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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Remembering Polkey


She said goodbye to three of her closest friends, then went home for the last time — home to McKale Center.

Former UA women’s basketball players Joy Hollingsworth, Ashley Whisonant and Che Oh drove to campus together with Shawntinice Polk on Sept. 26, 2005. They all headed for class, except for Polk, who had been sick all weekend. She headed into the McKale training room.

The others thought nothing of it.

“”It wasn’t weird at all. It was just an everyday goodbye,”” Hollingsworth said. “”I put up my peace sign, and I was like, ‘All right girl. I’ll see you later.’ And she said ‘I’ll see you guys later.'””

Remembering the moment, Hollingsworth let out a long, deep sigh.

“”Walking to McKale Center is kind of like the best goodbye you could think of if you had to say goodbye to someone who loved McKale so much,”” she added.

Polk, the Wildcats’ most decorated player in program history, wasn’t supposed to leave this world as a 22-year-old. But that Monday morning she walked in silence down the circular corridor of McKale, where she would often yell “”Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy,”” to get Hollingsworth’s attention. Moments later she collapsed before the trainer, then passed away at University Medical Center from a pulmonary blood clot lodged in her lung.

Four years ago Saturday, the Wildcats’ spirits were crushed.

“”When you’re 19, 20, 21, 22, you’re not supposed to be thinking about dying,”” said Joan Bonvicini, UA’s women’s basketball coach from 1991-2008. “”You’re supposed to be thinking about living and about what you’re going to be doing in the next five, 10 years of your life. It was a life-changing experience.””

• • •

Polk cast a large shadow from her 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame, which was almost always completed with a large smile.

“”Polkey was bigger than life. She was like Shaq — big, funny, loud,”” said Bonvicini, who recruited the center when she was a sophomore in high school.

The youngest of seven children, Polk came to the UA after winning a Division II California state title with Hanford High School, and redshirted a year because of academic ineligibility that arose from a learning disability. While she waited to play, Polk dropped 80 pounds and got on the right track academically.

Hard work followed as she got tips on how to play in the post from ex-Wildcats and current NBA players Hassan Adams, Channing Frye and Andre Iguodala.

When she was able to play in games starting in the 2002-03 season, WNBA scouts salivated and the Wildcats flourished. They went from 14 wins during Polk’s redshirt season to at least 20 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of the three seasons she played.

“”I think the biggest thing about her on the court was that she was a team player,”” Oh said. “”She easily dominated the game, but she helped others like me to get better.””

Off the court, team spirits were high with Polk around to play the role of team prankster.

Once, with help from Hollingsworth, she shoved teammate Linda Pace in a locker, shut it and left. Then there was the time she went through her residence hall with Iguodala and Adams and covered everyone they saw in shaving cream.

“”She was jokes all day,”” Oh said. “”There wasn’t a time I was around her that I wasn’t laughing.””

But when Polk left, so too did Arizona’s smile, and its success.

“”The hard part was that people don’t understand — and they still don’t — just how much it affected the team,”” Bonvicini said. “”There are things you can’t talk about. … People have no idea of the things that went on and some issues were so hard.””

• • •

The UA athletic department has experienced tragic deaths before. In 1997, UA softball player Julie Reitan was found in her home, dead at 21.

In June 2004, incoming freshman football player McCollins Umeh died from hypoglycemia during a voluntary workout on campus. This summer Bill Wacholz, who played on the football team from 2004 to 2008, died in his sleep.

Just last month, Monica Armenta, Lute Olson’s former secretary, died from a brain tumor at age 40.

But Polk’s passing affected her team in such a distinct way. Arizona went 8-22 with a 3-15 Pacific 10 Conference record the season after Polkey died — a year that included Arizona’s first five-game losing streak since 1994-95. Arizona has won just 11 games in the past three seasons.

Team counselors worked with players for weeks upon weeks. Nearly a dozen players have left the program early since Polk’s death.

“”There were some players who had some problems — very severe problems,”” said Bonvicini, who was replaced by Niya Butts before the start of last season. “”I don’t know if it was the direct result of Polkey passing away. It brought up within them family secrets that had been deep down — buried deep down in, who knows — in their conscience.””

“”All kinds of issues came out because of this,”” Bonvicini added. “”I’m not here to blame anyone because I love Polkey. I loved coaching her and I miss her.””

• • •

The community was very supportive. When Polk passed away, the ASU women’s basketball team drove down and cooked the Wildcats dinner, and the rivals became sisters as they danced together.

Loyola Marymount presented Arizona with rubber bracelets that said ‘WE CARE,’ and Bonvicini’s office was full of flowers.

Oh got a tattoo on her back of an orange rose — Polkey’s favorite color — with her teammate’s name under it.

More than 1,000 people attended a memorial service for her in McKale, which only seemed appropriate: Her life was remembered within her home away from home. And now, as a new UA women’s basketball era still tries to rebound from her death four years ago, No. 00 hangs in the heavens of McKale Center, bringing smiles to all those who remember her.

“”She had a vibrant smile, a magnetic personality,”” Hollingsworth said. “”People were attracted to her and wanted to feed off her energy and her vibe. She is greatly missed right now, and the four-year anniversary is rather hard.””

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