NORMAN — Favorite Sooner of all time? Well, from my youth there’s Elvis Peacock, John McCullough, Kelly Snider and, just to make everybody from a different sport, let’s say Jim Begwin.
Only that’s not the way I think about it any more. I grew up on those names, but am now more discerning, with an eye for virtue I may not have exercised before my 15th birthday.
Anyway, I’m not a fan of athletes any more. I’m a fan of people and sports happens to be my beat, and for about 36 hours I’ve wondered if there’s anybody I’ve enjoyed covering more than Whitney Hand.
Can’t think of any.
Can’t think of any who received a rawer deal than her either.
Jason White tore the ACL in both his knees, but had the eligibility remaining to come back, win a Heisman Trophy and deliver the Sooners to the national championship game.
But this was Hand’s last season in crimson and cream, on a team she really liked, surrounded by experience and youth that really believed it was headed back to the Final Four.
Instead, the cards of fate are dealt randomly, leaving some a free ride and others too much pain, too many surgeries and too many rehabs.
Hand tore the ACL in her left knee Thursday night at Lloyd Noble Center. She planted, the knee gave way, what was to be a strong leap toward the rim instead become a fumbling flailing shot that had Hand reaching for her knee before the ball left her hand, screaming in pain before she hit the ground.
It’s not right.
It’s not fair.
It’s just the way it goes.
Has anybody played harder than Hand?
Well, Marc Clayton played really, really hard. I loved watching him run after the catch because he always seemed to have a plan or make one up in time to try something. He never caught the ball and kept running until he was tackled. Instead, he’d catch it, accelerate, make people miss and get as far as he could. It was like two different plays for Clayton, before the catch and afterward. Still, I don’t think he played harder than Hand.
Has anybody overcome as much as Hand?
Well, Clayton’s quarterback, White, is way up there, but even he never missed 401 days as Hand did after tearing the ACL in her right knee, before needing additional surgery requiring more months of rehab, before she returned, at last, Jan. 2, 2011, at TCU, where all she did after all that time off was go for 24 points and 11 rebounds, both team highs.
Has anybody ever endeared themselves quite so much to the Sooner Nation?
It’s hard not to go with Sam Bradford on that one, because football is football. Then again, if you adjust for scale, the answer is probably not.
They loved Eduardo Najera and loved Hollis Price. They loved Bradford and Gerald McCoy. They loved Stacey Dales and Courtney Paris. They loved Geoff Geary and Casey Bookout. Yet, pound for pound, I don’t think any Sooner athlete since I started taking notebooks to games has been more adored than Hand.
Why is two-fold.
One, she’s terrific. Terrific to deal with, terrifically thoughtful when answering questions, terrifically motivated and down with the process of being an athlete, teammate and student of the game.
Two, she has delivered in a way no other Sooner has delivered, probably in any sport, since the millennium turned over. Because she simply did everything.
In the last game of last season, OU’s 74-70 elimination loss to St. John’s, Hand finished with a team-high 17 points (on only four made field goals), a team-high seven rebounds and a team-high seven assists. All of that despite the fact she’s closer to 5’11” than the 6’1” she’s always been listed at, and plays guard, but not point guard.
As a freshman, she appeared poised to become a bomber, a 3-point specialist in the mold of Erin Higgins, but with greater gifts than Higgins. Like Brent Price was for Billy Tubbs, I thought Hand could be for Coale.
Instead, she became a mad filler-upper of the boxscore.
Just this season, Hand led OU in rebounding against Creighton, UCLA, St. Louis, Arkansas and Marist, scored in double figures in 6 of 8 games before getting hurt and dished out at least four assists in 4 of 8 games before getting hurt.
And, as nice and real and forthcoming as she has always been, it’s not like she’s been afraid to shake things up, too. Before playing Pat Summitt and Tennessee at the Ford Center in 2009, her freshman season, this was Hand’s take:
“We want to kill Tennessee … And we want to beat them not just by two,” she said, “but by 30.”
Hand hit 8 of 9 shots, scored a game-high 20 points and the Sooners beat the Lady Vols 80-70.
The night the Sooners lost her, not in spirit but on the court, OU prevailed 71-68 over North Texas.
Hand had scored only three points, but she’d already grabbed five rebounds and dished two assists, well on her way to filling another boxscore.
So great the loss, Coale was blown away by her team’s simple ability to put one foot in front of the other after Hand fell screaming with 1:58 remaining in the first half.
“I have no words,” Coale said.
At least the Sooners are left with an example. And one more voice in their ears, one they best respond to, or really hear about it back in the locker room, or maybe in the middle of practice.
Hand’s going to have a hard time filling up the boxscore now, on crutches or in a brace, in real clothes and not a uniform, looking on from the Sooner bench. Still, OU will be better if only for having her around.
Whitney Hand’s always found a way to make her team better. One way or another, don’t think that’s about to stop.
Clay HorningFollow me @email@example.com