What if Skylar Diggins ’13 had committed to Stanford University at the eleventh hour instead of Notre Dame — a decision she came close to making? Seems a good time to ask, now that the Irish’s best-known female athlete, one of its best-known athletes period, is playing her final season for the women’s basketball team.
The most obvious place to seek answers is the women’s basketball team itself. Muffet McGraw, who has coached the Irish for 25 years, including the team that won the 2001 national title, puts Diggins at the top of her player list. That’s got to feel like validation, given that McGraw began courting Diggins in middle school.
Not only has Diggins, a three-time All-American, led her team to back-to-back national championship appearances with her considerable talents, game IQ and sheer will, she also has raised the profile of women’s college basketball with her magnetism on and off the court. “She is the face of women’s college basketball,” McGraw says.
It doesn’t hurt that the face is gorgeous and the brains behind it invite exposure. More than 275,000 people follow @SkyDigg4 on Twitter, making Diggins the most-followed NCAA student-athlete. Some unquestionably are drawn to Diggins’ fiery take-no-prisoners play, but many no doubt harbor a crush on the woman who makes a camouflage headband look like a fashion statement. “I don’t know if they follow me because they think I am good at basketball or they like Notre Dame or I don’t fit what they think a woman basketball player is supposed to look like,” Diggins says. “I love to play like a guy and look like a woman.”
McGraw calls Diggins the “whole package.” If her point guard had chosen Stanford, maybe the spot would have gone to someone equally well-rounded. Not likely, McGraw says. “I don’t know that we’ll ever have another player like her.”
The South Bend community is a good place to ponder the “what if” scenario, given that its members have followed Diggins’ basketball career — often in person — from her glory days at Washington High School to her highly anticipated final season with the Irish. Their social lives undoubtedly would have suffered had the hometown girl headed west.
While the Notre Dame student body is AWOL at women’s basketball’s games, South Bend turns out en masse, so much so that the Irish have ranked in the top five in NCAA women’s basketball attendance for three years running. In those years, the women have consistently outdrawn the Irish men’s basketball team. “Chicago had Michael Jordan, the west side has Skylar Diggins,” says Rev. Rickardo Taylor Sr., pastor of South Bend’s Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church. “She gave them a reason to enjoy Friday night or Tuesday night or Wednesday night, to spend a little extra money on life. When the economy turned so bad, this community still had Notre Dame girls’ basketball to pump them up.”
The women have yet to take the football team’s place in the community’s heart, Diggins says. “For now, football is Beyoncé and we are the background singers.” At the Martin Luther King Recreation Center, about 5 miles from the heart of campus, however, Diggins gets top billing. The kids who shoot hoops and take after-school programs there generally don’t see Notre Dame in their future. However, they do draw inspiration from the superstar whose stepfather runs the center and who first dribbled a basketball on the center’s hard court when she was 3 years old.
“I met some kids who thought Notre Dame was too far away,” says Taylor, referring to the economic distance between their world and the University. “Seeing her succeed allows them to dream.”
What about Diggins herself? Given her many gifts, she likely would have done just fine, more than fine, amid the palm trees and spectacular ocean views of Northern California. But unlike most Domers who go through their undergraduate years knowing little about the city that surrounds them, Diggins draws her strength from it. Her best friends remain the ones she grew up with. Her large extended family fills many of the seats at those home games. Her immediate family — her mother Renee Scott, stepfather Maurice and 14-year-old brother Maurice Jr. — has been her rock during the tough times. Yes, even Skylar has tough times.
“In the end,” says Diggins, who views basketball and life three plays ahead, “I couldn’t leave.”
Leading with fear
Late afternoon on a cold, dreary fall day, the men’s basketball team is practicing in the main arena of the Joyce Center. Down a flight of stairs in the building’s bowels, some amazing female athleticism is on display. To the right, dozens of members of the Notre Dame Women’s Boxing Club are getting ready to go at it. To the left, in the Pit, the women’s basketball team is going at it, too, albeit without gloves, during their second practice of the day. The Irish are coming off their best season ever — having closed last year 35-4, 17-1 at home where they knocked off No. 2 Connecticut in overtime. The team lost to Baylor University in the NCAA championship. It also lost three starters.
Diggins, whose giant personality more than makes up for her 5-foot-9-inch cut frame, is trying to mold the current crop of women into a team. As point guard, Diggins leads and directs play, much like a quarterback does in football. Diggins takes on an entirely different persona when she steps onto the court — intense, focused, driven, scary.
In practice, Diggins smacks her hands (with their meticulously dark-polished nails) and yells at botched plays. McGraw indulges her point guard’s pleas to run those plays again and again. “It is a completely different role for Sky to be mentoring younger players — to try to get them up to her level,” McGraw says.
After practice, Diggins sits down in a chair courtside and respectfully endures the bazillionth interview of her 22 years. She indulges every opportunity to plug Notre Dame and its women’s basketball team. At an internship with espnW this past summer, she masterfully worked in both while interviewing rapper and actor Ice Cube about his love of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Diggins uses her considerable Twitter following to tout the Irish. Asked if it is a huge time drain, she says it was at first but isn’t now. “The hardest lesson I had to learn is that not everybody wanted to see me do well.”
Diggins’ love of the women’s basketball team goes back more than a decade when she attended basketball camp on campus and got to know McGraw. The relationship between coach and player helped tilt the scale in Notre Dame’s favor. “Coach McGraw is so loyal to you, and she makes you want to be loyal to her,” Diggins says. “Every game I play, I play for Coach McGraw. I want to make her happy. I want to win for her.”
Diggins knows she can be downright brutal toward that end. “You have players like Brittany Mallory from our team last year who was more like the mom of the group. Me, I lead with fear, not love,” she says. “My teammates know I have their best interest at heart. I always tell them, ‘I apologize ahead of time if my delivery is messed up.’”
Being Diggins’ teammate is not for sissies, acknowledges Michaela Mabrey. Still, the freshman guard finds Diggins less intimidating than well-intentioned. “If she yells at us or gets in our face, we don’t take it personally,” Mabrey says. “She has been here four years, she is the best player in America, and we all want to learn from her.”
The team also appreciates that the person Diggins demands the most from is Diggins. “She is very, very, very hard on herself, which, in the end, is great,” Mabrey says. “She expects so much from herself, she will do everything in her power to come through.”
A star athlete’s boring life
Diggins, who keeps yawning, looks like she could use a little sleep. It’s dark out and she has been going full throttle for the past 13 hours. Notre Dame has been a good fit, she says. Diggins is not Catholic but appreciates the University’s faith-based mission. “Sometimes, I do go to Mass,” she says.
Her major, management-entrepreneurship, has honed her time-management skills.
From the outside, Diggins’ life, like her, looks pretty glam — a profile in Sports Illustrated, love tweets from rappers, trips to L.A. for the BET Awards and China for the World University Games. Diggins describes her life as “boring.” Today, it consisted of practice, class, food, practice and, soon, she hopes, more food and then bed. Other days she works in weights, study sessions, tutoring. Diggins lives off campus but could easily shuttle back and forth three or four times a day.
“People believe that student athletes are not held to the same standard. Here at Notre Dame, are you kidding me? We pull all-nighters with the other students.”
Diggins isn’t asking for sympathy. Part of her still can’t believe she gets to go to school for doing something she cherishes so much. “I am absolutely in love with basketball,” she says. “It is such a fun game to play. I love being challenged, competing against a good team, shutting down a great player. I love winning.”
Still, she talks about her desire to join the bowling or juggling clubs. “I couldn’t make it happen — I had practice,” she says. “And I would love to take some of those naps my Domer friends talk about.” She doesn’t seem especially eager to play Bookstore Basketball. “That can get ugly,” she says.
For all her hoop and star power, Diggins does not project an air of superiority. “She is humble, very humble,” McGraw says.
Consider: McGraw predicts that Diggins — poised this season to become Notre Dame’s leader in scores and steals — will be among the top three picks in the WNBA draft this spring. Diggins sizes up her chances as “probable.” “I am not the fastest. I am not the strongest. I’m sure not the tallest,” she says. “I have a lot of things I need to work on, to be honest. I have some talent but I’m also a little lucky.”
On the subject of her good looks, Diggins pivots the conversation to her mother. “She’s the beautiful one — all 5 foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’,” she says paraphrasing a line from the movie Rudy. “I’m just the poor man’s version of her.”
Where does the humility come from?
For Skylar Diggins, the answer is simple. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents, my friends, Coach McGraw. I understand that. I have to have humility.”
A trip to the Martin Luther King Recreation Center sheds some light on the yin and yang of greatness and humility that defines Diggins. Ninety percent of the kids who come to the center deal with absentee parents, drugs, poverty or other issues that characterize them as “at-risk,” says Maurice Scott, Diggins’ stepfather and the center’s director.
The center is also where Diggins fell in love with basketball, playing recreational league for a boys’ team. Today, Diggins still pops by the center for a pick-up game and to get to know the kids — the young girls come up just to touch her hair. “Skylar grew up here realizing that not everybody had the same blessings that she did,” her stepfather says.
Not only does Scott direct the center, he coaches and refs basketball.
He coached Diggins in some capacity all the way through her senior year in high school and gets much of the credit for making her the player she is. Like Diggins, he calls it how he sees it.
“I always felt that Skylar was a medium to above-average athlete,” he says. “Skylar is the best player I have ever coached in terms of understanding the game, wanting to get better and being coached. She put in a lot of work.”
Today, Diggins’ mother is at the center. Renee Scott typically avoids the limelight but has agreed to an interview. Diggins is right — she is a knockout, even in jeans and a white polo shirt emblazed with an ND logo. She also is good-natured, laughing when told how Diggins blamed her own bossiness and competitive streak on her mother. According to Diggins, the family had to play board or card games until their mother prevailed.
Sitting across from each other at a conference table, Scott is quick to praise his wife for keeping Diggins grounded and on course. “Mom was mom, she was not your friend,” Scott says. Mom has gotten a lot of press for the rules that governed her daughter’s life, including an 11 p.m. curfew her senior year of high school, a signed contract prohibiting anyone else from driving her car and a ban on the word “can’t.” “She never had any trouble following them,” Scott says.
Although Renee Scott loves basketball, it did not come first. “If your grades weren’t right, there was no basketball,” she says. “If Skylar didn’t have the grades, she would have never gotten into a school like Notre Dame.”
All that talk about Diggins leaving Notre Dame early to turn pro was just chatter, mother and daughter both agree. “I came to Notre Dame because I wanted my mom to have my diploma on her wall. I want to make her proud of me,” Diggins says.
In Diggins’ home, the division of labor was simple. Mom was in charge of the academics, stepdad the basketball. “Renee raised the academic bar and I raised the athletic bar,” Scott says. “No matter how high, Skylar exceeded them.”
“A lot of times to our surprise,” his wife adds.
A freshman slump
Her senior year in high school, Diggins had a report card of As and was named a McDonald’s All-American and Gatorade National Girls Player of the Year. College should be a cinch, Diggins thought. Like so many freshmen, she found it anything but.
She entered intending to major in pre-med, but calculus and chemistry double-teamed her. “I got Bs, but I had to scratch and claw to get those,” she says. She’d have to study harder, but when would she play basketball? She couldn’t even figure out how to fit in bowling.
Even now, Diggins, who will graduate with a solid B average even with all that hoop time, is hesitant to speak up in class. “I play against the best women college athletes in the country and I’m not intimidated at all. When I get in the classroom, God forbid I should say the wrong answer,” she says, then adds, “I do shine on presentation.”
That first year, basketball was another thing. The Irish were deep in returning talent, and Diggins sat on the bench. “I went in there with so much hype from the South Bend community, and now this,” she recalls. “Here I was. I had decided that Notre Dame was going to be the school that raised me into the woman I am today. I thought, dang, would this have happened if I had gone to Stanford?”
Her mom worried about the pressure, from the community and Diggins herself. “Honestly, I was always a little concerned about her staying here. What if she goes to Notre Dame and doesn’t live up to the expectations?”
The Scotts call that time Diggins’ “character-building year.”
“Thank God we were close,” her stepfather says. “We spent a lot of time on campus that first year, saying, ‘You’re okay. You got this.’ Letting her know people in the community were rooting for her, they wanted her to succeed.” It was only a matter of time before Diggins prevailed, her mother says. “She is just the most determined person you will ever meet.”
The Irish will play their cut. With any luck, they’ll surprise everyone — everyone except Diggins — and eventually go on to play for the national title in New Orleans.
Diggins is ready to move on, as in leave South Bend. “At this point, it is time to jump out of the nest and stop using my parents as a crutch. Then again, maybe I’ll get drafted by Chicago,” she says with a laugh.
Diggins wants to play pro ball even though the money isn’t great. She hopes to channel former Olympian and model Lisa Leslie, who won two WNBA championships with the Los Angeles Sparks before retiring in 2009. “What I admire most about her is her femininity — I think that is lost in our game. But she also would get dirty on you, shamelessly.”
If the WNBA doesn’t work out, Diggins sees herself before a camera as a basketball analyst or commentator. “I would love to work for ESPN,” she says, recalling the part of her internship shadowing SportsCenter’s Jay Harris and John Anderson. If that doesn’t work out, she’ll be calling on the Notre Dame network. “I could say I want to be a chef and someone would help me,” she says. “Of course, I’d need to learn how to cook better.” Long term, she says, she’d like to start a foundation. She’s long admired her stepfather’s work with the kids at the rec center.
Are Diggins’ parents ready to let go? “I am ready,” her mom says. Then her eyes well up. “A lot of people see the fierce competitor, but she is one of the most caring and giving people you will ever meet. I am confident in the woman that she has grown into. She will do well whatever she decides.”
Are South Bend and Notre Dame ready to move on? “We see those days are coming,” Rev. Taylor says. “I hope in the future that she does have some type of program to mentor young women — and men — to follow their dreams. But Mount Carmel will miss her. The west side will miss her. Her parents will miss her. But Notre Dame is going to miss her more.”
The women’s basketball team certainly will miss her. But Coach McGraw is interested to see what the future holds for her top player. “She’d be a great coach but she has bigger things in store for her,” McGraw says. “It is hard to predict her future because she is so much more than a basketball player.”
For now, the hometown girl is needed on the court.
Ann Hardie is a senior writer and editor at Habitat for Humanity International. She lives with her husband and two children in Atlanta, Georgia.