The Star’s ‘Paper Huskie’

By Chris Sigley

with Dan Moran

They say pratice makes perfect.

But no one ever said how long it would take.

Obviously it would take more than the four-day workout I had with the NIU women’s basketall team as an undercover reporter, because I was far from Larry Bird material the day I had to quit.

Yes, I had my share of fundamental passing and shooting skills taught to me in elementary P.E., and I even played some in high school and junior college.

But to try out as a 5-foot-9-inch walk-on forward at a Division I level definitely turned some heads.

Chris set the idea of becoming a Paper Huskie in motion. After joining The Northern Star staff in August, she quickly earned a reputation for wanting to spend every free minute on a basketball court.

She said she wanted to work with the NIU women’s basketball team, maybe even try out—just so she’d know she had taken her shot. When head coach Jane Albright was approached with the idea, she was enthusiastic. But there were reservations.

“When I first agreed to it, I just did it as a favor (to the Star),” Albright said. “Then, as the time came, I started thinking she would hinder the tempo of practice.”

Everyone has experienced the feeling of being out-of-place at one time in their lives. It would be like moving into your dorm room as a freshman on a floor dominated by sophomores.

It creates a “maybe I don’t fit in here” mood, which is exactly how I felt my firt day of practice as groups of four or five girls would cluster underneath a hoop and converse.

I’m sure they were reminiscing about last year’s season, since more than half were returning players. But being the paranoid individual I was that day, I was just as sure they were talking about me.

Only the coaches were aware of my staged tryout. I was warned from a coach about the “heat” I might take from the players because I had not gone through the preseason workouts, but fortunately it was never brought up again.

“We don’t think of them as walk-ons,” senior forward Pam Seward said, shooting down the coach’s theory. “We’re just one big family.”

Nothing was easy. There were many times during drills that I would make a simple error and I wanted to stop and tell everyone that I was a reporter and not a walk-on—which would be my excuse for messing up. But I didn’t.

I wasn’t treated differently than the other players. When they ran, I ran. When they got a water-break, I got a water-break—at times I felt I needed twice as many breaks as they did, but I tried not to let it show.

Unfortunately, the first practice was on a Friday. My lack of preparation left me with such a bad body-stiffness during the weekend that I walked as though I had laid in the sun for six hours without sunscreen.

“She was in shape,” sophomore center Carol Owens said. “We were out there running in preseason conditioning, and she just came in and stayed right with us.”

But practices became somewhat easier on my body (especially since I stretched for two hours Sunday night) the following week as I learned the routine, and I started to fit in a little better.

“She was pretty good,” Seward said. “She was pretty strong. She used all the fakes—she had good fakes. She seemed like she’d been around basketball awhile.”

Between drills and running sessions, the two-hour and 40-minute practices not only informed me that I was very much out of shape, but that these girls were disciplined. And dedicated.

In my four days of practice, I only heard the coach raise her voice once, and we all paid for it. Someone had said sort of a half-foul word, which everyone payed the dues for by running a Suicide.

And Suicides they are. For those who have been denied the opportunity to run Suicides in their lives and want to try it sometime, here’s a brief description:

You start from one endline of the gym and run to the free-throw line and back; then you sprint to halfcourt and back; then you push yourself to three-fourths of the court and back; and finally, you give your all to the other endline of the gym and and back and you’re done.

It’s not too bad, unless you’re being timed.

The coach decided we didn’t run fast enough, so we were granted another. But nobody argued, and everybody pushed harder. I learned it’s better to say nothing than to say something I wouldn’t say in front of my mother.

“We had to run, because one of the players swore—and Coach Albright doesn’t go for that,” Owens said of the incident. “I remember she (Chris) asked if we had to do that all the time, and I said yes. But I wondered why she asked. She asked more questions than the other walk-ons.”

“Somebody made the comment that I yelled at her,” Albright said with a grin, “and they jokingly said, ‘You shouldn’t have done that—she’s going to write about it.'”

Things gradually got better, and after the second practice, I was more than enlightened when one of the coaches asked if I was interested in actually trying out as a walk-on.

Now, I wasn’t about to tell any of the coaches before the whole thing started that one of my most seemingly unrealistic fantasies was to play basketball at the Division I level. I wasn’t going to let my dreams interfere with my work.

But her statement got the wheels turning in my head, and had it not been that I had to skip six classes during the tryout to make practice on time, I would have jumped at the chance in a second.

“She was a lot better than I thought she was going to be. Her effort was extremely good,” Albright said in grading Chris’ overall performance. “Never in any way did she hinder practice. She was a real hard worker—her tempo was her strongest asset. She did a nice job defensively. That’s really what we were working on while she was here.

“At a low post, she would probably have trouble with her height. Her weakness was scoring. I mean, as far as getting open and getting the ball she was fine, but her weakness would be trying to get it in past someone like Carol (Owens).”

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d give her a seven or eight as far as skill. She had a lot of good moves,” said Owens, who, at 6-feet-2, worked against Chris with a five-inch height advantage. When asked to name Chris’ weakness, Owens said “as far as her toughness, I would rate her with one of the freshmen.”

By the third day, I had finally memorized everyone’s name, but I almost blew my cover at the same time.

Out of curiosity, I said to one of the players next to me, “So when does your team’s season start?”

She looked at me funny, and with a statement that overwhelmed me, she said, “What do you mean ‘your’ team? It’s OUR team.” I just smiled and took my turn for the next drill.

“I like the way the players responded to her,” Albright said. “In the past, they would have been like, ‘Here’s a 5-9 walk-on post-player. Let’s step back and let her look good.’ But they played her tough. It wasn’t like, ‘It’s Chris’ time—let’s slack off.‘”

The final practice day came, and mixed emotions controlled my thoughts the entire time.

My aching body would be happy to be finished, but deep down I knew I was going to miss the potential new group of friends—both players and coaches—I had begun to make.

The next time I would see these girls would be in a role they had yet to see me play—the reporter.

I was afraid of the reaction I might receive from the girls when I had to tell them after practice. I thought they might accuse me of being a spy and never want to talk to me again.

The time came, and all the aching, class-skipping and Suicides were worth the undescribable looks projected on their faces after they were told. The first reaction was kind of a glowing jaw-to-the-floor ‘you’re an undercover reporter?’ look.

Then their mouths widened into smiles and a showing of acceptance was revealed as each one shook my hand or gave a high-five.

Mission accomplished.

“Nobody could believe it happened,” Albright said. “They came up to me and said things like, ‘Was I mean to her?’, or ‘Do you think she’ll print such-and-such?'”

“I really couldn’t believe she wasn’t really trying out because her fundamentals were so good,” Seward said. “Usually, our team isn’t so good at keeping secrets, so I was a little surprised the secret didn’t get out. We’re a very alert team.”

“I had no idea she was a reporter. She was pretty good to be just a reporter,” Owens said with a laugh. “We were talking about it for two days.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what if we were a terrible team, what if we showed a bad work ethic?’ But then I was glad, because I knew we had done good and had showed her something about the team.”

I got my feet wet at learning the hard work and dedication it takes to fulfill the requirements of participating in an intercollegiate activity.

But this was only practice. I can only imagine how the intensity must double when the games start.

Practice didn’t make perfect, but it sure made my legs hurt like a son-of-a … wait. I take that back. I’m too tired to run another Suicide.

Although Chris extended thanks in her goodbye to the players, the Northern Star would once again like to thank Jane Albright, her coaches and players for all their cooperation, and to commend them for their classy attitudes—not to mention their good humor.

Additional material supplied to this article by Dan Moran.