Poise Under Pressure

Jan. 4, 2009

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

She may not have been born with a basketball in her hands, but Briana McFadden did snuggle her blankie courtside as a baby in a bucket, listening to the comforting sounds of a bouncing Spalding.

"When Briana was about six months, my wife made it very clear to me she had to get out of the house, to get to the gym and work out," James McFadden recalls vividly.

This posed a scheduling problem. He had some pressing evening commitments: pickup games, league games. As a former point guard at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala., he could not just baby-sit at home when some hoop action pulsated nearby. So he would pack up Briana in an infant carrier and tote her to his games.

"The wives and girlfriends of other players would watch over Briana as we played," explains James.

Thus Briana became his bouncing baby girl, content with the squeaking of sneakers, the swishing of nets and the shouts of successful shots.

By age 4, Briana was running along the sidelines, rolling and bouncing a ball, watching her dad grunt, groan and sweat. Not long after, James would take time out to start teaching his only daughter the rudiments of the game. "We'd fool around, doing basic drills," he recalls.

Her mom, Julia, a dynamic force in Briana's life, noticed her daughter's love for sports. As Briana approached age 7, Julia asked her if she might be interested in cheerleading for the church team. "Cheerleading?" Briana asked quizzically. "I want to play basketball."

Thus began Briana's brilliant career, as the only girl on the New Life Baptist Church boys' team in Germantown, Md.

Today, Briana, a returning junior and the Patriot League's 2008 Player of the Year, should be a bundle of joy to watch.

 

*****

She is the Queen of Cool. When you watch her play, you notice Briana McFadden's composure before her quickness, her agility, her ball-handling and shooting skills. Her coach, Bill Gibbons, describes it as poise. "She does not rattle. Not at all," he says. Her mother calls her "The Ice Princess."

As a freshman, she demonstrated such unusual maturity that Crusader Assistant Coach Lindsay Shade affectionately began calling her "Nana," a nickname that stuck.

"That's just her nature," explains her dad. "Always has been. Her overall demeanor about everything is calmness."

To this observer, she is a 5-foot-10 version of former Celtic great Dennis Johnson. She runs, but does not ever seem in a rush. She penetrates quickly--stabbing into the heart of a defense--yet backpedals when she hits congestion. She looks to pass to an open teammate or drive for a better shot, but will calmly toss in three-pointers from the perimeter to keep the defense honest.

This quality was never so evident than in the 2007 Patriot League Championship game against American University at the Hart Center. While her freshman sidekick Bethany O'Dell--the tourney's MVP--scorched the nets for 20 points, McFadden scored 14 and dished out six assists. More importantly, she controlled the game's tempo amid the competitive fury. The Lady Crusaders were off to The Big Dance. The Queen of Cool had ruled.

 

*****

Briana McFadden's amazing focus and intelligence are not confined to the basketball court. Though the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, she does not entertain pipe dreams of playing in the professional WNBA. With a searing desire and an abiding humility, Briana someday wants to be called "Doctor McFadden."

"For me, the biggest thing about Holy Cross is that Briana is on the right career path. She wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. That is her main goal," says her mother.

"She has wanted to be a doctor since she was a kid," adds her dad. "Her strong bond with her mother gave her guidance as she developed her academic talents."

James and Julia McFadden, now living in Wheaton, Md., have provided their two children a strong faith-based foundation for life. James, a former student-athlete at Oakwood, a Seventh-day Adventist university, is an accountant for Imagine Schools, a nonprofit that operates 73 public charter schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Julia, a psychology major at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, holds a master's degree in marketing from Johns Hopkins University. She is an executive with The Wellness Company, which coordinates corporate health screenings.

While her parents encouraged Briana's aspirations to play basketball, academics and church always came first.

"Her mom spent a lot of time with Briana. She sought out book clubs for kids. In the seventh and eighth grades, her mom had her taking summer workshops at Montgomery College. That bond with her mom helped her self-confidence quietly grow," recalls her dad. "Briana's talent in math and science comes naturally. We knew that early on. But her sense of social responsibility is due to her upbringing. She has been taught to use her gifts to help others," comments her mom.

"You're not The Show," her mom would caution her. That is a message Briana hears often. Even when the Queen of Cool is pulling down a 3.2 grade point average as a math/premed major and wearing a Player of the Year tiara.

 

*****

"Oh baby, what a steal," gasped Coach Bill Gibbons after first seeing McFadden play. Gibbons still gets giddy thinking about how he happened to find Briana.

"Geno Auriemma had scouted Kaili McLaren at Our Lady of Good Counsel High," Gibbons says. "I was telling Geno I needed one more guard and it was very late in the recruiting game. He mentioned how impressed he was with a teammate of McLaren's, a girl named Briana McFadden."

Now "a tip from Geno" is something special. After all, Auriemma's University of Connecticut women are a dynasty-in-action. "I jumped on a plane to D.C. the next day," says Gibbons.

Gibbons noticed McFadden's trademark trait. "When the pressure was on, Briana didn't blink, she didn't flinch. She had nerves of steel," Gibbons recollects. "All I can say is `thank you, Geno!'"

Briana played in the premier Washington Catholic Athletic Conference alongside two stars, McLaren and Meredith Monroe, who plays at Penn State. That's pretty fast company. "Not only is she a terrific player, but she is telling me she's interested in premed. I knew I had something to pitch, given Holy Cross' reputation for producing doctors," says Gibbons.

She had other suitors. Nearby American University wooed her. So did Ivy League Dartmouth College and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, two other schools where she made official visits.

"I had never heard of Holy Cross. But during my visit I just clicked with the girls here. Ashley McLaughlin '08 was my host and showed me the ropes," Briana says. "It seemed to be the best fit. I'm a Christian who played at a Catholic high school. Holy Cross had the combination I was looking for: excellent academics and a very good basketball program."

By November of her senior year, Briana had inked her letter of intent to attend Holy Cross. According to Gibbons, she became the first black woman to accept a full basketball scholarship to Holy Cross in his 24-year tenure as the Lady Crusaders head coach.

As her mom confides, Briana hesitated before making her decision to come to Holy Cross final. "She knew she would be the only black girl on the team. She knew it was a dangerous choice. She would be away from home and in a very different environment," says Julia, who had entered the University of Alabama-Huntsville with temerity in 1978. "I told Briana it was her turn to make a difference. She loves it at Holy Cross. I can hear the happiness in her voice. And you can't fake that."

 

*****

Her high school accomplishments involved a lot of work. Basketball superiority comes with a high price tag.

Her mom's co-workers had spotted a newspaper ad for Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team tryouts within a nonprofit program called Maryland Sports X-treme. At age 11, Briana entered the world of the basketball gypsies. She would play AAU ball through her junior year. This meant tons of travel during the spring and summer months, two practices a week, games on the weekends and tough competition in showcase tournaments where college scouts arrived in droves.

Briana and other students like her, who dream of winning college scholarships, play high school and AAU basketball year-round. "Basketball was intense. Burnout definitely can happen. And we had to play while carrying a heavy school load at Good Counsel," says Briana.

She started as a freshman point guard for Coach Tom Splaine. As a junior and senior, she made all-star teams galore as the Good Counsel Lady Falcons won back-to-back conference championships.

Briana's brother, Jerry, 14, is a blossoming player for St. John's College High in the same basketball-haven conference.

Naturally, Jerry enjoys watching his big sister play as the family travels to games in the D.C. area, some in Worcester and others against league foes in Pennsylvania. But Jerry isn't in total awe, challenging Briana to one-on-one battles. "I'm a bit taller so I beat him while I still can," says Briana, a broad smile breaking up her composure ... briefly.

 

*****

As if premed and varsity basketball were not enough, Briana is now an author on campus: A star blogger on the Holy Cross Web site, she gives readers an insight into college life.

Briana lives in Loyola Hall with junior roommates Samantha Surface--a "killer" volleyball standout--and teammate Bethany O'Dell.

She studies and practices hard, supports other campus activities, volunteers to help area charities, takes endless road trips on buses to places like Bucknell University and, sometimes, just hangs out.

"She has her strict schedule, for sure, but always finds time to chat about stuff," explains Surface. "`Bri' is a very compassionate person. I remember coming back to the room freshman year and finding a birthday cake on my bed. Homemade by Bri. She and Bethany are always at my home (volleyball) games to cheer us on."

In her September blog, Briana writes, "This coming Friday will be a nice break ... we are driving to Harvard to cheer our football team on to victory over the Crimson!" The Crusaders lost a cliffhanger, 25-24.

Hopefully the Lady Crusaders will have better luck.

his season, Briana and her teammates are on a mission. They would like to gift-wrap a 12th trip to the NCAA for their coach, Bill Gibbons. They don't want to make a one-and-done, wasn't-that-nice NCAA appearance either. "We'd like to make our mark and win some tournament games," Briana says.

Fresh in her mind still is the heartache of getting drilled against powerful Duke in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2007. So, she and her teammates are determined to improve while adopting a more up-tempo style of play.

This summer Briana and company served as counselors at Coach Gibbons' Holy Cross hoop camp. She helped out at a couple of high school camps back home. For six weekends, she competed in summer league basketball. Back at Holy Cross, Briana is hauling a four-course load: Physics, Algebraic Structures, Introduction to Islam and Classical America. She also has a steady stream of practices, weight room workouts and--starting on Nov. 15--games, games, games.

"We're total opposites. She's so composed, and I'm overly emotional," says her swing sister O'Dell. "I look up to her, especially when games get close. She's the one."

The Queen of Cool, it seems, has everything under control. On and off the court.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.