Life has been good to Katrina McClain. Her remarkable gift for putting a ball through a hoop granted her multiple trips around the world and unparalleled success as a three-time Olympic medal winner.
But her biggest challenge would come away from the court, back home in Charleston after her playing days were over.
“I noticed how bad the crime rate was,” McClain said. “North Charleston was the No. 2 or No. 3 worst place to live based on crime. I said to myself, wow, is this really happening?”
Marshalling her fame and channeling the drive that made her one of the country’s most decorated women’s basketball players, McClain set out to save her hometown.
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McClain had no choice but to bang away against the boys on the courts of St. Andrews Park. It was the 1970s when it was rare to see females taking part in pick-up games of any sport, let alone hoops.
“I was just a big ol’ tomboy,” said McClain, who also mixed it up in baseball and football. “I just played with guys out in the street, really. I was the only girl, but I was the first one to get picked.”
She was decent at whatever she played, but when she was on the court, she was elite.
At St. Andrews High, she set the state high school record for points scored in a career with 2,344 points. Offers poured in from colleges around the country, but McClain saw Georgia as the best fit.
Was it ever.
During her four seasons, the Bulldogs went 116-15, won two Southeastern Conference titles and advanced to the 1985 national championship game. She holds the school season records for most points (796 in 1987), field goals, free throws made and blocked shots (97 in 1985 and 1986). She is the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots (290), free throws made (449) and field goal percentage (62 percent).
As a measure of her consistency, she began her college career as SEC freshman of the year and ended it as the national player of the year.
She was a natural choice for the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which streaked to the gold medal in Barcelona. Along the way, she led the team with 17.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Before the end of her playing days, she would participate on 11 national teams, including the teams that won the bronze in Seoul and gold in Atlanta.
Beyond the Olympics, though, few would know of her prowess thanks to the backseat women’s sports takes on the American sports scene.
“We were way behind when it comes to women’s basketball overseas,” McClain said. “We were looked upon as the Mecca of basketball, but really there was no money for us here. We had to go overseas.”
One incident sticks out in McClain’s mind. Once when playing for the national team, she struck up a conversation with a Cuban player who said they awarded $30,000 for making the team.
“She said ‘We get $30,000, so I can’t imagine how much you make,’” McClain said. “We certainly didn’t get that. That’s kind of not saying a whole lot for your own country.”
To make a living, McClain played overseas in Japan, Italy and Spain before returning home for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
It wasn’t until after her playing career that she realized how much she had accomplished.
“When I started getting awards like the (women’s college) basketball hall of fame, the South Carolina Hall of Fame, that’s when I really started to realize it,” she said. “I appreciated my gift. You just don’t see those things while you’re playing. Now that I’m done, I do.”
Today, McClain spends her time coming up with ways to break the cycle of violence in her hometown. The Youth Millionaires Program is one of those endeavors.
Set up through her foundation and her father’s church, the program targets kids ages 8-14 and takes place at Burke High School. The curriculum teaches kids basic banking, entrepreneurship, how to save money and how to make money grow.
“We’re giving these kids a great time and teaching life values,” she said. “That’s some of the things we didn’t get when we were growing up.”
The program began on July 14 and runs through Thursday. It is one of a number of balls McClain is juggling these days. She also is a recreation and sports consultant and travels as a motivational speaker.
And whenever she gets the chance, she also conducts basketball clinics, happily playing the part of role model to young girls.
“When I was growing up, the role models for girls in sports were guys. You had to go overseas to make a living,” she said. “Now, they have all this exposure and opportunities to go to camps. Now you can go at a young age. When I was growing up, we didn’t have that and that’s why there were so many fewer girls playing sports.
“Sports kept me out of trouble,” she continued. “With sports, you can help girls fight issues like pregnancy and obesity.”
The most important lesson McClain teaches is to focus inward. By staying true to herself, she became one the nation’s greatest women’s basketball players.
“You see kids all the time saying they want to be the next Michael Jordan,” she said. “No, no, no — don’t be the next Michael Jordan, be the next you.”
Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473.