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Role model Former WNBA star an inspiration

Very few children ever have the opportunity to meet that one athlete who was a role model in their eyes. A player who inspired that child and occupied a special place in his or her heart.

I was no longer a child when I met one of my main role models, but the experience meant the world to me nonetheless. This past weekend, I had the distinct privilege of sitting down and talking to basketball great and WNBA pioneer Ruthie Bolton.

Ruthie was in town to coach a special clinic for the Clear Creek Cheetahs, a 12-year-old girls AAU basketball team. About a month ago, I wrote a story about Cheetah point guard Lindsey DeMatteis being chosen to represent the United States in the Freedom Games this summer. Her coach for the adventure is none other than Ruthie.



During the interview for the story, I shared with the DeMatteis family how excited I was Lindsey was going to be around such a legend and how Ruthie was a personal role model of mine. So when Ruthie came to Nevada County for a clinic, they extended an invitation to me as well.

As I sat on the side of the gym watching Ruthie work with the girls, I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander back to the time when I was their age.




I can still remember sitting in my living room the summer before I started high school, all decked out in my 1996 Atlanta Olympics shirt, shorts and socks with my eyes glued to the screen.

In front of me were Bolton, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Katrina McClain, Nikki McCray, Rebecca Lobo and the rest of the women’s basketball team fighting to reclaim the gold medal that had eluded the USA team four years prior in Barcelona.

Bolton started at shooting guard in all eight Olympic games, scoring 15 points in the gold medal game as USA beat Brazil. She was also a member of the gold medal team in Sydney four years later.

In fact, Bolton is still tied for most three-pointers made (3) in a game in USA Olympic team history. She is also fifth in total steals and assists and sixth in scoring and rebounding.

In June of 1997, the Women’s National Basketball Association made its debut. Swoopes and Lobo were the first to sign contracts to play, with Bolton and Leslie close behind. I bought my official WNBA T-shirt before the season even started – one I still have after all of these years.

Seeing those women succeed and open new doors for the sport meant the world to me. Having so many strong female athletes to watch somehow gave me confidence in my own life and goals and made my participation in athletics seem so valuable.

I still can’t believe that on Sunday I had the opportunity to sit next to one of those very women, hear about her life and take in her wisdom and advice.

Ruthie’s childhood

Growing up in McClain, Miss., Ruthie was No. 16 out of 20 children in her family. Competition was simply a way of life for the Bolton children.

In addition to playing organized sports like football and basketball with each other, Ruthie remembers her siblings dreaming up games of who could throw a rock the highest or farthest or who could jump a fence the best. It didn’t really matter to Ruthie what the activity was, as long as she could improve upon her performance every day.

She wasn’t very serious about basketball until her junior year in high school. At that point, she watched her sister, Maeola, get recruited to play for Auburn. The school talked about how neat it would be to have the sisters play together again in college in the years to come.

But when it came time for them to recruit Ruthie, their attention was lukewarm. They told her she could come play there, but probably wouldn’t play much.

Ruthie went anyway, determined that her drive and competitiveness would make her stand out. She clawed her way to a starting spot her freshman year. Eventually, after leading her team to two Final Four appearances, her jersey was retired.

So much for not getting any playing time.

After college, Bolton went overseas to play in Italy. They told her she was too short to play. She ended up being the second-leading scorer in the league one season.

In 1995, the United States had try-outs for the national team. The program invited and paid for 50 players to try-out, with another 150 players paying their own way to come to the try-out camp. Ruthie was one of the 150.

She played well that first day, but her performance was dismissed as Ruthie simply having an “above average” day. Three days later, after continuing to wow the camp, the selection committee’s attitude went from “Who are you?” to “We can’t build a team without you.”

Needless to say, she made the team.

A year later Bolton was on the roster for the 1996 Olympic team.

After playing in the WNBA for a year, Bolton who was 31 at the time, tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament. The doctors told her she’d never play again. Ruthie remembers reading an article about herself saying she was “rusty” and “old”.

The next year she was named to the WNBA all-star team. Two years later she was an all-star again.

“Don’t let people tell you what you can and can’t do,” Ruthie told me. “Don’t let yourself miss out on opportunities. If the door closes, do it like they do in the ghetto – go in the through the window.

“Look at Micheal Jordan. Even he was cut in high school. Don’t be afraid to fall down, but keep getting back up.”

This is a women who found road blocks stationed at nearly every path she wanted to travel. But she refused to read the signs or simply hunted down an alternate route.

My new role model

When I was 14 years old, Ruthie was a role model to me because of what I saw her accomplish on the basketball court. A decade later she is again my role model, but this time it has nothing to do with a jump shot or a steal.

After Ruthie’s playing career ended a year ago she is now focusing on a new career – reaching out to young girls all around the Sacramento area. In addition being the head coach for the women’s basketball team at William Jessup University in Rocklin, she is constantly working with young women in some capacity.

Through basketball she is teaching girls about life, character, persistence, heart and desire. She is giving them a foundation for a healthy and prosperous life.

She is giving them a positive female role model -something every girl in this country needs in her life.

The public may take their shots at the WNBA and women’s basketball in general, but what women like Ruthie are doing goes light years beyond their level of play on the hardwood.

They are making differences in the hearts, minds and lives of young girls around the country.

What could be more important?

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Sports writer Stacy Hicklin’s column usually appears on Wednesdays. To contact her e-mail stacyh@theunion.com or call 477-4244.


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