A Persevering Pioneer

Feb. 8, 2008

Born and raised in Boston, Mass., Michelle Edwards grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood with dreams of becoming an African-American athlete who would make an impact in the United States.  Long before she found the game of basketball and eventually stardom in Iowa’s Carver Hawkeye Arena, Edwards took steps in making her dream a reality.  She competed in events, won a few medals, and at one point thought she was going to become the first African-American downhill skier in the Olympics.

But one summer prior to her high school years, Edwards found a passion for basketball – a sport that provided a path of stepping stones that led to unparalleled success.  The talented high school product understood early that her family did not have the means to send her to college, so basketball was her only ticket.  Edwards, who attended two high schools as a kid, also had support from outside the family in mentor Alfreda Harris, a widely respected Boston educator whom Edwards says helped her become the person she is today.

Edwards admits to having a “very good childhood” growing up and had never ventured away from home until she left for a highly touted all-star camp near the end of her prep career.  It was an experience that she says “turned her life around athletically.”  A relatively unknown prep star, Edwards was named Most Valuable Player of the camp, which led to wide range of interest from coaches across the country.

“No one knew who I was when I went to the camp, but afterwards I ended up getting letters from every college you could think of,” said Edwards, whose initial top choices were Virginia and USC.

Enter C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

According to Edwards, Stringer sat down with her and “did her thing.”  During the visit, Edwards, who had been focused only on two large schools on the coast, was embarrassed to ask Stringer where exactly Iowa was located.

“I never knew where it was,” Edwards laughed.  “She had to pull out a map.”

Before she knew it, Edwards was on a flight to the state she had never heard of to play a game she really had never even dreamed of playing.

Edwards was a part of a freshman class of six – all of which immediately fell homesick and were looking to transfer.

“We all had the freshman blues,” said Edwards.  “You think you know everything and it all seemed to us like this wasn’t where we wanted to be.  Then practiced started and it was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I signed up for.’  After the season began, I knew it was the place for me.”

Following a freshman campaign where she helped her team to a 20-8 record in 1984-85, Edwards career in Iowa City took off.  She led the team as a sophomore with 12.7 points, 3.3 assists per outing, only to follow it up with the 1986-87 season when she tallied a team-high 18.2 points, 4.0 dishes, 2.3 steals, and a field goal percentage of .537.

More so than her staggering statistics was Edwards’ ability to hit the clutch shot, something former teammate and current Illinois head coach Jolette Law says lived up to her nickname.

“She was Ice,” Law said.  “She had ice water in her veins.  She was calm under pressure and just money.  As a point guard, I knew that every game we played we had a chance with Michelle.  I knew if I got the ball to her in the right place, we’d be money.  She was our go-to player.”

In her senior season, Edwards helped lead the Hawkeyes to their first No. 1 ranking in school history and a second straight Big Ten Championship following a 29-2 season and 17-1 in conference play.  Edwards’ senior stat line was highlighted by averages of 20.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.9 steals per game.  For her efforts, she was named the program’s first Big Ten Player of the Year and was honored nationally as the Champion National Player of the Year.  In addition to earning her third consecutive All-Conference honor, Edwards was also named a Kodak, Naismith and USBWA All-American and given the Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball award.

As a senior Edwards was named the team's first Big Ten Player of the Year and was also named National Player of the Year as well.

Perhaps what is most remarkable was the dominance displayed by Edwards and the Hawkeyes in her four years.  From 1984-88, Iowa recorded a mark of 102-22, which included two conference championships and three trips to the NCAA Tournament, the last two ending in the regional finals.  Still, Edwards remains as humble as she was as an award-winning senior in 1988.

“None of that was possible without my teammates and coach Stringer.  I had some of the best teammates ever on and off the court,” she said. “We had a great group that was on the same page and wanted the same thing.  We were all willing to sacrifice what we had to for that success.”

Twenty years since she left campus, Edwards is still a fixture in the school records book.  Her career marks of 1,821 points and 235 steals each rank third, while her 431 career assists are the second-highest total in school history.

Not only did Edwards serve as a leader on the court, but Law notes that she was the “keeper of the house” when it came to the team off the court.

“Michelle was one of those quiet leaders that led by example,” Law said.  “When she spoke, everyone listened. She made sure everything was okay with us and that we were doing the right things.  She was a woman of integrity.”

Following graduation, Edwards began interviewing with Fortune 500 companies with no intentions of playing basketball.  But the daily 9-to-5 schedule was not her thing and an opportunity to play overseas in Italy arose.

Much like her trip to the unknown in 1984, Edwards had to convince herself that this was the route to take.

“I said to myself, I really don’t want to work every day, I love the game of basketball, and here is the opportunity to see the world,” she said.  “If I don’t like it, I can always go back. 

“I cried like a baby the whole flight over.”

Just was the case in Iowa though, things were back to normal once practice started.

“I was the only one on the team who spoke English, but basketball is a universal language.”

Eventually Edwards managed to meet a family at a tennis club who agreed to teach her everything Italian, including the language and home-cooked meals, if in return she teach their kids how to speak English.     

Following nearly a decade of professional basketball overseas, where she was a three-time Italian League All-Star Game MVP, Edwards returned to the mainland in 1997 as the second overall selection in the inaugural WNBA Draft.  She played four seasons with the Cleveland Rockers before finishing her career with a stint with the Seattle Storm.  In her five-year WNBA career, Edwards averaged 7.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest.

Long revered as a pioneer in professional women’s basketball, Edwards has also been recognized for her contributions to Iowa and the Big Ten.  A few years after her career concluded at Iowa, Edwards was welcomed back as the first and only female Hawkeye to have her jersey retired.  She was named the Big Ten’s Athlete of the Decade (1980-89), selected as one of one of Iowa’s “Top 50 Athletes of the Century” and was inducted into the Iowa Hall of Fame in 2000.

When asked about being the lone player to have her number retired, Edwards admits she initially did not think it was a big deal.

“I really had no idea what that meant until later in life,” she said.  “I think that happened two years after I graduated and I thought ‘OK, I’m going to go out there and get my jersey retired.’  But now, if you go down the long list of players that played at Iowa, I think it is very special to have been the only one chosen.”

Edwards has also been a chosen one in recent years, having been reunited with Stringer at Rutgers.  Following stints as a youth basketball advisor at a New York City YMCA and a Fox Sports Net color analyst for Cleveland Rockers games, Edwards came to Rutgers in 2002 to serve in a variety of roles, including radio analyst, assistant coach and now as the director of basketball operations.  The two former Hawkeyes reunited once before when Edwards played on a Stringer-coached bronze-medal team at the 1991 Pan-American Games.

The one thing that Edwards has learned most from her longtime mentor is perseverance.

“I say that because I feel I have learned from her whole personal life, the tragedies and triumphs,” Edwards said.  “It’s not that she preaches that, but when I am having a bad day or I’m in a bad situation, I think about her a lot.  I ask myself, ‘Is it really that bad?’”

Stringer, Edwards, Law and the entire Rutgers team were faced adversity after finishing runner-up in the 2007 NCAA Championship.  Insensitive comments were made by radio host Don Imus, characterizing the looks and style of play of the team from New Jersey.

Edwards admits struggling with the situation after one of the players asked her why someone would say such a thing about a normal group of girls.  She had no answer.

“Reflecting back to when I was at Iowa, I remember how coach Stringer and the other coaches protected us,” she said.  “I felt bad about the fact I couldn’t protect (the Rutgers players). It almost stripped all the glamour and glitter away from our great season.”

But once again, Edwards says that Stringer created an awareness and brought the concerns to the forefront of how people communicate with one another these days. 

“It made us really think about how we are as a society,” Edwards said.

And it reminded her of the best way to deal with such a matter.

Continuing to persevere.