With Shay Doron, it was always why.
Why should I pass when I have my shot?
Why should I pull up when I can run?
Why play safe when I can make the steal?
Why, why, why?
The questions almost drove Brenda Frese crazy. It was three years ago, Doron's first at Maryland, and the coach didn't know what to do. Doron was Frese's best player, the one she wanted to build around, the one who'd draw others to College Park. And she was second-guessing everything Frese did. Not that Doron wouldn't listen. She listened, all right, then instantly challenged almost every direction.
"Doesn't she understand I'm the coach?" Frese asked her staff. "Doesn't she get it? We teach. She plays." It was that simple.
Except to Doron, who wanted to know why.
So Frese called Shay's high school coach, Bob Mackey, to ask for advice on handling the player. Mackey couldn't help but smile. He's the coach of Christ the King High School in Queens, N.Y., one of the best programs in the nation. For two years he'd heard the questions, fought the battles. It took a while, but he'd finally understood. This girl—this 16-year-old who'd dragged her family from Israel to chase a dream of pro ball in America—questioned everything and accepted nothing. "It's how she was brought up," Mackey told Frese.
But she seems so American, Frese said. Mackey smiled again. He knew how Doron had struggled early at Christ the King, how she had missed Israel and stayed up late every night calling and IMing friends back home, how the other girls had felt threatened by her, how that had confused Doron. ("I'd always been the girl who brought home a million friends after the first day of school," she wrote about those early days at CK in her college entrance essay. "And now, no one.") But Mackey also knew that by her senior year, Doron had won everyone over. He knew how she excelled in class, where she wrote her notes right to left in Hebrew, and how she dominated on the court.
And he knew why Shay was the way she was because he'd seen her world collide with his. It was the first day of classes in 2001, and Mackey had driven Doron to her home on Long Island. He stayed for dinner, and at some point the talk turned to terrorism. "You don't have to worry," Mackey told Shay and her parents. "In this country, there are no bombs falling."
The next day was Sept. 11, and the World Trade Center was visible from CK's entranceway. After all that had happened six miles away sank in, Mackey drove Doron home again. And for the next two years, he worried about her safety. "She's a high-profile Jew on a high-profile team," he told friends.
"Of course I was concerned."
So Mackey told Frese to be patient. "Shay is different," he said. "She analyzes everything, absolutely everything. She's special." Frese realized soon enough that he was right, and the rest of college basketball knew for certain less than three years later. Doron was indeed special, never more so than on a Tuesday night in April 2006 when she willed a young Maryland team past No. 1 Duke to complete the Terps' improbable run to a national title. After Frese, Doron and the rest of the team had cut down the nets, the Terps gathered together in a huddle at halfcourt, where a TV camera focused in on Doron, who shouted, "This is for Israel!"
When the celebrating—a hero's welcome on campus, a shout-out at an Orioles game and lemonade with the president on the White House lawn—was over, the Terps left on a four-game summer tour of Europe. For all but Doron and French forward Aurelie Noirez, it was their first trip out of the U.S. So they just followed Shay, the same way they followed her up that ladder at TD Banknorth Garden or during the final game of the tour, when Frese had Doron coach. They followed her, except for the day they couldn't, the day their bus pulled up to a concentration camp near Vienna. Doron sat in her seat while her friends toured gas chambers and ovens and assembly yards, places where prisoners had been shot or hanged for crimes like stealing scraps of food or just being Jewish or gay or communist. Doron's grandparents had survived concentration camps, and she'd heard their stories. It was a part of her world that she didn't need to see.
But the rest of the trip was a joy, and when it was over, Doron went to visit her parents in the house they still owned in suburban Tel Aviv. Women's basketball is generally relegated to the far reaches of Israel's sports sections, if that, but this was different. An Israeli had succeeded on the big stage, and the day Maryland won, Doron's exploits dominated Israeli talk radio and the front pages of newspapers. When she arrived in Tel Aviv, Yair Lapid, the David Letterman of Israel, booked her on his show.
It was good to be home, good to see her friends and eat at her favorite restaurants and speak Hebrew. But there was work to be done. Doron had gone to Maryland to win a national title; now she wanted another. A criminal justice major with a 3.7 GPA, her plan was to take enough courses so that she'd need just two credits this spring to graduate. Then she wanted a shot at the pros. So she said her good-byes and returned for summer school.
Two weeks later, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon.
THEY SAY EVERYONE in Israel knows someone who died in a war or an intifada. Doron remembers countless days like the one when four terrorists came to her town, sending panic through the streets until they were captured. And nights like the one when she was sitting in her favorite restaurant in Tel Aviv and—she can't say for sure whether she heard the blast or saw the window glass blow out first—she knew immediately that a bomb had exploded nearby. A hundred yards away, in fact. But when she went back the next day, new panes of glass were in place and it was business as usual.
Life goes on. Doron learned that lesson early, and as she grew into a serious hoops talent, she also grew accustomed to looking out the window on the national team bus and seeing police escorts in front, behind and on each side as her team drove to games in places like Croatia and Ukraine, Greece and Turkey.
But this past summer was different. This time it was her friends who were in the army, her friends who were picking up rifles and driving tanks and looking for suicide bombers. Each day she checked in with them—and with her mom—getting updates and praying that no one she knew had been hurt. She'd see TV images of Lebanese towns turned to rubble, and her heart would break. She worried that once again it was Israel in conflict, Israelis cast as aggressors. And her heart would break again.
Later that summer, she told her dad that she wanted to come home. She needed to be home, to do something. Maybe it was time for her to serve in the army, like almost every other young Israeli. But Yuda Doron told his daughter what he'd told her before: She serves Israel better by shooting a basketball than a rifle. "My dad is always telling me that people give back in different ways," she says. "I serve by showing people that Israelis—that Jews—are not monsters."
She's also served her team by showing people in the game that Frese's vision for the Terps was worth waiting for. The season before Doron arrived at Maryland, Frese's first, the Terps finished 10—18 and sat out the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years. An average of 2,051 people came to home games, and College Park was hardly a popular stop for recruits. This year, the Maryland women were ranked No. 1 out of the box, sold 7,000 season tickets and had all five starters make an early list of Naismith Award candidates.
"I'd never heard of Maryland," says junior center Laura Harper, the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player. "Shay was the one who started the dream here."
No one understands this better than Frese. It's mid-October, and she's sitting in her office on the second floor of Comcast. She's harried—the pre season starts in three days—but she knows how important her first big recruit is to this program, and she's happy to talk about her. She loves that Shay is always pulling young players into the gym to work on new moves, always shooting video on the bus, always making sure that everyone's included in discussions about movies and College Park's best bagel shops. But mostly she loves what her captain will do to win. Although Doron could finish her career as Maryland's top scorer, she's now the team's third or fourth option. But she's made the transition from scorer to player impressively, picking her spots and influencing the game in all the ways that make a coach's job easier. "A lot of players wouldn't have done that," Frese says. "But that's why they don't win national titles."
Three days later, more than 17,000 students and fans jam into Comcast for Maryland Madness. The crowd is treated to a raucous warmup: a slam dunk contest for students on an eight-foot basket; an appearance by the men's team, in black jackets and black-and-white fedoras, dancing to "Thriller"; a team of gymnasts jumping through hoops of fire. Then the arena darkens, and a spotlight targets a corner of the building as the national champs stream in. Harper and Crystal Langhorne lead the way, grooving to Danity Kane's "Show Stopper." Doron shuffles in at the back of the line, looking slightly uneasy; dancing is clearly not her thing.
The music stops, and each member of the team is called, until there's only one left. "She was the first to believe coach Brenda Frese's dream of winning a national championship at Maryland," the announcer yells, his voice losing the battle with the cheering. "From Ramat Hasharon in Israel and Christ the King High School, No. 22, Shay Doron."
She jogs to center court, her brown hair pulled back tightly, as always, with a thin, red band. She cocks her head and holds a hand to her right ear. The crowd roars. She raises her arms and waves them up and down. More roaring. Doron beams. Now she looks at ease; this is clearly her thing.
"PICK A SEAT and sit down," an usher shouts to fans as they stream into the middle ring of the Comcast Center. "Do not leave any gaps." It's a brisk night in late January, and the doors have just opened for the UNC-Maryland women's basketball game. "There won't be any open seats tonight," the usher barks, "so find one and sit down."
Doron says that there were "maybe 20 fans" at her first home game three years ago. Tonight, 17,950 seats are filled—a full house—a record for a women's game. Everyone loves a winner, and this Maryland team is definitely a winner: 18 straight to open the season before being ambushed in Durham by a Duke team that was counting the days to the rematch. The No. 3 Terps are second in the nation in scoring, and on this night, they're facing an ACC rival who's lost only two of 57 games—both to Maryland, including last season's NCAA semifinal.
But the No. 2 Tar Heels find their stride first. Carolina's athletic front line shuts down Maryland, All-America point guard Ivory Latta keys an insideoutside offense and the Heels take an eight-point lead into the half. To open the second, Latta connects on four straight jumpers. Suddenly, Maryland is down 20, and the big crowd is quiet. Timeout, Terps. "I want to cover Latta," Doron tells a stunned huddle. "She's not scoring again."
It's 55-35 when Frese makes the change. The next 12 minutes are all Doron. She throws a net over
Latta, forcing her to turn over the ball twice, harassing her into missing four of her next five shots. When Doron nails a jumper—her fifth in a row—Maryland trails 67-66, with three minutes left.
But this hole is a little too deep, and these Tar Heels are a little too talented. UNC answers with three baskets, and the game devolves into fouls and free throws, with a final score of 84-71. After the game, Frese brings Doron, Kristi Toliver, Harper and Langhorne into the pressroom to meet the media. "We need to get our swagger back," the coach tells the assembled at one point. After the last question, Doron walks out, stopping to acknowledge a familiar face. Told it was a great game, a great show, Shay nods, looks down and says, "Yeah, but we lost."
They lose again four nights later to Georgia Tech, and again, on Feb. 18, to Duke. So maybe they won't make another magic run through the Tourney. But word on campus was that the UNC ticket was a tougher get than the men's game against Duke, and another SRO crowd showed up for the Terps vs. the Blue Devils women. Maryland now has the top six crowds for women's games in ACC history, and rivalries that have long existed when the men take the court are now there when the women play too.
No one has to ask why.