STEVENS POINT, WIS. – As Janel McCarville sits under the homemade basketball hoop attached to the chicken coop on her farm in central Wisconsin, she mentions the assassination of her Moscow team owner while he was on his way to pick her up for a Beyoncé concert.
McCarville and her father fashioned the backboard from a tree trunk and 2-by-4s, and fastened a rim she bought for $2 at a garage sale. Now hung low on the coop for the benefit of her nieces and nephews, it is the rustic symbol of the self-made basketball player who has roamed the world so someday she will never have to leave home.
“This is what I work for,” she says. “So I can sit here the rest of my life.”
If not for that hoop, she might not have attended college, might not have been there to help lead the University of Minnesota to four NCAA tournament berths, including two Sweet 16s and the 2004 Final Four.
She might not have become the first pick in the WNBA draft, or played for a mysterious figure in Moscow, as well as teams in Slovakia, Italy, Spain and Turkey. She might not be reuniting this summer with former Gophers teammate Lindsay Whalen on the Minnesota Lynx, after a trade brought her to the only place she wanted to play following a two-year hiatus from the league.
McCarville and her father, Terry, hung the hoop on a barn, next to a 10-by-20 concrete slab, when she was about 13. When McCarville wanted to practice three-pointers, she shot from the mud, with chickens, cows and her father forming the audience.
It’s a long way from that barn to worrying about murders in Moscow, but the most complicated journey for McCarville was the one that brought her back to within a bounce pass of Whalen.
Unlike many of her teammates at Stevens Point Area Senior High, McCarville didn’t grow up playing basketball in youth programs. Her father never corrected her jump-shooting form and her mother, like the rest of the family, supported Janel because she wanted to play, not because they wanted her to play.
She lived in a tiny bedroom with no door off the kitchen of the small, ancient house on her father’s 160-odd acres of rolling Wisconsin farmland. She got on the school bus around 6 a.m., came home, did her chores and headed for the hoop.
“The first time I saw her, I thought, ‘Who is this big farm kid that wants to play like a point guard?’ ” said her high school coach, Kraig Terpstra. “She shot finger rolls. She preferred to pass. She was rough with her skills but had style in her game. She had many more instincts than girls who had been in our youth programs for years. She wasn’t one of those kids who did all the basketball camps and played because her parents wanted her to.
“Her house didn’t have cable, so she would hang out at the houses of her good friends on the team, so she could watch NBA games. She’s not only the most talented player I ever coached, she was hands-down the smartest.”
McCarville led her high school to the Wisconsin Division 1 state finals her senior year. Suddenly basketball wasn’t a hobby, it was a vehicle. Then-Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn recruited her and McCarville signed, not realizing the program was crumbling under Littlejohn’s bizarre behavior and NCAA violations.
“I had no idea,” McCarville said. “The girls I talked to on my recruiting visit were pretty tight-lipped.”
When Littlejohn was dismissed, McCarville and Whalen took the Gophers to the NCAA tourney under Brenda Oldfield, then went to the Sweet 16 and Final Four under Pam Borton. A program that finished 1-15 in the Big Ten before McCarville arrived was filling Williams Arena.
“They put Minnesota on the map,” said Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen, also a former Gophers basketball player.
“I get a lot of credit for that run, but Janel was our anchor,” Whalen said.
The WNBA’s Charlotte Sting made McCarville the first pick in the 2005 draft, and she entered the odd realm of elite female basketball players, who spend their summers playing in the WNBA and winters playing overseas, where they are paid and treated like stars.
The Sting folded in 2007, and the New York Liberty selected McCarville in the dispersal draft, after the Lynx passed on her. Having struggled with injuries and performance in Charlotte, she was named the league’s most improved player in ’07.
She signed with Spartak Moscow in 2009-10. Owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic, thought to be a spy and an underworld kingpin, was on his way to pick up McCarville for a Beyoncé concert in Moscow when two men strafed his car with automatic weapons fire.
“We were sitting there watching this on TV, watching them pull the body out of the car,” McCarville said.
Before signing with Moscow, McCarville played for a team in Slovakia. Her favorite memory might have been the night her team played host to a team from the Czech Republic featuring a point guard named Whalen.
After the game, McCarville, her father and Whalen scooted through snow-lined streets, found a pizza joint, drank a couple of beers, then wound up at McCarville’s place, playing PlayStation while Terry, as Whalen put it, “talked smack.”
“It’s funny to think about two girls from small towns, playing at the U of M together, then playing all over the world,” Whalen said.
In the spring of 2011, McCarville’s flight from Europe to the United States was due in on the first day of training camp for the Liberty. John Whisenant, then New York’s coach and general manager, told her she was required to report to camp immediately, threatening to fine her $1,000 a day until she arrived. She was suspended for 2011 and ended up sitting out that season and the next.
“With the Liberty, everything was good, until it wasn’t,” she said. “With the fact that getting fined $1,000 a day didn’t sit well with me given everything I had done for the organization, I kind of took it personal. The rest is history. I never played there again.”
She might never have played in the WNBA again if not for the events of this winter. The Lynx and veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin parted ways. Bill Laimbeer took over the Liberty and offered to trade McCarville. Months later, the Lynx, Liberty and Tulsa completed a three-way trade. McCarville was going to play with Whalen, for the Lynx, about four hours from home.
“The family will be making it to a lot of Lynx games this summer,” said Tracy McCarville, one of Janel’s brothers. “We always tried to see her play any time she came to the Midwest. Now it’s an easy drive for us.”
The deal faced obstacles.
“What we didn’t know was whether Janel wanted to play in the WNBA,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We did a lot of homework. I took a trip to Turkey. It was a long ordeal. Janel and I were in communication, because before we pulled the trigger we needed to know that Janel wanted to play, and I wasn’t 100 percent convinced after our first conversation.
“Once we got her, we knew we had to get her in shape. She hasn’t been in the league for two years. She didn’t necessarily keep her body in top form. Janel is a very good basketball player and a tremendous person. The question was, did she want to do this? Getting her over here before camp for workouts was important, and she wasn’t all that receptive to that idea at first. She loves that farm.”
WNBA players make an average salary of about $72,000 with a maximum of $105,500. Overseas, the best women players have made more than $1 million a season with lavish perks, although the death of Kalmanovic has lessened competitive bidding. Players such as McCarville can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in Europe.
There might be no other standout professional basketball player in the world who lives the way McCarville does. She drives a Cadillac and says her career earnings have enabled her to build a dream house on her property. For now, she resides in the old house, where her father, retired, sits on the front porch and waves to the school bus twice a day.
The heater is a wood stove.
“We watch the thermostat,” she said. “In the winter, we keep it at about 87 degrees in here. When it hits 90, we open the air conditioner. When it hits 75, we add more wood. And we use the humidifier.”
The air conditioner is the front door. The humidifier is a pan of water that sits on the stove.
In the living room, the heads of deer foolish enough to trespass within range of the McCarville brothers’ rifles wear party hats and overlook the one sign of modernity, the big-screen TV. The kitchen is rustic and probably felt claustrophobic before McCarville’s mother, Bonnie, took a sledgehammer to the old, low, ceiling.
Before Bonnie died, she and Terry split up their land among the siblings, who all still live adjacent to one another, where their kids can run over to Aunt Janel’s to draw pictures.
McCarville, 30, has turned one of the sheds into a workout room with a heated floor. She roars around the acreage on an ATV as her dog, Loki, sprints behind. She collects eggs from the coop and sits in a rocking chair on the front porch, sometimes wearing her Lynx sweats. For miles around, her relatives wear basketball shoes made by Peak, a Chinese company, bearing McCarville’s name, while feeding chickens and tending cattle.
“I had been wanting to take time off and be with the family, and unfortunately it came about at the expense of WNBA time,” she said. “But I got what I wanted. I lived it up.”
Lived it up?
“Yup,” she said. “I gained a little weight, but I got to go to all of my nephews’ football games and my nieces’ soccer games and spent countless hours playing ultimate Frisbee. I didn’t go to Hawaii. Being here was my vacation.”
Going to work
It’s Wednesday afternoon. Reeve and Petersen are coaching opposing teams in a scrimmage. McCarville is playing alongside U.S. Olympians Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore.
Whalen gets the ball to McCarville in the high post, then cuts back door. McCarville finds her with a bounce pass for a layup. For a Gophers fan, that moment would qualify as nostalgia. For Lynx coaches, it represents hope.
“I think Janel is going to be our Arvydas Sabonis,” Petersen said. “You remember, the great [Lithuanian] center who came to the NBA late in his career and could throw all those great spin passes? On this team, with all of our players who can score, defenses are not going to be able to focus on Janel. She is going to be a very nice chess piece.”
McCarville remembers leaving the floor after college practices with Whalen, the two discussing strategy all the way to the locker room. The conversations continue today, now that they are back on a court in the Twin Cities together, sharing basketball telepathy.
“I’m still surprised I’ve gotten to do the things I’ve done because of basketball,” McCarville said. “A good ending would be bringing a championship back with the Lynx. I would like to retire there. It’s great to be close to home.”