A Serendipitous Move To Stanford For Azzi

By Ann Killion

Looking back, Jennifer Azzi admits she didn't know what she was in for.

She didn't know anything about California. She didn't know anything about Stanford. She didn't know anything about the Pac-10 conference. She didn't know anything about strange areas of the country that didn't support women's basketball.

But in 1986 she decided to take a risk.

"It was really outside of the box for me," Azzi said of her decision to leave her home in Tennessee and attend Stanford. "I'd never been on an airplane before. I didn't even like to spend the night at a friend's house."

Her plunge into the unknown changed not only the course of her life, but also the course of Stanford athletics and West Coast women's basketball.

Azzi was the linchpin of Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer's second recruiting class. She arrived at Stanford in the first year that women's sports were included in the Pac-10. Not that the milestone meant anything to her.

"All I knew was the SEC," Azzi said.

And - in large part because of the success at Tennessee - the Southeastern Conference schools and the youth and high school programs that fed into them had a tradition of supporting women's basketball.

"I was used to seeing ten thousand people come to see a high school girls game," Azzi said.

That didn't happen on the West Coast. Though Cheryl Miller had just finished making her mark at USC, there hadn't been a spillover effect to the rest of the teams on the West Coast.

Azzi and VanDerveer went about trying to make a change together. First, Azzi had to get over her homesickness. She called home from a pay phone every week, asking to come home. She didn't know anyone at Stanford. She didn't speak out in class because of her southern accent. She felt like everyone was from a different world.

"I didn't feel I belonged there at all," she said.

Her father told her he would come and visit but he had to wait a month to get a decent airfare. If she still wanted to come home then, he promised, he'd bring her back with him. Of course, within a month Azzi had made friends, was doing well in school and was enjoying her collegiate experience.

But she remained discouraged by what was taking place on the court. Though the team was getting better, the stands were empty - they didn't even bother to pull out the bleachers at Maples Pavilion for the women's games.

One afternoon, VanDerveer sat her frustrated young player down and did a little new-age California visualization. She asked her to imagine Maples filled to the rafters with fans there to watch women's basketball. She asked Azzi to imagine championship banners hanging from the rafters.

Azzi could see it all in her mind's eye.

"I wrote in my journal my freshman year that if we worked hard enough we could win a championship by my senior year," she said. "It was just a big dream. And I was dumb enough to believe it."

The players put up flyers in the dorm that begged "Come see our game tonight." They practiced hard. They lost only five games her sophomore year and made the NCAA Tournament. They lost a mere three games her junior year.

When Azzi looks back, she sees that everything was in place for success. Stanford had:

· An athletic director that supported the program. When then-AD Andy Geiger met with the team in Azzi's freshman year he told the players, "I want to win a championship in basketball and I don't care if it's men's or women's."

· An environment that - while it wasn't yet fully supportive - wasn't hostile to women's sports. "The volleyball team was great for us," Azzi remembers. "They were a role model program with a great atmosphere and great success and dedicated fans."

· A brilliant coach in VanDerveer who had a tireless work ethic and was also savvy about reaching out to the community, connecting with a booster club and marketing the team.

And there was a player to build around in Azzi - though she won't tell you that. She won't take responsibility for the legacy of Stanford women's basketball, a program that has made nine Final Fours, won two national championships and draws huge crowds to Maples.

"I feel a part of it, but there were a lot of the right people at the right time," she said. "If you took away Katy Steding or Sonja Henning or Trisha Stevens it would be different. If you change one thing it changes everything.

"It just felt like it was meant to be."

By her senior year, Azzi didn't need to close her eyes to see her dream. Maples was packed. The team had only lost once - at Washington. And Stanford traveled back to Knoxville, Tenn. - SEC country - to win its first national championship.

Stanford went on to become the gold standard for women's basketball on the West Coast, a major player in women's basketball along with Tennessee and Connecticut.

Azzi went on to pave more roads in her sport. She was a member of the 1996 Olympic team that won a gold medal and changed perceptions about women's basketball. She was a founding member of the American Basketball League and went on to a long career in the WNBA.

Now she is living in the Bay Area, coaching at the University of San Francisco. And she tells her players something she has told herself almost every day for the past 25 years.

"I feel really blessed that I had that opportunity," she said. "I tell my players you are so fortunate to have a scholarship to a good school, to be in California, to be in the Bay Area, to have access to the kind of people you can meet as a student-athlete.

"You are put in a position for success for the rest of your life."

Azzi didn't know it back in 1986 when she chose Stanford. But that's exactly what she was in for.

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