Several seasons ago, Sheri Sam read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it’s still her favorite book. “I like the way he was able to take a look at himself and change himself,” explains the Vanderbilt All-American. “After he went to Mecca, he was a different person.”
In her own way, Sheri Sam can relate.
In the past two years on the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team, Sam has remade herself as a player. She came to Vanderbilt as a prolific scorer, averaging 27 points a game as a high school senior in Duson, La. This season, in an average outing, she scores 20.2 points and pulls down almost seven rebounds.
In 1992, she was voted “Miss Basketball” in Louisiana. This year, balloters judged her one of the 15 best players in America.
As a Vanderbilt freshman, she was a member of a team that reached the Final Four. Now, at the end of her collegiate playing career, the Commodores are within two victories of another pilgrimage to that basketball mecca.
In the midst of all that apparent continuity, however, Sam’s career hasn’t exactly been a steady, linear progression. For two years, she mostly sat on the bench while her emotional attitude remained in limbo. “Coming to college, I had never been in a position of sitting on the bench and not playing,” Sam says. “I was thinking I was good enough when I wasn’t.
“I was selfish as a player. When we went to the Final Four my first year, instead of being happy for the team, I was unhappy for myself because I wasn’t playing.”
Although she found herself playing into more games during her sophomore season, Sam had found it difficult to settle into a regular position. Because of injuries to other players, Coach Jim Foster was forced to insert her into the posteven though he had recruited her to play on the perimeter, where she could take fuller advantage of her quickness.
At one point during her first two years, she considered transfering. Instead, she accepted a challenge from Foster and his staff to improve her game and her mind-set. “He was very straight with me,” Sheri recalls. “He said there were a lot of things I had to change, both on and off the court, if I was going to contribute to the team.”
“Early on, we challenged her,” Foster says. “We told her that, for us to be successful in what we wanted to do, she had to changethat we weren’t willing to change; it had to be her. And she did just that.”
During the summer after her sophomore season, Sam took up residence in the gym at the University of Southwest Louisiana. “Every day, I’d drop my dad off at 10 and stay there until he got off at 6,” she says.
During the entire workday, she ran pickup games with both male and female players. In between, she honed her perimeter marksmanship by following Foster’s suggested daily regimen: 500 jump shots, while wearing a specially devised shooting strap designed to help her left hand remain properly aligned with the ball.
“Players improve in the summer,” Foster says. “It’s their job between April and October to get better. [Sheri] had the work ethic.”
Ever since the beginning of last season, the Commodores have been enjoying the dividends of Sam’s homework. As a junior, she became a dominant offensive force in the nation’s most dominating conference. This year, she has been even better.
Like an elite handful of other women players, Sheri is a threat to score, no matter where she gets the ball. From behind the three-point arc. On the baseline. Off the dribble. Cutting through the lane. “Any shot where I’m open is my favorite shot,” she says, speaking like a true roundball democrat.
At 6 feet, 1 inch, she’s too tall for most opposing guards to handleand too quick for most forwards. Play off her too far and she’ll bury a 3. Defend too closely and she’ll drive. Fail to get back quickly on defense, and she’ll punish you by taking an outlet pass for a layup.
“On the court, she can score the ball in so many ways,” says Foster. “The amount of points she scores within the framework of what we dorelative to the amount of shots she takesis incredible. The other night [against Harvard] she scored 39 points on 19 shots. Sunday [against Wisconsin in the NCAA second round], she scored 28 points on 16 shots. That’s a very high rate of success. It’s a true reflection of how talented she is.”
This year, that talent earned Sam a spot as a third-team All-Americanthough it would be difficult to find 10 better players anywhere. She certainly could have made believers of then top-ranked Georgia, whom she torched for 32 points in a 71-66 win. Many of those baskets came against the Lady Bulldogs’ Player of the Year candidate Saudia Roundtree, whom Vandy befuddled into a 6-for-25 shooting performance.
Afterward, Foster publicly lauded Sam’s defensive effort although, he teasingly added, it had taken three years for her to merit such a compliment.
Both on and off the court, suggests Foster, Sam has become “more cognizant of other people and more willing to give some of herself. To watch someone grow as she has in so many dimensions is probably why you [as a coach] do what you do.”
As she has matured as a player, Sam’s career has come full circle in one other respect. At each practice, she and her teammates scrimmage against the boysa Foster-recruited ROTC squad, whose quickness and aggressive defense have helped prepare the Commodores to face the country’s most athletic teams.
As a girl growing up in Louisiana, Sheri first learned to play basketball against boysher brothers. She and one of the younger boys often played one-on-one, but the older brothers, being older brothers, barred them from the larger games. They wouldn’t let us play with them,” she remembers. “They’d kick us off the court.”
Then a smile creeps onto her face. “Now when I go home, they ask me to play.”
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy (slightly amended edition)
Men’s NCAA Tournament
Sweet 16: UMass over Arkansas; Georgetown over Texas Tech.
Regional Final: UMass over Georgetown.
Sweet 16: Kentucky over Utah; Wake Forest over Louisville.
Regional Final: Kentucky over Wake Forest.
Sweet 16: UConn over Mississippi State; Cincinnati over Georgia Tech.
Regional Final: UConn over Cincinnati.
Sweet 16: Syracuse over Georgia; Kansas over Arizona.
Regional Final: Kansas over Syracuse.
Final Four: UMass over Kentucky; UConn over Kansas.
Championship: UMass over UConn.
Women’s NCAA Tournament
Sweet 16: Tennessee over Kansas; Virginia over Old Dominion.
Regional Final: Tennessee over Virginia.
Sweet 16: Vanderbilt over Iowa; Connecticut over San Francisco.
Regional Final: Connecticut over Vanderbilt.
Sweet 16: Louisiana Tech over Texas Tech; Georgia over Stephen F. Austin.
Regional Final: Georgia over Louisiana Tech.
Sweet 16: Penn State over Auburn; Stanford over Alabama
Regional Final: Stanford over Penn State.
Final Four: Tennessee over Connecticut; Stanford over Georgia.
Championship: Stanford over Tennessee.