An Intimidating Presence

Feb. 11, 2010

Black History Month Website

By Larry Watts

At 6-4, Camille Cooper Ozumba was an intimidating presence on the court for the Purdue University women’s basketball team from 1997 to 2001. Now working as an attorney in Dallas, she can be just as intimidating in the courtroom.

“I try to use it (height) to my advantage from interacting with opposing counsel to interacting with the jury,’’ she says with a laugh. “It goes a long way as far as presence. Intimidation does happen, but I try to be professional and personable. It helps when I’m going after my client’s rights.’’

For the past two years, Cooper Ozumba has been working with a national labor and employment firm, but with a one-year-old son, she has been transitioning more into work as an independent contractor and helping manage her husband’s medical practice. Her husband, Dr. Donald Ozumba, has a sports medicine and orthopedic practice in Dallas.

“I’m learning more things, but I have more flexibility now,’’ she says. “The other attorneys keep telling me I will be back with the firm soon, but I’m the boss now and I have the upper hand. I do all the billing and collections so my husband can focus on what he is good in.’’

And Cooper Ozumba was very good in her own right during one of the most exciting four-year spans in Purdue basketball history. Scoring 1,575 points in her career, she was a two-time NCAA Regional All-Tournament team selection, a two-time All-Big Ten Tournament honoree and a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick.

Her senior class set a school record for most wins with 111 (broken the following year), twice played in the NCAA Championship game, won three straight Big Ten Tournament titles and captured two conference regular season crowns.

“I definitely have some fond and special memories from those years,’’ Cooper Ozumba says. “One of those (NCAA) championship games ended up better than the other. It was tough to lose that second one (to Notre Dame in 2000) by two points, but it is all really a testament of my great experience as a student-athlete, not just the athletic side.

“Because of my experience at Purdue, I was able to travel, play abroad and play in the WNBA. You meet a lot of former student-athletes along the way and compare your experiences, and I have no doubt Purdue is a great place. The university gives great support to its student-athletes and what we did was a team effort for the entire university.’’

And it didn’t come without its share of adversity along the way.

The first test came when Nell Fortner, the coach who recruited Cooper Ozumba’s class, left to coach the Team USA squad in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Assistant coach Carolyn Peck replaced Fortner.

“We understood her move and there already were some solid players in place,’’ says Cooper Ozumba, who chose the Boilermakers over Virginia, Ohio State, Duke and Florida. “When I made my trip to Purdue and saw people like Candi Crawford, Katie Douglas and Connie Murdock in my class, that sealed the deal because I knew I was going to be playing with great teammates.’’

However, after leading the Boilers to the NCAA Elite Eight in her first season, Peck made it known she had accepted a job as head coach with Orlando in the WNBA. Several of the Boilers felt they had been betrayed. Giving it second thought, Peck got Orlando to put her job on hold for one year and took Purdue on a summer trip to play in France and Switzerland, where hard feelings were put to rest.

“That European trip really gave us a chance to bond,’’ says Cooper Ozumba. “We came back and started the season with a bang and never looked back.’’

The 34-1 ride ended with a 62-45 victory over Duke in the NCAA Championship. Former Purdue assistant Gail Goestenkors coached the Blue Devils and their roster included two Purdue transfers. All six of the Boilermakers’ games in the tournament were decided by no less than 10 points.

Knowing they would head into the following season with another new coach, the Boilermakers hit another bump in the road that summer when junior Tiffany Young died in an auto accident.

“Tiffany (Young) and I were roommates my freshman year and I was planning on rooming with her for my junior year,’’ Cooper Ozumba says. “We were both very close and it was a tough time for all of us. She was one of those teammates who was always laughing and talking to everyone, even when she shouldn’t have been. She was like the heart of the team and throw in the fact we were adjusting to a new coaching staff, it was a pretty hard time.’’

Under new coach Kristy Curry, the Boilermakers put together a 23-8 record, winning the Big Ten Tournament and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But just after the season ended, Katie Douglas lost her mother to cancer, less than three years after her father had also died of cancer.

“Her mother was like the team mom, always inviting us into her home,’’ Cooper Ozumba says. “Katie is such a strong individual and I watched her go through the process of going to the hospital and then losing her mother. I don’t know how Katie made it through all of that, but I actually drew on her example when I lost my mother during my second year of law school. Katie was a real example to me later in life and I drew on her strength and leadership.’’

Drawn together by both success and adversity, the Boilers (31-7) put together another fabulous run in 2001. They reached the Final Four and NCAA title game for the second time in three years, but this time they fell 68-66 to Notre Dame after leading by six at halftime.

“I had a great view of that game from the bench,’’ says Cooper Ozumba, who was limited to 23 minutes due to foul trouble and scored only six points while pulling down six rebounds. “It was very disappointing from my standpoint because I didn’t play much. You don’t expect to not be in the game. I still have yet to watch that game.’’

The Boilermakers were forced to play the final three games of the season without starting freshman point guard Erika Valek, who tore a knee ligament during their victory in the regional semifinals.

“Losing Erika (Valek) was tough and we had other players step up, but it was still tough on us,’’ Cooper Ozumba says. “Looking back, it was a disappointment to lose, but considering my overall college experience at Purdue, I really have no complaints.’’

Cooper Ozumba was selected by Los Angeles with the 16th pick in the first round of the WNBA draft. But shortly after the season started, she was traded to the New York Liberty, where she played for two seasons. She also played three years overseas, one in Spain and two in France, before finally calling it quits due to back problems.

“I loved my experience in the WNBA while it lasted,’’ she says. “It was going to be hard coming off the bench behind Lisa Leslie (in Los Angeles), so I didn’t mind the trade. It was great to practice with her and I learned a lot, but there wasn’t going to be much playing time. I hurt my back early on and, even with surgery, there was not a strong chance of it getting better so I finally decided to go after my law degree at Duke.’’

Her three-year tenure at Duke paid two dividends for the Academic All-American — a law degree and a husband.

“We met in the baggage area of the Raleigh-Durham Airport,’’ she says with a laugh. “I was in my second year of studies and he was completing his sports medicine fellowship at Duke. He had been helping out the Duke women’s basketball team as a player and also served as a doctor for the football and men’s basketball teams. The way he tells it, he saw this 6-foot-4 lady with law books in her arms, so he figured I must be smart.

“I saw this guy eyeballing me while I was talking on the phone with one of my former teammates (Candi Crawford). Then he came over and interrupted my conversation, which was very rude for him to do. I had two options, run or listen to him. Two days later, we went on our first date, so I’m glad I listened.’’

When Purdue held a 10-year reunion for its first women’s team to win an NCAA Championship last year, Cooper Ozumba had a three-week old baby in tow for the festivities.

“I cleared it with my doctor first,’’ she says. “A 10-year reunion only comes around once and I didn’t want to miss the chance to share it with all my teammates.’’