Griffith, Yolanda 1970–
Yolanda Griffith 1970–
Professional basketball player
Yolanda Griffith has become one of the WNBA’s most talented and recognizable stars. Despite personal tragedy and hardship, she worked hard to achieve her goal of becoming a professional basketball player. Her efforts have led to her selection as the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player, and a spot on the women’s 2000 Olympic basketball team.
Griffith was born on March 1, 1970 in Chicago, Illinois. When she was 13 years-old, her mother died suddenly when a blood vessel burst in her brain. Griffith told Jerry Brewer of the New York Times about the effect her mother’s death had on her: “It’s still hard for me to talk about. She’ll always be a part of my life. I smile everyday because when she was living, she always smiled. If I get a bad call or I miss a free throw, I’m still going to smile.”
Griffith channeled all of her energy into playing sports. Alongside her two brothers, she regularly played against the boys on the basketball court across the street from her house. At George Washington High School in Chicago, she made All-American in softball and basketball and still holds the state record for most home runs. Because of her success on the athletic field, Griffith had her pick of Division I colleges to attend. She chose lowa, but was forced to sit out her first year of college because she did not meet the freshman eligibility requirements. After one semester at Iowa, Griffith became pregnant and decided to go back home to Chicago to have her baby. Griffith told Janis Carr of the Orange County Register about this time in her life: “A lot of people expected a lot from me when I graduated from high school. So I was sad because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I got pregnant, had my daughter and put basketball aside until I decided what I wanted to do.” After the birth of her daughter, Candace, Griffith rediscovered her desire to play basketball. However, she would play basketball only on her own terms. Her first priority was to be an attentive mother. Griffith was ready to attend DePaul University but, because she had spent one semester at Iowa, she was forced to sit out during another basketball season. Instead of staying close to home, she traveled south to West Palm Beach, Florida where she could play immediately.
Griffith traveled south with her daughter, enrolled at
At a Glance…
Born Yolanda Griffith, March 1, 1970, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Harvey and Yvonne Griffith; children; Candace. Education: attended Florida Atlantic University.
Careen : Starred in Softball and basketball at George Washington High School, 1988; attended Palm Beach Junior College, 1991–92; auended Florida Atlantic University, 1993; played professional basketball in Euroleague in Germany, 1994–96; played for the ABL’s Long Beach Sting Rays and Chicago Condors, 1997–98; joined the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchy 1999-.
Awards: High School All-American in softball and basketball, 1968: Kodak Division II All-American, 1993; first overall pick of the ABL draft, ABL Defensive Player of the Year, 1997; second player selected in the WNBA draft. Newcomer of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and WNBA Most Valuable Player, 1999; member of USA Olympic women’s basketball team, 2000.
Addresses: Home —Sacramento, CA; Business —Sacramento Monarchy One Sports Parkway, Sacramento, CA 95834.
Palm Beach Junior College, and found a job repossessing cars. During the day, she played basketball and led Palm Beach to two Florida Junior College State Championships. At night, she would hot wire cars with a partner and repossess them, sometimes with the angry owner of the car in hot pursuit. Griffith commented on her unique employment to Paul Zeise of the WNBA’s magazine Hoop: “You know what? It paid the bills. My boss took a chance on me, I was young and had no experience. It was a little crazy some nights, and sometimes it was scary. I had a lot of excitement at that job as well, and like I said, at the time it put food on my table. Sometimes you have to do things that are difficult in order to reach your goals.” After two years at Palm Beach, Griffith was faced with another difficult decision. She was again pursued by recruiters from all of the major college basketball programs, including perennial powerhouse Tennessee. Griffith was preparing to attend Western Kentucky, when she reassessed her situation. She enjoyed being in Florida, and had a support system there for her daughter. Instead of attending Western Kentucky, Griffith opted for Florida Atlantic University, a Division II school.
In 1993, Griffith was a dominant force in Division II women’s basketball. She led the nation in scoring (28 points per game) and rebounding (16.0 per game). She was named as a Kodak Division II All-American after her junior season. After one year in college playing basketball, working at night, studying, and raising her daughter, Griffith decided that she could not continue this hectic schedule. She signed with an agent and sought a spot in the professional ranks. To secure a spot on a pro team, Griffith traveled overseas to Germany.
Griffith went to Germany, and stayed for three years. She lived there with her daughter, who learned to speak German fluently, and her friend Charlene Littles, who took care of her daughter when Griffith was away. Griffith dominated the Euroleague, averaging 24.7 points and 26 rebounds a game. After three seasons overseas, she heard about two new women’s professional basketball leagues that were being formed in the United States and decided to return home.
Upon returning to the United States, Griffith had to choose between playing for the American Basketball League (ABL) or the WNBA. She told Carr of the Orange County Register about the factors in her decision: “Playing in the WNBA crossed my mind, but I decided on the ABL because it is its own league, not somebody else’s. The WNBA is just the NBA, which, yes, has a lot of money. But the ABL is doing it for themselves.” The ABL’s schedule was an important incentive for Griffith. Because the ABL played their games during the winter months, Griffith could spend the summers with her daughter. In addition, the ABL paid almost three times the salary of the WNBA. Griffith attended an ABL tryout camp in San Francisco, and impressed the scouts so much that she was made the first overall pick in the 1997 ABL draft by the expansion Long Beach Sting Rays. Griffith played two years in the ABL, leading Long Beach to the 1997–98 championship series. Before the league folded in December of 1998, she played briefly for the Chicago Condors.
Although the ABL did not survive, Griffith used her experience in the league to establish a name for herself. In her two years in the ABL, she averaged 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds. Griffith was the ABL Defensive Player of the Year in 1997, and finished second in the balloting for MVP honors in 1997 and 1998. She was even invited to try out for the United States national team, but quit after three days because she did not want to be apart from her daughter.
Griffith was the second player selected in the 1999 WNBA draft by the Sacramento Monarchy. Unlike other rookies, Griffith stepped into the spotlight and quickly became a dominant force. She announced her presence during her second game in the WNBA, scoring 31 points and grabbing nine rebounds against the Phoenix Mercury. Griffith also recorded 19 rebounds in one game, one more than the entire opposing team. Monarchs’ point guard Ticha Penicheiro told Zeise of Hoop about her new teammate: “Yolanda is a special player. I’ve played with a lot of great players, but she is the best. She is so quick, so athletic, so strong. She is a force, nobody can stop her when she is on her game. She makes my job so much easier. She is also a great teammate and a special person.” By the end of the season, Griffith had led the Monarchs to the third-best record in the Western Conference at 19–13, an improvement of eight wins over the previous season. With three games remaining in her first WNBA season, Griffith suffered a partial tear of the medial meniscus in her right knee. She underwent surgery immediately after the injury, and was forced to watch from the bench as the Monarchs lost their last three games of the season. The Monarchs were then bounced from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Sparks.
Griffith, who was named to the Western Conference All-Star Team, finished the season second in the league in scoring (18.8 points per game), first in rebounds (11.3 per game), first in steals (2.52 per game), and third in blocked shots (1.86 per game). Because of her brilliant play and impressive statistics, she became the first WNBA player to win three individual awards in the same year. She was the league’s Most Valuable Player, for which she received 25,000 and a new car, Newcomer of the Year, and the Defensive Player of the Year. In addition to these awards, Griffith was named to the women’s Olympic Dream Team, which will compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. She told David Steele of the San Francisco Chronicle about the pressure to follow up the 1996 team’s gold medal: “It’s a challenge. They kept a lot of the core players from the’96 team on this team. There’s a lot of pressure—not only for them, but for the new players. We have to protect what we’ve got…. It has to be gold. We can’t take home anything less than gold.”
Griffith traveled a long and difficult road to WNBA stardom. Despite the death of her mother, her unintended pregnancy at the age of 19, and her hard-scrabble existence in Florida, she overcame these obstacles and achieved excellence. As Griffith’s father, Harvey, told Don Bosley of the Sacramento Bee: “The average person, I would go so far as to say, wouldn’t have made it through all of that. But Yolanda’s determined.”
New York Times, July 6, 1999.
Orange County Register, December 5, 1997.
Sacramento Bee, September 2, 1999.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.wnba.com\features\yo_hoop_feature.html
—Michael J. Watkins
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