[Sports/Feature] A lifetime of hoops: Ruth Riley

By Mike Siroky

From the start, she was always someone who stood out. Raised in tiny Macey, Indiana (pop 248), the daughter of a single mom, her height attracted the first attention. At 6-5, Ruth Riley was noticed. She had more fun running high school track – always someone who would do whatever it took for her school – so she was certainly noticed on relays.

Many tall females simply never learn to run.

Ruth moved into the fast lane early and stayed there.

She attended the University of Notre Dame and progressed physically every season. By her senior year, she was the best player in the NCAA, the MVP of the Final Four and had led N.D. to its only women’s basketball title, sinking the final two free throws with 5.8 second left to clinch it over in-state rival Purdue, ironically the only other Division 1 school to ever show an interest in her.

As she went to the line for the most-important free throws of her life, she says all she could think of was not a superstar, but the small-town character “Ollie” in Hoosiers. Cast in a similar game-saving situation, the coach had told the team what they would do after Ollie hit the go-ahead free-throw. Like Ollie, Ruth nailed it.

She had a 46-point, 20-rebound performance in the Final Four. She ended her Irish career with 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks in the title game.

Asked about the decisive final play on which Ruth was fouled, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, “It’s the same play we’ve been running all season. It’s called: ‘Get the ball to Ruth’.” It was 2001 and a fledgling WNBA’s fifth draft renewed the spotlight. The WNBA would hear that game-plan mantra again and again.

But, back to the start.

Always tall — more than two feet (25 inches) at birth, six feet by the time she was 12 and teased for her height, awkwardness and shyness — Ruth picked up basketball in fourth grade. It was not an overnight success story, as Ruth is quick to tell you. She spent most of her junior high years on the bench. It took time before coordination finally caught up with genetics.

By high school, Ruth began weightlifting. Because Macy is such a small community, it was only natural for the tallest girl to become a starter.

A former N.D. teammate, who came in as a New Mexico state track distance runner, recalled an end-of-workouts run, once around the outdoor track at Notre Dame, where she had assured herself she could be in cruise control. She said she heard footsteps down the stretch and had to really turn it on to win. She was surprised the closest pursuer was Ruth.

The anecdote underscores the other major element responsible for Ruth’s transition from gawky adolescent to national champion — Ruth’s unrelenting work ethic, a trait that has characterized her entire career and accounts for much of her success. Ruth says that work ethic is grounded in a strong Christian faith in which she talks with God every day and asks for guidance.

Her favorite Bible verse is Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

She returns to Notre Dame’s South Bend campus at least once every year, to drop into a basketball workout and “to see a football game,” because she remembers the value of staying true to her roots.

Much was expected by Ruth’s followers as she moved into the WNBA and beyond. She has not disappointed.

But though Ruth commands attention every time she steps onto the basketball court, much of the celebrity surrounding her has long since subsided. Inside, on the court, her talent is well-recognized by her peers and students of the sport. She has completed 11 WNBA seasons, an elite group of participants.

And, outside the boundaries that define the basketball court has come a career built on a solid foundation of quiet contribution.

Some of the air went out of the balloon on Draft Day, when Ruth, the only unanimous first-team All-American in the Class of 2001, went in the first round, but at just No. 5, to the soon-to-be-defunct Miami Sol. Generally, with a résumé like Ruth’s, the No. 1 overall pick seems more likely. But that distinction went to another tall, slender post — a 6-6, 19-year-old upstart from Australia by the name of Lauren Jackson — the top pick of the Seattle Storm, where she continues to play between stints with the Australian National Team.

The 2001 U.S. draft class is the deepest class to ever enter the pro leagues. The Charlotte Sting, another team long gone from the league, opted for a point guard in Kelly Miller. Next to go was Tamika Catchings, the 2000 Naismith Trophy winner and player of the year and a four-time Kodak All-American, who had her senior season shortened — and Tennessee’s hopes to repeat as national championships dimmed — by a torn ACL. Catchings went at No. 3 to Indiana, though she had to sit out the 2001 season to recuperate. She also remained active in 2012.

Longtime fans of the game may also recall sharpshooter Jackie Stiles of tiny Lebanon Valley College where she averaged 46.4 points, plus 8.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Stiles, who still holds the NCAA record for career points (3,393), went at No. 4 to the Portland Fire, another team that is now a memory, where she proved her worth, earning 2001 WNBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors against some amazingly stiff competition before a succession of injuries quickly took her out of the game.

The volume surrounding Ruth had already begun to dial down as she headed from South Bend to South Beach for her rookie season with Miami. There, for the first time in since junior high, she was suddenly no longer a starter. Ruth threw herself into the latest challenge, learning much from Coach Ron Rothstein about post play at the pro level that she had won the starter’s spot in the rotation.

Miami made it to the first round of the playoffs, losing to New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals with Ruth playing nearly the entire game (36.7 mpg).

A new challenge was at hand.

Ruth remained in Miami to train with the Sol coaches over the off-season – she still considers her home there her primary residence — and had high hopes for a breakthrough in her second year in the league. The day before the season opened, she broke her pinkie finger in five places and missed four weeks, her first-ever injury time out. She may have rushed her recovery. Returning to play with a splint on her hand, both her scoring and rebounding suffered, and she lost her spot in the starting lineup. Then the franchise folded shortly after the end of the season.

Still, in keeping with her character, Ruth found the bright spots in her situation. She was beginning to develop an identity on the defensive end of the court, ranking fourth in the league in blocks with nearly 1.6 per game. She enjoyed her time on the beach while her finger healed and still counts “laying out in the sun” as a favored relaxation.

 

Rebuilding her confidence was tougher than rebuilding her finger, says Ruth.

She moved on to play pro ball in Valencia, Spain, in the off-season, where she began the process. She has returned to play in either Europe or Asia during every year of her professional career, and in many respects, her game has been reformatted overseas.

In 2010, for example, while Ruth struggled for points off the bench in San Antonio, she was leading her Greek team Sony Athinaikos to the FIBA Eurocup Championship, bringing Greece its first-ever European women’s basketball title. Individually, she was averaging double-digit scoring and twice earned FIBA Player of the Week honors. The following season, she earned Eurobasket.com Center of the Year honors and a panoply of Greek league awards.

Ruth still cherishes her years of international play. Beyond the team and individual on-court accomplishments, there’s the food, for one thing.

“I like Greek food, so over there that is nice for me,” she says of Greece, where she’s been spending her winters of late. “But, if I get hungry for some fast food, I can usually figure out how to make it myself.”

The other benefit of her international experience is the joy of meeting the other old faces in new places.

“I am kinda familiar with them all,” she says of the international professional sorority. “You are always competing on a high level so just to be there means you can play. The style may vary from country to country, but the top players are the top players.”

It was while she was in Spain that Ruth got the news of the Sol’s demise, as well as word that this time she had been picked first, by the Detroit Shock, in the dispersal draft.

The move would re-elevate Ruth’s career. She spent four seasons in the Motor City, starting in every game and winning WNBA championships in her first and last seasons there. In 2003, the first of those championship campaigns, which saw the Shock vault from the league basement to the WNBA title in an historic turnaround, the “young blood” schooled the Los Angeles Sparks’ Lisa Leslie with a 27-point explosion in the decisive third game of the series, earning Finals MVP honors in the process.

She now had a rare triple crown – MVP of the NCAA for her senior season, MVP of the Final Four for a championship NCAA season and MVP of a WNBA championship team. There was still more to come.

Her offensive production nearly doubled during Ruth’s first two years in Detroit, and by 2005 Ruth was a WNBA All-Star, voted by fans as the starting center for the East. Meanwhile, in the offseason, Ruth continued to head overseas when she wasn’t playing in the states with the now-defunct National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL). Ruth actually received her first All-Star honors in 2004 with the NWBL, as she helped lead the team to that league’s finals; she was honored as an All Star again with the Chill in 2005, and in 2006 helped lead the Chill to the championship, taking Finals MVP honors in her second professional league, yet another milestone among all women players.

Then there were the Games of 2004. As a backup on the U.S. Olympic team, she played her best in the run-up to the finals, backing international veterans Leslie and Yolanda Griffith. Still, nothing could compare with the feeling as the Gold medal was hung from her neck on her 25th birthday. Ironically, the U.S. won the Gold in Athens, Greece, where Ruth now plays her off-season pro ball. So there was still more an elite honor; no one has ever matched the MVPS, the National Player of the Year and the Olympic Gold. But there was one more milestone to come.

Despite helping the Shock to their second league title in 2006, Ruth was valuable trade bait, to San Antonio for Katie Feenstra before the 2007 season began. The years and wear began to show. Though a starting center still, with the Silver Stars, she playing through a partial tear in her Achilles, Ruth had 59 blocks that season, including what remains a career-high six against Houston on June 26, and helped San Antonio reach the second round of the WNBA playoffs.

By 2011, she got her wish to play closest to her Indiana home, to Chicago, a franchise seemingly in an endless rebuilding phase.

Ruth takes the changes in stride. She knew, from the start, that the pro life would mean lots of restarts.

“I’d have had to be pretty naïve, even as a rookie, to think the team that drafted you is the team you’re gonna play for the rest of your life,” she says. “I honestly gave it a year.” (Miami lasted two after drafting her.)

“But as time goes on you get to know your role on any team. As players, we are

Besides, she likes Chicago. The way it works in the WNBA, she explains, is the players let their agents know where they’d like to go and the teams put out feelers for players they’d like to get. Both sides meet in joyous harmony — in this case, Chicago and Ruth.

“I’d say I am a Chicago-type of person,” she says, “and the player I am will have fun here.”

These days, Ruth is far from a rookie. League-wide, there are only eight players, seven from the United States, with more WNBA service. 

Indeed, her longevity in the league has cost her at least one of her many awards. Ruth, who made the dean’s list every semester of her college career and was recently inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame — yet another bump into a chosen few — once held a guaranteed NCAA post-graduate scholarship as a result of winning the MVP and National Player-of-the-Year honors her senior season.

“I think that expired,” she says with a laugh at one of the few things she has not been able to take advantage of. “Someone told me it was only good for five years.”

Besides, who knew she’d still be playing?

“I had no idea I could be paid to play this long,” she says.

Ruth has played constantly, as so many women players do, treating the WNBA as the delicious center of a candy land existence. She spends most of the year in Europe, having played in Spain, Poland and, most-recently, Greece, as well as in Korea.

She has taken care of her body, with no major injuries, but the year-round grind inevitably takes its toll.

“At least a couple of times a year, it hits me,” says Ruth. “And, last season, I felt a little beat up.”

But still she plays on and expects to keep doing so for at least another three seasons.

“Well, I signed a three-year contract (with the Chicago Sky) and, at the end of that, we’ll reassess,” she said.

Until then, Chicago is as happy to have Ruth as she is to be there. Whether starting or coming off the bench, whether starring or sacrificing her individual statistics for the benefit of the team, Ruth seems to find a way to make each team she plays on better than it would be without her. She has become the consummate role player, and not all of her contributions are reflected in the box score.

For one thing, Ruth brings a champion’s experience and a veteran’s leadership, including a commitment to mentoring her younger teammates. She makes herself available to any newbies who may be too shy, as she once was, to ask basic questions. Travel, a place to live, what to eat, where to do your laundry — anything can come up and she will answer.

Ruth frees up her teammates to excel, making those around her better than they would be without her presence. That’s one of the reasons why, when Ruth was announced as coming to Chicago, Sky star Sylvia Fowles, one of the hottest young centers in the game, described how excited she was to have Ruth joining her in the frontcourt. While Fowles is too modest to say it herself, she consumes the lion’s share of an opponent’s attention on both ends of the floor, more often than not in the past finding herself double and even triple-teamed.

But with the 6-5 Ruth playing alongside her, Fowles explained, opponents were to be hard-pressed to continue resorting to that strategy.

“They’ll have to pick their poison,” said Fowles. “If they collapse on me, Ruth knows how to put the ball in the hole.”

More often than not Ruth is content to hand off to Fowles or kick out to Epiphanny Prince, rather than running up her personal stat line.

Ruth has played in 371 WNBA games and has scored 2,416 points in 8,452 minutes with 16,591 rebounds and 501 blocks.

“In professional sports there is always a battle between team and self,” Ruth once wrote in her blog. “There is an innate desire to perform to the best of your individual ability and then there is also a desire to perform in a way that your team will be the most successful. Sometimes these two go hand in hand, but often times a sacrifice will be made in one direction or another. … At the end of the day, I will always sacrifice my personal goals for the good of the team, but finding a balance as close to accomplishing both has been an interesting journey.”

For her part, Ruth is a fan of her new teammates, especially fellow center Fowles, forward Swin Cash and tough-as-nails point guard Tina Pencheiro, a 14-year veteran of the league who has now retired. Cash is from UConn, Notre Dame’s traditional rival when both were in the Big East, and they still can give each other grief about the relative state of their alma maters.

No one realizes how much Ruth has also found ways to contribute off the court, in real life.

Her dedication to community service brought her the Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Award in 2010 and, in 2011, she shared the WNBA’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award with Seattle’s Sue Bird.

Indeed, one gets the impression that when the time comes to hang up the high-tops, Ruth will not mind the freedom to focus on her other humanitarian endeavors, many of which revolve around clinics teaching younger girls to value themselves and to always strive for the best. Ruth returns to her Indiana and family connections at least once every summer, to put on clinics for girls.

“I am very passionate about that,” she says.

Her official website, Ruth Ruth.com, also promotes personal crusades, such as the “No Kid Hungry” Campaign which raises funds and awareness of starving children worldwide. “Nothing But Nets” is a United-Nations-backed program with similar aims of helping eradicate malaria worldwide. She has been a spokesperson for the NBA/WNBA-sponsored program since its launch in 2006 and makes trips to Africa is support of both causes.

“Triad Trust” is another program she works with. It is directed at using sports and other self-empowerment programs to help eradicate AIDS and HIV in remote and impoverished areas of the world.

In the meantime, however, it is back to the red-eye plane flights or the overnight, 18-hour bus rides between cities, as Ruth continues her WNBA career in Chicago.

At 6-4-1/2, legroom is “not ideal,” she says. But she has few complaints.

Ruth says this is the career and the team she would have chosen if given an option.

As she carefully maps her future, Ruth knows several things about women’s basketball.

“I think I am grateful for this unique chance,” she says. “If I am inspiring others, the truth is you just have to realize you get to make your own life decisions.

“It’s not that I think about it a lot. But I am not successful by genetics — not by any means do I have the most talent. I recognize if you want to be an elite player, if you want to perform, you watch what you eat, you stay in shape, you adapt to wherever you are.

“At the end, all I have to do is remember I am getting paid — I have a life — from playing basketball. Who wouldn’t love that?”

 

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