Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014: Yolanda Griffith – Perennial underdog arrives at pinnacle
Tracing Yolanda Griffith’s route to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, one sees a career that might have been de-railed but was, instead, constantly re-railed. Those who watched the 6-4 center play in the ABL and WNBA will remember her as fierce, focused competitor. But, said Griffith, “That happened later.”
It started simply enough: Born March 1, 1970 into an athletic family, the youngest of five children living in the Southside of Chicago, volleyball, softball and, of course, basketball were a natural outlet. “I was the prankster,” she admitted. “I was involved in just having fun and being a kid. But being a kid, I just got into trouble all the time. My parents said, ‘you need to do something’ so I started playing basketball.” In seventh grade, she tried out for, and made, the boy’s team. “I got more involved with basketball, playing in the summertime, with the guys also, and it just took off.”
Local high schools began to recruit her, but her mother favored George Washington Carver and coach Gloria Smith. “My mom knew her and trusted her and my two older sisters also went there,” explained Griffith. She became a player who, as coach Smith told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “was so good on defense, some of my players were afraid to go near her with the ball.” In her senior year (1988–1989) Griffith was a first team All-America in softball (hitting a school record 35 homeruns) and named on Parade Magazine‘s All-American basketball team.
College basketball seemed to offer more opportunities, and she leaned heavily on her father to guide her through the pressure-filled recruiting process (her mother had passed her freshman year in high school.). Saying “no” to coaches was particularly difficult. “I had to have my father do it. It was just me being young. And some coaches just wouldn’t accept that I was going in a different direction. So, my father pretty much handled closing door to the schools.”
The door she opened led her to one of the top programs and coaches in the country, Iowa and C. Vivian Stringer. But, not long after enrolling, Griffith discovered she was pregnant. With the father uninterested in raising a child, she left school and returned to Chicago where her family banded around her. The birth of her daughter, Candace, in May of 1989 found Griffith unsure what the future held for her. Realizing she wanted to continue to play basketball, a game plan was laid out: go to a Junior College, graduate, then finish out her career at a four-year college. The first thought was to stay local, but a good friend knew the head coach at Palm Beach Community College, Sally Smith. Interestingly enough, Smith, who had been the first black All-American on the legendary Nashville Business College team, herself had had a daughter when she was 18. “He said,” recalled Griffith, “’This is the best place for you as far as the facilities, getting education, and helping single parents.’”
So, months after the birth of her daughter, Griffith was in Florida juggling study, basketball and a most unusual part-time job. PBCC teammate Charlene Littles introduced Griffith to Caeser Allen, who coached city league girls’ basketball and owned Allen’s Recovery Agency, a car re-possession firm. Griffith learned how to hot-wire cars and drive a tow truck, working from midnight to 5 a.m. so she could go to school, practice and raise her child. The focus paid off on the court: PBCC won state championships in 1990 and 1991 and Griffith earned NJCCA All America honors.
Division I programs came knocking, but she decided to stay within the Florida community she’d built around her daughter. She transferred to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, (1992-93) where she still holds the single-season record for points scored (621), scoring average (28.2 ppg), field goal % (.631), rebounds (352), and rebounding average (16.0). She was also tapped as a 1993 Kodak Division II All-American and the WBCA Division II Player of the Year.
But, with no women’s professional basketball in the United States, a post-college basketball career meant going abroad. “It was a decision I felt I needed to make to support my family, to support my child. I went to Germany, went to Italy, played in Russia four years; played in Italy two years, went to Korea, went to China. It was a great opportunity to learn different languages, to learn different cultures, and to continue to play the game I fell in love with.”
In 1996, the 27-year-old returned to the States as the number one pick of the fledgling American Basketball League, earning First Team and Defensive Player of the Year honors. When the League folded in 1998, she was drafted by the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs in 1999. A seven-time WNBA All-Star, she won the League’s MVP, Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Player award. ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel wrote of Monarchs run to the 2005 WNBA title:
No WNBA championship team has been as blue-collar as Sacramento, and no one better symbolized that than Griffith. The 6-4 Griffith is that wiry type, deceptively strong. That, a certain fearlessness and soft hands with long fingers helps explain — physically — why Griffith is such a great post player, particularly on the offensive glass. But then there’s that “wanting it” factor. A lot of the time, that’s just a cliché that means nothing. In Griffith’s case, it’s a phrase that finds its true core.
“I have fun when I am not in uniform. I’m as cool as anybody else,” said Griffith, reflecting on her 16-year career. “But when I’m on the court, it was no nonsense. A lot of people will probably say I was an ‘–itch.’ (“I’m not going to say the B-word,” she laughed.) “But it wasn’t that. It was just, ‘I can’t be your best friend right now when you’re about to elbow me in my lip.’ I just felt if we didn’t score, you couldn’t score. That was my mentality. If I needed that rebound, that rebound meant another possession, that rebound meant a possibility of another win, of a championship. I had a goal and my goal was to show the doubters that I belonged. That’s just how I was. I always was hungry to win.”
Griffith’s drive also helped the US Olympic Gold Medals in 2000 and 2004 and she now serves as a member of USA Basketball Women’s Developmental National Team Selection Committee. She retired from the WNBA in 2009 and two years later joined Dartmouth’s Chris Weilgus staff. She currently is an assistant to coach Dianne Nolan at Lafayette College.
Reflecting on her journey to the Hall of Game, Griffith said, “It is truly a great honor. I’m happy for the recognition. But every day I say I am blessed. I am blessed with how I turned out because of my parents and my brothers and sisters. I’m blessed because I’ve never taken anything for granted. I don’t want you to give me anything. I want to earn it. That’s just how I was raised.”
“But throughout my career playing basketball, I’ve had the right coaches that guided me in the right direction. Basketball’s just a huge part of my life, taking up a lot of time and focus. Trying to get my game better, realizing that there’s somebody out there that’s better than me. I was always the underdog, not getting the publicity. And, you know, I’m pretty much okay with that not happening — because people that know basketball know.”
They sure do know. Which is why Griffith can now add “Member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame” to her very impressive resume.
This was the third 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.”