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Stanford women’s basketball team proud of program’s nerd legacy
DENVER – Albert Einstein. Bill Gates. Urkel. The professor guy from "The Simpsons." That guy in the cubicle behind you that watches "Dr. Who" all day long.
And the Stanford women's basketball team.
Yep—that's a whole bunch of nerds.
"Playing basketball at Stanford … you can't really describe what it does to you. You just realize you're a nerd," Candice Wiggins, the former Stanford standout and current Minnesota Lynx rising star, told me.
"For whatever reason, it's unique to Stanford."
In the movie "Revenge of the Nerds," the Tri-Lambs set out to take control of the Greek Council by winning the annual Greek Games. When Candice was at Stanford, "Revenge of the Nerds" was more than an (awesome) movie from the '80s, it became a battle cry, and it carried to them to their own version of a Greek Games title.
Throughout the '90s, it looked like Stanford women's basketball would be a powerhouse for years and years to come, winning multiple championships with ease. After their second national title in '92, it wasn't a question of if head coach Tara VanDerveer would win another title, but how soon.
It's been 20 years.
Sure, now they're making history with a record-tying fifth straight Final Four appearance, but from 1998 to 2007 there were no Final Four appearances. There was no third championship.
That's when Candice Wiggins led a group of self-proclaimed and proud nerds to their revenge in 2008, sparking the first of five consecutive regional titles.
And they didn't even have to dress up like Devo to do it.
At Stanford, it's not weird to have a multitude of interests outside of basketball - in fact, it's encouraged. This year, Tony Kokenis told head coach Tara VanDerveer that she wanted to play in the school band.
"That's just part of being at Stanford," VanDerveer told media on Wednesday. "She really is kind of a quintessential Stanford athlete in that it's not just about studying, it's not just about playing basketball."
[ Related: Stanford eager for Baylor’s big challenge ]
It's not just about playing basketball.
How often does a head coach say that?
And ironically enough it's this understanding of where sports is prioritized at a school like Stanford that gives the women's basketball team strength.
I asked Candice if the mentality of being a nerd, of having varied interests and of taking schoolwork very seriously translates to the court.
"Absolutely. [This year's team] is embracing it. We feel like we have this thing to prove that nerds can play sports and be cool."
Nerds are certainly in good company at Stanford. Before this Final Four streak, there was a Nobel Prize for Physics streak: three in a row for physics, from 1996-98. But Prof. Douglas Osherhoff probably wasn't driving the lane or pulling up for fadeaways - well, maybe on a quantum level, but certainly not in the same way this year's women's basketball team has.
Sisters Nnemkadi (nicknamed, "Nneka") and Chiney Ogwumike have clearly embraced the "Revenge of the Nerds" mentality that Candice Wiggins and co. left behind. Just take one look at Nneka's Twitter profile, and you'll see hashtags such as #NerdUp and #NerdNation. She even sports a pair of nerdy glasses in her background picture.
In fact, the Ogwumike sisters are so proud of the Stanford-nerd legacy, they even produced a song and music video about it, "Nerd City Kids."'
Athletes at Stanford are just different, especially on the women's basketball team. They don't fit the stereotypes of what a five-time Final Four basketball team ought to look like. Recruits don't come to play for Tara VanDerveer just because of her basketball pedigree. Recruits go to Stanford because it's - well, because it's Stanford.
"I think really the decision [for Nneka and Chiney] to come to Stanford was a family decision," VanDerveer says. "Both of Nneka and Chiney's parents are very high on education, and the quality of education that they would get at Stanford fit the profile they were looking for academically and athletically. We recruit hard anywhere that has great players that [also] have great academics."
So it's not lie. At Stanford, despite the titles, despite 25 straight years making the tournament, despite five straight Final Fours, despite being the school that ended UConn's 90-game win streak, despite having one of the most respected, dedicated and decorated coaches in the sport - it's really not all about the basketball.
By recruiting players that have a sense of the larger picture, that are dedicated to academics and interests outside of basketball, VanDerveer has built a program where players care deeply about their team - maybe even more than, some would say, players at other programs where basketball consumes daily life.
"When I was going to Stanford I made sure that every single day that I was playing for Tara I would enjoy it, no matter what," Candice says passionately. "We didn't win a championship when I was there, but we died trying. And I think that's the feeling that each team, since I left, has taken on."
All this nerdiness - and the pride associated with it - might be VanDerveer's secret weapon this year.
Anyone who watches "The Big Bang Theory" knows that nerds work hard. The Stanford women's basketball team might not have a 6-foot-8 player dominating national headlines, but you can be sure they will have every detail, every statistic, every possible way they can attack Baylor figured out well before Sunday. It will be logical and data-driven.
The Nerd City Kids, just like coach VanDerveer, love to geek out on stats and data, in particular over scouting reports.
"A huge thing for the basketball players is knowing the scouting report," Candice says. "It's like, 'Wow, look how well Susie knows the scouting report.' And everyone's like, 'I wish I knew the scouting report better than Susie.'"
This Stanford team will push one another and fight over who knows the scouting report better, who spent more time perfecting their free-throw shot, who knows all the insane specific details and data that coach VanDerveer has drilled into their brains in preparation for meeting up with favored Baylor—and that competition can only help them.
As Candice says: "Competition is healthy, especially when it's based in love."
"Revenge of the Nerds" was about love. Someone had to love Booger, right? It didn't seem like you really could, but he ended up pulling through when it mattered most and showing why he was a valuable member of the team.
This Stanford team, like the one that sparked this insane, record-tying fifth Final Four run, is also about love, and from that love comes trust.
Trust that this is one of the all-time greatest coaches in women's basketball history.
Trust that the person next to you knows the scouting report as well as or better than you.
Trust that the nerds will unite, they will pop and lock and play an electric violin (or at least hit free throws and disrupt the defense), and ultimately, trust that the nerds will prevail.
And as Candice Wiggins pointed out to me: "That's how you beat a Goliath."
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