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U women's basketball: Big stage for Fox
- Article by: Dennis Brackin
- Star Tribune
- November 8, 2007 - 6:58 AM
When Pam Borton made a recruiting visit to the suburban Denver home of Emily Fox almost four years ago, the Gophers women's basketball coach was amazed at what she saw: Fox and her two younger brothers started tossing juggling pins in the living room.
"I felt like I was at the circus," Borton said.
Borton would soon learn it was just another day in the Fox household, where juggling, unicycling and sport stacking were as commonplace as shooting baskets in the driveway.
"My dad actually used to be a clown," Fox said.
Not the office practical joker but a real clown. Bob Fox performed at birthday parties, conventions and seminars, and his children were frequently planted in the audience, awaiting a call to the stage. The clown life was good for Bob. It's how he met his wife, Jill, a journalist who was assigned to do a story on Bob's clown business.
Emily Fox calls the performing skills "circus art" and almost certainly no other college athlete is more proficient in that area than the Gophers junior. She is the living legend of sport stacking, a world record holder at almost every age group on her way to adulthood.
She is not looking to shed her celebrity, only to change it.
"I'm hoping I can be a great basketball player who does sport stacking, not the sport stacker who happens to play basketball," she said. "That's the goal of mine. I think it's coming."
Borton is so convinced of it that she has started mentioning Fox in the same breath with former Gophers All-America Lindsay Whalen.
The 5-9 Fox has natural point guard skills, but the Gophers started using her on the wing and Brittany McCoy on the point last season, similar to the way Whalen rotated around the backcourt.
"We're going to use Emmy a lot like we did Lindsay Whalen," Borton said. "She's going to be on the wing so she can get shots, so she can get to the rim and do a little more scoring for us. But if we need Emmy on the point, she's going to play point."
Just like Lindsay.
Fox developed her point guard skills playing alongside best friend Abby Waner on Denver-area youth teams. Waner was the leading scorer a year ago for Duke, which spent most of the season ranked No. 1.
By the time the pair reached Denver's ThunderRidge High School, Waner was among the nation's top recruits in her class while Fox was drawing moderate interest. Borton liked Fox better than most, developing a bond with the family that paid dividends when Fox's stock rose the summer before her senior year. That's when Fox grew four inches and improved her scoring skills while apart from Waner, who made the national junior team.
"At first it was like, 'Oh no, Abby's not on the team, she's not on the floor,'" Fox said. "But that's when I really grew as a player and as a leader, because I didn't have to defer to her. I think that's where I started to go to the next level."
A number of Division I schools made a late recruiting push, but by then Fox said she was already sold on playing at Minnesota.
Comparisons with Whalen did not come instantly. Fox, although a fan favorite, averaged a little more than 10 minutes a game as a freshman and never cracked the starting lineup. As a sophomore she started all 33 games, averaging 12.9 points.
Borton's raised expectations for Fox are linked partly to the guard's growth this summer playing for the USA Pan Am team, which captured the gold medal in Brazil. The U.S. defeated Brazil 79-66 in the final before a crowd Fox said was so intense that the Americans were booed during the national anthem.
"I feel like I have more confidence," Fox said. "Mental toughness, I think, has been a weakness of mine, staying positive. I think I put too much pressure on myself, but I think that experience taught me that I can play at that level."
Room to grow
The transformation from legendary sports stacker to All-America basketball candidate is not yet complete. Fox still needs to improve her half-court offense and shed the pass-first mentality.
She stepped into a go-to scoring role a year ago when senior Kelly Roysland suffered a broken collarbone on Jan. 25 at Iowa. Fox scored 30 to lead Minnesota to an overtme victory that night and averaged 16.5 points in the next four games with Roysland out of the lineup.
"I think the biggest adjustment Emily has had to make in college is to think of herself as a scorer," said associate head coach Barb Smith, who coaches the Gophers guards. "Emily has always been deadly in the open floor ... but I think in the half-court setting she's been more inclined to pass up her shot and get the ball to somebody else. We've been working on her to take the shot and not pass it up. That's been a big adjustment for her. But I think when Roysland went out, it really hit home. She's there now."
The coaching staff is also imploring Fox to be a more vocal leader as one of the team's tri-captains, a number reduced to two on the active roster -- Fox and Leslie Knight -- because of the season-ending knee injury suffered two weeks ago by Jordan Barnes.
Fox sees progress there, too, although she admits being shy by nature, again perhaps because of her youthful training. Fox's father entertained by his actions, not his words.
"My voice is a little squeaky when I yell," Fox said, laughing. "I guess I have to lower my pitch."
Her teammates find some humor in Fox's quest to assume the mantel of team leader. Fox, they say, is quite simply too nice to take comfort in yelling at people.
"Emmy is one of those people who wants everyone to like her," said sophomore center Ashley Ellis-Milan. "It's hard, because I'm like that, too, so I understand. It's hard to yell at your teammates."
Knight said Fox is actually having an easier time becoming the go-to scorer than a vocal leader.
"She can lead by example all she wants because she works hard and goes out and makes plays that makes her teammates better," Knight said. "But as far as confrontation, and things like that, that's a little more difficult for her. But she's developing that, too."
Fox certainly has no fear of big stages or stardom. She has, after all, already appeared on numerous national TV shows by virtue of her sports stacking prowess, including "The Early Show,"The Ellen DeGeneres Show,"Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Best Damn Sports Show Period." Fox also has done a soup commercial in Sweden and is frequently recognized by young children during her basketball travels.
"No, I don't get tired of it," Fox said. "But it would be nice to be recognized as a basketball player, and not just the cup-stacking girl."
Borton predicts that will come very soon.
"I don't think we've even seen what Emily Fox can do on the basketball court," Borton said. "I think she's really going to blossom this year."
Just like Lindsay.
Dennis Brackin firstname.lastname@example.org
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