Friday, March 9, 2007

Sinkhole Superstars: Eileen Shea

When I was growing up in Michigan State faculty housing, my father used to take me to see basketball games at Jenison Fieldhouse. We could get in to watch the men for free after the start of the fourth quarter. I saw Scott Skiles and Steve Smith like this. But we could get into the women’s games for free anytime. My favorite player was Eileen Shea. When I was nine, she had big bangs and crimped hair, and she was the best player MSU women’s basketball player ever.

She was a gunner. She averaged 12.4 ppg for her career (over 15 her last two), mostly on 38% three-point shooting. She shot 80% from the line. Despite an unimpressive vertical leap, she was named All-Big Ten three times. The MSU women had never been good, but she made them respectable. My dad liked her game, and her name and headshot ran regularly in the Lansing State Journal, which made an impression on me. The attraction, I think, was maternal. My mother was in Africa doing missionary work.

As a senior, Shea got MSU into the NCAAs for the first time. In her last game as a Spartan she scored a school-record 35 against Oklahoma State, but MSU lost 96-94 in triple overtime. By that time I was twelve and I’d stopped paying much attention. My mother had come back from Africa, and we’d moved out of faculty housing. The Spartans had left Jenison for the Breslin Center. Plus, my tastes had already been irreversibly influenced by music videos and pornography. I’d decided that if I was going to watch a women’s sport it would be volleyball.

I was home recently for a funeral and looked Eileen Shea up online. I found she was now Eileen Shea-Hilliard, that she’d worked her way up to head coach at Oakland University but had been recently let go, and that she was back in Lansing. Her husband, who had also hyphenated, was in the phone book. I decided that, in the spirit of spontaneity, I’d drive over.

It was a cold day, and she came to the door of the simple ranch house in a turtleneck with a yellow jacket over it. I expected her to look my mother’s age, but of course Eileen was only in her late thirties. The differences between us had diminished. She was medium height, and even in college she hadn’t been strikingly athletic-looking. She said she’d never had a fan come to her house before, not since she’d moved out of the dorms.

“I’m not a fan,” I said. “My father and I watched you while my mother was away. It was psychotherapeutic or something. I don’t think ‘fan’ really does it justice.”

“Give it a name,” Eileen said, which is a phrase I’ve always liked. It has Shakespearean sentiment with movie-gangster rhythm.

I told her about receiving third-grade mash notes from Kristen Rasmussen and playing pickup ball against Alison Feaster. She seemed to enjoy the stories, but I started feeling like the guy who immediately mentions to the Inuit acquaintance the other Inuit guys he knows. We stayed on the porch. Her husband seemed to be home. I told her my last name was also hyphenated, and that although I’d found it inconvenient, that probably resulted from the length and difficulty of the names. Hers, I thought, wouldn’t pose a problem. In fact, I liked it. I asked if she wanted to come to my uncle’s wake.

“That’s a first too,” Eileen said, “but I’ve got errands to run.”

I came away impressed, though, and sure that she’ll find another head-coaching job in Division I.

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