All Eyes On Me
This article appears in the March 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
You can read about it on just about any eyewear Web site: Rec Specs were the first protective sports eyewear to carry prescription lenses when they were introduced back in 1978. More than a quarter of a century later, they still look a little, well, 1978.
So when St. John's senior guard Marissa Coleman was forced to wear them from ages 9 through 12, she was more or less, in her own words, "scarred for life."
"Oh my God, that was the worst," recalls the 6-foot-1 hoop phenom, laughing as she recounts her pre-teen humiliation. "My dad wouldn't let me play unless I wore them, and when I finally got contacts in seventh grade, the season was over, so I'd suffered through a whole 'nother year. We'd get introduced by the PA and it was like, ‘At guard, No. 25 …' and all you'd hear was, ‘Look, there's the girl with the goggles!'
"Then, after the game, they leave that horrible mark between your eyes," she continues. "It's like you take them off and they're still there. It's torture. I have friends who still bring it up on occasion."
Fortunately for Coleman, most people are more likely to bring up the fact that she's a SchoolSports All-American and was Maryland's Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior. And her three-year stint with four eyes on the hardwood hasn't permanently impacted her social status.
In fact, four of her best friends are four of the best female basketball players in the country. For the record, that list consists of ThunderRidge High (Colo.) All-American senior guard Abby Waner, Stanford freshman guard Candice Wiggins, Tennessee freshman forward Candace Parker and Maryland freshman forward Laura Harper.
The group became friends last summer as members of the USA Basketball Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team. And they became such fast friends that Coleman is planning a vacation for the quintet this summer at her godparents' home in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
As bad as the Rec Specs era was, last summer playing for Team USA was a defining period of good in Coleman's basketball life.
"That was such an awesome experience," says Coleman, 18, who averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds per game last season as the Cadets went 26-6 and won the WCAC title for the second time in three years. "Just being around so many different personalities and abilities. We talked about basketball all day, every day and really got along. On the court, it was so competitive. Nobody was anybody's friend anymore, and that really made the experience even better. The coaches were tremendous and really tried to give us an idea of what college practices will be like."
Of course, Coleman didn't merely survive the Team USA tryouts to make the 12-woman roster for the Junior World Championship Qualifying Team. She shined.
On what was arguably the most loaded women's junior team ever assembled — Team USA went 5-0 at the 2004 FIBA Americas Junior World Championship Qualifying Tournament, winning by an average of 81 points — Coleman logged 20 minutes per game, averaged nine points and five boards, and finished as the squad's third-leading offensive rebounder.
"If I were a college coach and I saw her for the first time, I'd be blown away by her size combined with her ability to handle and go both inside or outside," says St. John's fifth-year head coach Eddie Simpson, 39, a former Albert Einstein High (Md.) and Central State University (Ohio) guard. "Not too many kids in the country can do the things she can do both on the blocks and away from the basket."
The University of Maryland certainly didn't need any convincing, accepting a verbal commitment from Coleman last spring and eventually inking her to a letter of intent this past November. And who can blame the Terps? Entering this season, St. John's was 79-16 since Coleman entered the starting lineup in the season opener of her freshman year.
Part of what makes Coleman so special is her competitive intensity. Although that is also a personality trait she battles to keep from holding her back.
"Everybody says I'm so different on and off the court," says Coleman, a Washington Post All-Met first team selection as a junior. "I'm so intense during games, but off the court I'm always laughing and goofy. But I really am such a competitive person. My 14-year-old brother (and St. John's freshman football player) Anthony has been so supportive of my career, but when we play video games against each other, it gets ugly. We never finish games because one of us always gets so angry we have to leave the room. I really hate to lose."
"She takes losses pretty hard," confirms Simpson. "She's to the point now where she's ready to go back and play right away after a loss gets her low. But, for example, when we lost last year's city title game at the buzzer, she knew she had to wait a whole year for a chance to get back there, and that's hard on her."
Regardless, Coleman refuses to allow frustration to affect her in-game performance. She says a simple glance toward the stands to catch the eye of her dad, Tony, is enough to calm her down.
What's more, she's not the least bit intimidated about the prospect of glancing into the stands in the ACC next season to find her father.
"I love a challenge," says Coleman, who moved to Maryland from her birthplace of Portland, Ore., at age 3. "I want to contribute big time next year, and I think I can earn a starting spot. I've played with most of Maryland's starters in pickup games over the summer, and it's so much more intense and there's little room for error. That first practice, I'll have some nerves and probably make a few mistakes. After that, I'll be fine."
Provided nobody asks her to wear her Rec Specs, that is.
"Hey, I've still got those in a drawer somewhere, so I guess you never know," she says.