For someone who relishes competition, who is obsessive about victory, whose identity frequently is defined by the cold judgment of a scoreboard, it’s a little amazing that Rachel Banham wanted no part of the most flattering, ingratiating competition a ballplayer can embark on: recruiting.
Even when her father begged.
“Notre Dame invited us to come for a visit, see a football game, tour the campus, take a look around,” said Don Banham, father of the Gophers’ All-Big Ten point guard. “I mean, let’s go, Rachel — when am I ever going to get to a Notre Dame game? Or Miami, with the palm trees, the warm weather. [They said,] ‘C’mon down.’ Sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to me. But nope. Nope. Not interested. She didn’t want to waste their time if she knew she wasn’t going there.”
That’s because the recruiting process, at least for this lifelong Minnesotan, amounted to two steps: 1.) Wait for the local university to offer her a scholarship. 2.) Accept.
“She always wanted to go to Minnesota. My dad would get frustrated — ‘Why don’t you look at some other schools, just to be sure?’ ” said Cole Banham, a running back on the Gophers football team and Rachel’s older brother. “But she wanted to be Lindsay Whalen. She always had a plan to come here.”
She did, and she’s glad. When Banham, now a junior, and her Gophers teammates open the 2013-14 home season Wednesday at Williams Arena against Charlotte, the Lakeville native will resume a college career that looks a lot like Whalen’s history-making run in the same building. Banham finished her sophomore season ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring (20.7 points per game, second nationally among sophomores), and in the top 10 in assists (3.9), steals (1.9), and free-throw percentage (.895).
All that’s missing is the results in the standings. Despite Banham’s brilliance, the Gophers have been mediocre in her first two seasons, going 6-10 and 7-9 in the conference, 19-17 and 18-14 overall.
“That part is hard. I don’t think I handle losing very well,” the 20-year-old said. “Better than I used to, but …”
But that’s not a standard that’s hard to beat. Banham remembers basketball as a combination of joy and misery when she was younger because she had become so competitive. Loved playing the game, adored trying to beat her opponents — and crumbled if she and her team failed.
“I remember playing when I was 7, and I would just cry whenever I lost a game, I got so mad,” Banham said. “I couldn’t figure out how not to be so super-competitive, and at that age, I’d cry out of anger. Playing was fun, but losing hurt so bad, it took me awhile to learn how to take it.”
That’s because everything was a competition at the Banham house, especially with her brothers Cole, one year older, and Blake, three years younger. They’d race to the couch, fight over the clicker, obsess over video games, even compete at the dinner table. And athletics? World War III.
“I didn’t like Cole much for a while, because everything we did was a competition. We fought a lot,” Banham said. They played dodgeball, tag, soccer, basketball, even football — Rachel was a decent quarterback, of course — “and I think we both were the happiest when we beat the other.”
Nowhere was Banham more at home than on the basketball court, however. Even at 7 years old, she had an innate aptitude that amazed her parents.
“You might not believe it, but when she first started in second grade, from the very first game, she was head and shoulders above everyone else. Fluid, confident; she could dribble with both hands, right from the start, and didn’t have to be taught to shoot,” Don Banham said. “We were like, ‘Wow. Where’d she learn that?’ Just natural ability.”
That talent quickly flourished, and by fourth grade she was playing on an organized traveling team. By eighth grade, she had a varsity roster spot at Lakeville North, and by her junior season, a state championship. The Panthers went 32-0 and Banham scored 25 points in the state title game against White Bear Lake.
If there was crying, it was for joy.
“It was so fun, the most fun I’ve ever had,” Banham said of that 2010 title run. “Our team was so good, we never stressed. I think we knew all year we were going to be undefeated. We knew it was going to happen.”
She was the Star Tribune’s co-Player of the Year for that season, then won the award outright as a senior, when the Panthers went 29-3. Recruiters called and wrote letters, which Banham collected in a box as keepsakes — but not as serious considerations. She was going to be a Gopher.
“As a parent, you want her to explore some other things. You’re exposed to life experiences, and you want to make sure they are, too,” Don Banham said of his attempts to get his daughter to consider other opportunities. “But at the same time, I was really impressed in the fact that she had made up her mind and was determined. It was never, ‘I can’t be away from my family,’ or ‘I’m scared to venture out.’ She just said, this is where I’m from. I was pushing her, but I was quietly respectful of her determination.”
Playing in a fishbowl
So was her new coach, obviously. Yet Pam Borton — in acquiring one of the most dynamic players in her program’s history, who became the starting point guard from the moment she set foot on campus — knew that staying home could present some obstacles for Banham, who seemed certain to become a star. Go play in another state, and you’re just part of the team. Stay at home, and you’re the permanent focus of attention.
“For her to stay home, it’s awesome. But there are a lot of expectations,” said Borton, entering her 12th season as Gophers coach. “Everyone’s watching, everyone knows her history. If you go away, you don’t have five million people watching you and critiquing every little thing you do. People don’t do that for out-of-state kids, but they do that for Minnesota kids. That’s the pressure that they accept coming here, so we have to make sure they have a good experience here. I try to be mindful of her stress level.”
In fact, Borton said, she has changed her coaching style to keep the game fun.
“My staff does a great job of getting on her, and holding her accountable, but I have to play a different role,” she said. “I’ve got to be the lighter one. I try to make sure Rachel’s having fun, because when she has fun, she plays really well. I try not to be too serious, and I put the onus on the rest of the staff to be the bad cop.”
Interesting choice of words, given that both of Rachel’s parents are police officers (though Don retired after 28 years with the Minneapolis PD to take a security job with the Vikings), and Rachel wants to be one, too. She’s majoring in the sociology of criminal deviance, not the usual star-athlete curriculum, with plans to be a detective someday.
But not until after basketball. Not until after she’s done competing.
“I have a lot of goals, a lot of things I want to accomplish. To finish at the top of the Big Ten, to play for a championship, to get into the NCAA tournament,” Banham said. “I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.”