Dome, Sweet Home for ex-Gaucho Erin Alexander
It was the best of times for Erin Alexander, turned suddenly into the worst of times.
UCSB's junior basketball star was still smarting from a double-overtime, upset loss to the University of Pacific at the 1996 Big West Conference Tournament when she got word of something more disturbingly distressing:
Jeff Rio, her boyfriend since their days at Santa Ynez High School, had been killed in a car accident.
She could've retreated into a shell. Instead, she headed straight for the basketball court.
"It was the one place in the world where I could feel completely at peace," she said, recalling the events 16 years later. "There were so many people there who supported me. And still, to this day, I can't even describe another place in my life where I could feel like I had no cares in the world.
"That's why coming back to the Thunderdome means so much to me."
That will happen today when the former Gaucho star, now known as Erin Alexander Brown, returns to be unveiled as the latest Legend of the Dome during halftime of UCSB's 2 p.m. game against Cal Poly.
"I can't tell you how much I grew up as a human being in that building," she said.
Her coach, Mark French, watched it happen during a four-year career in which she scored a then-school record 1,588 points.
How she got 66 of them in spite of misty shooting eyes during three games at the 1996 WNIT Tournament in Amarillo, Tex. left a lasting impression on her Hall of Fame coach. Alexander was voted as the event's most inspirational player after scoring 27 points to upset Western Kentucky for the consolation championship.
"When she walked onto the court to accept the award, arm-in-arm with Jeff's parents, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," French recalled. "How we responded to the disappointment of being left out of the NCAA Tournament, and then to Erin's adversity, and how we rallied together is still the No. 1, all-time memory of my coaching career."
It trumps even a dozen Big West Conference championships and an NCAA Sweet 16 finish in 2004.
French can barely remember the details of recruiting the 5-foot-6 guard out of Santa Ynez, the first in a parade of valley girls who would star for the Gauchos.
"The one thing we learned about Erin early on was how really deceptive she was," French said. "Here was this cute, little, blonde, Santa Ynez girl. Some people said she looked more like a cheerleader than a basketball player — that she'd be somebody you could kind of bully and push around.
"It was quite the contrary. She turned out to be one really tough cookie in many ways."
French became a surprise to her, as well. When Alexander told him that she'd be coming to UCSB, he advised her to take the rest of her recruiting trips.
"He wanted me to make sure that this is where I wanted to be," she said. "He didn't want me to regret any decisions.
"When my mom sold her house in Solvang, she found a journal that I'd kept at the time. I just read one of the entries which said, 'Went to Weber State, and it was pretty cool.' But it also said, 'Going to UCSB is going to be the best thing ever.'"
It wasn't all fun and games at the start, however. The Gauchos, who were coming off their first two NCAA Tournament seasons of 1992 and 1993, finished just fourth in the Big West and 14-13 overall during Alexander's freshman season of 1994.
"I didn't even play that much," she recalled. "Here I was, this big fish from the little Santa Ynez pond, sitting on the bench in Santa Barbara and thinking, 'What is going on?'
"I was a young 18 and immature, expecting to come in and lead the team. I had to grow up a lot."
But French wound up teaching her as many life skills as basketball skills. His reading assignments weren't just scouting reports but also books such as Stephen R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
"I can't even describe to you how he helped me grow," Alexander said. "It sounds so cliche, but he believed that basketball was just a short stop in our lives. He wanted to help make us better women — women who were going to be able to face life's challenges and be responsible for our behavior.
"He talked about life lessons so often that we'd even joke about it. But now, I can't even thank him enough for what he gave me during four years of my life."
French's recollections are of a petulant Alexander during the early years.
"When she'd get upset on the court, or during individual meetings, she'd raise her nose in the air a bit," he said. "There was this feistiness about her."
Channeling Alexander's spirit in the right direction helped the Gauchos win 24 games and the Big West regular-season championship during the tragedy-marred, WNIT season of 1996.
The next year, she led UCSB into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, winning Big West Player of the Year honors. She averaged 18.9 points and, together with forward Amy Smith (19.3), formed the greatest one-two scoring punch in Gaucho history.
And Alexander was best against the best. She averaged 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals during one three-game week in which UCSB played powerhouses USC, Utah and Colorado.
She followed that up the next game with 20 points and six steals against top-ranked Connecticut.
"I can't think of a better four-game stretch against that caliber of opponent for any player we've ever had in our program," French said.
The way Alexander reacted to her school-record 40 points in the overtime loss to USC probably explained her competitive verve more than anything: "We lost! I mean, we lost! It was such a bummer! Yeah, maybe it's great to score 40 points, but we lost!"
Her last game as a Gaucho, a last-second defeat to Tulane at the NCAA East Regional, was also difficult to stomach even though she rallied UCSB from a 17-point deficit by making six 3-pointers during a 26-point second half. She still holds every one of the school's 3-point records.
"I had zero in the first half — it was like I'd never touched a basketball before," Alexander recalled. "And then we got homered at the end. Stacy Clinesmith had a fast break and dished to Kristi Rohr for a layup, but the referee called a charge on Stacy.
"I actually threw up a shot at the end and it looked good — it looked like it was going in and we were going to win — but it went off the back rim."
Alexander withdrew from school to play half a season with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. She was then picked up by the Utah Stars for a 10-day contract to fill in for an injured player.
"The plan was for me to get sent home after we returned from a road trip," she said. "I showed up at the Delta Center to get my travel arrangements and found a home jersey in my locker instead — they were keeping me.
"Everyone looked kind of bummed. I asked what was wrong and they said, 'They cut Fran!' It's a different experience than in college, where a lot of people are pulling for you."
Alexander later returned to UCSB to finish her degree and then trained to become a firefighter, overcoming another challenge to become the first woman ever hired by the Newport Beach Fire Department. She now holds the rank of engineer.
"There were some guys who weren't stoked about having a female in the fire department, so I had to deal with that," she said. "I did what I could with it. I knew I'd have to be a hard worker to be accepted, and I think I did that.
"I grew up playing basketball with guys, after all."
She married former Gaucho swimmer Tannon Brown and had twin daughters, Riley and Haley, who are now 8 years old. She's now putting more life lessons into play.
French saw it the last time his little blonde guard returned to the Thunderdome to celebrate Barb Beainy's unveiling as his first Legend of the Dome.
"One of her twins was misbehaving in the office, and Erin had to go over and scold her," French said. "Her daughter walked away, her nose in the air and her pony-tail back, and I went, 'There it is! There it is! Erin Alexander, now you get to deal with it!'"
She laughed it off, knowing how well he had taught her how.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org