LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- It wasn't until I noticed what happens around Angel McCoughtry when she returns to Louisville that I fully appreciated her place in the sports history of this city.
Watch her for very long and the little girls will start to congregate, eyes wide. She signs autographs, poses for pictures, talks to them, asks about their teams, what positions they play.
Even after WNBA road games, where McCoughtry's fierce on-court demeanor has made her player-most-likely-to-be-booed at many destinations, she's around for kids after the games.
But here in Louisville, where she played college basketball and transformed the University of Louisville women's basketball from an up-and-coming program to what now is one of the top attendance programs in the sport at any level, she means something more.
And now her glittering legacy in this city is gold-plated.
She posed with her gold medal after the U.S. women's basketball team won the final in the London Olympics on Saturday, and it's hard to imagine any athlete there having more fun. She has been all over social media, sharing pictures (with Lebron James, with Michelle Obama, with celebrities of all kinds) sharing stories. There's a picture of her biting her medal, others with fans holding her medal, still draped around her neck, posing for pictures.
Not since Mary T. Meagher has the city had a female athlete of such influence, and like Mary T. -- whose first-name fame and splendid accomplishment still ripples through athletics in this community -- Angel's influence figures to bounce for a long time.
McCoughtry came to Louisville with a lot of rough edges. She grew up playing against the boys in Baltimore. Her dad told her to come home at dark, "But that's when the really good games were just starting," she remembered. She butted heads with people quite a bit. She was an average student at best, and needed a season at prep school to become eligible to play in college.
On the court, there were outbursts, anger at coaches, frustration with teammates and officials. And none of it was hidden. All of it came exploding from the surface. It might be hard for some people to believe, but she's come a long way since then. Yes, she had to have her teammates escort her off the court when she refused to come out for a substitute during the WNBA Finals this year. But she says that fire stays between the line, and some of it, in fact, would draw less attention in the men's game than in the women's.
McCoughtry doesn't care. She headlined a Louisville team that lost only five games her senior season -- and three of those were to the blue-blood Connecticut Huskies, including in the NCAA championship game. When she went to the WNBA, she was drafted No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Dream. She took the franchise to its first playoff appearance as a rookie, and has had it in the WNBA Finals each of the past two seasons.
But it wasn't the warm, fuzzy side of McCoughtry that got her to this point. It is, thankfully, the side that fans got to see more than any other in London.
She hasn't taken the easy roads. So it seemed a bit strange for her to be a part of a team this packed with All-Stars. So packed, in fact, that she came off the bench. But McCoughtry was its spark plug in several victories, igniting runs with defense and rebounding, and bringing enthusiasm for a team of veterans, many of whom had experienced the Olympics before.
At one point during the Games, U.S. coach Geno Auriemma called her the "quickest player in the world."
In comments provided by USA Basketball, McCoughtry said after the medal ceremony: "I feel like I'm on top of the world. There is no greater feeling than this. I am going to wear my gold medal everywhere."
And that's not the only Olympic reminder she'll keep wearing. She said she plans to change her number from 35, the number she wore at U of L and has worn with the Atlanta Dream, to No. 8, the number she wore in the Olympics.
As for this city where her Dream blossomed into All-American reality, there ought to be a permanent reminder, as well. U of L athletic director Tom Jurich has been talking about a statue for years. Someday, that needs to become a reality. She is the first U of L athletics alum (though not the first U of L alum -- Dot Richardson, a grad of U of L's medical school won gold in softball) to win a gold medal. And her message to youth is one that is worth promoting.
Through her Angel McCoughtry Dream Foundation, mentors for young girls are identified and enlisted. She has identified the simple skill of setting goals as vital for young girls and kids of all ages, and works to spread that message through her foundation, encouraging kids to set goals related to education and particularly to SAT and ACT performance and financial education.
Her foundation is active in promoting exercise and diet in the life of young girls and women of all ages, and it funds classes to educate girls on the importance of abstinence from alcohol, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy.
If you've followed Angel for very long, you have no worries about her making the most or getting the most out of her gold medal Olympic experience, or celebrating it to the max.
But her achievement is reason for celebration here, as well. The city and university should do it up right.
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