Megan Gustafson had a hazy memory when trying to remember when the younger of the two Gustafson sisters also became the taller sister. Now a 6-foot-3 junior at the University of Iowa, Megan thought it might have been early in high school. Or maybe the end of middle school.
Emily Gustafson has no difficulty recalling exactly when her younger sister started casting the longer shadow and exactly how mad it made her. It was yet another indication of the inevitable.
"And then she got all these big offers," Emily recalled, the memories now accompanied by a chuckle. "I would go to the mailbox hoping I would get a letter from one school, and they're all for Megan. So that was fun. But then I realized I was never going to be as good as her."
Few are as good as her. Megan is the nation's second-leading scorer. She is the one who might deny Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell and Michigan's Katelynn Flaherty, the NCAA's leading active career scorers, a Big Ten scoring title this season. Iowa's mixed results in conference play notwithstanding, Megan is the biggest reason the Hawkeyes -- 19-6 overall, 7-5 Big Ten and a projected No. 9 seed in Charlie Creme's Bracketology -- have a good chance to return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
Basketball was always going to set the sisters on different paths. It just wasn't supposed to happen the way it did, Emily's college career was curtailed prematurely by repeated head injuries. But it turns out Megan is good enough to play for two. An emerging star, she can play for the sister she still looks up to.
"I know that my sister also looks to me," Megan said. "So I kind of want to play for her as well. That's something I want to do here at Iowa."
To get to the Gustafsons' hometown from Iowa City, head north until you get wet. An hour east of Duluth, Minnesota, along the shores of Lake Superior, Port Wing, Wisconsin, is as small as small town gets. The population barely reaches into triple digits, while single-digit temperatures represent almost a heat wave in winter. Even pooling kids from several towns, South Shore High School, where both sisters went, graduates classes that number in the teens.
Anything Megan and Emily did growing up, they were likely to do together. With parents who both played the sport in college and a dad who was also a coach when they were young, basketball was what they most often did. When Megan was a sophomore and Emily a senior at South Shore, playing for their dad, they reached the semifinals of the state tournament.
"The town that we lived in, there wasn't a whole lot of people our age," Emily said. "She was my best friend growing up. Playing with her was a dream, it was really fun. I don't know how to describe it, but it was like we could read each other's minds. I especially liked passing to her. As a post player myself, I knew how to pass to her."
The sisters split up for the first time after that run to the state semifinals. Megan continued for two more seasons at South Shore, where she became the state's all-time leading high school scorer and led the school back to the semifinals as a senior. Emily went to play basketball at Division II Upper Iowa University. Her first season was promising, but early in her sophomore season, she sustained what she described as multiple blows to the head on the court in the span of about a week. In the weeks and months that followed, she experienced sensitivity to light and noise, lost track of time and place and often wouldn't come out of her room -- many of the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.
She retired after that season and spent her final two years as a team manager.
"I was just really frustrated with basketball," Emily said. "Before that happened and after that happened, it was two completely different feelings."
The sisters could always talk about anything. But separated by miles in those months and with so much going on for Megan during her senior year at South Shore, it was difficult.
"I wasn't able to physically be there all the time to see how she was going through that," Megan said. "I couldn't imagine exactly what she was going through. ... Seeing her having to give up basketball, how much she loves the game, that was tough to see."
While all of that went on, as Emily dealt with lingering effects of the blows to her head and leaving the game, Megan settled in at Iowa. She had to get used to being guarded by a single similarly big body in the Big Ten instead of being double- or triple-teamed by smaller players in high school. After averaging double-digit points per game as an effective part-time starter as a freshman, she averaged 18.5 points a season ago and is averaging 24.8 points this season, to go along with 12.7 rebounds (fifth in the nation) and 2.2 blocks (30th). An Iowa program whose most recent success was built around guards such as Melissa Dixon and Samantha Logic found itself a cornerstone in an old-school post player.
"We had great hope," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "From a school that small you could never say, 'That's the one, she's going to be an All-American type of player.' But you always have hope in the kids you recruit. And we've had a lot of experience of recruiting from small-town Iowa, so that's very similar to recruiting from any small town across the Midwest.
"We've had a lot of experience of getting those kind of kids and developing those kids."
That the Hawkeyes have her to build around is also partly thanks to Emily. Iowa had plenty of selling points for Megan in the recruiting process, but high on the list was being close to her sister. After graduating from Upper Iowa, Emily moved to Iowa City, where she also spent the summer before her senior year reunited with her younger sister. Emily is now an elementary school teacher and a regular in the stands for home games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Megan is still the center of attention, but Emily long ago made peace with that.
"With all the awards she's getting, how does that not get to your head?" Emily said. "If that was me, I would not be able to handle that. We're very different. She's very calm, cool and collected. She's determined. Her whole life right now is dedicated to basketball, and she does a really good job of it."
One day after final exams, about a year after her injuries, Emily wandered into the gym and started shooting a basketball, something she had scarcely done in months. For the first time in a long time, she missed the game. She wants to start coaching. Thus, far from bittersweet, watching the person she loves most now excel at the game they both loved since childhood gives her back something that was lost.
"I'll text her after the games and I'll tell her how proud I am and that I wish I was her," Emily said.
That feeling has always been mutual.