WNBA –“They didn’t allow you to make any endorsement money,” she says – to enter private life. She returned home to Charleston to create the Katrina McClain Foundation, which helps youths at risk because of illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and unhealthy lifestyles due to obesity and a lack of fitness.
“Right now, I’m concentrating on obesity, teaching kids how to make wise choices when they’re eating, how to exercise, self-confidence building techniques,” she says. “I’m having an eight-week camp this summer, then I’m going into area schools for an after-school program. I’ve written a children’s Biblical book about making good decisions.”
Katrina has been able to make informed decisions her entire life because of the strong support group around her, including her parents and her brother. That’s why when she does get inducted in Springfield in September, the lion’s share of the credit will go to her family.
“My family has always been instrumental in guiding me,” Katrina says. “My Mom and Dad have been monumental. My Dad has always worked and my Mom was always at my games. They always kept us in church, always made us do the right things. I’ve been blessed to have them as my parents.”
Katrina says that “God has always been my guidance,” so she believes it was fate that a little girl from Charleston who happened to grow at just the right time and who loved a sport that the game was fun would end up in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It seemed like everything happened, because it was the way it was supposed to be,” Katrina says.