NEW ORLEANS -- Time for some perspective on the career of Alana Beard.
Before she was the AP Player of the Year, before she was the highest scorer -- male or female -- in Duke history, before she was the first woman to get her number retired at her school, Beard was "L'il Dawkins."
She got the nickname from Johnny Dawkins himself four years ago, when the Duke legend saw the sweet-shooting lefty sink a running J in the shadows of a darkened Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The nickname stuck because of Beard's smooth southpaw stroke, but the last four years have revealed Beard to be much more like Dawkins than anyone could have ever imagined. And at the end of the most disappointing week of Beard's life, the comparison should help her cope with the unforgiving fact that her dream of winning a national championship will never come true.
Both Beard and Dawkins came from working-class backgrounds: Dawkins' mom drove a bus; Beard's dad drives a big rig. Both Beard and Dawkins chose Duke over "name" schools because each wanted to start a winning tradition instead of joining one. Both grew into leadership once in Durham, transforming from shy observers to vocal catalysts. Both scored more points in a Duke uniform than anyone else ever. Both left Durham without a national title, but both accomplished something even more significant: Both became lightning rods for later recruits.
Alana Beard, like Johnny Dawkins, gave high schoolers reason to choose Duke over established hoops dynasties.
Forget the missing national championship for a second. Alana Beard has done more for her program than perhaps any player has done for any program in the history of women's basketball.
Think about it. UConn and Tennessee were built largely on the shoulders of coaches. Yes, Rebecca Lobo and Chamique Holdsclaw left enormous footprints, but neither are synonymous with their schools the way their coaches are. Same with Sue Gunter at LSU, Jody Conradt at Texas, Andy Landers at Georgia, Rene Portland at Penn State, and even Tara Vanderveer at Stanford. Duke, however, was built on the shoulders of a player. One player.
Beard hardly smiled Saturday as she accepted her Associated Press Player of the Year trophy. Her deep sadness about last week's regional final loss to Minnesota all but leaked out from her dark eyes. She grew up in Louisiana, took a big chance in leaving, and no doubt dreamed of returning here for her greatest triumph. Instead, she is here to watch.
But there are better days ahead for Beard. Duke will return several stars that Beard all but recruited herself. She will see a national title come to Durham, and soon. That championship will be hers, in the same way that Dawkins can take some credit for all the titles that have followed his career.
And one day, Beard might sit next to Coach G just like Dawkins assists Coach K.
"I not only know how to recruit great players," coach Gail Goestenkors says, "I know how to recruit great coaches."
Indeed. And after the passing of pain and time, one thing will be ever so clear about Alana Beard's legacy: L'il Dawkins' huge impact.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.