While at home in Russia last summer preparing for the Olympics,
Connecticut senior forward Svetlana Abrosimova finally tired of
the pixie haircut she'd worn for 10 years and started to grow
out her brunette locks. Word of the new 'do hit southern New
England like a bomb. You would have thought Santa had gone
Pritikin, or Charlie Brown had changed his shirt. As the Russian
team played in Sydney, Connecticut women's basketball fans--the
folks who put the nut in the Nutmeg State--bombarded Abrosimova
with about 50 e-mails a day. Half the messages concerned her
hair; half of those begged her to revert to the pixie look.
Adding to the firestorm, The Hartford Courant ran a story
headlined HAIR PEACE, and Channel 30 in Hartford began one
sportscast with this teaser: "Svetlana Abrosimova will be
returning from the Olympics soon: Will she cut her hair?"
"I don't know why it was such a big deal," says a resolutely
barretted Abrosimova, 20. "Swin [Cash] changes her hair every
week, and nobody says a word."
True, but Cash, a junior forward, isn't yet a UConn icon. She's
not a two-time All-America whose vast talents have inspired fans
to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words SVET SHIRT and wave
signs that read NO SVET and SVET SHOP. Cash didn't travel nearly
8,000 miles to Storrs at age 17, and she hasn't had to overcome
language and cultural barriers to excel in the classroom. Nor has
Cash regularly incited the ire of Huskies coach Geno Auriemma,
whose courtside rants at Abrosimova seem to bring out the
protective instincts in the parents and grandparents among
Connecticut supporters. "The fans realize that Svet doesn't have
any family here, so they've sort of adopted her," says UConn
assistant Jamelle Elliott. "They treat her like their own."
Who wouldn't want to claim kinship with a player who has what
Abrosimova has: looks, smarts, grace, talent, personality, drive
and, as Elliott puts it, "a knack for getting the ball over the
rim"? An agile perimeter player, the 6'2" Abrosimova averaged
13.4 points and 6.2 rebounds last season and is the best of many
reasons to pencil in Connecticut for its second consecutive NCAA
title. "It's not always easy to be a great player on a great
team, but Svet has learned to be that," says Seton Hall coach
Phyllis Mangina. "She's quick enough to guard guards, big enough
to guard forwards. She can pass, she can steal, she can shoot
from anywhere. She gives you all kinds of matchup problems
offensively and defensively. She drives you crazy."
Abrosimova had never heard of basketball when, as a towering
seven-year-old, she was picked out of her first-grade class in
St. Petersburg and invited to attend a nearby basketball school.
She was happy to go, mostly because the school would have other
tall girls. "My first year, I was so bad," she says. "I was kind
of chubby, I wasn't fast, and I couldn't jump or dribble."
But she was determined. When she was nine, her coaches lined up
the 30 kids who had been going to the school for two years and
announced which of them would go on to the next level. After
calling the names of 18 girls, one coach looked at Svetlana and
said, "And I guess we'll try what's-her-name." Says Abrosimova:
"That was the turning point in my life. I didn't want to be the
person who is picked last, the worst on the team. I wanted people
to know my name."
Neither Svetlana's mother, Ludmila, a physical therapist, nor her
father, Oleg, a submarine mechanic, knew anything about
basketball. When Svetlana was 10, Ludmila checked out what she
could find at the library--a translated collection of the life
stories of 1960s and '70s NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and
Bob Cousy that Svetlana would pore over late at night--and put up
a hoop in the hallway of their high-ceilinged apartment building.
As mirrors cracked and wall phones broke, Ludmila played defense
while Svetlana practiced dribbling, shooting and passing.
By the time she was 14, Abrosimova was a rising star. She made
Russia's 1994 European Cup team; two years later she would be the
MVP of the European Championships for players 18 and under. In
1997, Boris Lelchitski, an international scout based in Columbia,
S.C., sent a tape of the 15-year-old Svetlana to his friend
Auriemma. Based on Lelchitski's word and that grainy video,
Connecticut started recruiting her when she was 16. The first
time Auriemma spoke on the phone with Svetlana, who had taken a
few years of high school English, he felt a connection.
"As I'm talking to her, I can picture this kid sitting over
there, trying to say the right thing, struggling not to sound
stupid," says Auriemma, an Italian who emigrated to the U.S. when
he was seven. "It really brought me back to when I was a kid. As
I listened to her, I got this sense that this was going to work
Auriemma sent Svetlana a letter of intent before he or anyone on
his staff had seen her play in person. Eager to play basketball
and study in the U.S., she hired a tutor to help her improve her
English enough to get a qualifying score on the SAT. When she
told her Russian coaches of her plans, they vowed to have her
banished from national teams and warned her that she was giving
up the potential of a hefty Russian professional paycheck--the
equivalent of $5,000 a month, they said, more than 10 times what
Oleg made at the shipyard--to sit on the bench in America for no
money. Undaunted, Svetlana flew west in August 1997 with two
small bags and enough money to buy airfare home if the U.S.
proved to be the wrong choice.
Abrosimova didn't buy that return ticket, though life in Storrs
was a challenge. She breezed through math, but she would have to
stay up until 3 a.m. translating her sociology, psychology and
English assignments into Russian so she could understand them.
One page of text might take her an hour to read; a five-page
essay would take 10 days to write. But Abrosimova did well, with
a 2.8 average her first semester. A business major, she has been
a solid B student since.
On the court, she faced different obstacles. Though she was
easily the most aerobically fit among the Huskies, she was also
the weakest. Having never lifted a barbell in her life, she
dreaded both the weight room and the paint. On her first venture
into the key in practice, she tried to post up forward Stacy
Hansmeyer and landed in a heap on the floor. Because she had
rarely played anything but zone, her defense needed work, too.
But Abrosimova could shoot, she could pass, and she gobbled up
offensive rebounds. "Her skill level was much higher than that of
most 17-year-olds," says Auriemma. "I remember saying to someone,
'By the time she gets out of here, she may be one of the best
we've ever had.' You get kids who are talented, but she had
talent and this burning desire to be the best."
During her freshman year, Abrosimova led Connecticut in rebounds
(6.4 per game) and was second in scoring (14.5, behind Big East
Player of the Year Nykesha Sales), setting UConn freshman records
in both categories. Her second year was equally dazzling:
Abrosimova was named All-America and Big East Player of the Year
and became the first Huskies sophomore to reach 1,000 points. But
she also led Connecticut with 132 turnovers and, for the second
year in a row, had more turnovers than assists, a downside that
didn't sit well with Auriemma. "The single most frustrating thing
with Svet was her insistence that she could make any pass under
any circumstances," he says. "Whenever there was a turnover, it
was always someone else's fault. The more I got mad about it, the
more stubborn she got. It was a constant struggle."
When Abrosimova threw the ball away one time too many in a 1999
preseason game against a Russian pro team, Auriemma benched her
for the last 15 minutes of the first half. Miffed, Abrosimova
didn't speak to him for a week. Later in the season, when she
refused to do a drill his way, Auriemma kicked her out of
practice. "It was like a soap opera at times," says junior
forward Tamika Williams. "She wouldn't listen to him. She'd make
the wrong passes. She'd shoot when she wasn't supposed to. She
wouldn't talk. She's incredibly stubborn, and so is he. People
have no idea what we went through in practice."
All that Huskies fans saw was Auriemma screaming at their adopted
daughter. The basketball office was flooded by letters and
e-mails demanding that he stop. Auriemma's mother, Marsiella, who
has a life-sized poster of Abrosimova on the back of her front
door in Norristown, Pa., joined the chorus. "You need to stop
yelling at her," she admonished her son. "Her parents are
trusting you to look after her."
Last year, during her second All-America season, Abrosimova
turned her assists-to-turnovers stat around, going from
3.7-to-3.9 in 1998-99 to 4.2-to-2.8. Even if the trend continues
this season, don't expect silence from Auriemma on the sideline.
"She likes me pushing her," he says. "Fact is, there are few
players I've had a better relationship with in my 15 years at
Connecticut. With all the best players I've had, there has been a
lot of give and take. Nothing is more important than being hard
on your best player. I don't think there's any better way to let
your team know what your philosophy of coaching is."
Now that Abrosimova has returned from the Olympics, where she
averaged 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds as a reserve for sixth-place
Russia, it's clear that his philosophy has finally sunk in. "I
can't say that I'm a totally different player than I was when I
got here," says Abrosimova, "but my decision-making is totally
different. My freshman year I was only worried about scoring and
making great plays. That's how I thought I'd get noticed." Then
she adds, sounding like you-know-who, "Now it's about winning the
game, doing your part. You don't have to play great to win the
game, you just have to do the little things: Play defense, be in
the right spot, make the right pass."
When Bob Sudyk wrote a story in the March 1999 issue of
Northeast Magazine reporting that Oleg and Ludmila, who had
never been to one of Svetlana's college games, were scrimping to
save enough money out of their monthly salary (about $300) to
fly to Storrs for Senior Night in February 2001, Connecticut
fans responded in predictable fashion. Some of them offered to
set up a fund to buy the elder Abrosimovas' airfare to America.
"That was really nice of them," says Svetlana, "but they can't
do anything, because of NCAA regulations. So I've been saving my
meal money from here [about $40 a day for away games] and from
the national team so they can buy plane tickets. They've never
been out of Russia. I can't imagine what's going to happen to
them, how they are going to fly over here. They are going to be
just like me four years ago. Everything is going to be brand-new."
Even the one thing that will be familiar, their daughter, will
have a new look by February--unless she bows to pressure from
certain UConn fans. On the court and off, Oleg and Ludmila will
hardly recognize what's-her-name.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY EDDIE ADAMS On the ball Abrosimova's scoring and dishing are in fashion in Storrs, where after arriving from Russia she was adopted by the fans.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Head games Abrosimova, who let loose her longer locks in a preseason matchup, intends to trim only her turnovers this year.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY EDDIE ADAMS
"Svetlana likes me pushing her," says Auriemma. "Nothing is more
important than being hard on your best player."