Wendy Palmer remembers the cars parked all over the yard on weekends at her family home in Timberlake, N.C. "The yard was packed, full of people playing," she says.
They parked everywhere but under the hoop or in her dad's garage. That was one of the four rules her father had. Melvin Palmer, the Baptist minister, had to be able to get into his garage when he came home. And there was no cursing, smoking or drinking in the yard where friends and relatives gathered to play basketball all day long.The hoop was put up when Melvin Palmer found out his daughter liked playing basketball, but the crowd wouldn't let young Wendy play. "Never," she says. "Sometimes I would go get the ball and just take off across the yard.
"I would go in the house, crying, `They won't let me play.' My father would be so tired, but he would lace up his shoes and say, `Come on,' " she says softly. "There would be maybe two people left, but we would stay out there for hours." Sometimes it was just the two of them, Melvin, nicknamed "Pojo," telling his "baby girl" she could do things she didn't think she could. "It was always me and my dad," she says. "You realize you can do it."
Her lingering smile proves that's one of Palmer's favorite memories as she sits courtside at the Delta Center following a Utah Starzz practice, talking about the broken toe that frustrated most of her early season and how she's coped with that and being away for months at a time from home in North Carolina and Virginia, where she is the only person besides Ralph Sampson to score 1,000 points (1,918) and 1,000 rebounds (1,221). Her number was retired in January.
"Those are the moments, when I'm down and out now, that I look back on. Coming back from the injury, thinking about those moments, and I realize I can do it," she says.
Palmer has a wealth of memories from which to draw.
Like when her father wanted her to join a pee wee basketball league, but what she really wanted was to be a cheerleader. She agreed to try it but said she wouldn't stay if she didn't like it.
Like the coach who saw potential and helped Palmer realize that, at age 11 with size 11 feet, she was "a little different, a little touched by God" in size and skill. Like her dad, that coach "took time with me," she says.
Like the way boys her age conducted their own dunking clinic for the young track star who could run and high jump. They had her trying to dunk over and over, giving her pointers on technique each time until she finally threw it down. "I did it. Wow. Oh, my," she recalls thinking, but, "I was in pain." She strained arm muscles hitting the rim, and coming down hard from that height is tough on the body. She doesn't try it any more.
And there's her Russian history professor at Virginia. Palmer made the subject her minor, enthralled and inspired by the teacher. "He made me want to learn more about it. He was from Russia. He played soccer." She found it fascinating hearing about Russian history and that country's racial barriers and sports from him. "It's one thing to learn from history books, but the actual person that went through it and can tell you and share their life experiences means much more. You're seeing it through their eyes," she says.
Though interested, she doesn't press Russian teammate Elena Baranova or her interpreter, Maxim Morozov, for information because it's personal.
Palmer also takes solace in big dreams. She plans to get a master's in English and a doctorate in African-American studies so she can make a difference in the world. Growing up in the South with a father who was the local NAACP president for 11 years, Palmer saw racial struggles up close. "All people need to be educated on African-American history. The key is knowing," Palmer says.
"Not just African-American history, but history in general," Palmer says. "Before you can know where you're going, you have to know where you came from."
She wants to teach black studies. "Or be a coach. I haven't decided," she says.
There's so much that interests her. "I'm simple but yet very complex," she says. She'd like "to lose myself in New York City," feeling kinship with the bustle and diversity.
She also talks of the "fairy-tale wedding with a big gown" that she very much wants and of wanting to have children some day. But she's not actively searching; mistakes are made that way, she says. Her strong religion tells her the right person will come along when it's time.
For now, Palmer calls professional basketball her "significant other."
She's in love with the game that brought her to Utah for two summers, that took her to Spain, Hungary and Brazil. She wants the WNBA to grow. Till recently, American women couldn't play pro ball in their own country.
A second-team All-WNBA selection last year when she averaged 15.8 points and led Starzz rebounding (8.0), steals (1.8) and minutes (33.4), Palmer, 23, came to May training camp in marvelous shape. Then she broke a toe.
If it were a six-month season, she could have taken time out, but it's a two-month season. "It was very upsetting. I had come in really focused on being in great shape," Palmer says.
Hobbled and losing some of that wonderful conditioning, Palmer lost her starting job to Elena Baranova, who moved from center when the Starzz selected 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek with the first pick of the WNBA Draft. Palmer knew her role would change with Dydek, but the injury made it more drastic. Then last week's Achilles tendinitis sidelined Baranova.
Palmer started July 8 against Eastern Conference leader Charlotte in the Delta Center and Saturday at Houston against the league-leading Comets and nearly led two upsets. Without Baranova and Tammi Reiss (sprained ankle) vs. Charlotte, Utah was down one with 2:41 to go before losing 77-69. Palmer scored a Starzz-record 30 points with a game-high eight rebounds. At Houston, Utah was down one with three minutes left and fell 72-68. Palmer had 22 and 10. Monday, with Baranova back, Palmer scored Utah's last 10 points in a home loss to Detroit. She had 19 points, nine rebounds.
That's 71 points, 27 rebounds, 27-for-52 shooting and 17-for-23 free-throwing in three games.
"She had a chance to establish herself again," says coach Denise Taylor.
In a way, it was a little like the way her brother and his friends eventually accepted Wendy and let her play. "But that didn't mean I would get the ball," she says, laughing quietly.
The way she's come back the past few days, it's been like Palmer snatched the ball away from them and ran across the yard with it again.