Feb. 21, 2006
Growing up in Chicago, Carol Owens didn't see basketball as an escape or even a path to a better life. Quite frankly, it was something far more simplistic.
"When I was in seventh grade I was getting interested in boys and that's what they were doing," Owens admitted with a chuckle. "There was a hoop next door and that's where we all gathered. But I also started to really enjoy it and that led to me trying out for the St. Angelas junior varsity."
The following year she was on the varsity, but only because she was able to convince her parents -- Tom and Lestine -- that her grades would never dip.
"That was our agreement. They weren't the least bit interested in sports, so I had to convince them to let me play. Suddenly I was being recruited by some high schools," Owens recalled. "(Chicago) Notre Dame (High School) wasn't a basketball power by any stretch, but it was a college prep school and that appealed to my parents."
That brought Owens in contact with the next of the many people whose influences she credits with making her one of the select few African-American head coaches in Division I basketball for men or women. Diane Forester was a strict disciplinarian or, as Owens put it, "She didn't take any stuff."
Three games into the junior varsity season, the freshman was elevated to the varsity and was simply having fun. Even after Owens received her very first "recruiting letter" from NIU as a sophomore, her parents had yet to see her play. However, Forester saw something more, or at least enough to tell the Owenses that their daughter could "potentially be good, good enough to get a college scholarship."
Suddenly, her junior year games became a priority for her parents and their support and encouragement became even more important. Prior to her senior year, Owens and her teammates committed to summer workouts and playing in a league. That winter, Notre Dame surfaced among the state's ranked programs and the attention escalated. Although Owens was tempted to sign early, Forester asked her to hold off in order to give a teammate an opportunity to gain some Division I exposure as well.
"Back then, there were virtually no limits on calls. Thankfully, my dad stepped in and told everyone they could only call on Wednesdays or Sundays. Some of the coaches could be very forceful, so I really appreciated his help," Owens said.
Picking the right school meant choosing between offers that ranged from Northwestern and Bradley Universities, to schools she visited, like NIU, the University of Nebraska, DePaul University and Illinois State University. As the National Girls Catholic High School Player of the Year, a First-Team Catholic All-America, a First-Team All-State and All-Area honoree who once scored 50 points in a game, the pressures of constant scrutiny and wooing became something she remains mindful of when it comes to her own recruiting efforts.
In addition to having to make such a monumental decision, Owens recalled it was an unsettling time and her parents were concerned for her well-being while stressing the importance of getting a degree.
"Although they had sheltered me by sending me to private schools, even at that age, I could sense the tension and racism that surrounded Harold Washington's campaign to be mayor of Chicago," Owens remembered. "My dad grew up in a very segregated Chicago while my mom was raised in southern Mississippi and knew one of the three civil rights workers killed. They impressed upon me the importance of not hating anyone, even if those people didn't treat you equally."
Whether it was her southern accent or her respect for home-cooked meals, etc., the first-time head coach from Northern Illinois named Jane Albright hit it off with both parents and daughter. The North Carolina native and former Pat Summitt staff member was the next to make a major imprint on the player and future coach.
"I often think about how well Jane communicated with me and the whole team. I always remember that these four years in college are so crucial. It's when (recruits) go from girls to women," Owens said. "You have to be a mentor, mother, sister or aunt. Jane wore all those hats well.
"As I said, my parents gave me the best possible education in terms of a school and in life. I sincerely thank for them that, but mom was scared to death over me leaving home. I understand the fear parents have over letting their daughter go off to school, hoping they'll still carry on the morals and values they taught them," Owens stated. "Just as Jane made no promises other than I'd have an opportunity to work hard and earn what I could, I believe in that same approach. What it takes to succeed on the basketball court -- discipline, worth ethic, teamwork, being accountable and responsible -- those are the same lessons to learn not just on the floor or in the classroom, but for life. You can't be late or say I forgot, that won't cut it on the court, in the classroom or in business."
Despite becoming an immediate starter and double-figure scorer, Owens thinks her transition to the college game wasn't the greatest.
"I was so surprised by the speed and strength. My (current) team laughed when I told them I was awful. I hadn't ever lifted weights. I literally had to start by just lifting the bar without any weights," Owens added. "I was one of the slowest players when it came to long-distance running, but I had to make a decision to get serious. That's why when I say, `if I can do it, I know you can do it,' I'm speaking from real experience."
That philosophy would be severely tested after just a few minutes of her sophomore season opener. The cornerstone of Albright's plans to build a national program became an injury victim. Despite the difficulty of rehabbing from total right knee reconstructive surgery, Owens literally and figuratively picked up right where she left off and ultimately became the first player -- male or female -- in Northern Illinois history to surpass both the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound milestones.
"Quite frankly, it was the best thing that could've ever happened to me," Owens said with 20/20 hindsight. "To have something I really valued and enjoyed taken away, it was a defining moment for me. I sat back and realized how much I valued being on the court and the opportunity to have a scholarship to go to school."
Northern Illinois' initial Kodak All-America was suddenly a two-time or three-time honoree from the conference level to the district to various national All-America units. All of which was accomplished with an unheralded program amid the cornfields of Illinois which suddenly was playing a schedule that read like a "Who's Who" in Women's Collegiate Basketball. Albright scheduled Old Dominion, Tennessee, North Carolina State, Iowa, Notre Dame, DePaul, Louisiana Tech, Purdue, Long Beach State, Stephen F. Austin, Vanderbilt, Washington, Southern Cal, etc.
Owens and her 1989-90 squad -- just inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame as unit this past October (2005) -- made the first of the school's six consecutive postseason appearances (one NWIT and five NCAA Dances). Much to Owens' surprise amidst it all, the recruiting process began all over again.
"We played an exhibition with a German team and their coach was asking coach Albright if I could get out of my senior year early to go play over there. Then she started getting calls from agents. Many of them can make you feel like you're on top of the world. That was when I first thought about playing overseas," Owens said.
Suddenly yet another life experience opened up thanks to that game she began playing in the alleys of Chicago.
"If college was a huge change, going from college to Japan was a complete culture shock," Owens acknowledged. "I had a telephone stipend I exceeded every single month. I came to want to kiss the ground every time I returned home, but what a great experience and opportunity. From the time I first got over there, I was playing with legends, Lynette Woodard, Teresa Edwards, Medina Dixon."
Her career took her to Spain and also to Italy before she began to dread getting her knees ready for the grind that is pro basketball.
"I heard of an opening at (the University of) Michigan and figured it was worth a try, although my agent argued with me at the time and still insists I could have been playing in the WNBA," Owens said with a grin. "I'm glad the league's there, but I'm still happy with my playing career as it was. When the movie "Love and Basketball" came out, that was the team I played for in Spain. And so many of the people in that movie or in the WNBA are people I faced overseas, so I don't feel as if I missed out on anything." Admittedly, her initial salary had her questioning if it was a lucrative enough career change, but the two campaigns with the Wolverines led to her opportunity at Notre Dame under Muffet McGraw. A decade of NCAA appearances highlighted by a national championship and two Final Fours made certain Owens has no regrets.
"Growing up watching Mark Aguirre at DePaul battling Kelly Tripucka at Notre Dame, I thought going to ND was too great an opportunity to pass up. But Muffet really allowed me to spread my wings in terms of recruiting and coaching post players," Owens said. "Thanks to her, I learned so much more and have experiences that some coaches will never have in their lifetimes.
"Although I believe I've worked hard to earn my coaching opportunity, it's also an accomplishment I'm quite proud of," Owens insisted. "But I also know with great opportunity comes great responsibility. My goal is to be in this position for a long time and make the most of the opportunities ahead of me. The game's in my blood and I wouldn't want it any other way."
Sounds like someone clearly still in love with what started in the alleys of Chicago.