There was a time in women's basketball when one superior athlete could dominate games night after night just by showing up. But Southern Cal's 6'3" Cheryl Miller, probably the best female player ever and the queen of every court upon which she glides these days, doesn't have that luxury.
Case in point: Last Friday night in Norfolk, Va., home of America's largest naval base as well as one of its top women's air force units in the form of the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs, Miller scored 18 points, got nine rebounds, made at least two more steals than the pair she was credited with and, as Billy Crystal's Fernando would say, looked mah-velous doing it. "Cheryl has a way of making everyone else inconspicuous," said Old Dominion forward Medina Dixon, the second most conspicuous player on the court and, possibly, in the nation. But the Lady Monarchs prevailed 52-48, just as they did last season when Miller scored 38 points in a 102-90 USC loss in Norfolk. Last week's defeat was the third in a row on a tough road trip for the two-time defending NCAA champion Trojans, who earlier had fallen to Georgia (77-56) and Tennessee (71-60). Old Dominion, meanwhile, was 15-0 after a 64-63 victory at Kentucky on Sunday, and the No. 1 team in what is considered a pick 'em year in women's hoops.
Whether this Lady Monarch squad is as good as the Nancy Lieberman—Inge Nissen—Anne Donovan 37-1 national championship unit of 1979-80 is still in question. But this unit seems to have what it takes to go all the way, starting with coach Marianne Stanley, who's 220-30, with two national championships in seven-plus years at Old Dominion. The Lady Monarchs are eight players deep, owing to the emergence of two freshmen, forward Donna Harrington and guard Adrienne Goodson, who may be the Cheryl Miller of her class. As the first girl ever selected to a boys' all-county high school team, Goodson is already something of a legend around her hometown of Bayonne, N.J.
In the middle is 6'4" Dawn Cullen, who jokes that she's doubly cursed—"I'm female and I'm white"—but is one of the stronger centers in the game. On the point is Marie Christian, an improving outside shooter who also goes by her childhood nickname of Podgie but never by her given name of Aspara. And here, there and everywhere is hustling off-guard Lisa Blais, a former Maine high school girls' javelin champ.
Most important to Old Dominion is its forward tandem, the best in the land. It's composed of the 6'1½" Dixon and her 6-foot running mate, Tracy Claxton. Dixon is smooth, effortless, all finesse; she loves to be called Ice Woman, though Miller, her roommate at last spring's U.S. Olympic Trials, dubbed her Rocket for her quickness. With her combined 29 points against USC and Kentucky, Dixon was averaging 17.9 points per game. Claxton is tough and hard-nosed, not awkward by any means, but not as fluid as Ice Woman. "I compare Tracy to Moses Malone," says Miller. "That's the type of game she plays." She played just that way against USC, grabbing five rebounds in the first four minutes and finishing with 13. She was averaging 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds at week's end.
Five years ago it was not uncommon around the halls of Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin High for Dixon, the nation's No. 1 female basketball prospect, to be seen talking and laughing with a classmate who was the No. 1 male prospect, one Patrick Ewing. "Patrick used to teach me his Jamaican slang," says Dixon, "stuff that can't be repeated here." She needed more than clever words to succeed athletically in the family of 14 children (three girls and 11 boys) of Claudia and Herbert Dixon, the coroner for the city of Chelsea. Medina's sibling competitors included older brothers Zachary, now a running back with the Seattle Seahawks, and Robin, a former University of New Hampshire star who is now playing professional hoops in England. When Medina reached her teens, she disdained girls' night at the Mission, a local recreation facility, for the boys' games, which often included Ewing.
While Miller was leading the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal, Dixon was back in Norfolk and, she says, "avoiding the television." She had been dropped from the Olympic squad on the penultimate cut. "It hurt me more deeply than I can describe," she says. "But, look, I've been disappointed before." She means in her original choice of colleges. She was a freshman at South Carolina in 1981, just as the controversy that led to the resignation of then coach Pam Parsons was beginning to surface (SI, Feb. 8, 1982). By January 1982 she had transferred to Old Dominion.
Claxton also arrived in Norfolk, appropriately enough, on the rebound: Tray arrived last season after an outstanding (20 points and 14.4 rebounds per game) but unhappy sophomore year at Kansas. Along with Cullen, the Lady Monarchs' front line is only a notch or two below the troika of Miller and the McGee twins (Pam and Paula) that led the Trojans' '83 and '84 title teams.
No one would mistake Dix-Clax for twins, on or off the court. Dix has a quick wit and a kind of streetwise cynicism about her; Clax is a self-described homebody from New Haven, Conn. who's generally quiet but sometimes delightfully spontaneous, as when she dives into a cartwheel to prove that she once was a cheerleader. Clax is modest, Dix is wont to argue her own case, as when she compares herself with Miller.
"I can't honestly say Cheryl is the best," she says. "I know most everybody else does, but I think there are five players who are above the rest—Janet Harris [of Georgia], Cheryl, Lisa Ingram [of Northeast Louisiana], Tracy and, of course, me." Of course. That gives Old Dominion two of the top five, according to Dixon's reckoning, and it also gives the teams chasing the Lady Monarchs some words for their bulletin boards. But if you've spent your formative years challenging a houseful of brothers as well as Patrick Ewing, you can handle the boards, be they bulletin or back.
Once obscured by Ewing and then by Miller, Dixon is now emerging from the shadows.
Freshman Harrington is an air apparent.
Miller's knee and pride were momentarily wounded.