There was fanfare aplenty surrounding 6-5 Notre Dame center Ruth Riley back in the spring of 2001 as she wrapped up an extraordinary collegiate career and looked ahead to the WNBA's fifth draft.
Riley had just been named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament after leading Notre Dame to its first (and only) women’s basketball national championship behind a 46-point, 20-rebound performance in the two games of the Final Four. The 2001 Naismith Trophy winner and consensus national player of the year put the exclamation point on a storybook season for the Irish with 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks in the title game, clinching the come-from-behind 68-66 victory over Purdue with two clutch free throws in the game's final 5.8 seconds.
Asked about the decisive final play on which Riley was fouled, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw reportedly replied, "It's the same play we've been running all season. It's called: 'Get the ball to Ruth’."
Teams throughout the WNBA and around the world have been doing their best to run that play ever since.
There was a certain delicious irony as Riley, who had drained the tying basket, then was fouled as she grabbed a rebound to put Notre Dame in possession as the clock wound down, prepared to go the line. It had to do with Riley's Hoosier roots.
Riley, who was born in Ransom, Kan., was raised by a single parent in the small rural town of Macy, Ind. (population 248).
Always tall -- more than two feet (25 inches) at birth, six feet by the time she was 12 and teased for her height, awkwardness and shyness -- Riley picked up basketball in fourth grade. It was not an overnight success story, as Riley is quick to tell you. She spent most of her junior high years riding the pines. It took time and a lot of hard work before coordination finally caught up with genetics and finally came together to produce a national player of the year.
By high school, Riley began weightlifting (and excelled at it at Notre Dame). She also played volleyball and ran track in addition to basketball, where she finally got the starting nod by default because her school was so small and she was the tallest girl in sight.
Her track experiences served her well in college where she quickly showed she could run with the point guards, unusual for the bigs of college sports.
A former teammate, who came in as a New Mexico state track distance runner, recalled an end-of-workouts run, once around the outdoor track at Notre Dame, where she had assured herself she could be in cruise control. She said she heard footsteps down the stretch and had to really turn it on to win. She was surprised the closest pursuer was Riley.
The anecdote underscores the other major element responsible for Riley's transition from gawky adolescent to national champion -- Riley's unrelenting work ethic, a trait that has characterized her entire career and accounts for much of her success. Riley says that work ethic is grounded in a strong Christian faith in which she talks with God every day and asks for guidance.
Her favorite Bible verse is Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Given her rural Indiana upbringing, Riley considers herself a Hoosier through and through. Even now, she returns to Notre Dame's South Bend campus at least once every year, to drop into a basketball workout and “to see a football game,” because she remembers the value of staying true to her roots.
On that fateful day in April 2001, Riley's Final Four opponent was another Indiana team, Purdue, which had declined to recruit her.
As she went to the line for the most-important free throws of her life, she says all she could think of was the character “Ollie” in Hoosiers, cast in a similar game-saving situation. And like Ollie, Riley nailed both.
Draft Day 2001: Some Air Goes Out of the Balloon
Much was expected of Riley as she prepared to take her career to its next level in the pros. But though Riley commands attention every time she steps onto the basketball court, much of the celebrity surrounding her has long since subsided. Inside, on the court, her talent is well recognized by her peers and students of the sport. But Riley enters her 11th season in the WNBA with a marked lack of fame outside the lines that define the basketball court.
In place of public renown has come a career built on a solid foundation of quiet contribution.
Some of the air went out of the balloon on Draft Day, when Riley, the only unanimous first-team All-American in the Class of 2001, went in the first round, but at just No. 5, to the now-defunct Miami Sol. Generally, with a résumé like Riley's, the No. 1 overall pick seems more likely. But that distinction went to another tall, slender post -- a 6-6, 19-year-old upstart from Australia by the name of Lauren Jackson -- the top pick of the Seattle Storm, where she continues to play between stints with the Australian national team.
Then there was the 2001 U.S. draft class, a group so deep in athleticism and talent, they were simply known at the time as "The Seniors." The Charlotte Sting, also long gone from the league, opted for a point guard in Kelly Miller. Next to go was Tamika Catchings, the 2000 Naismith Trophy winner and player of the year and a four-time Kodak All-American, who had her senior season shortened -- and Tennessee's hopes to repeat as national championships dimmed -- by a torn ACL. Catchings went at No. 3 to Indiana, though she had to sit out the 2001 season to recuperate.
Longtime fans of the game may also recall sharpshooter Jackie Stiles of tiny Lebanon Valley College where she averaged 46.4 points, plus 8.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Stiles, who still holds the NCAA record for career points (3,393), went at No. 4 to the Portland Fire, another team that is now a distant memory, where she proved her worth, earning 2001 WNBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors against some amazingly stiff competition before a succession of injuries quickly took her out of the game.
A Rough Start in Miami
Thus, the volume surrounding Riley had already begun to dial down as she headed from South Bend, Ind., to South Beach, Fla., for her rookie season with Miami. There, for the first time in since junior high, she was suddenly no longer a starter. Still, Riley threw herself into the task, learning much from Coach Ron Rothstein about post play at the pro level, and 12 games into the season, won a spot in the starting rotation.
Miami made it to the first round of the playoffs, losing to New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals with Riley coming off the bench but playing nearly the entire game (36.7 mpg). But she managed just eight points and 5.3 rebounds in that span, and finished the season with what was, by her lofty standards, a sub-par 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
Things went downhill from there.
Riley remained in Miami to train with the Sol coaches over the off-season and had high hopes for a breakthrough in her sophomore year in the league. Then, the day before the season opened, she broke her pinkie finger in five places and missed four weeks, her first-ever injury time out. She may have rushed her recovery. Returning to play with a splint on her hand, both her scoring and rebounding suffered, and she lost her spot in the starting lineup. To ice the cake, the franchise folded shortly after the end of the season.
Still, in keeping with her character, Riley found the bright spots in her situation. She was beginning to develop an identity on the defensive end of the court, ranking fourth in the league in blocks with nearly 1.6 per game. She enjoyed her time on the beach while her finger healed and still counts “laying out in the sun” as a favored relaxation. She still owns the South Beach condominium she bought that first year and that is her home address.
|Riley's contributions reach well beyond the basketball court. She regularly dedicates her time and energy to support clinics to develop self-esteem and empowerment for young girls, as well as programs to eradicate hunger, malaria and AIDs in impoverished communities worldwide. She is already engaging in community outreach activities, such as the Shoes of Hope program, for the Chicago Sky. (Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE.)|
Building Confidence Overseas
Rebuilding her confidence was tougher than rebuilding her finger, says Riley.
She moved on to play pro ball in Valencia, Spain, in the off-season, where she began the process of regaining her confidence. She has returned to play in either Europe or Asia during every year of her professional career, and in many respects, her game has reached its peaks overseas.
In 2010, for example, while Riley struggled for points off the bench in San Antonio, she was leading her Greek team Sony Athinaikos to the FIBA Eurocup Championship, bringing Greece its first-ever European women’s basketball title. Individually, she was averaging double-digit scoring and twice earned FIBA Player of the Week honors. The following season, she earned Eurobasket.com Center of the Year honors and a panoply of Greek league awards.
Riley still cherishes her years of international play. Beyond the team and individual on-court accomplishments, there's the food, for one thing.
“I like Greek food, so over there that is nice for me," she says of Greece, where she's been spending her winters of late. "But, if I get hungry for some fast food, I can usually figure out how to make it myself."
The other benefit of her international experience is the joy of meeting the other old faces in new places.
“I am kinda familiar with them all,” she says of the international professional sorority. “You are always competing on a high level so just to be there means you can play. The style may vary from country to country, but the top players are the top players.”
Glory Days in Detroit
It was while she was in Spain that Riley got the news of the Sol's demise, as well as word that this time she had been picked first, by the Detroit Shock, in the dispersal draft.
The move would prove to be a boon to Riley's career. She spent four seasons in the Motor City, starting in every game and winning WNBA championships in her first and last seasons there. In 2003, the first of those championship campaigns, which saw the Shock vault from the league basement to the WNBA title in an historic turnaround, the "young blood" schooled the Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie with a 27-point explosion in the decisive third game of the series, earning Finals MVP honors in the process.
Her offensive production nearly doubled during Riley's first two years in Detroit, and by 2005 Riley was a WNBA All-Star, voted by fans as the starting center for the East. Meanwhile, in the offseason, Riley continued to head overseas when she wasn't playing here in the States with the now-defunct National Women's Basketball League (NWBL). Riley actually received her first All-Star honors in 2004 with the NWBL, as she helped lead the team to that league's finals; she was honored as an All Star again with the Chill in 2005, and in 2006 helped lead the Chill to the championship, taking Finals MVP honors in her second professional league.
More accolades came Riley's way during her time in Detroit. In 2004, she was named to the U.S. Olympic team. Riley did not see many minutes, coming off the bench behind the veterans Leslie and Yolanda Griffith. Still, nothing could compare with the feeling as the gold medal was hung from her neck on her 25th birthday. Ironically, the U.S. won the gold in Athens, Greece, where Riley now plays her off-season pro ball.
On the Road Again
Still, despite helping the Shock to their second league title in 2006, Riley found herself traded to San Antonio in return for Katie Feenstra before the 2007 season began. This time, the move was not kind to Riley. Though she retained a starting role with the Silver Stars in 2007, the one-time All-Star's production slipped to just 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Nonetheless, while playing through a partial tear in her Achilles, Riley logged 59 swats that season, including what remains a career-high six against Houston on June 26, and helped San Antonio reach the second round of the WNBA playoffs.
By 2008, Riley had returned to a bench role and though she regained a starting position with the Silver Stars in 2011, her stats remained low. This year, she found herself traded again, this time to Chicago, the closest franchise to her home base.
Riley takes the changes in stride. She knew, from the start, that the pro life would mean lots of jumpstarts.
“I’d have had to be pretty naïve, even as a rookie, to think the team that drafted you is the team you’re gonna play for the rest of your life,” she says. “I honestly gave it a year." (Miami lasted two after drafting her.)
“But as time goes on you get to know your role on any team. As players, we are used to it playing overseas so moving is not new.”
"I am a Chicago-Type of Person"
Besides, she likes Chicago. The way it works in the WNBA, she explains, is the players let their agents know where they’d like to go and the teams put out feelers for players they’d like to get. Both sides meet in joyous harmony -- in this case, Chicago and Riley.
“I’d say I am a Chicago-type of person,” she says, “and the player I am will have fun here.”
These days, Riley is far from a rookie. League-wide, there are only eight players, seven from the United States, with more WNBA service.
Indeed, her longevity in the league has cost her at least one of her many awards. Riley, who made the dean's list every semester of her college career and was recently inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame, once held a guaranteed NCAA post-graduate scholarship as a result of winning the MVP and National Player-of-the-Year honors her senior season.
“I think that expired,” she says with a laugh at one of the few things she has not been able to take advantage of. “Someone told me it was only good for five years.”
Besides, who knew she’d still be playing?
“I had no idea I could be paid to play this long,” she says.
Riley has played constantly, as so many women players do, treating the WNBA as the delicious center of a candy land existence. She spends most of the year in Europe, having played in Spain, Poland and, most-recently, Greece, as well as in Korea.
She has taken care of her body, with no major injuries, but the year-round grind inevitably takes its toll.
“At least a couple of times a year, it hits me," says Riley. "And, last season, I felt a little beat up.”
But still she plays on. This year, the WNBA gets a month-long break for the Olympics and that will be different, providing a chance to recharge. The downside, like this year's shortened NBA season, is that the games played after the break are scheduled in rapid succession, “and that’s when we’ll find out who we are,” says Riley.
Riley expects to keep on for at least another three seasons.
“Well, I signed a three-year contract (with the Chicago Sky) and, at the end of that, we’ll reassess,” she said.
Contributions Beyond the Box Score
Until then, Chicago is as happy to have Riley as she is to be there. Whether starting or coming off the bench, whether starring or sacrificing her individual statistics for the benefit of the team, Riley seems to find a way to make each team she plays on better than it would be without her. She has become the consummate role player, and not all of her contributions are reflected in the box score.
For one thing, Riley brings a champion’s experience and a veteran's leadership, including a commitment to mentoring her younger teammates. She makes herself available to any newbies who may be too shy, as she once was, to ask basic questions. Travel, a place to live, what to eat, where to do your laundry -- anything can come up and she will answer.
Then, there's defense, where, for example, Riley has distinguished herself as the league's No. 6 all-time leader in career blocks as she quickly closes in on 500 swats (491). She ranks No. 11 in blocks per game, at 1.42. The many other shots she alters are one of those things that can't be quantified.
Riley also frees up her teammates to excel, making those around her better than they would be without her presence. That's one of the reasons why, when speaking with Full Court in May, Sky star Sylvia Fowles, one of the hottest young centers in the game, described how excited she was to have Riley joining her in the frontcourt. While Fowles is too modest to say it herself, she consumes the lion's share of an opponent's attention on both ends of the floor, more often than not in the past finding herself double and even triple-teamed.
But with the 6-5 Riley playing alongside her, Fowles explained, opponents will be hard-pressed to continue resorting to that strategy.
"They'll have to pick their poison," said Fowles. "If they collapse on me, Ruth knows how to put the ball in the hole."
More often than not Riley is content to hand off to Fowles or kick out to Epiphanny Prince, rather than running up her personal stat line. She's starting again this season with the Sky but scoring just 4.5 points per game, pulling down just 3.5 boards on average in the early going.
And yet, her presence on the floor appears to be having its intended effect: The Sky have gone from last season's also-ran to the front of the pack this year, leading the East with a 7-1 record in the early going.
Riley is quick to credit her new teammates for the turnaround: “This is different than previous Sky teams maybe than we had in the past,” Riley says. It is a veteran-loaded team with just one rookie and a season under the system of coach Pokie Chatman now under their belts, she adds.
"In professional sports there is always a battle between team and self," Riley once wrote in her blog. "There is an innate desire to perform to the best of your individual ability and then there is also a desire to perform in a way that your team will be the most successful. Sometimes these two go hand in hand, but often times a sacrifice will be made in one direction or another. ... At the end of the day, I will always sacrifice my personal goals for the good of the team, but finding a balance as close to accomplishing both has been an interesting journey."
For her part, Riley is a fan of her new teammates, especially fellow center Fowles, forward Swin Cash and tough-as-nails point guard Tina Pencheiro, a 14-year veteran of the league. Cash is from UConn, Notre Dame’s traditional rival, and they still can give each other grief about the relative state of their alma maters.
“We’re coming together,” Riley says. “There’s a little of the getting-to-know-each-other part.”
Contributing Off the Court
Riley has also found ways to contribute off the court. Her dedication to community service brought her the Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Award in 2010 and last season, she shared the WNBA's Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award with Seattle's Sue Bird.
Indeed, one gets the impression that when the time comes to hang up the high-tops, Riley will not mind the freedom to focus on her other humanitarian endeavors, many of which revolve around clinics teaching younger girls to value themselves and to always strive for the best. Riley returns to her Indiana and family connections at least once every summer, to put on clinics for girls.
“I am very passionate about that,” she says.
Her official website, Ruth Riley.com, also promotes personal crusades, such as the “No Kid Hungry” Campaign which raises funds and awareness of starving children worldwide. “Nothing But Nets” is a United-Nations-backed program with similar aims of helping eradicate malaria worldwide. She has been a spokesperson for the NBA/WNBA-sponsored program since its launch in 2006 and makes trips to Africa is support of both causes.
“Triad Trust” is another program she works with. It is directed at using sports and other self-empowerment programs to help eradicate AIDS and HIV in remote and impoverished areas of the world.
Basketball a "Unique Chance" to Adapt, Inspire
In the meantime, however, it is back to the red-eye plane flights or the overnight, 18-hour bus rides between cities, as Riley continues her WNBA career in Chicago.
At 6-4-1/2, legroom is “not ideal,” she says. But she has few complaints.
Riley says this is the career and the team she would have chosen if given an option.
As she carefully maps her future, Riley knows several things about women’s basketball.
“I think I am grateful for this unique chance,” she says. “If I am inspiring others, the truth is you just have to realize you get to make your own life decisions.
“It’s not that I think about it a lot. But I am not successful by genetics -- not by any means do I have the most talent. I recognize if you want to be an elite player, if you want to perform, you watch what you eat, you stay in shape, you adapt to wherever you are.
“At the end, all I have to do is remember I am getting paid -- I have a life -- from playing basketball. Who wouldn’t love that?”