There are a lot of things wrong with college athletics, but Sandora Irvin is proof of what a ball and a scholarship can do for a kid who looks like a collection of broken sticks. March Madness is approaching, that dollars and cents time of year, but Irvin is a reminder that basketball can be restorative, not just a revenue stream.
Irvin was so skinny growing up her nickname was "Paper," as in thin. She was in seventh grade the first time she realized that a game could help you make more out of yourself. She was in a pickup contest with some boys on a concrete public court in Florida, just trying to hold her own, when a shot went up. Irvin rose in the air and put up one of her branch-thin arms, and her palm met the ball with a thwack. As the ball bounded away, all the boys went: "Ohhhhhhhh! A girl just blocked his shot!" Something in their tone made the paper-thin girl from the busted home feel a little bit bigger and better.
Texas Christian's Sandora Irvin, left, set the NCAA career record for blocked shots in January.
(Sharon M. Steinman -- AP)
"I said, 'Well maybe that's a big deal,' " she said. "It just stuck with me."
This season, Irvin, who has grown into a sinuous 6-foot-4 post, will be a top-five WNBA draft pick from the unlikely basketball environs of Texas Christian University. She set the NCAA career record for blocked shots in January, and she is second in the country in rebounds and 13th in the country in scoring. Her virtuoso season for TCU has not only vaulted her into top draft pick status, it has also drawn together the scattered elements of her family.
On any given night at TCU, you can see various members of the Irvin family in the bleachers, and you're liable to hear the husky booming voice of her uncle Michael, the former Dallas Cowboys receiving great, as he leaps to his feet and hollers through his hands, "Way to get after it, San!' "
Genes aside, Irvin's family history is nothing to envy. Irvin's childhood was marked by parental disappearances. Her mother, Angela Hollis, was troubled and unable to raise her and has been in her life only intermittently. Sandora was reared instead by her maternal grandmother, Lorretta Hollis, in Pompano, Fla., with periodic visits from her father, Daughn Irvin, Michael's younger brother. The reasons for this are murky to her. When she was in eighth grade, her father became her legal guardian. After her grandmother died suddenly, she spent a few months living with her high school coaches, until she moved in with her father permanently.
"I really don't know what happened," Sandora said, "I just know I was given to my grandma at a young age. Maybe [my mother] couldn't take care of me. I really haven't asked her. I will one day."
But as an athlete, Sandora knew she had a rich inheritance, one that was potentially life-altering. Her "Paper" nickname and outer fragility were deceptive; she knew what she intended to do with her life.
Sandora was recruited by every major program in the country, including Tennessee and Connecticut, and Daughn urged her to consider one of them. But instead she fixated on TCU as her school of choice. Baffled, Daughn feared she wanted to go to TCU to be closer to Michael and his family. Daughn warned her that her uncle had his own problems, including a charge of cocaine possession, and perhaps wouldn't be around.
"I thought it was because of Mike in Texas," he said. "I said, 'Look, Mike is going through trouble, he might not even be there.' "
But Sandora had her own ideas about her career, and they had nothing to do with Michael Irvin, or her family. "Daddy, I want to go somewhere I can stand on my own," she said.
The powerhouses were already powerhouses, and their players were already all-Americans. Sandora wanted to be a first. "Those places have already done everything," she said. "If I do something at Tennessee or Connecticut, it's probably already been done."
Daughn gave up.
"The girl had a vision," he said. "It was eye-opening for me. She's a strong girl, much stronger than she looks." He called Michael, who was in the process of pulling his life together after retiring and becoming a broadcaster.