This time it's different
Is Skylar Diggins the game changer that women's hoops has long prophesied?
This story appears in the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
WE'VE HEARD IT BEFORE.
Maya Moore was the future of women's basketball. (Quick! What team does she play for now?) So was dunking phenom Candace Parker. Before them were the fiery Diana Taurasi, the lethally explosive Sheryl Swoopes and the glamorous Lisa Leslie -- all of them projected to lead us to the promised land, a place where aging meatheads finally appreciate the beauty of women's sports. But this time, we mean it. Skylar Diggins is changing the game.
She demands attention. On the court, the 5'9" southpaw pushes the pace, finds the open teammate, gets in people's faces, finishes in the paint, takes the big shot. At the end of March, Notre Dame was just another team chasing Tennessee and Connecticut. One week later, in a three-game stretch during March Madness, Diggins scored 24 points in an upset of Tennessee, 28 to upend top-seeded UConn in the Final Four and then 23 in Notre Dame's loss to Texas A&M in the title game. Along the way, the TV audience for the 2011 NCAA women's tournament increased by 16 percent from the previous year.
Moore and Parker and Taurasi all had great tourney runs too. None of them, however, had Lil Wayne tweeting them best wishes before the biggest game of their career. When Weezy sent this burst into the ether -- "Good lukk to my wife Skylar Diggins and the Fighting Irish" -- before Diggins faced off against UConn, it altered the women's hoops landscape. Diggins' Twitter following swelled from 5,000 before the tournament to nearly 65,000 just after the national title game. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Garnett sang her praises as a player. Lil Wayne performed wearing her jersey. John Wall sent her virtual air kisses.
All of this brings us to another undeniable fact about Skylar Diggins: She is attractive. And she's attractive with a growing profile in a privacy-challenged world. Fair or not, there are superficial reasons for some of the attention she's receiving. That is not lost on Diggins. "People are like, 'Hold on, this is different,'" she says. "'She's getting 40 points, what?' They don't expect me to be like that on the court. I don't know what they expect a hooper to look like, but obviously it wasn't me."
Diggins is now in that middle ground between being a normal 21-year-old college athlete and being a burgeoning superstar. And as part of a generation raised on social media and its power to gift instant fame, she is comfortable with that. Her response to the Weezy shout-out? She thanked him and called him "husband."
FOLLOWING THE LIL WAYNE EXCHANGE in the spring, a Diggins tweet became a trending topic within hours. Soon after that, Notre Dame called on media consultant Kathleen Hessert for guidance. When asked about the player's appeal, Hessert referenced the book The Attention Economy, which makes the argument that the global economy's new currency is the ability to capture people's increasingly fractured attention. She considers the book her bible, but she pushes the idea a step further. "We've moved from the attention economy to an attraction economy," says Hessert, whose clients include ESPN Plus and Auburn University athletics. "It's no longer enough to get attention. You have to attract people. And social media, combined with a presence like Skylar, attracts people to the sport, to the team, to her personal brand in a way that could never happen before. People who never followed women's basketball are following it because of Skylar."
Diggins takes center stage amid interesting times for women's hoops. Improving skills and athleticism have created a more flowing and entertaining game than even a few years ago. And a more competitive one. "Before last year," says Diggins, "people were battling for second instead of battling for a championship because UConn was in a league of its own." Now the sport is more balanced than ever, and Notre Dame, with its Big East preseason No. 1 ranking, is proof. "You could put any of the top 25 teams into the top 10 and it'd be well deserved," says Diggins. "So for us to be a favorite now, it's like, 'What, Notre Dame?'"
The increase in competition has emerged because an ever-growing cohort of high school talent raised on the WNBA (founded in 1996, when Diggins was just 5) began to look at strong basketball programs outside the traditional powerhouses. "Girls are committing to places close to home," says Diggins, who grew up in South Bend, Ind. "It's not just four or five schools anymore. The talent has spread out so much, and I think my class had a lot to do with that. Me, Brittney Griner going to Baylor, Kelsey Bone going to South Carolina [before transferring to Texas A&M]. I mean, Elena Delle Donne -- Delaware!"
Those choices elevated the game. In the same way the FIFA Women's World Cup caught the public's fancy with fantastic finishes and surpassing skill, this past spring's NCAA women's tournament provided great games and a UConn-slaying Cinderella story. "Americans love the underdog, and with us and Texas A&M, people had something to cheer for," says Fighting Irish guard Natalie Novosel. "And it's good basketball."
It's also good marketing. It doesn't hurt that the U.S. women's national soccer team has a Dancing With the Stars poster girl in Hope Solo, and in the same way, Diggins has given women's basketball its TV-ready performer. That has taken her to a crossroads that most attractive female athletes face. It's where the cool 21-year-old basketball star who has been comfortably living online for years realizes she's chatting not just with friends anymore. She's warned that she can no longer tweet her location and she's taught to protect a privacy she didn't know she had. Diggins was forced to issue a statement in the spring denying the existence of a nude photo of her on the web. "It got weird," she says, describing a feeling that must be the most common cost of female celebrity. "Now people expect you to be sexy, or whatever. It's not what we're playing the sport for. You know, if Paul Pierce doesn't have a haircut, nobody cares."
Diggins is also at a point where she realizes her new celebrity brings more than a cheering bandwagon. When embattled R&B singer Chris Brown labeled Diggins a "cutie," his ex-girlfriend Draya Michele wasn't amused. "She's kinda cute on the court, but put her in a dress and stand her next to me in the club ... RIP to the competition," she tweeted earlier this year. No amount of digital savvy can fully prepare a person for that, Diggins included. "I'm no celebrity; I'm a nerd," she says. "I was in the library from 3 to midnight yesterday studying for a macro test. The hardest part was understanding that not everyone wants to see you do well."
She dealt with it the way she always has when stressed: She hit the gym, studied more film, focused on her game. "She isn't just a pretty face," head coach Muffet McGraw says. Even on a superbly balanced team, Diggins averaged 15 points, 4.8 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game last season, helping to elevate the Fighting Irish to title contender.
"She wants to have that responsibility to run the team, that control," Notre Dame forward Devereaux Peters says. "We really trust her with the ball and letting people know what to do and where they need to be." Which is all this junior really wants. The rest is just crowd noise.
DIGGINS GREW UP ON THE BASKETBALL COURTS at the Martin Luther King Center in South Bend, a community recreation and educational space run by her stepfather, Maurice Scott. Diggins showed up every day, and she wasn't treated like a little girl, either. "It was all guys there," says Diggins, "so if you wanted to get in a run, you had to have a swag about you: 'You're not just going to run me over because I'm a girl. I'm gonna take you.'"
She combined that brassy toughness with a head for the game. "I had to be crafty against guys," Diggins says. "I had to learn moves, to go between my legs and cross back over. How to pump fake, how to shoot a floater so I don't get blocked." Throughout her development, she never thought she was the most talented player, just the most competitive, a "bossy little girl," she says, who was "all left. All left!"
All left was all right with McGraw, who didn't wait to woo the star, instead offering the hometown girl a verbal scholarship before she finished eighth grade. It was a smart move. On the first day Diggins could receive correspondence from colleges, the letter carrier came to her door like Santa, his bag filled with 126 pieces of mail. Still, as she led South Bend's Washington High to four Indiana state title games, taking home the crown in 2007, most observers figured she'd take up McGraw's offer.
As signing day approached, however, Diggins was still leaning heavily toward Stanford. Her favorite player, Candice Wiggins, went there; post player Nneka Ogwumike was a friend; and her 3.7 GPA meant she had the academic chops to take on the Farm as well. "And it's in Cali!" Diggins says. "How could I not go?"
In the next breath, Diggins switches to the downside. "What it didn't have was my family," she explains. "My mom wasn't there and my community wasn't there. It would have been pretty weird being away from Notre Dame after being around it for so long. I couldn't fathom it. I went to bed thinking I was going to Stanford. I woke up knowing I was going to Notre Dame."
The collective sigh of relief from the Irish basketball office, where McGraw and assistant coach Niele Ivey sweated over Diggins for four years, was enough to generate gale-force winds. "Everyone assumed she was coming here the whole time," McGraw says, "so if she doesn't come here, we're gonna look ... " she pauses, searching for words, " ... for another job." Peters recalls that when Diggins made the announcement to her future teammates, "we pounced on her. It was one of the happiest days of my life."
No wonder. Diggins has made everyone around her better by making herself better. She played mostly shooting guard as a freshman, but whenever Diggins took the reins at point, "I sucked," she says. She needed to learn to organize a complex college offense. To do that, she dug into the Irish video vault and began tirelessly studying tape, with Ivey or by herself at home. One day during the summer after her freshman year, McGraw recalls, Diggins walked into her office and said: "Watched the Purdue game last night, and you know what? We should ... "
The coach smiles at the thought. "I've never had a player like that. Ever. I'm sure other players have all watched games. But in the summer?"
Diggins was essentially compiling mental scouting reports on teammates. Does Peters turn and shoot on the right side or go straight to the basket? Where does she want the ball? And don't forget transitions: "She's one of the fastest posts in the nation. She runs the court, get her the ball!"
On Novosel: "When I stop, everyone's going to look at me, but Nasty won't stop, she'll keep moving. If we need a bucket, go to her because she's the greatest in the country at drawing fouls."
On guard Brittany Mallory: "Spot-up shooter. Drive at her man, get it to her. She'll knock it down."
Those player connections should only strengthen this year, particularly if the Irish can continue to absorb Diggins' fame and their own success. "With girls, you expect drama," McGraw says. "But it's just never happened. They've really handled the hype well."
That's doubly true for Diggins. She is aware of the world around her enough to know that all the hype -- be it from hip-hop royalty or basketball purists -- is still helping her school and her sport. "I don't care why they watched the games," Diggins says. "They're cheering for Notre Dame. There's a buzz around the school. They want to be part of something good."
Which just goes to show, Skylar Diggins is paying attention.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN The Magazine: November 14, 2011