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Original Issue

Far above the crowd

Kansas' Lynette Woodard, already the alltime leading scorer among women, is now seeking new heights

Three weeks ago, Lynette Woodard of Kansas University hit a 15-foot jumper early in a victory over Stephen F. Austin to score her 3,206th career point and become the top scorer in the history of women's college basketball. When the season ends, the 6-foot senior forward is a sure bet to join former UCLA star Ann Meyers as the only four-time women All-Americas. But Woodard is doing more than rewriting record books. In addition to her array of spin-moves and fancy passes, she has an extraordinary leaping ability that is changing the face of women's basketball.

She's not only a big scorer (25.5 points a game this season) but also a proficient rebounder (nine a game), much like the stars who preceded her, Meyers, Montclair State's Carol Blazejowski and Old Dominion's Nancy Lieberman. And, reminiscent of Lieberman's, her passing is uncanny.

More important, Woodard is a pioneer. In a game that has been called too slow, too short and just plain boring, she is head and shoulders above her competition. Literally. Strong, with long arms and quick hands, Woodard can fly. Indeed, someday she promises to do something that followers of women's basketball say has never been done: she will dunk in a game. "I can't believe no woman can do it," she says. "But I know that when it's done, by me or anyone else, it will change the game. People will be watching women's games who never wanted to look before, because even though it's only two points, it's still the most exciting two points you can get."

In addition to her offensive prowess, Woodard also plays fine defense. As a sophomore, she led the nation in steals with 193 and was second in rebounding (14.3). As a junior, she was second nationally in steals (177) and led her team in assists (165). Says Kansas Coach Marian Washington, "People marvel over her O, but she can play D. They dwell on her scoring, but she can pass. And will. But there's so much untapped ability there, it's frightening."

Woodard's career began as an aftermath to tragedy. On Jan. 16, 1965, a U.S. Air Force tanker crashed into a residential area in northeast Wichita, killing 30 persons and narrowly missing Lugene and Dorothy Woodard's home. Moments after the crash, their 5-year-old daughter, Lynette, stood at a neighbor's backyard fence and watched in wonderment as the frame of another house toppled to the ground. "Those are the first memories I have," says Woodard, now 21. "I guess the mind has a way of telling you, 'Hey girl, this is important.' "

The crash site was a vacant lot for the next five years; then it was made into a city park. At Piatt Park Lynette Woodard learned to play basketball. "Until then," she says, "my brother Darrell and I just tore up our room playing ball with balled-up paper or socks. So my mom was really happy to see that park."

The courts there brought out the local talent, including KU's other current All-America, Darnell Valentine, who grew up just around the corner. "After a couple of years, I got to love the game," Woodard says. "I was always looking for a chance to play. Soon guys were picking me before they picked their friends. Or I would be doing the picking."

When Woodard was 14, she was invited to try out for the North High girls' team. "They were a pretty poor excuse for a team," she says. "After their coach saw me he wanted me to play on their junior varsity. Can you believe that? I was insulted." Bearing no grudge, the following season she led North to its first Class 5A state championship.

Because the tournament was held at Lawrence, Jayhawk Coach Washington didn't have to go very far for her first glimpse at the sophomore star. "I'd hardly heard of her," she says. "But before the games somebody told me that I'd best look at this young lady." Good advice, because the young lady, all of 5'9" at the time, and playing center, outclassed the competition. "When I saw how gifted she was, I was scared to death," says Washington. The coach resisted any temptation to corner Woodard; instead she whispered a simple "Congratulations" as she hung the championship medal around Woodard's neck. "I didn't want to get into the recruiting thing then," she says. "It just wasn't fair."

Washington made her pitch two years later and won Woodard over the entreaties of dozens of other schools. In the next three seasons Woodard led the Jayhawks to an 81-27 record and Top 20 ranking. At the end of last week, Kansas was 14-3 and ranked fifth in the nation.

"For girls like Lynette to succeed is important for all women," says Washington. "It means that whatever their blessed gift is, it has the right to be developed, and can be. And it's important, in particular, for black girls. We've always had role models in sports, but most of them have been white. Now we can have both."

Washington's own athletic achievements are a worthy role model as well. As a basketball player she led West Chester (Pa.) State to the women's national title in 1969. And for three years (1969-71) she toured South America with the U.S. national team. From 1971 to 1974 she was an AAU All-America center-forward for the Raytown (Mo.) Piperettes. Washington also earned AAU honors in track and field, winning the Middle Atlantic discus and shotput titles for six straight years (1964-70) and competing in the Olympic Trials in 1964, '68 and '72. In 1977 she was named Outstanding Black Woman in Sports by Ebony magazine.

Washington and Woodard have developed a close personal bond. At times they seem more like mother and daughter—or best friends—than player and coach. Washington says that before Woodard came to KU, people had "been too comfortable with her skills," letting her simply outplay her opponents rather than teaching her new techniques. "She hardly said 'Good job' to me or anything when I came here," Woodard says. "I was waiting for her to pump me up like everyone else did. But I guess I was looking for someone to really coach me."

Washington's influence on her protègè has been profound. "I have no other role models other than Coach Washington," says Woodard. "She has made me believe that I can accomplish anything if I work. I'll even graduate early, when many of my friends didn't even think of going to college, because she made me feel it was worth it."

An Academic All-America last year, Woodard has a 3.1 GPA and will get her degree in speech communication in May. After graduation she would like to play in the professional Women's Basketball League. "I know that they've had to struggle in the WBL," she says. "And every girl who wants to play appreciates what they're going through, like those behind us will appreciate what we've done. What people don't want to believe is that in 10 years, skill like mine will be normal, as it is with the men. Heck, guys 5'9" can dunk now. Most of the girls are just happy to have this chance. And most would play for nothing."

But, tell us please, Lynette, can you dunk? She smiles her shiest smile. "I just can't go out there and do it for no reason," she says. "I need the excitement of a game to reach those last few inches." That means a big game, big lead and an open fast break, all of which occurred in an early-season game against Iowa State at Allen Field House in Lawrence.

"When I led the break, even my teammates were yelling for me to throw it down," she says. "But I like to surprise people, so I just laid it in. But the next time I just ran down slow, then took off. I thought I had it." She didn't, the ball caroming off the rim.

"It will take that moment when timing and everything is in sync," says the coach. "But it's not what's really important. Unfortunately, when you're immature you believe the spectacular matters, not consistency." But, she admits, "If spectacular plays are what it takes to make people notice women in this sport, then Lynette wants to do it. And she can." And if you don't believe it, just ask the boys at Piatt Park.