Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014: Michelle Edwards — The Miracle of “Ice”
If someone had told a young Michelle Edwards that 2014 would find her preparing to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, she might have reacted the same way she did when she got the news in 2013: Disbelief. But, perhaps, for a different reason than you might expect.
Growing up in Boston in the mid-70s, Edwards’ sport of choice didn’t sound like the squeak of sneakers on a court, but rather the “swoosh” of skis hurtling down a mountain.
“I actually was playing tennis and skiing,” explained Edwards. “It’s funny because my initial dream was to become the first African-American downhill skier.”
Basketball didn’t become a focus until her teens.
“I used to always hang out with my older brother Rodney. We would walk from the house to the park, and the first piece of the park was slides, the swings and the sand. I would stop there where the girls were and he would continue to the basketball court. But, when you get to the age of 14, or whenever you start noticing boys, you say, ‘Hey, what’s going on there where the boys are?’ So I followed my brother over there one day and I just sat on the sidelines and watched.”
There were girls playing, she recalled, but as much as she wanted to play with them, she was too shy to approach them. But she sure did want to play – and when she did, boy, could she play! In a 1998 Los Angeles Times article, Sean Jensen recaptured those playground battles:
“To a chorus of oohs and occasional ha-has, she broke down foes with head fakes, crossover dribbles and hesitations. Sometimes she lost, most of the time she won. Concrete casualties and courtside crowds alike called her by the nickname she had earned: Ice.
“‘She lived up to that name because she was so smooth,” Chris Jones said, recalling his playground battles with Ice. ‘Everything she did on the blacktop was cold.'”
The play of this young hotshot spread, and local coaches and organizers took notice.
”This guy named Mark Oliver, he came to where I’m from, from Roxbury , and he basically said, ‘Hey, you want to come and maybe play in this league where I need you to try out?'” Edwards recalled.
Since she had never played organized basketball before, there was a steep, and occasionally painful, learning curve.
“I was so fast that sometimes I would always shoot the basket and miss layups. They were laughing at me, because I missed layups and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this feels horrible, but am I going to quit or am I going to suck it up and keep going?’ I learned that lesson very early on.”
Those lessons served her well during her career at Boston’s Cathedral High School (‘84), where she became the first girl in Massachusetts history to score over 2000 points. Her skills brought her to the attention of Alfreda Harris, a legend in the Boston-area basketball scene. At Harris’ invitation, Edwards joined an AAU team which, in turn, brought her game to the attention of national college programs. It seemed that the 5-9 guard had a career at Virginia or USC in her future.
Then Edwards encountered a woman who was trying to build something new at Iowa University — second-year coach C. Vivian Stringer — and suddenly the Midwest was her destination.
“It was like a clean slate,” Edwards told the Des Moines Register. “Let’s see what could happen.”
Together they transformed the Hawkeyes’ program and Edwards redefined her nickname “Ice” with her ability to hit the clutch shot. Following a freshman season in which she helped lead Iowa to a 20-8 record, the Hawkeyes made back-to-back NCAA Tournament regional final appearances (1987, 1988) and held a No. 1 national ranking. During Edwards’ four seasons at Iowa, the Hawkeyes went 97-22, with Edwards leading the team in scoring in each of her final three seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and finishing her career with a total of 1,821 points, 431 assists and 235 steals. In 1990 she became the first and, so far, only Hawkeye to have her jersey retired.
After college, Edwards played professionally in Italy from 1988-97, earning three Italian League All-Star Game MVP awards in the process. She also who won a bronze medal at the 1991 Pan-American Games, once again under Stringer’s leadership.
When the WNBA began in 1997, “I was really getting ready to take my shoes off,” admitted Edwards. “I was tired of going overseas and not being with my friends and family. And I wanted to start trying to work on my Plan B.”
But Edwards couldn’t resist the opportunity to be part of that inaugural season. Tapped by the now-defunct Cleveland Rockers in the inaugural 1997 draft, Edwards ultimately played a total of five seasons (1997-2001) in the WNBA, spending her first three seasons with the Rockers, them moving to the Storm after the first three games of the 2000 season. She finished her pro career with a career average of 9.7 points and 2.8 assists per game.
“The first group that came in, we understood the importance of putting a product on the floor that not only women want to come see, but families want to come see,” recalled Edwards. She also remembered the time and energy her colleagues put into laying a strong, community-based foundation for the WNBA.
“I think young ladies today just want to play basketball and don’t really care as much about the business scheme and the long-term goals of the league,” said Edwards.
If she could say one thing to the players of today, it would be simple: “Care about your sport. Be passionate about your craft. Work on your skills — not only on the floor, but off the floor. I mean if you’re not connecting with the fans, how’re they going to know who you are? Why would they come to support you?”
In 2002, Edwards reunited with coach Stringer at Rutgers, serving in a variety of roles, including radio analyst, assistant coach and currently as the director of basketball operations. Reflecting back on her long relationship with coach Stringer, Edwards flashes on a memory from her freshman year.
“We had 22,127 fans crammed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena. We were playing Ohio State, and coach –- basically her vision when she first came was to fill the arena — and she did it in that season. And I was just thinking, ‘Man, this lady is incredible and powerful.’ That game was so intense; I’ll never forget it. We lost, but there’s a shot of me taking a layup and my face just looked like I was just trying so hard, like I just want to make it. But I bricked it. I remember her saying, ‘Do you see that picture? That is how intense that game was and that is the level of play we need to operate on every time we hit the floor.’”
“I just love the way [Coach Stringer] operates in terms of just commanding excellence, no matter what we’re talking about, what she’s dealing with,” continued Edwards. “As a player, of course, you know your coach one way, but then when you come back and work for her, it’s different. But it’s similar because all of the same principles are pretty much at hand: ‘I demand the best, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get it done.’ And we have the same competitive mentality. But also,” Edwards added with a grin, “it’s nice to see her smile and tell jokes, because, at least when I played, I didn’t see that side of her you know,”
As for the upcoming induction ceremony, Ice still shakes her head in disbelief.
“When I first heard, I was like, ‘What?!’ Then I went online to see who else had been inducted — Lin [Dunn], Yolanda [Griffith] and Jazz [Perazic]…. I mean, Lin Dunn was my coach [with the Seattle Storm]! Then I thought about all the great players that have not gotten in. Then I started thinking back on my career asking myself, ‘Was I really that good?’ It blows my mind, when you really dissect it, because I’ve played with some great players. And some great players came after me. I’m definitely humbled and feel blessed. I hope my teammates can come because I really want to thank them ….”
Edwards took a deep breath and regrouped, as she looked ahead to next month’s formal induction ceremony.
“I’m going to take it one day at a time and try my best to just take it all in.”
This was the first in a series of profiles on the six players, coaches and contributors who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame on June 14 as part of the Induction Class of 2014. The 1976 U.S. Olympic Team will also be honored as “Trailblazers of the Game.”