Eight weeks ago fans at Salt Lake City's Delta Center thought
they had witnessed 7'2" Utah Starzz newcomer Malgorzata (Margo)
Dydek's first attempt to slam her way into history. Playing
against the Houston Comets, Dydek caught the ball in the low
post and rolled toward the basket. As her long arms telescoped
up, up, up toward the rim, the first dunk in WNBA history seemed
imminent--until she released her shot a few inches from the hoop
and the ball glanced off the back iron and fell away. Asked
about it a few days later, Dydek said, "I don't try to dunk yet
in a game."
A soft-hearted girl nicknamed Ppych--the Polish word for a sweet,
whipped-cream-covered cake--the 24-year-old Dydek grew up near
Warsaw and played professionally in Europe, but when she came to
the WNBA's predraft camp in April, only one coach, Washington's
Jim Lewis, had seen film of her. Two days later several coaches
said that she could become the greatest player the women's game
has seen, and not only because she's 7'2".
With an 85-inch wingspan to go with that height, Dydek doesn't
call a layup a layup--she says, "I lay the ball down." During
pregame warmups she often takes two steps and flips in a
one-handed dunk as easily as the Starzz' locker room attendant
throws socks into a hamper. Yet except for one dunk while
playing for Madrid last season, she has refused to throw one
down in a game. She doesn't care that a dunk would bring her
national attention, or that Utah teammate Chantel Tremitiere has
offered a $1,000 bounty for a slam. "Some people want
sensation," Dydek explains, "but I don't like the newspapers or
the interviews or the cameras." Besides, she says with a shy
smile, "I saw a video of my dunk, and I don't like it. So I
prefer to leave that to Jordan."
Before joining Utah, Dydek played six pro seasons in Europe--two
in Poland, then two in France and two in Spain. But the WNBA
didn't learn about Dydek until she arrived at the predraft camp
last spring. She was listed as 6'6", a clerical error that was
quickly exposed when she walked into the dining hall the night
before play began. "Let's just say that nearly all the coaches
were suddenly flipping through their rosters with great, great
urgency," says Cleveland Rockers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald. The
Starzz, the league's worst team last year, made her the first
pick in the draft.
Dydek is half a foot taller than 6'8" Los Angeles Sparks center
Haixia Zheng, the WNBA's tallest player last season, but unlike
the 254-pound Zheng, Dydek is not moored to the floor. She's
athletic, runs the court well, isn't afraid to dribble and
passes with either hand. She can palm a basketball easily and
has a pillowy soft jump shot. She has a solid post-up game--spin
moves left or right, a baby hook, a nifty reverse layup and an
up-and-under move that regularly sends overzealous defenders
flying by, their stricken faces betraying surprise at getting
juked by a woman who can almost touch the rim while on her
When told that in a recent game Dydek had spun for a turnaround
jump shot and actually hung in the air, her legs pulled up like
an airplane's landing gear, Lewis laughed and said, "I know, I
know. Who's to say she won't change the game globally? Right now
she makes moves that guys her size can't make." Utah didn't
qualify for the playoffs, but, through Saturday, with one game
left in the season Dydek had averaged 12.9 points and ranked in
the league's top 10 in four categories: blocked shots (first,
with 3.86 per game), rebounds (third, 7.7 per game), double
doubles (third, with eight) and field goal percentage (sixth,
.483). But Dydek's tendency to have a dominating game followed
by two or three nondescript performances probably cost her
support among voters for the Newcomer of the Year award.
Coaches are clearly awed by Dydek, but Large Marge--as one Utah
teammate dubbed her--remains unimpressed with herself. Off the
court she is timid, gentle. She has an engaging smile and
blushes like a schoolgirl whenever her 28-year-old sister,
Kashka, a 6'7" center who played one year in the American
Basketball League and now studies at Salt Lake Community
College, tells stories about her.
"She cheats at cards," Kashka says. And? "She likes to make Magic
Johnson no-look passes. She loves Magic Johnson. She'd marry him
if she could."
"Kashka!" Margo gasps.
Kashka presses on: "Did you know when Jay Leno had Margo on TV,
he said she was very sexy?"
"He doesn't say I'm sexy!" Margo says.
But Kashka is right--not merely biased--when she says there is
little that Margo can't do on the basketball court. Still, Margo
doesn't seem to care a whit about making history, and that may
be the one thing to stop her from becoming the WNBA's Wilt
Chamberlain. She plays as if her primary concern is making sure
her teammates, fans and coaches don't go home disappointed.
After Dydek rebounded from first-half foul trouble to score 18
points in a loss to Cleveland, the other Starzz were stunned to
find her crying in the locker room because, as she tearfully
explained, she felt her slow start had cost Utah the game.
"Seeing how much she cared was a profound moment for me," says
Starzz guard Tammi Reiss. "She's just a sweetheart. She just
wants to have fun, go out and play. She's mostly oblivious to
media, the fans, the people starting to get in her ear saying,
There's this endorsement and that endorsement--she honestly
Dydek is more animated when talking about her family or the
friends she has made during her basketball travels. With a rare
wince, she'll admit that her height has prompted stares and a
few painful barbs since she was a child growing up in Wolomin.
She says she can't remember when she inched past her 6'7"
father, Jan, a retired restaurateur, or her 7-foot grandfather,
Aleksander, only that it helped to have such a tall family for
support. Her 6'3" mother, Maria, is a seamstress who made most
of Margo's clothes, and her younger sister, Marta, now 16, is
already 6'5" and playing for the Polish junior national team.
Her crying jag in Cleveland suggests that Dydek may really want
to Be Like Mike. "Before our opener against Los Angeles I was
trying to teach Margo some lingo, some trash talk," Reiss says.
"We were kidding around at practice, and she was doing all these
crazy moves, and I said, 'Margo, when you spin like that and
score on Lisa Leslie, I want you to go up to her and point a
finger in her face and say, Your mama! Margo said, 'All right!
O.K.!' Then she did the spin move again, and she ran up to me
and said, 'Your mama!' but she put her palm to my face. So I
said, 'Noooo, Margo, it's like this--Your mama!--and I pointed
my finger in her face again. She said, 'No, your mama!' So then
I told her the old joke, 'Your mama's so dumb that when she
heard it was chilly outside, she went and got a spoon.' All of
sudden Margo's face hardened, and she said, 'Don't you go
talking about my mama!'"
Reiss, smiling triumphantly, says, "That one was instinct."
Meaning that for all the fans and coaches waiting to see if Dydek
has not only the size and the talent but also the competitive
temperament to transform women's basketball....
"There's hope yet," Reiss says.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Dydek says she can't remember when she inched past her 6'7" father. [Margo Dydek and others in game]
"I saw a video of my dunk, and I don't like it. So I prefer to
leave that to Jordan."