June 5, 2014
(Note: Venus Lacy will be enshrined into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, June 21 in Natchitoches, La.).
By Jim McLain
Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association=
Venus Lacy is a huge fan of "Forrest Gump" because the early life of the hero in the 1994 Academy Award Best Picture so closely resembles her own.
Like Gump, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, Lacy had to wear leg braces as a child, but once they came off, both the movie character on the football field and Lacy on the Louisiana Tech basketball court blasted off to sports stardom.
Lacy will culminate a remarkable journey when the Class of 2014 is inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches.
She will be enshrined on Saturday night, June 21 to culminate the June 19-21 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Induction Celebration. A complete schedule and participation opportunities are at LaSportsHall.com or can be obtained by calling the Hall of Fame Foundation office at 318-238-4255.
Lacy, 47, had a brilliant college career, leading the Lady Techsters to the 1988 national title and two other women's Final Fours before earning more honors on the 1996 USA Olympic team and in professional leagues in Japan, Europe and here at home in America.
Growing up in Chattanooga in the 1970s, a sports career seemed as far away as Mars for Lacy, who was one of 10 children in her family.
"My knees were almost turned backwards," she recalled. "I couldn't run and play like the rest of the kids. I wore braces, even at night. My mom and my grandfather would massage my knees for me.
"Then one day I was watching TV and saw a show on Wilma Rudolph. I said I want to be like that."
Rudolph, also a Tennesseean, was a gold-medal winning sprint star in the 1960 Olympics who had to wear braces as a child.
"I was probably in the fourth grade before I could take the braces off. I wish I could have burst out running like she and Forrest Gump did," Lacy said.
Instead, what she did was grow and get stronger -- a lot stronger.
"From start to finish, she was maybe the most improved to ever come through Tech," said ex-Techsters coach Leon Barmore. "She became the biggest, strongest and most powerful Tech post player ever."
Her Tech statistics prove that. Twenty-four years after last putting on a Columbia blue and white uniform, Lacy is still the school's all-time leader with a 20 points per game career average. She had 1,125 rebounds in just a three-year stay at Tech.
As a senior she had a monster 1989-90 season, averaging 24.2 points and 12.7 rebounds per game as Tech went 32-1. Despite getting into early foul trouble, she recorded game-highs of 26 points and 15 rebounds in the Final Four semifinals upset loss to old nemesis Auburn. A possible second national title eluded Lacy and the Techsters when starting point guard Pam Wells went down with a knee injury. Still,the Techsters lost by only five points.
Lacy was rewarded for her efforts by being named a Kodak All-American and National Player of the Year by both Champion and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Following her stellar final season at Tech, Lacy signed to play professionally for the Sanyo team in Japan for $200,000 per year, one of the highest salaries ever for a woman athlete.
One of the first things she did was write Louisiana Tech a check for $5,000.
"Tech helped change my life. A lot of people take. I just wanted to give back to the school that changed my life," she said. "I wanted to give back to those who have helped me"
Lacy made the all-star squad her two seasons in Japan before moving to Europe where her teams - foreign leagues usually were limited to just two Americans on each roster - won conference titles in Italy and Greece. She was an all-star honoree every year in Europe, also.
In 1996, early practice games showed coaches the U.S. national basketball team needed more muscle, so Lacy was added and helped the Americans win the Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta.
"I covered the Olympics that year," the Ruston Daily Leader's Buddy Davis recalled. "Venus gave them a lot of help on defense. On offense, she posted up well and set up some shots. Being on the team was a great honor for her."
During her Olympic year, her hometown of Chattanooga honored her by re-naming a city street "Venus Lacy Parkway."
Her success as a professional was no surprise to 1988 national championship teammate Teresa Weatherspoon, who Lacy will join in the state sports shrine.
"She had a nose for the ball," she said of Lacy's rebounding talents. "She gave us great second chance opportunities. To have a dominant post player who knew how to demand the ball and use her body, it was great for a point guard."
Unfortunately, Lacy's later pro career was probably shortened by injuries suffered in auto accidents. In one of them, her vehicle was knocked through the plate glass window of a beauty school in Ruston.
She was selected first by Seattle in the American Basketball League draft in 1996, but an auto injury in February of 1997 put her on the disabled list. After that year she was selected by the ABL's expansion Long Beach club. Her team made it to the ABL finals where it lost to the Columbus Quest.
The Stingrays folded after one year and the next year Lacy was drafted by another ABL expansion team, the Nashville Noise, which lasted only 15 games. On December 22, 1998, the league disbanded.
Undrafted by WNBA teams in the special post-ABL consolidation draft, she played 17 games for the New York Liberty in 1999 and two more in 2000, but her injuries seemed to have slowed her down and she retired.
Lacy said it wasn't just physical problems that prompted her retirement.
"I wasn't happy in New York. I probably shouldn't have even gone. I just wanted to make another league. I did everything (as a professional) I wanted to do."
After her pro career Lacy worked in various capacities with children and young adults and for a time was employed by the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in its rec center. She also worked with the school's cheerleaders and dance squad.
Now she's raising 11-year-old son Seth and writing a book about her life, hoping to finish it this year.
Lacy has been battling health problems lately and wasn't able to make it back to Ruston when her Tech uniform number was retired. She is determined to be present for the state induction ceremonies, though.
"My knees still hurt - arthritis or something, and I'm taking medication for blood clots. I was very sick but, I'm better now," she said. "I'll be there with bells on. Never in a million years did I think I'd be in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame."
It took longer than many might have thought to get her to the brink of enshrinement, but Lacy's game was timeless, said another great coach who failed to get her on his team.
"I tried to recruit her (out of high school) when I was coaching at Stephen F. Austin," said Women's Basketball Hall of Famer Gary Blair, who led Texas A&M to an NCAA title three years ago. "She would still be a star if she were playing today. Her skill level was that good. She was very strong."