Growing up in Oak Ridge, I learned quickly that the folks here love their high school athletics. All it takes is one trip to historic Blankenship Field on a fall Friday night to get a sense of how this town feels about sports.
However, recently it’s occurred to me that there has been a terrible injustice to one of our own. One of Oak Ridge’s most decorated athletes has gone relatively unrecognized to my generation.
Jennifer Azzi is the athlete I’m talking about. From right here in Oak Ridge, Azzi graduated and went on to play Division One basketball at Stanford. While at Stanford, she compiled a list of accomplishments that would impress any sports junkie. Helping Stanford to win their program’s first women’s basketball national championship, Azzi was also named Final Four MVP. While this alone should be enough for her to be celebrated around town, Azzi didn’t stop there. She was named the 1990 Naismith National Player of the Year, and for those who are unaware, that’s essentially college basketball’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. Azzi was also named Pac 10 player of the year for the 1989-90 season. She was a two time Kodak All-American for her play during the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons.
Azzi went on to be an eventual first-round draft pick in the WNBA draft.
And if that didn’t make your jaw drop, here’s the icing on the cake. In 1996, Azzi helped make not only East Tennessee proud, but her country proud as well when she and her teammates on the USA Women’s National Basketball Team won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta. Let’s face it, she wasn’t good; Jennifer Azzi was simply amazing.
Recently, Azzi has seen success as a coach as well. This year, she led the University of San Francisco to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1997. As the head coach at USF, she faced off against her former school as Stanford got the better of the Dons.
With all of these accolades, why is it that many people under the age of 30 that were born and raised here don’t know who Jennifer Azzi is?
After much thought, I’ve come to a conclusion. There hasn’t been enough done at Oak Ridge High School to show people just how great one of its alumni is. There are schools around that have never won a state championship. Meanwhile, we have an Olympic gold medalist that once walked the halls at Oak Ridge High School, and quite frankly, it seems as if we hide that. Why do we not show her and her accomplishments off? People all across the state know the legacy of Lady Wildcat basketball, but it’s about time they know the legacy of Jennifer Azzi.
I recently caught up with a few people very familiar with the history of Lady Wildcat basketball. First, I decided to speak with one of Azzi’s mentors. David Scott is a former head coach for the Lady Wildcats, and he was a longtime assistant to legendary head coach Jill Prudden. David Scott has worked with Azzi in the past, and he was extremely complimentary of her work ethic.
“She never sat around and wondered why she couldn’t do something,” Scott said. “She put her energy and focus into how she was going to.”
Of course, he talked about all of her accomplishments, but what stood out to me was how complimentary he was of the little things Azzi did. As we talked more, we discussed what could be done to honor and help bring to light the legacy of Jennifer Azzi. Scott liked the idea of possibly naming the lobby area near the arena after her. Another option he mentioned would be to put up a display in the trophy case for her.
I then spoke with Paige Green who just finished her first year as the Lady Wildcats’ coach by leading her team all the way to the state championship game. Green had a unique perspective because she spent some time around Azzi and actually played with her in a pickup game setting.
The respect for Azzi radiated out of Green, with the current Oak Ridge coach saying the following: “She was incredible and had a drive that made you appreciate her as an athlete. She was the player that I wanted to be like.”
When I asked her if she thought more could be done to pay tribute to her career, Green quickly responded: “I think she should be recognized way more. I’ll be honest…I bet the majority of my players don’t even know who she is.”
It was at this moment that Green confirmed what I am deeply concerned about. For someone to be so great and to come from right here in our town, there’s no excuse for the younger generation of athletes to grow up not recognizing a woman who is possibly the most decorated athlete to ever come through our school system. We need to use her as an example and an inspiration. We as a community shouldn’t continue to ignore her greatness.
David Clary, who is known as “The Voice of the Wildcats,” has seen many of Oak Ridge’s greatest teams and players. When I asked Clary if he felt that Azzi was under appreciated, he said, “I’m not sure if under appreciated is the right term, but I do feel that more should be done to recognize her accomplishments to her sport, to our city, and to introduce her to young people who can use her as a role model for how things should be done.”
Clary described Azzi as a great student, a great athlete, and also a great ambassador.
Here are a few things that could be done to honor Jennifer Azzi. One option, as David Scott mentioned, would be to name the area near the basketball concession stand after her. Another option would be to name the girls’ locker room after her, or even to put up a display in the school’s trophy case. While retiring her number might be a step too far in the mind of some fans, my next option might be a happy medium.
If you have ever gone inside the Wildcat Arena you have likely seen many banners commemorating certain teams’ accomplishments. What if there was just one more banner added? The banner could simply have “Azzi” with her number at the top. Underneath, the banner could read as follows: Two time All-American, Naismith National Player of the Year, National Champion, Olympic gold medalist. Underneath all of that, it would simply read “Lady Wildcat.” This would be visible to visitors, and it would be a source of pride for all of us in Wildcat country.
While I don’t have the answer for what exactly should be done to honor Jennifer Azzi, I can confidently say that I do know that something needs to be done. I hope that one day soon when people walk into Oak Ridge High School, they can learn of Azzi’s legacy. I also hope that future generations won’t have to stumble upon one of the town’s greatest athletes. My hope is that we as a community can show young people how they can make a positive impact in the world by using Azzi’s story as an example as well as a source of inspiration. So I ask, will we as a community take a stand? Let’s give just a little bit back to someone who gave us so much.
Alex Myers has been part of the crew at Prepradio.com, which broadcasts Oak Ridge Wildcats football and basketball games, and he is now an Electronics Media Communications major at Middle Tennessee State University.
Editor’s note: Azzi attended Oak Ridge High School from 1984-1986. As a freshman, she was at Jefferson before Oak Ridge Schools moved the ninth graders up to the high school, according to Clary.
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