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.