Steve Dietrick never stopped reading to his little girl, Blake, taking particular delight in imitating the voices from the Dr. Seuss story of Horton the elephant, tricked into sitting atop a bird's nest while the mother bird takes a permanent vacation.
Now at age 21, Blake can recite from "Horton Hatches the Egg" verbatim -- "I meant what I said and I said what I meant," she says unprompted, but it's the book's message of persistence paying off that applies most to the Princeton point guard who led the Tigers to a 31-1 mark and their first win in the NCAA tournament.
When the WNBA holds its three-round, 36-player draft on Thursday, Dietrick looks to become just the second Ivy League player to hear her name called. (Harvard's Allison Feaster was the first in 1998.) Credit Dietrick's relentless determination to push herself, often embracing the more difficult challenges over the easier ones, for making a pro basketball career a realistic possibility.
"My mom was second generation through college, paid for it herself, worked the entire time, so she was an inspiration as far as doing whatever it possibly takes to make goals come true. My dad was similar, working to pay his way through law school," said Dietrick, an Associated Press and WBCA honorable mention All-American. "They made it seem like hard work is the norm, and if you want something, you go out and get it. That was ingrained in me from a young age."
The easier route has never appealed to Dietrick, whether in sport or school, even when a high school adviser suggested she might want to take the slightly easier math class over the honors one, given numbers are her weakest subject.
"Why would I do that?" she asked. She got an A in the honors class.
Dietrick graduated from Wellesley High School in Massachusetts as the all-time scoring leader in both lacrosse and basketball, but she was more of a natural at lacrosse. Her father had played lacrosse at Williams College, and her brother, Tucker, currently is a midfielder at Division III Colby College. The family would often use the indoor facility at Wellesley College, where Blake's mother, Martha, is an associate athletic director.
"The thing that set her apart at an early age was that I was insistent on if she caught the ball right-handed, she'd throw it back to me left-handed," her father said. "If she caught it on the left, she'd throw it back with the right. It got to the point where you couldn't tell which was her dominant hand."
Princeton lacrosse coach Chris Sailer remembers her heart sinking when Blake decided on a college basketball career over lacrosse. "She had the skills to be an All-American," Sailer said.
Yet going into her sophomore year at Princeton, Dietrick opted to balance both sports, joining the lacrosse team immediately after basketball season concluded. She planned to continue that in 2015, attending lacrosse practice the day after Princeton lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But then she got word from basketball coach Courtney Banghart that it wasn't only President Obama, in the stands for Princeton's tournament win over Green Bay, who was impressed. WNBA coaches liked what they saw from the 5-10 senior, who scored 26 points against a Maryland team that made it to the Final Four.
"Blake plays a position that there's not a lot of in this particular draft," Banghart said. "The word I'm getting is she's a big, fast guard who can shoot it at a high percentage, and she has the skill set to be a versatile combo player."
While Dietrick had considered playing overseas after graduation, the idea that the WNBA could be a reality came almost as surreal news to her. Immediately thrilled, she was also crestfallen that she'd have to leave behind lacrosse to prepare. "It was terrible, horrible; I was a wreck for two days," she said. "Fortunately I have great teammates and coaches who were completely supportive and understood."
The fact that basketball challenged Dietrick more than lacrosse provided an added incentive. "In terms of time invested, basketball was always a little bit ahead of lacrosse," she said. "Lacrosse came a little easier, so my time in the gym was exponentially higher than the time I spent on the field."
Both sports require a mastery of footwork and setting screens, but some skills didn't translate. Despite mastering her left hand in lacrosse, she struggled to do so in basketball. "There was a summer when I was younger learning to do left-handed layups and I would take and make 100 left-handed layups a day per Dad's suggestion," she said. "It finally paid off."
Still, Dietrick wasn't thinking about the WNBA draft until a few weeks ago. While Princeton became her only college choice after she visited the campus as an 11-year-old, attending one of Banghart's camps convinced her to play basketball.
"Blake came here as an elite athlete," Banghart said. "She's become an elite basketball player."
Dietrick played few minutes as a freshman and started six games as a sophomore. She was a regular starter as a junior but blossomed her senior year, lifting the program to a perfect regular-season mark, a national ranking and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I was able to do more things than just shoot this year," said Dietrick, one of eight women who competed in the State Farm 3-point shootout in Indianapolis prior to the men's Final Four. "I was more confident on the court and had the ability to trust my teammates, which allowed me the ability to know when I needed to step up, when I needed to get other people shots, when I needed to defend and make a play. My basketball IQ improved a good amount."
Basketball smarts aside, her acumen in general comes across easily, particularly when you get her going about her favorite subject: English. Reading prior to kindergarten, she devoured the Harry Potter series more than once, had portions of Shakespeare memorized as a sixth grader and recently finished Mike Krzyzewski's "Leading with the Heart," adopting some of the Duke coach's ideas for leadership. An entire class at Princeton on "The Canterbury Tales" became a favorite, so a thesis on Chaucer seemed like a no-brainer.
But that would almost be too, well, easy, a word few associate with the poet whose Middle English tends to confound. "I considered it, but I thought it would behoove me to do something a little different," she said. "I wanted to stretch myself. I wanted my thesis to be more than close reading, which is a lot of what we do in the English department."
Dietrick crafted another idea, relying on three different primary sources from distinct time periods, examining how each of them related the story of King Arthur to the culture of the time and what role idealism played for each.
"When I was 10 or 11, I thought it would be a dream, but once I got to high school, I thought it became clear that the WNBA was something I'd never achieve. Now to have it a possibility again is pretty crazy and pretty exciting, too." Princeton point guard Blake Dietrick
The thesis, bound on Monday and delivered to her professor on Tuesday, has consumed the bulk of her time of late, preventing her from getting too caught up in draft projections, which have her going in the early third round. Dietrick is downplaying what she still calls just "a possibility" -- although if she makes a team, she would likely have to miss walking in Princeton's graduation on June 2.
As accomplished as she is, being drafted would be an exhilarating achievement for someone who as a youngster was a regular at Connecticut Sun games -- and who still lists Sue Bird as her favorite player.
"When I was 10 or 11, I thought it would be a dream, but once I got to high school, I thought it became clear that the WNBA was something I'd never achieve," she said. "Now to have it a possibility again is pretty crazy and pretty exciting, too."