This article appears in the March 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
It's easy to predict how Norco senior Erika Arriaran will react as a freshman at the University of Texas next fall the first time six-time collegiate National Coach of the Year Jody Conradt screams bloody murder at her for missing a defensive assignment.
The SchoolSports All-American point guard, who is rated the No. 3 girls' hoop recruit in the nation by recruiting Web site Blue Star Basketball, will most likely say, "Whoa."
Arriaran (pronounced ah-REE-ah-RON) says "whoa" a lot. She also says "for sure" and "that's so played out," just like stereotypical California girls are portrayed on television. But in our hypothetical scenario involving Conradt, Arriaran will actually mean "whoa."
To put it another way, while it's a guarantee that the 5-foot-10 playmaker will take the scolding to heart, there is zero chance she'll overreact, crumble or second guess whether or not she's cut out for the Big 12. That's because if one thing is certain about Erika Arriaran, it's that she's quietly and serenely tougher than leather.
Take, for example, her basketball roots. Arriaran started playing the game at age 4 when her grandfather, Victor, bought her a Playskool toy basketball hoop because doctors, who feared for her life due to her severe asthma, hoped she could get a little exercise in the basement.
"I was pumped up on so many meds that made me want to sleep all the time that they were just hoping I could get my blood flowing every once in a while," says Arriaran. "Well, my dad started playing a little one-on-one with me every night, and that's when my love of the game started."
Arriaran's asthma got so bad that during one emergency visit to the hospital when she was about 5 years old, doctors told her parents she might not survive. But by the time she reached sixth grade, Arriaran had beaten her condition.
However, that steel-hard passion for the game forged on those nights when she could barely catch her breath has never left. A half-dozen years later, Arriaran is arguably the most electric high school girls' basketball player in the country.
"People come up to me and say, ‘Gee coach, that's a pretty good offense you have there, how do you do it?'" says Norco 11th-year head coach Rick Thompson. "Well, it's pretty simple. We just give the ball to Erika and get out of her way. Her brand of offense is better than anything we could design on the chalkboard. I don't know if I could have coached her early in my career. I would have been too proud, and I'd have made her do things my way. I'll tell you right now, her way is better."
It's been a long, strange trip for Arriaran, who averaged 19 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.5 steals per game as a junior to lead the Cougars to the CIF Southern Section Division II-AA championship game.
"All I'm playing for is my coach and my team," Arriaran says. "If I score no points, I could care less. I'm playing to win."
As an 11-year-old playing for Academy, an Orange County club team, Arriaran was already playing up a few levels with the eighth-grade team when the coach decided to have her ride the bench with the 16- and 17-year-old traveling team to learn from the sidelines. Shortly thereafter, an injury to another player forced Arriaran into the travel team's practices. From there, it didn't take long for her to play herself into games.
As a freshman at Norco, Arriaran set a single-season school record for assists with 177 while helping the Cougars post a 22-8 record. Then, as abruptly as she burst onto the scene, she was gone.
Arriaran chose to be home schooled as a sophomore, making her ineligible to play for Norco.
"Everybody thought I was deserting my team, but I was leaving for a reason," says Arriaran, who was required by the school district to be affiliated with Buena Vista High, which has no athletic program. "I just wanted to get school in order and set myself up for a senior year just like this one, where I'm taking only two classes this semester and I can just think about basketball and play stress free."
To complete her academic plan, Arriaran loaded up with six core courses as a junior. As a sophomore, she took a college course in addition to her home-school classes. She also played on two men's league teams as the Cougars went 18-9 without her.
"She ended up playing more basketball than she would have with us," says Thompson. "This year's team is better because of it, because the other players had to learn how to compete without depending on her."
It's all water under the bridge now. Especially after Arriaran made the Los Angeles Times All-Star team last season and was invited to the USA Women's Basketball 2004 Youth Development Festival last June. Through it all, she has maintained genuineness and humility that's second to none.
"She's just as kind and considerate as a kid as she is exceptional as a player," says Thompson. "You'll never hear her talk about herself. We'll win a game by 30 and she'll take four shots and say, ‘Hey, I wanted to get my teammates involved.'"
Unselfishness is great. But Texas wouldn't want her if there wasn't something very special about her game.
"The only way I can describe it is, no matter how long you've watched her play, you keep shaking your head at her ability to pass," says Thompson. "It's the kind of thing where you cringe when you see what she's starting to do with the ball, then she just gets it there, where it's supposed to be and where she wanted it. Or you cringe because you think you know where she's going with the ball, then she gets it somewhere else you never even saw open or would have thought of."
As fluid as she is on offense, what's the deal with Arriaran dissing her own defense? After all, it's something she does so enthusiastically, it prompted us to think up Conradt's wrath at the top of the story. That's just a goof, right?
"Oh no, that's something I really am scared about," says Arriaran, who will turn 19 on Nov. 14. "Texas is known for defense, and I stink at defense. Every single coach I've had has told me I have the skills to be a great defender, but I need to develop the will. Honestly, I just get bored at the defensive end. Then I just start to float or something else bad. The whole time back there I'm thinking, ‘Let's just get the ball and quit messing around.'"