Cardinal Wrestle with Arizona Player's Death

Tragedy has been an all too familiar word in news headlines of late, and it struck the Pac-10 on Monday when Arizona women's basketball star Shawntinice Polk collapsed and died at the McKale Center in Tucson. The sudden and unexpected death hits home for the Cardinal, while it also reminds us of the high stakes at hand in sports medicine.

Monday was the first workout for the Stanford Women's Basketball team of the 2005-06 season, the beginning of a new year with a myriad of questions.  After the graduation of five seniors, the Cardinal have a lot to address before they tip off their season in less than two months.  Yesterday, however, they were confronted with a far more difficult event.  Arizona senior Shawntinice Polk collapsed and died in Tucson (Ariz.) on Monday.  The 6'5" center and three-time First Team All Pac-10 performer was one of the biggest stars in the conference and in college basketball, in both ability and physical stature.

But the shock and pain felt by the Stanford players in the aftermath of the unexpected death transcends Polk as a player.  She was admired as much for her smile and sportsmanship as her dominating presence in the post.  Polk could set one of the most bruising screens of the year on Candice Wiggins, but would give a grin and extend a hand afterward to pick her up.

"She was one of those players who, you weren't supposed to, but you liked her anyways...  She was just so likeable," says Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer, visibly shaken.  "I'm just shocked.  Our team is really upset.  Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, her teammates and coaches in the Arizona community. We are just really sad."

Arizona and Polk have represented some of the toughest competition for the Cardinal in recent years.  The 21-point, 19-rebound performance by "Polkey" in the Wildcats' win over Stanford in February 2004 still stands as one of the all-time great performances seen in any Cardinal basketball game.  But the sadness felt by this loss extends beyond the box score.  The community of players and coaches in the Pac-10 for women's basketball is a tight-knit one.  The animosity is less pronounced and less frequent than what we know from football and men's basketball.  While a player's unexpected death can and should transcend all competitive barriers, this loss in this league hit home hard.

"As a conference, the coaches all get along really well.  When you have a great player in your league, you are a great fan of theirs," VanDerveer offers.  "She is a great talent - she was a great talent.  It's hard to even use the past tense.  It just seems so wrong."

The player hit the hardest by the news was Stanford redshirt junior Brooke Smith.  Not only did she do battle with Polk last year as opposing centers, but the two trained together this summer in during the USA Basketball trials for the 2005 World University Games.  Both were among the 16 finalists.  Smith made the final cut to 12, while Polk did not, but the time they spent together in Colorado Springs (Colo.) was enough to leave Smith "really, really distraught" Monday.

The death comes just one year after Arizona football player McCollins Umeh collapsed and died during a summer voluntary workout.  While it will take some time for the complete medical background information to come to light in Polk's death, VanDerveer says that Smith noticed that Polk "didn't feel well" when they trained together a few months ago.  This death is a reminder of the place that sports takes in our world, but it may also serve as a reminder that the medical caution applied to these athletes cannot be overdone.

The Tucson Citizen has reported that Polk died from blood clots which accumulated and caused sudden cardiac death.  The report also says that Polk was had been suffering from symptoms that may have hinted at her fatal condition.  It is too soon to say whether the clots should have been identified to prevent this tragedy, but the event is a sobering reminder of the role that a school's doctors play in protecting their student-athletes.

When the Stanford medical staff would not clear Jamie Carey to return to the court after her concussions, there was frustration from both her and fans that the star player could not continue on The Farm.  She finished her career in All-American fashion at Texas, leading the Longhorns to the Final Four.  When Stanford doctors would not clear prep All-American fullback Emeka Nnoli during the fall of his freshman year, there was much hand-wringing.  A year earlier in football, one of the top recruits of the last decade, Mark Anderson, was told that Stanford would not let him play football again, prompting a transfer.  Last year the Cardinal lost two offensive linemen to medical retirements: Jeff Zuttah and David Beall.

Players want to play, and fans are equally anxious to see them on gamedays.  But Polk's death is a reminder of how high the stakes are in these decisions.  Stanford's doctors have been often described as "conservative" in their judgments.  While they are not infallible, they try to be safe.  The risk may not always be life vs. death, it is in some cases.  Kidney failure, brain damage and the ability to walk were all on the table in the above Stanford experience.  We would be well served to remember just what is waged when these diagnoses and determinations are handed down to our favorite athletes.  The trade-off of life or limb is not worth a three-point basket or touchdown.

In other Cardinal women's basketball news:

  • The NCAA has changed its rules this year regarding preseason practices.  In the past, only "individual workouts" could be conducted before the mid-October Saturday start to regular season practices.  In those individual workouts, a maximum of four players could take the court at any time.  Now the team may practice all at once up to four hours per week during the preseason.  With the start of classes at Stanford on Monday, the Cardinal conducted their first team practice of the year.  The tentative plan is to hold four one-hour practices per week during the preseason.  Stanford's academic schedule on the quarter system does put them behind many programs around the country on a semester schedule, allowing them to start these preseason practices in early-to-mid August.
  • Freshman guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (5'10") was the only player among Stanford's three freshmen who did not suit up and play in the San Francisco Pro-Am league this summer.  The Stanford doctors would not clear her to play during her summer quarter studies, while the New Yorker continued to recover from knee surgery during her senior season at Archbishop Malloy High School - again a "conservative" decision by the Cardinal medical staff in the eyes of some.  The freshman is now cleared and active on the court today, however, and is expected to play a key role in the backcourt the Cardinal are looking to reconstruct after losing Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt to graduation.  There may appear to be fewer questions in the frontcourt, with the return of both Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin, though the Stanford coaches anticipate playing frosh Morgan Clyburn (6'4") and Jillian Harmon (6'1") a good deal this year.
  • Sophomore guard Cissy Pierce is somebody who the Cardinal coaches hope to be part of the rebuilt backcourt for 2005-06, but they will have to wait a while for her.  The former McDonald's All-American has fractured her elbow and is out for an undetermined length of time.
  • Stanford will welcome their first official visitor to town this weekend when Brooklyn (N.Y.) point guard Melanie Murphy makes her way out west.  The Cardinal have corralled two commitments and may be close to a third, but Murphy will be their first official visitor from this class. Stay tuned to The Bootleg for a full in-depth feature on her recruiting story, which is not an ordinary one...

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