Oklahoma's Courtney Paris Making Most of the Chance to Finally Play in the Final Four

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

ST. LOUIS, April 4 -- Courtney Paris often stands out from her Oklahoma teammates. Sometimes that's because of her solid 6-foot-4 frame, and the way she can dominate a basketball game with her combination of strength and athleticism. Other times it's because of her charismatic personality, and the way she comfortably interacts with fans and media members alike.

On this Saturday morning, however, the senior center stood out because of her wardrobe. All of the Sooners were dressed in crimson warmups as they walked to their locker room inside Scottrade Center, but Paris wore a shiny white tracksuit with "State Farm Coaches' All-America Basketball Team" embroidered on the chest. She had to; she just came from the ceremony honoring the 10 all-Americans.

"This is what I've had to walk around in all day," Paris said. "Every year I've been here [at the Final Four], this is what you wear, and this is why I'm here. I'm so glad I have an opportunity to take this off and put on my uniform for practice. That's what it's all about, and at the end of the day, that's what I'm most proud of."

This is the fourth straight year that Paris has attended the Final Four as a member of the coaches' all-America team; this is the first year she actually will play in one of the national semifinals. Her Sooners will face Louisville on Sunday night, a fitting way for Paris to wind down a spectacular college career.

Paris is the first player in college basketball history -- any gender, any division -- to record at least 2,500 points and 2,000 rebounds in a career. She surpassed Anne Donovan's record of 19 consecutive double-doubles when she was a freshman, and eventually extended her streak to 112. It's one of 20 NCAA records she owns to go with an additional 37 Big 12 records and another 12 program records.

But Paris, whose twin sister Ashley is also a starter for the Sooners (32-4), is perhaps better known for a speech that she gave during an emotional senior night ceremony in early March. First, she told the crowd of 9,310 inside Lloyd Noble Center that the Sooners were going to win a national championship. Then she upped the ante.

"If we don't, which is not even an option," Paris said, according to the Oklahoman, "just to put something on the line -- and it might take me the rest of my life -- I will pay back my scholarship because I didn't do what I said I was going to do."

Paris is a journalism major who was named second-team all-academic in the Big 12, and her father is Bubba Paris, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and is now a motivational speaker. She knew that her speech was going to create some buzz.

But even she was surprised by its reach: Her pledge was examined in a front page story in the New York Times and in Sports Illustrated, and it became the topic of columns in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Salt Lake Tribune. As the story carried, her meaning sometimes got twisted; the speech was characterized as a guarantee of a national championship, which seemed foolish considering the dominance of top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut.

"I think it's very easily taken out of context and can make her seem like something she's not," said senior Carolyn Winchester, a walk-on turned team captain. "She's confident; she's not cocky. She has a belief in her teammates that is really special because she's such an outstanding player on her own."

"People are going to take it whatever way they want to take it. But at the end of the day, what I said is exactly what I meant," Paris said. "I love my team, I believe we can do something. I feel like if you couldn't believe you could win everything, then why even play in this tournament? The economy is bad, let's save everyone some money. . . . I know there are great teams out there. What I said wasn't to spite any of them; it was to motivate my group."

To that extent, Paris succeeded. In each of her first three seasons at Oklahoma, she put up impressive personal numbers but her team failed to make it past the round of 16. This year, she was named the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region, scoring 19 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the final against Purdue. Sophomore guard Danielle Robinson scored 23 points against the Boilermakers, and freshman Whitney Hand sank three three-pointers.

Paris's teammates refer to the senior day speech as "the promise" as opposed to "the guarantee."

"We can't guarantee we're going to win a national championship," said junior center Abi Olajuwon, who has known Paris since high school. "But as someone who follows her as a leader, the fact that she has that much faith -- not only in herself, but in her teammates -- that we can do it, it gives me energy. . . . When she made that promise, I was like, she's finally ready to take control and lead us to the Final Four."

Paris is thrilled that her teammates are with her in St. Louis instead of her making another solo trip to the Final Four. On Friday afternoon, the Sooners visited the Gateway Arch, and somehow they managed to contort their frames -- six of the players are 6 feet or taller -- into the cramped pods that carry visitors to the top. ("I don't know how we did it," Paris said.)

Then, early Saturday morning, the Sooners joined Paris in a hotel ballroom as the State Farm Coaches' all-American team was honored. Paris addressed the audience on behalf of the 10 all-Americans -- a group that included Maryland's Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver -- and she prefaced her remarks by saying, "I have no guarantees to make."

"Knowing she's been here [at the Final Four before] by herself, we really wanted her to know that we were there," Winchester said. "We wanted her to know how proud of her we are -- to kind of make up for the times we haven't been able to be there to support her."

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