Shereka Wright's shooting, quickness and toughness have made her a star despite 5-10 frame.
They heard stories about little Shereka, one of the best high school players in the country, and then they saw glimpses of her greatness on TV when she started playing for Purdue.
So when the 5-foot-10 forward showed up at the Wright family reunion two years ago, minus the signature headband and pulled-up matching socks, some family members couldn't help feeling a bit starstruck.
A 15-year-old cousin made his way toward his most storied relative, and - Shereka Wright's parents will never forget this - he gawked at her and asked, "Is she real?"
Since then, Wright's career has become legendary among her large extended family that spreads from her high school hometown of Copperas Cove, Texas, to Germany, where her father was stationed in the Army. A key player on the 2001 Purdue team that fell to Notre Dame in the NCAA championship game, Wright has a built-in fan club that is tuning in to cheer on her bid for a second chance.
From her 15 aunts and uncles to her followers in Copperas Cove, where an Applebee's restaurant has built a Shereka shrine, the three-time Naismith Player of the Year finalist has become larger than life.
Wright's other family, the Boilermakers, had better hope she's real. Second-seeded Purdue faces a tough test against West Region third seed Georgia tonight at the Bank of America Arena in Seattle. Purdue prides itself on point guard Erika Valek's floor leadership and a grind-it-out offense, but the Bulldogs have no delusions about whom they need to watch the most.
"Shereka Wright does a lot for that team," Georgia post player Christi Thomas said in a conference call.
A lot, as in everything but fly the plane to Seattle. Wright leads the team in shooting percentage (49.9), points (20.3), rebounds (6.2) and blocks (32). She is strong from the free-throw line (74 percent), has an impressive spin move and is an aggressive defender.
"She loves to beat you with the dribble," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "She does a great job moving without the basketball and getting where she wants to be to get the basketball."
But the thing that impresses Wright's father, her biggest fan and critic, is not her quickness or her shooting. It is her toughness that makes him smile, and he said she must get it from his mother, Louise Wright.
"Considering her size, she can play and be very effective," Walter Wright said. "That's not easy against some of the larger college players like (Connecticut's Diana) Taurasi and others."
True, Wright is somewhat small for a Division I forward, and her slender build looks deceptively fragile matched against forwards such as Georgia's 6-foot-5 Thomas. It has forced her to be quick to get to the rim and to improve her outside shooting, which has been one of her few weaknesses the past couple of years.
It also has made her one of the most fun players to watch in women's college basketball, exactly the type of player the WNBA is looking to draft out of the 2004 class.
Like Duke's Alana Beard and Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, Wright has an energy and do-it-all style that has made her one of the most recognizable players in the NCAA Tournament. She hopes it translates into a successful professional career that helps bring a bigger spotlight to women's basketball.
"We just need to continue doing what we've been doing," Wright said. "I think the WNBA looks for that versatile position, that young and energetic player that can shoot very well."
It has been one of Wright's dreams to play in the WNBA, another being an NCAA championship. She's not the only one pulling for these dreams. There are more Shereka Wright fans than she can count.
And they're not the only ones who have been watching.
Today, after watching last weekend's game and studying clips of Purdue tape, Georgia players will find out Shereka Wright is real.