Already written into Cal’s record books, when will the sophomore center be satisfied?
By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
Seated next to her coach in the bowels of Key Arena, Kristine Anigwe couldn’t take it anymore. Like a winter downpour in Seattle, the tears were inevitable at this point, it was only a matter of how long they would last. All anyone could do was pass her a towel.
The 10th seeded Bears had just bowed out in the semifinals of the 2016 PAC-12 tournament, a six point loss at the hands of 3rd seeded UCLA. Anigwe had an outstanding game in defeat, 26 points and 15 rebounds to be exact, both numbers eclipsing her already gaudy season averages of 20 and 9. Numbers unheard of for a freshman. Especially one who didn’t pick up the game of basketball until the 8th grade.
Tasked with the near impossible chore of summing up a season in one post game press conference, fifth year head coach Lindsay Gottlieb chose to sing the praises of her freshman center and the otherworldly year she had. 43-points in a game, national freshman of the year, averaging almost double digit rebounds, scoring more than any frosh in Cal basketball history, the list of accomplishments goes on seemingly forever. But if you learn anything about Kristine Anigwe, all those accomplishments are thrown to the side after a loss. And maybe even forgotten. “Failing is very hard for me,” she says simply on a recent evening in Berkeley. “I dread it. I hate losing. I hate not doing something that I know I could do.”
Losing is something the Cal women did a lot of last season. A fact Anigwe willing shoulders the blame for. Despite her record year, Anigwe is haunted by the fact that it was her beloved coach’s first losing campaign in her Berkeley career. In Gottlieb’s first season as Cal’s coach, she took an NIT team to the NCAA’s. The next year, Gottlieb had the Bears in the Final Four. Now, Gottlieb was at the podium following her first sub .500 season that included a dismal 4-14 mark in the PAC-12. Even so, all the protective coach could do was praise her team’s effort, particularly an emotional Anigwe, who proved incapable of talking. The pain of falling short on Gottlieb’s expectations was too much to bear.
Sitting down with Anigwe behind the scorers table at Haas Pavilion, two things quickly become noticeable. One is that Anigwe isn’t particularly comfortable talking about herself. Another is that she requires some extra room for her legs that power her 6’4” frame up and down the court and even to the rim for dunks (we’ll get to that later.)
She is eating a post workout meal of soft tacos, in the kind of way you’d expect an Olympic Triathlete to eat, with the nutritional value being the most important aspect of the act. The gym is quiet now, except for the welcome squeaks, dribbles and swishes being made by Ivan Rabb. The future NBA first round pick is taking advantage of the vacant floor space, fine tuning his game in the middle of conference play.
The presence of NBA-bound Rabb, along with Anigwe’s upbringing in Phoenix inevitably brings up the topic of the Suns. Steve Nash? Amare Stoudemire? Was she a fan? “No,” she says matter-of-factly, “I grew up watching the Phoenix Mercury. I loved Diana Taurasi. She was a huge inspiration for me.”
Despite having the luxury of a WNBA team in her backyard to look up to and always being the tallest girl in her class, it wasn’t until just before high school that Anigwe found her way onto a basketball court. Fortunately, her area volleyball team was good enough to push her into her calling. “To be honest, back then I tried out for the volleyball team and I didn’t make it. So I went ahead and tried basketball. It’s worked out from there.”
Her two parents, Annette and Christopher, ran a strict household focused primarily on academics and the fruits that books could bear for their four children. Basketball was secondary to Anigwe, up until the time her talent was spotted and she was sent to Colorado Springs to try out for Team USA’s youth program. By the time Anigwe was selected to Team USA and began jett-setting to international tournaments, she started to realize basketball could really take her places. “Don’t get me wrong, I made the team, but the tryouts were really nerve wracking. It seemed like so many great players were getting cut everyday. But after I made that team, I really began to take my basketball career seriously.”
By her junior year at Desert Vista High School, Anigwe was morphing into a star. In addition to her duties with Team USA’s program, Anigwe was competing on the women’s AAU circuit with the “Arizona Elite” and her trusted coach Kenny Drake. Not only was she playing for his team, but also dedicating herself to attending his private workouts on the side, even if she hated it. “Yes, I often really hated those workouts,” she explains. “Sometimes I would have to sit down in the corner of the gym and take off my shoes, but Kenny would refuse to let me leave the gym until we finished our workouts. He really made me so much better at basketball.”
By the spring of her junior year, Anigwe lead her high school team to an Arizona State Championship. Anigwe was the star that brought the school the glory of a state crown, but true to her personality, she has trouble recalling all the details of the triumph. “I can’t remember if we played in the Suns’ arena or not to be honest, now that you ask. I just remember it being a really fancy place.”
What Anigwe remembers most about her high school career is failing to win back-to-back titles, falling to Goodyear Millennium High in the the Division 1 semifinals. Anigwe took the loss hard, almost completely shutting her down. “It was tough. I remember I didn’t really talk to anyone for like a week. I spent a lot of time in my room just writing in my room. Sleeping, talking to my mom, writing some more. But eventually I realized I had to grow up and move on.”
Moving on meant turning her sights to a bright future in the college ranks. By now, she had been named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year, to go along with her eye-popping stats with her AAU club team and gold medals on Team USA’s junior teams. No one could have blamed her if visions of UCONN, Tennessee, or Stanford began to pop into her head. After all, the late-bloomer was now a nationally recognized blue chip recruit. But even with her rising stock shooting through the roof, Anigwe never wavered on her verbal commitment to Berkeley and coach Gottlieb. “In the end, Cal showed interest in me when no one else did. I trusted them at an early age. For me to get super good and decommit is not a part of my character. At the end of the day, you know where your roots are, where your heart is and who has your back.”
With her commitment to Cal solidified, Anigwe overcame the anguish of her senior year defeat by attending the McDonald’s All-American game in Chicago, an event reserved for the best 48 men and women high school basketball has to offer. When ESPN personnel realized Anigwe could dunk, they pushed her on the idea of being the lone female in the annual dunk contest, one that has produced a long list of NBA superstars. Anigwe, shy by nature, took a leap of faith and gave it a shot. But with the cameras on and her legs jet-lagged, Anigwe came up empty in her turn to dunk. Naturally, the internet’s reaction was polarizing. From basement bloggers ripping her, to 13-year-old girls congratulating her for rising above the rim with the nation’s best male athletes. Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon ended up beating Anigwe and the rest of the field with a monster dunk, leaping over the head of a standing Jalen Rose.
Nowadays, a google search of Anigwe will no longer lead you straight to her famed dunk attempts at the McDonald’s contest. Instead, you’ll be hit with stories of her 50-point night on December 8th, 2016 versus Sacramento State. Of course, Anigwe doesn’t like to talk about it, but it was a night that put the spotlight back on Cal women’s hoops for the first time in a while here in the Bay Area. In what was a incredible display of efficiency, Anigwe managed to score all 50 points in just 24 minutes of play. Moreover, her 19 buckets were converted on just 23 shots. Virtually every time Anigwe caught the ball, she finished with a basket. With her right hand or her left, midrange or under the basket, Anigwe’s deft touch and uncanny ability to finish around the basket was put on full display for the nation to see. No player, even in the higher scoring men’s game has reached the 50 point plateau. Ed Gray’s 48 against Washington State in 1997 is the closest any Cal player has come. That is until Anigwe did it, using only 24 minutes to do so.
Even with all the attention the 50-point night brought to the program, Anigwe does her best to avoid the topic. “I honestly don’t like talking about the 50 point game. I don’t want my legacy at Cal to be all about one 50 point game. I want it to be, ‘Kristine helped take a team to the Final Four.’ Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun game. But I want to help change the program and be a part of an incredible team at Cal.”
Despite being apprehensive to talk about her personal accomplishments, Anigwe is never at a loss for words when speaking about those around her. After all, the Media Studies major has visions of a career in broadcast journalism after she hangs up her sneakers. “Kristine’s Korner” is already a broadcast platform she has dabbled with in the past, and hopes to do more of.
If she had it her way, she’d do some features of some of her favorite people in Berkeley including her trusted coach Gottlieb, who Anigwe describes as “Incredibly caring. Caring about her players, caring about the program.” Anigwe also is quick to deflect praise on her trusted point guard Asha Thomas. A sophomore from Oakland’s Bishop O’ Dowd High School, Thomas is responsible for keeping the Bears calm and confident, even in the hairiest of situations. “Even when there is fire all around her, she always leads us in a calm way,” explains Anigwe. Thomas’ love for her home city of Oakland and its deep rooted culture is also something Anigwe enjoys being exposed to. “She just loves Oakland and repping the Bay Area. Always trying to teach me new Oakland lingo. She tries to keep me hip that way.”
Now over halfway through her sophomore campaign, with the dust settled from her 50-point barrage, Anigwe is focused on navigating her team back into the NCAA tournament, a place Coach Gottlieb is so used to being, but where Anigwe has yet to find. This season started as good as ever. Ignited by Anigwe’s nightly double-doubles, Cal started the year 13-0, the best start in program history by a wide margin. Unfortunately, this has given way to a 3-7 start in league play. A disappointing result that has eaten away at Anigwe thus far.
As a player and as a person, Anigwe is often times more driven by the fear of failure that the feeling of success. She admits this can be a gift and a curse. Her coach recently told the Mercury News, “Kristine is the most self-motivated player we’ve ever had here. It’s not close.” But this self-motivation has its costs, as it can put blinders on the ability to see and appreciate success as its unfolding in the moment. Explains Anigwe, “People think I’m just running through life without appreciating things or digesting accomplishments, and yes, it can be lonely. But to me it is scary to fail, so I’m always looking for ways to get better and avoid that failure.”
Even if Anigwe were to give her coach the gift of another Final Four trip at Cal, there is a good chance Anigwe will be wrapped up in her obsession to improve her game indefinitely. Beyond her Cal career looms the light of more basketball in the WNBA, not to mention the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, or her post playing career endeavors into the media business, or even a crusade to close the wage gap in women’s sports like basketball, soccer and the like.
Whether or not Kristine Anigwe will successfully overcome her dread of failure still remains to seen. But rest assured, she’ll leave a wake of her defeated opponents on the way to defining her own definition of success.