She stands in the darkness of Gampel Pavilion, alone with a basketball. The only light in the gym seeps in through the glass doors. The only sound is a slow, rhythmic dribble. Shea Ralph is here to shoot free throws in the shadows for half an hour, or until she's satisfied, whichever comes last. She's operating on just three hours of sleep, and yet she shows no sign of fatigue. Forty minutes pass, and still she hardly misses a shot. When she does, she lets out a yell of frustration that bounces off the walls, the vaulted ceilings and the banners. She checks the time. It's 7:35 a.m.
She's here this early because she needs a little quality time with the game she loves. Later in the day, she'll be surrounded -- mobbed, really -- by all sorts of teenage girls who want to be her. Their parents began calling the UConn basketball office back in February, asking about Geno Auriemma's summer camp. Most of them had only one question: "When will Shea be there?" Today -- midway through a muggy July -- is the day.
After a series of makes, Ralph enters the UConn locker room and turns on the lights. The words "National Champions" are scrawled on the dry-erase board, but the Huskies' senior All-America guard doesn't bother to look. She sits down in her stall, carefully avoiding a collection of stuffed animals, and grabs a handful of that famous blond hair. She feeds it through a rubber band behind her head and pulls out the ponytail that looked so much like a comet's trail in Philadelphia, where she was MVP of the 2000 Final Four. Now she picks up a shiny gold ring. It too says "National Champions." This time she reads the words carefully. Then slowly, almost ceremoniously, she slips the ring onto her wedding finger as the steely stare she's been wearing melts into a soft smile. "It's appropriate," she says. "Of all the relationships in my life, basketball is the marriage."
When you look at it that way, getting the ring is just the beginning. There is a lifetime of sacrifice ahead, days of waking up early, giving up time with friends, struggling to work things out. And sometimes, there is pain. For the 22-year-old Ralph, it is the pain in her knees, battered by two surgeries and countless hours of Shea-style hoops. The people who love her -- coaches, teammates, her mother -- all worry and wonder whether enough is ever enough for her. "I see the pain she's in, and the problems her knees are causing her, but that doesn't stop her," says former teammate and roommate Paige Sauer. "Nothing stops her."
There is a fine line between self-sacrifice and self-destruction, and Shea Ralph walks it every day. Often she has stepped on the wrong side, but she is certain perfection can be achieved only on that line. Pain and sacrifice are as dear to her as that ring on her wedding finger. "My pain is part of me now," she says calmly. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have it. I welcome it."
It was just an offhand comment, really, the kind of thing teenage girls say to one another. She was a 10th grader, the leading scorer for Terry Sanford High in Fayetteville, N.C. One day, as she was boarding the bus for a restaurant after a game, a teammate told her she looked "a little thick." Almost overnight, Ralph transformed herself from junk-food addict to crash-dieter. First she cut fat out of her meals -- no more burgers, no more fries. Then she cut calories -- half a sandwich for lunch, maybe just a few bites. Then she started cutting meals altogether. She also took up running -- as much as 10 miles a day -- and when she saw her thinner self in the mirror, she decided she could do even better by pushing herself harder, the way she did with basketball. "I wanted every muscle and bone to show," she says. "It made me feel great. I was in control of it."
Back then, control was in short supply in Shea's life. Her mother, Marsha, was divorcing Bob Ralph, who had adopted Shea when she was 3 years old. (Marsha left her first husband when Shea was just an infant.) Meanwhile, recruiters were already showering the teen with sweet talk. Pressure came from all directions -- visit this school, major in that -- and now somebody was calling her fat to her face. She could only imagine what they might be saying behind her back. "But I could control my weight, and I was very, very good at it," Shea says. "And I was very good at hiding it."
She wore big shirts and baggy jeans. She pushed food around on her plate to make it look like she had eaten. She would throw food into the trash, feed the dog under the table when no one was looking, sneak dinner out to the woodpile in the backyard and dump it there. Lunch was easy -- she just wouldn't go to the cafeteria. "I lied a lot," Shea says. "People would ask me what I ate. I would eat nothing and tell them, 'I ate so much today. I'm so fat. I ate all these M&Ms.' I hadn't eaten M&Ms in five years."
Unlike basketball, dieting was a game Ralph could play 24/7. Calories per day became as important as points per game. Once her calorie intake dropped to 800 a day, she smiled in the mirror and challenged herself to go for 700. When she hit that mark, she took aim at 600. "It would be a competition," she says. "'Can I do it? Can I do it? Yeah, I did it! Okay, let's try for 500.'" Her diet dwindled to a bowl of cereal for breakfast, an apple for lunch and Diet Cokes for dinner. She went to bed starving, but every bit as driven as if her team were down a bucket with 30 seconds left. "I'd go to bed and think, 'All I have to do is go to sleep, and then I can have a bowl of cereal.'"
Her mother was powerless to help. She cooked Shea's favorite meals, brought food to her games, even set up an appointment with a psychologist. Shea went once and refused to return. Just as there is no such thing as too many wins, there was no such thing as too thin. She was 16 years old, nearly six feet tall and down from 145 pounds to 108. Her body fat dropped to 8% -- dangerously low for a girl that age. She was so weak she could barely walk downstairs in the morning. By the time she had shrunk to a size 2, she was allowing herself one banana a day, nothing more. A little thick? There's another word to describe what Ralph had become: anorexic.
Shea's terrifying intensity was destroying her game. She began having trouble getting through practices; she looked weak during games. (Amazingly, her 26.3 ppg average that sophomore season was the only thing that never waned.) One night, after an AAU contest the summer before her junior year, Ralph's team went out for dinner. Her coach, John Ellington, put an order of mozzarella sticks in front of his star player, along with a $100 bill. He told Shea she could have the money if she ate the food. When she shook her head, he gave her another choice: gain weight or quit the team.
That's when she finally realized what was at stake. She was about to lose the thing she held most dear. "It's what I lived for," she says. "When they threatened basketball, that was it." Again, almost overnight, Shea started eating the food her mom brought to games. She came to the dinner table. She got her weight back to 140 by the end of her senior year. "I needed basketball," she says, "more than I needed to be thin."
Marsha Lake still can't understand how it all could have happened -- how her eldest child (Shea has a younger sister, Ryan) could have become so obsessed with what she saw in the mirror. "I don't know why her diet was so important to her," Marsha says, her eyes welling up at the memory. "I just don't know why."
The two are so close that it's hard to imagine a time when Shea kept anything from her mother. They share the same shock-blond hair, the same Nawth Ca'olina drawl, the same facial expressions, the same love for country music, even the same model Dodge pickup. They share a playing style, too. Marsha Mann was a tough-as-nails All-America at North Carolina, where her No. 44 hangs from the rafters. She went to the Soviet Union in 1973 for the World University Games, playing alongside Pat Summitt. Is it any wonder she still works out with her daughter, or introduces her at public-speaking engagements, or shouts so loud during games that Shea swears she hears her over the Gampel din? (It was Shea who brought Marsha and her third husband together. Roy Lake saw Shea playing on TV one day and called Marsha, his college sweetheart, to say hi.)
Of course, Mom had no ESPN, no sold-out Final Four, no WNBA. What she has is a dean's list daughter who's the most popular female college athlete in the country. "Shea understands she gets a lot more recognition than her mom did," Sauer says. "She's allowed her mom to live through her." The daughter has quite a few blessings her mother went without. Could it be that her way of paying for them is through pain? "Almost every anorexic person feels like they have to be punished," says Johnna Kudlac, an eating disorders expert at Texas Woman's University. "That pain makes them feel grounded."
Ralph's need to earn her keep was a main reason she chose UConn over UNC and Tennessee. She had averaged 39.1 ppg as a junior, 33 ppg as a senior. Now Geno Auriemma was telling this take- nothing-for-granted workaholic that she'd have to fight for a spot on his team -- just the kind of challenge Shea craves, but one that triggered an all-too-familiar response.
The coach had no idea about her eating disorder when she arrived on campus. Neither did Sauer, who quickly noticed that Ralph rarely ate breakfast: "I wondered, 'How does she make it through practice?'" The answer was just barely. Though she averaged 11.4 ppg off the bench and would go on to become National Freshman of the Year, Ralph was a "zombie" some days, as Auriemma puts it. He reprimanded her for bringing no energy to scrimmages, and even benched her for the first half of a game. "If you saw her in practice that first year," says associate head coach Chris Dailey, "you'd wonder why we played her."
And then came the injury. In her first NCAA Tourney game, at home against Lehigh in 1997, Ralph streaked under the basket after a loose ball, slammed on the brakes ... and tore her right ACL. Doctors took a tendon from her left knee to repair the damage, forcing her to rehab both knees. She spent that summer in the pool (from 6 to 7:30 a.m.), in the classroom (8 to noon), in the weight room (noon to 6) and in the gym, watching her teammates' play evening pickup. She held herself to one meal a day. And in late August -- almost as soon as she was cleared to play -- she tore up the same knee during a shootaround. That's when Auriemma and team doctors started asking questions about her diet. "I don't think I would've found out otherwise," the coach says.
Ralph admits now that her poor eating habits may have prevented her ACL from healing properly after the first tear. But back then, she had no answers. The night of the second injury, staring at a redshirt season, she rushed to her dorm room and burst into tears. Sauer hugged her and then whispered, "Let's run away." Without a word, they walked out into the cool Storrs night, past the buildings, all the way to the edge of campus. When they reached a pond, Shea stopped, turned to Paige and finally broke the silence. "I can do this," she said.
Over the next three months, Ralph took the ferocity she once gave to dieting and channeled it into rehab, lifting more than ever. "Rarely do we have to worry about someone working too hard at rehab," says Jeffrey Anderson, UConn's director of sports medicine. "But that was definitely the case with Shea." She wore a brace with rubber straps that pushed her knee out so she couldn't turn her toes inward. "I had to relearn to walk," she says. Even today, every step is a conscious effort to keep her toes out. She checks her feet at every plant, push and landing. "If I land like this," she says, turning her right toe toward her left foot, "my knees are gone."
Ralph came back to score 16.8 ppg as a sophomore, but had her best season ever as a junior. She led UConn in points per game (14.3), assists (4.9) and steals (2.6), shooting 62.4% from the field. While Sue Bird ran the offense and Svetlana Abrosimova showed why she's the team's greatest talent, Ralph was UConn's inspiration.
Her coaches hoped she would let her body heal over the summer. But less than a week after returning from Philly, she was back in the gym, spending more time on her game than ever before, including a stint with the Jones Cup squad. "She's always got that carrot in front of her, just out of reach," Auriemma says. "She's gonna do it all out, all the time, until she gets it right. Then she'll try to do it better than right."
And so the marriage endures. "If I had to do it over again," Ralph says, "I'd do the same thing. Most of the time I pick basketball over everything. It was my first love." So no, she doesn't regret her 12th birthday, when she invited over a boy she had a crush on, then took him to the hole in a game of pickup and watched him storm off in a huff. And no, she doesn't regret showing up late to her prom because of an AAU game. Yes, it was hard calling it quits with her boyfriend last summer because her relationship with basketball still comes first. "It's really sad," she says of the breakup. "But there are things that have to be more important. I signed a contract with this team to be the best I can every single day."
That includes the days when her anorexia flares up. Sometimes she'll disappear at lunch or go to Dunkin' Donuts and leave without ordering anything. She still picks all the cheese off her pizza. "It's a never-ending battle," she says. "It's a disease that stays with you through your life. I do have days when it consumes my mind. I could have a bad game because I feel fat. But I'd never tell anyone that."
In the closing minutes of play on championship night last April, as UConn wrapped up a rout of Tennessee, an utterly exhausted Shea Ralph sat on the bench nursing a Tourney's worth of injuries -- two chipped teeth, two jammed fingers, a severely twisted left ankle, not to mention those two screaming knees. Later she would cut down the net and hop on the back of a police escort motorcycle for a ride down Broad Street. The next morning she would board the plane home and spend the whole flight throwing up, attached to an IV.
But of all the images from Final Four weekend, the one that Marsha Lake holds most dear was the sight of her daughter finally giving in to the moment, grinning from ear to ear on the bench. "The smile she was wearing, it just melts your heart," her mother says. It was the smile of a champion -- the smile of a woman who needs a little bit of hell to enjoy a little bit of heaven.
"Nobody knows how bad the pain is, and it is bad," Marsha says. "She knows what's ahead of her. But right at that moment, it was worth it."This article appears in the December 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail Eric Adelson at email@example.com.
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