Brooks: Spears' Growth Measured By More Than Career Stats
BOULDER - From childhood to early adulthood, not much has come easy for Brittany Spears - and that includes basketball, despite what seems to be an effortless, natural athleticism. But Spears, once shy and soft-spoken when speaking at all, and her game have blossomed at Colorado.
It hasn't happened overnight or by accident; the process has taken four full years on a campus that has rewarded her, and her it.
"The first time I met her, she hardly talked; she was all to herself and all about basketball. That just was kind of her deal. She never really hung out with any of us. That was just it," said Chelsea Dale, one of three CU seniors - Britney Blythe and Spears are the other two - who will play their final regular-season game Saturday (2 p.m.) at the Coors Events Center against third-ranked Baylor.
But Spears, by her teammates' account as well as her own, isn't the same introverted freshman who arrived in Boulder in 2007. She's still not a woman of many words, but her social skills have become recognizable, her demeanor with her teammates and coaches has changed.
"She's stepped into a leadership role," first-year CU Coach Linda Lappe said. "I see her talking in huddles, telling teammates what to do, what we need to happen. Everybody listens . . . her teammates and the coaching staff respect her because we know how hard she's worked. It's not about her - she wants to win. She's said that from Day One."
Added Dale: "Through the years she's gotten great with being around people and socializing and really stepping up into a leadership role. She mostly helps me in giving me the confidence that I can shoot the shot, that I don't hesitate. When you hear someone like Brittany Spears say that to you, that's a great compliment. She believes in me, and whenever Spears believes, our whole team believes. She's really and truly our leader."
At CU, Spears has been forced to reassess her priorities. In high school, academics always were of secondary value - behind hoops, of course. "I was like, 'I play basketball so I'll be fine," she said. "As you get older, you realize you need the grades to get in school - and you need to go to school. School's more important than basketball."
Before coming to CU, Spears made an intermediate stop at Notre Dame Prep School in Fitchburg, Mass. That was across the country from her home in Pasadena, Calif., and the distance and the change in environment nearly defeated her. Reinforcement to stick it out came from various cousins, the former CU staff that recruited her, and Katherine Johnson, the aunt who took her in when she was eight years old. Johnson will attend Saturday's Senior Day ceremony.
Spears "hated" the first month at the Eastern prep school. "I asked myself, 'Why am I even here?' It was my first time away from home and I wasn't prepared for it. I was ready to give up, but no one would let me go home. But I think it prepared me for college. (CU) was nothing like being over there; I've gotten a lot more support here."
Academics have become important enough that Spears is on track to graduate with a degree in sociology. "Being eligible every semester, being able to graduate, her perseverance is amazing, awesome and very admirable," Lappe said.
Although she's crept to within 37 points of CU's career scoring leader, Lisa Van Goor (2,068 from 1980-85), Spears' greatest accomplishment will be "getting my degree here . . . basketball is not going to always be here. It could be done tomorrow, you never know.
"No, things haven't been easy, especially academically. That's where you've got to work hard for everything . . . but I'm proud of what I've done. Yeah, I'm happy."
It's been a season headed toward an apparent happy ending for Lappe's team - and Spears has been an integral reason. She's scored in double figures in 26 of 28 games this season and has reached 20 or more points 42 times in her career. She's worked her way into prominent positions on several of CU's career statistical lists, but the numbers aren't of concern to her now.
"A long, long time from now, maybe they will be," she said. "I know it's a good thing, but I don't give much thought to it now."
Since she was a freshman, Spears has been counted on for points. "She was an instant starter - and that's a lot of pressure," Dale said. "But she's really grown into that and grown to love it. She's someone now we can look to to hit big shots. It's great stuff."
Lappe depends on Spears' scoring proficiency as much as ever, noting, "She shoots a lot right now because we need her to shoot a lot - if we didn't, she wouldn't. It shows you how unselfish she is."
But Spears' offense is not what Lappe likes most about Spears and her development; Spears rarely is MIA anymore.
Said Lappe: "At the beginning of the year, teams could take her out of the game. If she got two early fouls, an early travel call, an early charge, she would kind of disappear for the rest of the game, or at least a large portion of it. Now, you can't even see that stuff affect her.
"That's huge as she moves forward in her career - controlling what she can control and clearing negative thoughts out of her mind. I think that's probably the biggest thing; she can start off slow but that doesn't mean she's going to have a bad game."
Spears showed up at CU as a scorer, but not a very polished one and a fairly one-dimensional threat. Now, said Lappe, "She's scoring in a lot of different ways . . . attacking the rim, getting some post-ups on the block, hitting the three - which she's always done - and getting to the free throw line."
Plus, she can defend almost any player she's assigned to: "When she wants to, she can really shut other teams down," Lappe said.
When Lappe was hired last April, she didn't know what to expect from Spears. She had seen the 6-foot-1 forward play on numerous occasions, but didn't know her temperament or her work ethic. She quickly found out that Spears never shied away from work.
"She was in the best shape of anybody on the team," Lappe said, recalling that Spears ran a sub-6-minute mile in CU's first conditioning test and "blew everybody out of the water. She doesn't miss any workouts, she's there every single day when she doesn't have to be."
If Spears lacked anything, it was the confidence to know she could "longer and further than maybe she thought," Lappe said. "We had to push her and prod her at times, and she still gets in the mindset sometimes of 'I can't move another muscle.'"
Good coaches cope with that by resting their players, however briefly, and that's what Lappe does. As a result, Spears is pushing through that "I'm gassed" mindset and not losing focus as quickly as she once did. On an uncharacteristically thin roster (nine players normally suit up), Lappe leans heavily on Spears.
"She gets tired because we have her do so much," Lappe said. "We run lots of screens for her and lot of times she's guarding a very good player."
Spears wants to continue her basketball career in the WNBA (summer) and overseas (off-season). But her immediate focus is on a strong finish to the current season and coping with what will be an emotional Saturday on her home court.
"I've been thinking about that," she said. "It won't hit you until you're out there, knowing it's your last game here. Right now, it doesn't feel like the last game - just another home game. But I know when it hits me, it'll hit."
It will hit Lappe, too.
"I'm very proud to have been able to coach her for a year," Lappe said. "As you look back, to be able to coach one of the greatest players who ever wore the Colorado uniform is kind of neat."