The difference was that basement.


Design by Marissa McClain

That basement was the catalyst for the maniac work ethic, the heart and the dreams. That cramped, dark, concrete jungle played out scenes of game-winning jumpers, clutch free throws and physics-defying, straight nasty crossovers that left her invisible opponents shaking their heads. That cold, dirty expanse of concrete was where Courtney Boylan was pure insanity, the best point guard alive.

Her invisible crowds would roar with delight as she crossed over defenders and hit fadeaway jumpers on that old, cheap plastic hoop.

It was the Pantheon of basketball courts to Courtney. The partial drywall, incomplete light fixtures and projects that never were finished became the staple of this concrete wasteland that was heaven for the little blonde girl from Chaska, Minn.

And without the basement — that unfinished basement — who knows where Courtney would be now.

As early as second grade, Courtney spent hours upon hours playing basketball in that cellar, firing away shot after shot, perfecting crossover after crossover. In that dim basement, Courtney fell in love with the game. Whenever Molly Boylan would see her daughter, there was normally a basketball in her hands.

At age 10, Courtney decided she had enough of just shooting and asked her mom if she could start working out with a former University of Minnesota guard Mindy Hanson. At an age where most girls are busy playing house, Courtney decided she needed to vamp up her workouts.

“She loved working out, she loved training and shooting,” Molly said. “It was one of those weird things where it was like, ‘You’re so young, I don’t want you to do this,’ but she just really, really loved it.”

As a seventh grader, Courtney became one of the first girls in the history of Minnesota to play high school basketball. As a 13 year old, she was the starting junior varsity point guard at Chaska High School, taking on girls three years older than herself, and her coaches were receiving hate mail for playing her.

The following season, to everyone’s surprise but her own, the not yet 5-foot-5 Courtney not only made the varsity team, but became the starting point guard at the ripe old age of 14.

In her five years as Chaska’s starting point guard, Courtney left a career as legendary as they come. She remains the school’s all-time leading scorer, finishing with over 2,000 career points. She also set the record for most 3-pointers in a season (212), as well as most points in one game (43).

She never took a day, game or possession off — earning the respect of not only her town, but the towns around her. The opposition hated playing against her, but her charisma and never-back-down mentality made them respect her to the point where she would make friends all over the county.

“We would go to other schools to play opposing teams and half of their student body would know her as a friend,” Chaska coach Tara Seifert said.

In her final season, Courtney made two free throws with three seconds left in a game that sent the Hawks to their first state playoff berth in 10 years.

A few weeks later, Courtney won the prestigious Minnesota Miss Basketball award, capping off an illustrious high school career.

“She’s the best example I have for current players,” Seifert said. “From her work ethic to her positive attitude and her leadership, she’s one of those kids where I truly felt blessed to have her in the program. She always just a kid that had no fear on the court, and you almost respect her even more now because you realize how special of a kid she was.”

* * *

Courtney had originally shown interest in other college programs, but ultimately fell in love with Michigan and the program after she visited the school.

On her recruiting trip, she visited an empty Crisler Arena late at night after a football game. Just former Michigan guard Krista Clemet, current forward Carmen Reynolds and Courtney were exploring the arena, but they eventually settled into a game of PIG. The gym was dark, with only a few spotlights, while Courtney took her first shots in her future arena.

Courtney was back at home, shooting baskets in the dark shadows, surrounded by concrete. She was back in the basement, where nothing but putting the ball in the basket mattered.

There are no rules or standards in the shadows of concrete. She was once again the best point guard around, back at home in the basement she spent so many hours in.

She felt the invisible crowds watching her every move, while she made her invisible defenders look foolish. She was back in her Pantheon, her place of comfort. Crisler, the basement, became home.

“She was standing on the court, and just thought, ‘Yeah, this is where I want to be,’ ” Molly said.

* * *

In 2008, when Courtney arrived at Michigan, she was looking to make her mark on a rebuilding program with a first-year coach, Kevin Borseth. The Wolverines featured a lot of veteran talent, including guard Jessica Minnfield, so Courtney knew she would be coming off the bench for her first season.

Her start to the season, though, was anything but rookie-like. In her second collegiate game, she scored a team-high 18 points in a road win against Kentucky.

“I think (Borseth) just put me in there to see what would happen,” Courtney said. “I wasn’t thinking. I think that was the key. You expect to be nervous, but I just wasn’t thinking.”

In Courtney’s freshman year, she worked hard enough to become the second or third option off the bench, getting around 16 minutes a game. Courtney was only a freshman, but the foundation she set in her first year made the future look bright.

With Minnfield graduating, Courtney expected that she would take a much bigger role her sophomore year. But with the emergence of stud freshman guard Dayeesha Hollins, who was eventually named to the 2010 All-Big Ten Freshman team, Courtney’s plans were derailed.

She still got minutes, but in effect she became a cheerleader. In a sophomore season where she thought she would be starting, she ended up grabbing just 11 minutes a game — even less than her rookie season. Courtney was the first option off the bench, but she didn’t start a single game.

“It’s always hard, because you want to be a part of the reason your team is winning and you want to be out there on the floor,” Courtney said. “You come in and you work so hard and you want to be part of that team.”

The Wolverines got all the way to the WNIT semifinals that year — one of the most successful seasons for Michigan women’s basketball in recent history — and the future of the program seemed promising.

Shortly after, though, it was announced that Hollins would be leaving the program, as she cited homesickness. She transferred to the University of Cincinnati, leaving a flurry of questions about the future of the program and the upcoming season.

She also left a gaping hole that seemed perfect for the 5-foot-7 guard from Minnesota.

* * *

Coming into this season, Michigan had four upperclassmen — and only one senior. Suddenly, Courtney, now a junior, became a veteran for the incredibly young roster, even though she had started a grand total of one game.

Over the summer, Courtney spent four days a week working out with a player development trainer from the WNBA’s Washington Mystics to prepare for the season. She worked on her strength and conditioning, but more importantly she spent a lot of time playing against men. She developed a much better understanding of how to drive against much larger and stronger opponents, which improved that aspect of her game drastically.

During Big Ten media day, Borseth named Courtney his starting point guard outright, effectively placing the responsibility of replacing Hollins squarely on her shoulders. After two years of waiting, it seemed that Courtney had finally gotten her opportunity.

It didn’t work out that way, though, as Courtney started the year off in the same place she had the previous two seasons — the bench. The Wolverines didn’t start a true point guard, as sophomores Jenny Ryan and Nya Jordan, and senior Veronica Hicks, all brought the ball up the floor. The Wolverines’ only true point guard was on the bench next to Borseth, unsure of her role.

Courtney was forced into the responsibility of having no stability whatsoever in terms of playing time, not knowing how many minutes she was going to get on any given night. Against Kansas on Dec. 9, she played 19 minutes. Four days later, against a much weaker New Mexico State team, she played just nine minutes. She kept working, hoping from her familiar seat on the bench that sooner or later she would get her opportunity.

“She was one of those kids that worked while she waited. I’m not sure every one of them do that,” Borseth said. “Matter of fact, probably a greater majority of the kids don’t do that.”

She got that opportunity in the first Big Ten game of the season against Ohio State, in the form of Jordan’s knee injury. Since then, Courtney has been a catalyst for Michigan’s success, both through her play and through her leadership.

The following game — the first game of 2011 — Borseth gave his diminutive point guard the start, only the second of her Michigan career. Courtney walked onto the floor with a bit of a swagger, unafraid of the challenge. She played like she had been starting all season, leading the Wolverines with 18 points in a career-high 37 minutes of play.

Courtney made Iowa defenders look foolish at times — finishing at the rim amidst a swarm of towering defenders, most notably the 6-foot-5 Morgan Johnson.

She sparked the Wolverines when they needed it most, and led them to an impressive third-straight win over a ranked opponent. After the game, Borseth called her the “difference in the game,” using the word “outstanding” to describe her night.

The high school star did what she was supposed to, leading her college team to victories, unabashed by the big stage. This is what a former Miss Basketball is supposed to do, because there are expectations that come with such a title.

After directing the win over the Hawkeyes, Courtney never slowed down, and her impact has been extraordinary for the Wolverines’ season.

Coming off the bench, Courtney averaged 14 minutes, nearly four points and a little over one assist per game. Since being thrust into the starting role, she has averaged 30 minutes, 10 points, and almost two assists per game in the regular season. She is rarely a liability on the defensive end, despite her height, because her feet never stop moving. She has energy for all 40 minutes — and then some.

Courtney has not just been a spark plug, but she has also taken on a leadership role that she has sought since arriving at Michigan. Whenever there is a break in the action, it is Courtney in the middle of the huddle, making sure everybody knows what is going on. Every other player has to look down at her to make eye contact, because physically she is small, but emotionally she commands the attention of the entire huddle.

“Sometimes I look at pictures or I look at film and I’m like, ‘Hey that’s not me, I don’t look that small out there do I?’ I know that sounds crazy, but I really don’t feel that small,” Courtney said. “There definitely are certain things I have to do differently, but to me, on the inside, I don’t feel that small.”

Simply put, she is not small because she doesn’t feel small. Courtney is listed at 5-foot-7, but she walks out on the court as if she possesses the height of her roommates, sophomores Rachel Sheffer and Kate Thompson, both 6-foot-4.

Her height doesn’t seem to be a big deal to her, because she doesn’t think of herself as small.

“Courtney is tough,” Molly said. “Her height has never really been an issue.”

* * *

On Feb. 19, 2011, Michigan was on the road against Wisconsin. The team was in fourth place in the Big Ten, one game behind the Badgers for third, so this was a crucial game for Big Ten Tournament seeding, as well as an NCAA Tournament bid.

The Wolverines had been leading for most of the game behind a commanding performance from Sheffer, but they trailed by four points with two minutes left in the game. That’s when Courtney took over.

She scored six-straight points over the last minute and a half of the game, including the game-winning layup with seven seconds left. All six points came off drives to the basket, and all of them were made over defenders much taller than Boylan.

“She’s a kid that has the ability to get down in the paint and score it on anybody,” Borseth said after the game. “Doesn’t look like she can do it, but she is very good around that basket, and she put them in tonight.”

Someone who thinks she is 5-foot-7 would defer to a teammate in that situation.

Someone who thinks she is 5-foot-7 would not have enough confidence to pull off such a series of events.

Someone who thinks she is 5-foot-7 does not take it to the basket three times in a row, making all three shots, to give her team the lead in the last seven seconds of one of the most important games of the season.

For Courtney though, ignorance is bliss. She thinks she is tall. She plays like she is tall. She is tall.

* * *

After finishing third in the Big Ten, Michigan has exceeded all expectations set out before the season. The Wolverines were not predicted to finish in top three by anybody, including the Big Ten coaches or the Associated Press. Yet, here they are.

Courtney has teammates who score more, who rebound more and who play better defense. She has taller teammates, more athletic teammates and teammates who could beat her in one-on-one. She has teammates who have earned more collegiate awards than her, teammates who get more coverage from the press and teammates with more prestigious accolades.

Yet, the Michigan women’s basketball team would not be where they are without the girl they call ‘C-Boy.’ If Courtney didn’t step up like she did after Jordan went down, Michigan would not have had the Big Ten season they did. Chances are, it wouldn’t have earned its spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Wolverines are being led into March Madness by their diminutive leader, a leader who doesn’t know she is small. A leader who did not start until midway through the season, but a leader who has been the catalyst to the success of the Wolverines this season. A leader who has been waiting for a break since the moment she arrived in Ann Arbor, and is taking advantage of the one she has been given.

“Since I got here, I have been preparing for this,” Courtney said.

“I can’t tell you,” her voice trails, as she thinks of all those hours in the gym, “A lot of people on our team put in hard work, but I think that there are certain people on our team who have put in more, and I think I am one of those people. I have just wanted to get to this point so badly. I loved my role coming off the bench, but I have always wanted to be on the court.”

* * *

During a game against Indiana at home, Courtney gets the ball in the post, feeling the defender on her back, waiting to make a move.

“Don’t post up, you’re too short,” an elderly fan next to press row says.

Right on cue, Courtney spins to her left, goes up strong on the right side of the rim and flips the ball under the net and over the left side of the rim. The fan throws her hands up in wonder, smiling and clapping. Just one more doubter proved wrong — not the first and certainly not the last.

After the game and the post-game meetings, Courtney pulls on a warm-up shirt and runs back onto the court. Even though she just scored 14 points, she doesn’t want to stop playing.

She has made it, but she isn’t satisfied. She worked then, she works now, and she will continue to work in the future. After all, in every city at every school, there will be one person who thinks she is too short. One person who doesn’t think she can succeed, one person who thinks Courtney is headed right back to the bench when the Wolverines get healthy.

She shoots around, just her and the basket, amid the stragglers who haven’t left the arena yet. There may be some people milling around, but in Courtney’s mind, she is alone.

She is back in the basement, void of all thoughts and emotions. It’s just her and the basket again, just like old times. She can see no one, hear no one, and can see nothing but the basket and the concrete behind it. The sound of the bouncing ball reverberates throughout the gym, and it gets louder and louder as the stragglers begin to trickle out. She really is alone.

She dribbles to the free throw line, pauses, takes a deep breath and launches a shot at the rim.

This is a rim that doesn’t discriminate against a ball shot from the hands of an undersized point guard.

A rim that does not have an opinion on whether Courtney Boylan has the physical tools to be a Big Ten point guard.

A rim that doesn’t care what doubters say, because this rim will accept a shot that has enough will behind it, no matter if the shooter is 5-foot-7 or 6-foot-5.

A rim surrounded by a vast, empty space, poorly light, seemingly never finished.

Courtney is back at home in the basement, unaware she has become the starting point guard at the University of Michigan.

Even when she has invisible defenders, every shot matters.

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