Feb. 16, 2008
While childhood dreams had Ukari Figgs thinking of rocketing to the moon as an astronaut, she took a different path as she grew up and parlayed an unforgettable basketball career into a job as a mechanical engineer for the world's largest auto company.
Growing up next to her grandparents' farm in Georgetown, Ky., Figgs enjoyed being outside with family and playing with friends.
"People would probably never guess that I would rather be fishing with my dad then playing basketball," said Figgs.
After starting her athletic career in co-ed t-ball when she was five-years-old, Ukari decided to sign up with her friends to play in basketball. She was not discouraged when she was told that she was the first girl to play in the basketball league.
"The first year I went to sign up for basketball, the ladies at the registration booth tried to talk me into cheerleading because they never had any girls play in the basketball league," said Figgs.
Her father, Gregory, stepped in and supported his daughter's choice to play basketball. The decision changed the path of Figgs' life. She continued to play the game and turned heads by the time she reached high school. As a successful athlete with the ability to play basketball, Figgs' gift would lead to a college education and the reward to continue to play the game she treasured.
With a father who worked in the field of education for over 25 years, Ukari was grounded with the realization that one day life would need to exist beyond basketball which influenced her decision when considering college choices. The Big Ten, known for its priority of academics and opportunity for elite competition, provided the launching pad for Figgs' future success. Her decision to attend Purdue came down to the strength of the engineering program, depth of the basketball team, close proximity to her home, and comfort with the team and coaches.
"Purdue is special because of the people," said Figgs. "During my time I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people."
Figgs would receive a letter of encouragement from one of Purdue's most prominent alumni - Neil Armstrong. He had read an article about Figgs where she had mentioned that as a child she wanted to be an astronaut and go to the moon.
"In the letter, he said how I would love to go to the moon because I could dunk a basketball," said Figgs. "I thought it was really neat that he took the time to write me. That just demonstrated the type of people associated with Purdue and how much they care."
Attending Purdue created a bond far beyond the college years, building life-long friendships among the Boilermaker family that included fans, teammates, other athletes, and coaches.
With the support of her "new" family, Figgs led Purdue to one of the biggest moments in program history, capturing the 1999 national championship with a 62-45 win over Duke. It also marked the first and only national title by a Big Ten women's basketball team. In the championship game, Figgs tallied a game-high 18 points, all in the second half against the Blue Devils to close out her final contest of her collegiate career with a most satisfying result.
"I can still remember looking at the scoreboard in awe," said Figgs. "Just knowing that all the hard work and dedication paid off; I had been dreaming about that moment for the past four years and it had finally arrived. I got down on my knees and thanked God."
Ukari claimed Associated Press and Kodak All- America honorable-mention accolades as well as earning the Most Outstanding Player of the 1999 NCAA Final Four. Her performances still rank in the record books at Purdue including third in all-time career three-point field goals made (174), best free throw percentage in a game (1.000 pct. (15-of-15), and as one of 23 members of Purdue's 1,000 point club.
"I came to Purdue with the goals of gaining a degree in mechanical engineering and winning a national championship," said Figgs. "It felt great to achieve those goals."
Her success would continue after Purdue when she was drafted by the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks and played in the league for five seasons. Figgs achieved an enormous feat by winning a championship trifecta: a high school state championship at Scott County High School (1995), a national title at Purdue (1999), and two WNBA championships (2000 & 2001). Her home state would honor Figgs in 2004 by inducting her into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2007, Figgs' alma mater bestowed a similar distinction by inducting her into the Purdue Hall of Fame, honoring her as one of the best student-athletes in school history.
Prior to the start of 2004, Figgs retired from the WNBA having played in 151 games, while averaging 6.5 points and 3.1 assists per game during her professional tenure.
"After the championship season (Los Angeles Sparks in 2001), reality set in with the fact that the WNBA is a business unlike college where we were a family," said Figgs. "When I was traded to Portland, I realized I didn't want to make a career out of the WNBA, but to use it as a foundation to start the second part of my life as an engineer."
Ukari would return home to her roots of Georgetown, Ky., where she now works for Toyota Motor Manufacturing. While she has not yet attained her childhood dream of being an astronaut, she is on her way to the same level of success in the business world that she saw as a basketball player.
"Having a mechanical engineering degree along with the additional skills I learned through basketball has made my career path pretty easy," said Figgs. "The degree from Purdue has provided me with the technical knowledge to do well at my job. The basketball career has enabled me to deal with pressure situations and understanding how to work well with others. Though it was a difficult challenge to play basketball and major in engineering at the same time, I am glad that I stuck with it."