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Teresa Edwards: Georgian a pioneer in USA basketball

Teresa Edards in her Atlanta Glory days, relaxing in the locker room before a game against the Seattle Reign on February 13, 1997. AJC file
Teresa Edards in her Atlanta Glory days, relaxing in the locker room before a game against the Seattle Reign on February 13, 1997. AJC file

Credit: JONATHAN NEWTON

Credit: JONATHAN NEWTON

An Olympian’s golden journey to basketball glory

Teresa Edwards nailed a bike rim to a pine tree to create her first basketball goal.

It was there, in her grandmother's front yard with her brother, where the future hall-of-famer's basketball journey began.

"We thought we were at Madison Square Garden without knowing Madison Square Garden," Edwards told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That's where I learned to shoot."

Edwards, now 54, grew up in Cairo, Georgia, just as Title IX - the federal civil rights act that among other things, created equal opportunities for women to participate in sports - became law in 1973.

She didn't have other girls to play pick-up games with or youth leagues to play in -- unlike the players currently participating in this year's Women's NCAA basketball tournament.

But she stuck with it, no stranger to playing basketball with the boys.

Eventually, University of Georgia head coach Andy Landers recruited Edwards to play for him in Athens.

"I think Coach Landers at Georgia really defined the game for me," Edwards said. "I always credit him for my true understanding of how this game comes together, how it works, and how you take talent, athleticism and you blend it into skills."

At Georgia, Edwards was a two-time All-American, won multiple Southeastern Conference championships and competed in two NCAA Women's Final Four national semifinals.

While still in college she earned a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team and became the youngest women's basketball player to win gold at age 20.

Edwards ended her playing career at UGA in 1986--10 years before the WNBA was created. With no opportunities to continue her career in the United States, she took her talents overseas, spending almost a decade playing in Italy, France, Spain and Japan.

But she always came back to compete for the U.S. national team. She won gold in 1988, bronze in 1992 and gold again during the 1996 Olympic games.

In 2000, Edwards became the oldest Olympic women's basketball player to win gold, winning in Sydney during her fifth Olympic games. (If current rosters hold, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi will become the next players to compete in five Olympics for the U.S. But Edwards set the standard).

It's hard to pick a favorite memory, but representing the United States holds a special place in Edwards' heart.

"When you play for your national team, you wear USA, you stand on the podium, you look in the face of a player from a different country, you have just as much pride in your country and they would rather die than to lose just as much as you would,"Edwards said. "That tends to highlight what's truly special about being able to play basketball at the highest level."

Edwards is now a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

Growing up, New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith had a poster of Teresa Edwards on her bedroom wall.

The two would eventually become teammates on the 2000 Olympic basketball team and with the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx.

Smith, also a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, admired Edwards' competitiveness, attention to detail and her craft. But Smith noted Edwards' fire is what set her apart.

"She's a flat-out competitor," Smith told the AJC. "It is about 'I'm gonna do whatever I need to do on either end.' She has great size, but she can score it at will, pass it, and also defend. And she played the game, like all of it."

When her peers began to retire, Edwards continued to play professionally, competing in the WNBA during the 2003 and 2004 seasons with the Lynx.

"I didn't want to let that go," Edwards said. "Are you kidding me? Why would I quit? If you could feed yourself, make a living and take care of your family, why would you stop?"

Edwards has finally retired from playing but is still very much involved in the game. She is based in New York and embarking on new journeys: coaching, broadcasting, writing. She's working on multiple book projects, including one about her life, and she's teaching fundamentals at basketball camps and training high schoolers.

"Sharing the energy it takes to excel, sharing the energy it takes to grab a big rebound, get up the court, in a fast break," Edwards said. "Those things are beautiful to share right now. It seems like it took me a while to get here, and I think it took me a while to get here because I held on to playing for so long."

She travels back to Georgia and Cairo every chance she gets. Her mother still lives there and her brothers live nearby. It's the only place she considers home and a place she's proud of.

"Cairo, hey,"Edwards said to close out her Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2011. "We're in the hall of fame, baby."