Dydek popular with teammates, fans

Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault said it almost never failed. The team would be on the road, and he'd go out to get something to eat … and he'd spot Margo Dydek, having dinner surrounded by friends.

"People gravitated toward her," Thibault said. "She had friends everywhere in the league, in every city. And they weren't just basketball people. She just met people and started talking to them. She had a wide variety of friends.

"As a basketball player, she impacted our franchise tremendously. But it's amazing what a unifying force she is as far as everybody always referred to her as one of the best teammates they ever had. I can't think of anybody who didn't like her a lot. She just got what you're supposed to be as a person, as a friend."

Which is why the grief is so strong and so universal in the pro women's basketball world now. Dydek, who had been in a coma since suffering a heart attack on May 19, died Friday in Brisbane, Australia, where she was coaching. Dydek, 37, was about three months pregnant with her third child. Her death was confirmed, but there were no further details as of late Thursday night in the United States.

Players who'd competed with and against Dydek both in the WNBA and internationally sent out messages on Twitter beginning Thursday night, expressing their fondness for the woman affectionately nicknamed "Large Marge" and their sorrow at her death.

If people never met Dydek, what would stand out to them about her was the thing that no one could avoid noticing: She was 7 feet, 2 inches. Believe it or not, though, those who knew her pretty much forgot about that.

Not on the basketball court, of course; they were constantly reminded of it there. The No. 1 draft pick in 1998, the WNBA's second season, Dydek was obviously a towering figure. She blocked 877 shots in 323 games playing for Utah/San Antonio, Connecticut and Los Angeles.

But once off the court, she was the amiable jokester who had long since made peace with people staring at her wherever she went. In airports or restaurants or anywhere else, often quite literally the center of attention, Dydek had a comfort with herself that sometimes evaded her friends and teammates. They'd become upset with gawkers. Dydek wouldn't; she'd say hello, make a funny remark, put everybody at ease.

"She loved to meet people, to have fun," Thibault said. "She seemed to relish her height and what she'd accomplished being so tall. If it really bothered her, she never said so or let it show. Her whole family is big, so I think she'd gotten used to it at a young age.

"She had such a great sense of humor; she loved to tell jokes. She used to say, 'I want to be a stand-up comedian someday.'"

Of course, the return wisecrack to that was that Dydek was so tall, she could appear to be standing even while sitting. So she could have been a sit-down stand-up comedian.

And she could have told jokes in any of the five languages in which she was fluent. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1974, Dydek was the tallest of three very tall basketball-playing sisters. She competed for the Polish national team and played professionally throughout Europe, along with her career in the WNBA as one of its most popular foreign players.

Just as was the case in every WNBA city, in each country she lived in and traveled to, Dydek made lasting friends.

Thibault said he knew when Dydek was winding up her playing career that there was something more important to her that she was very ready to move on to: She wanted to be a mom.

Basketball had long been her profession, and she was a seasoned, disciplined competitor. But like so many big women, she wasn't always as aggressive as coaches wanted her to be.

There's sort of an axiom in sports that the smallest people can be the feistiest, and the biggest can be the least so. Likely because in both cases, they are trying to compensate for the immediate physical perception others have of them.

That's not universal, of course, but it's often true in women's basketball. There were photos during her career that you couldn't help but chuckle at, showing a comparatively "tiny" player futilely but gamely attempting to box out Dydek. She herself would have laughed at them … but she also did have that "gentle giant" personality.

Throughout her life, Dydek empathized if she faced someone who was totally overwhelmed and overmatched by her sheer physical presence. She always wanted to win, but she never wanted to humiliate anyone.

Thibault said he used to tease Dydek about not dunking, which she could do but avoided. He'd tell her to do it in practice, and she'd laugh and say, "Oh, don't make me."

Dydek actually preferred perfecting her outside game, showing everyone that she had the versatility to shoot 3-pointers. But one day, Thibault asked her -- in total seriousness -- why she disliked dunking.

"She said, 'I just don't want to embarrass anybody,'" Thibault said. "And it wasn't that she shied away from contact or didn't play hard. But I do think she was always a little afraid of hurting somebody."

Now, everybody who knew her -- even fans who might have just met her briefly or asked her to pose for a picture -- is hurting. Her family, including her husband and two children, have suffered the most painful loss.

But if there is any comfort at such times, they should know the regard with which Margo Dydek was held across the world. How much she was respected, admired and loved.

People everywhere looked up to her -- not because she was 7-2, but because she had character that was immeasurable.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.