Thursday, January 4, 2007 Updated: January 5, 8:21 PM ET
Real-life Rudy? Tennessee's Curry takes it one better
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
Somewhere in the upper reaches of the sold-out Hartford Civic Center on Saturday afternoon, where the seats slope upward at a steep enough angle to make a person feel like a ski jumper at the top of the ramp when they step out into the aisle for a run to the concession stand, someone will make a joke about the lucky soul at the end of the bench being the unworthy holder of the best seat in the house.
Elizabeth Curry was Tennessee's head manager last season. Now, she's a guard on the nation's fourth-ranked team.
You know the player. The hand-clapping, nervous-looking spectator whose jersey, carefully and permanently concealed beneath a shooting shirt, is as much a useless fashion accessory as a coach's tie or high heels. The archetypal "Rudy" character, whose name home fans chant when a game has gotten out of hand and whose presence at the scorer's table symbolizes just how thoroughly an opponent has been drubbed.
Well, save your breath if you spy someone in orange staked to prime real estate on the Tennessee bench. Lady Vols senior guard Elizabeth Curry isn't a real-life Rudy, even if her story of suiting up for her senior season after serving as a team manager for the last two seasons sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood script.
Whether she gets in the game when No. 4 Tennessee visits No. 5 Connecticut in a renewal of the grandest rivalry in women's sports, Curry has earned her place in the layup line and the jersey under her shooting shirt. On a star-studded roster of former high-school All-Americans and future WNBA players, Curry might be the most unique prospect of the bunch.
She might even be the next Pat Summitt.
Coming out of high school in New Virginia, Iowa -- a community so small it shares the descriptively named Interstate 35 High School with two other small towns in Truro and St. Charles, as well as the surrounding 193 square miles of Iowa fields -- Curry was an accomplished player in her own right. A four-year starter and prolific scorer for the Roadrunners, she also excelled in volleyball and track. But when it came time to choose a college, Curry confronted a dilemma pitting her athletic present against her burgeoning future plans.
Either she could play basketball at one of the Division III schools interested in her as a player or strike out for the bright basketball lights of Knoxville and the University of Tennessee for much the same reason as Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings or Candace Parker traveled to the Volunteer State: to learn from the best.
"I didn't end up making the decision, as far as where I was going to go to school, until May of my senior year," Curry said. "I was looking at a couple of D-III schools and actually had it narrowed down to one at home and [Tennessee].
"And just looking at the options and what it usually takes to get into coaching as far as playing experience and who you know at the upper level -- as well as I wanted to go somewhere from a small community, a little farm town, to be out somewhere where I could experience and just personally grow and see new areas -- I decided to come to UT."
At an age when many kids, even those with academic records as distinguished as Curry's, are more concerned with getting in to the right school than what they want to do there in preparation for life after college, Curry already had an inkling of her calling.
"My junior year in high school, I helped coach a youth tackle football team with my dad that my little brother played on," Curry said. "And I just loved that environment -- you get to teach, you get to interact with younger kids and it's also in a sports environment. I didn't really seriously look at it as a career until I got here and I knew that I was going to be in a position to pursue it and had a foundation to come from."
Paired with the school's fine veterinary program, her other interest, the chance to matriculate at a place where the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena is named after the women's basketball coach was too good to pass up.
After serving as one of many managers for the basketball team during her sophomore year (there are 11 people listed as managers for the women's basketball team this season), Curry assumed the role of head manager last season. According to the school's athletic Web site, it marked the first time any individual had held that title since 1995.
But after losing Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood to a transfer last season and Shanna Zolman to graduation after the season, not to mention dealing with the wrist injury that knocked Alexis Hornbuckle out of action for a large chunk of the conference schedule, Summitt needed to restock her backcourt. Freshman Cait McMahan and junior college transfer Shannon Bobbitt represented the front end of that equation, but the Lady Vols also needed to ensure enough backcourt depth to keep things moving in practice this season.
Already facing the prospect of teaching the two new guards what she expects, Summitt turned to a familiar face to help provide the depth, asking Curry to trade in her spot at the top of the undergraduate staff for a spot at the bottom of the playing rotation.
It wasn't a blind request by the coach, as Curry had continued playing basketball on the side in Knoxville, but shifting from pickup ball to checking the likes of Hornbuckle was a challenge.
"It definitely was night and day going between managing and playing," Curry conceded. "I guess the only similar thing would be the fact that I'd been in the program and know the players. But just to mentally and physically get into the game -- get back in the game, period, let alone at this level where the talent is so high and it's physical and the speed of the game was definitely an adjustment."
And while she had walked through the tunnel in front of the large crowds many times as a manager, the experience of entering in uniform for the team's home opener against Chattanooga was unforgettable.
"My heart was racing," Curry laughed. "I thought maybe I'd hear the crowd but my heart was racing so much I didn't hear the crowd coming out. It was a pretty incredible feeling."
Playing time hasn't come in abundance for the manager-turned-guard; Curry has played just 15 minutes in six appearances so far this season. But Curry's goal has little to do with time spent on the court or shots hit. Her goal remains eventually to lead a program like Tennessee, and this season is providing invaluable experience in pursuit of that goal.
"I think this is going to be a huge advantage for me," Curry said of gaining the perspective of a player, something Summitt stressed to her in asking her to join the roster. "Whether it's on the court with the X's and O's, or just in the locker room being a teammate, the scouting, the film, the travel -- and seeing it from a player's standpoint just helps you better understand the overall job of a coach and what they go through and how you build a program like coach has here."
The next step for Curry is a spot as a graduate assistant, a move she'll talk to Summitt about in the coming weeks. And as she surmised back in high school, there aren't many better names to drop when you're looking for a coaching job than the woman with the most wins in the history of Division I basketball. What might not have been as clear to Curry back then was everything else she would take with her as a result of working and playing for Summitt.
"What's amazing about her is how incredibly well-rounded she is," Curry said. "She's obviously a great teacher and she knows the game, but who she is personally and how she stands for things and what she represents, she's an all-around amazing person. That's what has been neat to see."
Curry's journey from manager to player on one of the best teams in the country is a good story, but it's not a feel-good story of an overachiever reaching the pinnacle of her athletic aspirations. That moment will come when Curry, back in street clothes, takes a seat at the other end of the bench against a team like Connecticut and an adversary like Geno Auriemma.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.