Steph was a fierce competitor, a good basketball player and loyal to her teammates from New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale and Geneva (NRHEG) in southern Minnesota, a small school that breeds talent in basketball. I played against Steph for years, always running into her at tournaments and always at the Gus Macker, a summer three-on-three outdoor basketball tournament held in select cities nationwide.
We played the same position, off guard, and always covered each other. Steph was strong with broad shoulders for a girl and had sharp elbows that cleared the way while rebounding. She could drain any shot within 10 feet of the rim and, more than once, she took a chunk of my skin with her on defense. Needless to say, we didn’t get along very well.
I was fifteen years old the last time I played in the Macker. My hometown, Albert Lea, hosted the showcase consecutive years by the summer of 2004 due to the large turnout. I played with my friends Niki and Liz from my high school team and Kristen, a quick pointguard from a smaller school in the area, United South Central. Niki, Liz and I played together since we were 10, and rarely came away from the Macker without a trophy to show for it. We were competitive, and feisty.
It’s funny. I could tell you how we placed nearly every year except that last one. I remember playing Steph’s team at some point in the winner’s bracket, maybe even in the championship game, but who knows.
For someone with a 5’5” and a 95-pound frame at the time, I was pretty full of myself. And, I had a quick temper.
During one of the last plays of the game, I leapt for a rebound, had just secured the ball at my chest, when Steph sliced at my hand to try to strip the ball. She missed, and dug a clean valley into my hand with her nail.
It ticked me off, and at the next chance, I dug my elbow into her rib cage when she attemped a drive through the lane.
That’s the last thing I recall about Steph. I don’t even remember who won, probably because I blocked it out. Two weeks later Steph and her boyfriend died in a car accident in Owatonna. She was sixteen.
Steph’s death took an emotional toll on everyone who knew her. Steph was a multi-sport athlete from a town of 1,200 people. She lettered in track, volleyball, softball and basketball. In short, a lot of people knew her, and loved her. My school team sent cards and condolences to her family, hundreds attended her funeral in New Richland and her teammates honored her on their jerseys the following season.
Maybe it was the scar she left my on my hand, still visible to this day. Maybe it was the close proximity of her death to our last matchup. Or maybe it was because of how that last game ended. But I changed the way I played after that summer.
Sportsmanship is important. How you conduct yourself on the court, field, mat, course, track or in the pool is important. Opponents are necessary in order for sports to exist, and respecting another’s ability to play a game you both love can be tricky, but rewarding.
I cover high school athletics for a living. I’ve seen the jabs under the boards, slashing on the ice and cleat-up slides into an infielder’s ankle.
In national news, we’re watching the aftermath of Ryan Dempster of the Boston Red Sox bean New York Yankee third basemen Alex Rodriguez in a heated rivalry following the Biogenesis and medical lawsuit scandal. I’m not saying Dempster hit Rodriguez on purpose, but he’s only beaned five batters in his last 145 innings on the mound. And is it worth it? Is this Dempster’s battle to judge and decide? I don’t believe so. Worry about what is happening on your own bench and respect the game, because you can’t control what may happen down the road.
I never competed in the Macker after that summer — it would have been weird. I wish I had the chance to apologize to Steph for losing my cool, to tell her how talented, smart and beautiful she was, and to thank her for making me a better player on the court and a better person in life.
In case you’re wondering, I looked back at old newspaper clippings to see how Steph’s team finished in her last Gus Macker in 2004. Their team name was the Sparks, and they won the tournament.
— Kat Ladwig is the sports reporter for the ECM Post Review