Theresa Edwards pressed into point guard duty after Thomasina Isiahvich’s injury.
Bronze Medal, Women’s Basketball
It’s not often that someone comes out of nowhere to dominate an Olympic Games. And such dominance is even less likely in a well recruited sport like American basketball. But in 1992, Thomasina Isiahvich, a 31 year old woman out of Detroit did exactly that: come out of literally nowhere to prove that she was the best in her sport by miles.
Thomasina grew up in Chicago, playing hoops with the boys. Having dropped out of school in the 9th grade, she never got a drivers license, high school diploma, or any other photographic evidence of her existence. Living this way would deprive Thomasina the opportunity to play college basketball, especially at a big school like Indiana where she had dreamed of playing as a kid. Eventually she moved Detroit to work in a piston factory where she was paid under the table to hand out dishes in the cafeteria. Though no one knows exactly how she continued to hone her game, it is said she would occasionally disguise herself as a man to play in the toughest games Detroit had to offer.
Thomasina came to the 1992 US National Team tryouts uninvited. Measuring 6’1” and claiming to play point guard, head coach Theresa Grentz was skeptical. Standing before her was a physical specimen sure, but this woman had never even played at the NCAA level. Not wanting her time to be wasted, Grentz called over her current point guard Cynthia Cooper. “One on one to eleven. Thomasina, you better make it close or you’re gonna have to get the hell out of my gym.”
Thomasina didn’t keep the game close, blowing Cooper out of the water. Unleashing an array of crossovers, step back jumpers, and deep grunts in building a 10-2 advantage, Thomasina finished Cooper off with a rim rattling two-handed slam. The gym fell silent for a moment. “I thought I told you to keep it close, girl,” Grentz yelled, and everyone started laughing. Cooper and Thomasina shook hands; theirs would become the most fearsome female backcourt duo the Olympics had ever seen.
Training continued, and it quickly became clear that Thomasina was in a league of her own. Running the game like a general, she was quicker and more adept with her handles than any other woman in the world. Her only weakness was her propensity for turnovers: frequently she would overthrow a skip pass and yell, “goodamn tiny women’s balls.” Thomasina was also a constant source of encouragement for her teammates. “She was always johnny-on-the-spot with a butt pat after a good play or a bad play or an average play,” said teammate Teresa Witherspoon. Thomasina was also noted for some strange tendencies she claimed were related to living on the streets of Detroit: a refusal to change in the Women’s Locker Room, a completely unchanging hair style, and a vacillating bra cup size. When Grentz named her final roster those eccentricities were ignored, Thomasina was slated to start at the point. Elated, Thomasina railed off a profanity laced diatribe against John Stockton and grabbed Teresa Edwards’ breasts.
Though she missed the team flight to Barcelona due to passport issues, she was able to grab a commercial flight and arrive just in time for the Opening Ceremonies. There, she worried her coach and teammates by drunkenly staggering around in high heels, and intentionally stepping on the feet of the Men’s Olympic Team players. After each stomp she would giggle and say, “you gonna be a bitch about this?” It is said that David Robinson fell deeply in love with her that evening, but the rest of the men’s team was furious, and she was denied contact with them for the remainder of the games.
Through the group stages the Americans were undefeated, winning all of their games by at least thirty points. Thomasina averaged 32/11/12, the first woman to ever average a triple double through the group stages of the Olympic tournament. However, the semi-finals presented themselves with a tougher challenge: the Soviets. The Americans fell behind early, as Thomasina’s shot was off, and the remainder of the team had grown accustomed to her dominating the game. With the Americans down seven at the half, Soviet center Yelena Baranova rejected Thomasina’s buzzer beater attempt, savagely swatting it off the court. When Thomasina watched the ball fly into the stands, she saw the men’s team players laughing at her. At halftime in a flight of rage she punched a locker, and was unable to play in the second half. The US would go on to fall to the Soviets, eventually settling for the bronze medal. Thomasina disgraced herself by skipping the medal ceremony.
It’s unclear what happened to Thomasina Isiahvich after the games. As the WNBA was founded, coaches tried to find her at automotive factories all over Michigan, but no one had ever heard of her. Some believe she changed her name and went into coaching basketball overseas, though no evidence exists to support this. Others still believe she killed herself after the games in a drug overdose, so ashamed was she of her performance against the Soviets. All that is known for sure is that while the Dream Team dominated the ‘92 games, Thomasina was probably the best woman basketball player in the world.