Sticking With The Program

By Ailene Voisin
Updated: May 6, 2009

PIEDMONT – As she strolls into the foyer of her old high school gym, dressed casually in shorts, a long-sleeve T-shirt and flip flops, Courtney Paris is immediately recognizable as a tall, somewhat overweight basketball player.

She has broad shoulders and a thick upper body. She has strong hands — her handshake is firm and confident — and long, slender fingers. Her large calves taper into thin ankles, and she moves with the powerful grace of an accomplished athlete.

An athlete. Not a savior.

For the first time since emerging as a teen prodigy, a celebrated Bay Area prep star who more recently restored Oklahoma to national prominence, the Monarchs rookie is being asked to fit with the program. She is not expected to hold revival meetings and rewrite the record books.

She enters the WNBA as a highly regarded rookie, a tantalizing talent, but mindful that six other collegians were chosen ahead of her at No. 7.

“I am so used to being in situations where you have to be the player that changes everything,” Paris said during an interview at Piedmont High School. “I loved that role. But it’s refreshing to hear coach Jenny (Boucek) say, ‘Just come in and be part of a great team.’

“I’m excited about that. I get to play with DeMya (Walker and) Kara Lawson, a player I have always looked up to.”

This is both a comfort and a challenge. From the time Courtney and twin sister Ashley, a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Sparks, picked up basketballs, they were mini-celebrities, the fascination furthered by the numbers, by the mere fact that there were two of them.

Then there was the pedigree; the twins are the daughters of Lynne Harris and Bubba Paris, the former 49ers lineman with the outsized personality.

When their mother and stepfather moved the girls from Modesto to this affluent East Bay neighborhood for high school, renting a house from a prominent Piedmont High and Cal booster, the scrutiny intensified.

The living arrangement — and lingering suspicions about potential recruiting violations — led to an investigation by Cal officials, and later, to the twins’ decision to accept scholarships outside the area.

“I knew I wanted to get away from home,” said Paris, who guided Piedmont High to two California Interscholastic Federation Division IV state titles and dominated the Bay Area club basketball scene. “I went to Connecticut, Syracuse. I wanted to see different things.

“Then there was the Cal thing. But Oklahoma just seemed right to me. To see a community — a football area at that — embrace women’s basketball was really special. Just to be regarded as one of the faces of women’s college basketball means a lot.”

Yet it was the entire body of work that appealed to Monarchs general manager John Whisenant, who was intent on drafting frontcourt help because of recurring injuries to Walker and Rebekkah Brunson.

Paris, who recently powered the Sooners to the Final Four, left college as the NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder and the first player to score 2,500 points and collect 2,000 rebounds.

At 6-foot-2 and a listed 240 pounds, she is a unique physical presence, an intriguing, unexpected gift. She is quicker and more mobile than her frame suggests, a delighted Whisenant notes.

Though she possesses adequate leaping ability, she rebounds intuitively – anticipating, pursuing and swiping balls. And those velveteen hands. Chris Webber hands.

“Anything she gets to, she catches,” said Whisenant. “It’s just a matter of stamina. To play three, four games a week at the pro level, she has to improve her conditioning.

“But that isn’t unusual. Ticha (Penicheiro), Kara (Lawson) and Nicole (Powell) all lost a significant amount of weight and changed eating habits once they got into the league.”

Paris, who is warm and engaging and schooled in the art of the interview, isn’t running from the issue. She broaches the topic herself. Yes, she read the scouting reports. Yes, she heard the murmuring. Once projected as a top-two pick, she fell to the Monarchs because of concerns about her weight.

“I’m not naïve,” she begins, seated in a chair outside the gym. “I know conditioning is going to be a huge thing, and adjusting to the height and quickness. I’m always going to be a big girl. People always said, ‘Oh, she won’t be able to keep up the pace. She doesn’t jump very high.’

“Maybe those things are true. But you work on those things. When it becomes your livelihood, and you’re not worrying about classes, writing papers, you can be concerned about your eating.”

Since returning to the Bay Area two weeks ago, clutching a degree in journalism, she and Ashley have been living near campus with a private trainer, Sandy Baker, aggressively tending to their diet.

“We just called her and said, ‘We need your help,’ ” explained Courtney. “She makes us drink lots of water. We eat (at) certain times of the day. She makes sure we eat vegetables, fruits. When you’re trying to compete at the highest level, you have to fill your body with the right stuff.”

Besides making the dramatic nutritional changes, Paris is working out religiously with her former high school coach, Bryan Gardere. The routine is a real carbs-burner: One hour of cardio work. Two hours of footwork drills. Running in the afternoon. Shooting in the evenings.

Gardere allows that “Courtney already has lost weight, but strength is her asset. She probably benches 225 pounds. I also believe that she will (expand) her offensive game.”

“At Oklahoma, she shot nothing farther than five feet away. ‘You’re our post player. Run to the block.’ The next level is about stretching the floor, matchups. She will take the challenge, believe me.”

Boucek, who interestingly is almost obsessive about conditioning (she invariably can be tracked down on the equipment in the training facility), plans to ease her rookie into the next level.

The pace. The travel. The separation for the first time from her twin.

“Courtney has been so dominant in college, she will have an adjustment,” Boucek said. “But with our veterans here, she can come in, progress at her own pace and learn as quickly as possible.

“She has already proven she’s special. Quick feet. Good hands. Agility. She inherited those. But that competitiveness, that’s all her. She’ll be fine.”