Fame is relative for Sooner women

The Oklahoma basketball team has success in its blood, helping it adjust to the spotlight.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2007

TAMPA - Should Oklahoma make it back to Tampa in April for the NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four, the Sooners cheering section at the St. Pete Times Forum could boast two fans with four Super Bowl rings between them, and another with two NBA championships and more than 13,000 rebounds.

Tonight, as Oklahoma takes on Tennessee as part of the ESPNU Invitational, some of the Sooners' best athletes have grown up in the spotlight, following in the footsteps of their fathers and brothers.

"We know what it takes to play at the highest level," said 6-foot-4 All-America sophomore center Courtney Paris, whose father Bubba won three Super Bowl rings as an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers. "A lot of it is just being able to deal with the pressure. My dad talks about that all the time."

Paris, the dominant post player in college basketball last season, isn't the only Sooner working to make a name for herself. Her twin, Ashley, is the team's second-leading returning scorer, and her backup is 6-4 Abi Olajuwon, daughter of NBA legend Hakeem.

Oklahoma's bench includes a freshman guard named Carlee Roethlisberger; yes, her brother Ben has thrown 22 touchdowns this season as quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Who has brought together this study in athletic genes? Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, who said the collection of famous families is largely coincidental. What they share is a competitive spirit and the experience of growing up around successful athletes.

"Their experiences are so varied, but the famous lifestyle helps prepare them," said Coale, 42, who has a 232-118 record in her first 11 seasons at Oklahoma. "There's a familiarity with it, but it's different when it's you."

Courtney Paris is a star unto herself, having set the NCAA rebounding record as a freshman, then reset it last season, when she averaged 23.5 points and 15.9 rebounds in leading the Sooners to the Elite 8. Coale has the Sooners opening their season against the past two national champions, having already lost to Maryland before tonight's meeting with the defending champion Vols.

Olajuwon, playing behind an All-American, has been used only sparingly, logging two minutes in Oklahoma's loss to Maryland. Coale isn't sure how much of an impact Roethlisberger will make, but she already sees the same precocious leadership that allowed Ben to win his first 15 NFL starts and lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl win as a rookie after the 2004 season.

"She has what I call the classic ability to focus, and I think she can make a leadership impact very quickly," Coale said.

Sunday afternoon practices have been tricky for the Sooners, who quickly retire to Coale's house to watch Roethlisberger's Steelers on TiVo; her parents have strict orders not to call and spoil the surprise of watching the game "live" on tape.

After football season, Coale said she expects to see Ben at his sister's games, cheering her on as an ordinary fan and passing along some humility along the way.

"I think it helps that the players take themselves with a grain of salt. They're people that don't take themselves too seriously," Coale said. "They know that the nature of fame is fleeting, so their perspective on that is strengthened."

Coale is hardly finished in recruiting the daughters and sisters of pro athletes. On Wednesday she signed guard Whitney Hand, whose father Rich pitched in the major leagues in the 1970s.

Tonight's game features two of the biggest names in women's college basketball, in Paris and Tennessee junior Candace Parker. Coale compared their first meeting to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson meeting in the 1979 NCAA championship, a prelude to a long and famous pro rivalry between athletes talented enough to build dynasties around.

Parker and Paris have already accomplished enough to soon render their now-famous family ties as proud footnotes; Parker is arguably already more famous than her brother Anthony, a starting guard for the NBA's Toronto Raptors. Tonight's national spotlight only adds to their growing legend.

"I think it's the coolest thing ever," Paris said of the early-season doubleheader on the site of the Final Four. "I think great players and great teams love to play against each other, so it's going to be a lot of fun."