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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

There's a bit of a debate going on in the arena of women's college basketball and it's an interesting dilemma. The issue is male players brought in to heighten the quality of practice sessions. It started back in the 1970's when legendary University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was evidently the first coach of a high-powered women's team to have guys practice against her first string. Coach Summitt recruited men on campus who had played a good level of high school hoops but weren't good enough, or big enough, to make a Division I men's squad. Not only did Coach Summitt theorize that her women would be all the better for getting physical against faster, stronger, bigger male players but she could outline an upcoming opponent's strategy for the men and they had enough experience from high school programs to execute that strategy in the practice sessions and, hence, the women would be thoroughly prepared once they got running against that particular team.

What works for a winner winds up being quickly adopted around the horn. Several of the upper-tier basketball schools in the '70's started following Summitt and brought men in for practices. Today, it's not only common for Division I women's teams to use male practice players but many coaches of the top women's teams feel the men are the key factor in raising the level of their players to the next plateau.

At first blush, it all makes sense. Serena Williams is Down Under at the moment, making a comeback from her nagging knee injury at the Australian Open. The hitting partner who travels with her is a man, a former men's tour player from Turkey. The top women tennis players all have male hitting partners. They are the best in the world and they need players quicker and stronger than they are to improve. Any women they would choose to practice with would not be as good as they are.

Following the same line of logic, the starters on any top college women's basketball team need players better than themselves to improve. That means men. If they constantly scrimmage in practice against the next five on the team, the bench players, they will always dominate, rarely be challenged.

But here's where the debate heats up. Those next five players, what are they doing while the men are dashing up and down the hardwood in practice? They are scholarship players, good players. They are striving to come off the bench when needed and become starters. They are the youngsters who need to come up to speed when the senior stars graduate. The Ohio State coach, for one, finds the use of male practice players demoralizing to his bench. They have limited practice time to start with, as the starters take the lion's share of floor time when it comes to hard-core game preparation. So to then stand around while men push the starters basically means that the starters grow while the bench atrophies.

It's a win situation for the men. They feel part of the team and take pride in whatever factor they play toward the team's success. It's a win situation for the starters. Once you've been ramming into a 6'5", 210-pound man, and pressing to beat him to the basket, posting up against a slightly slower, smaller player in the next game should seem like taking candy from a baby.

But a basketball team never builds a successful season with five players. It's that bench, the depth of a team, that makes for wins over the long haul. Stanford University and past Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer appreciates the positives of using male practice players. Coach VanDerveer also says using men too much, to the point of eating into the morale of her bench players, can't be good for the team as a whole.

It's tricky this male practice player thing. It seems a coach has to draw the line just right. Bring in the men for key practices to benefit the starters, yet don't overuse them so the bench can get in their valuable time….and respect.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.


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