The spark in her father's eyes

The spark in her father's eyes

By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press

Basketball used to be a little more than child's play for the daughter of former NBA star Mark Aguirre.

"She couldn't wait for the end of the game when all the kids could go get their treats," he recalled. "I never pushed her toward basketball when she was a girl.

"She was into other stuff."

But Aguirre was there the day the fire sparked inside his young Angelei and turned her into a basket-full of Red Hots.

"After this particular game, she was so upset, she was almost crying, and I couldn't understand it," he said. "She was going, 'We lost!' And I said, 'Yeah, you lost ... So?'

"She told me, 'I don't want to lose! I'm tired of losing!' So I said, 'Well then, you can't be crying ... The crying is over.'"

And that's when the teaching started.

Angelei, a senior on the UCSB women's basketball team, didn't drop far from her father's 6-foot-6 tree as a competitor. She rallied the Gauchos from an 18-point deficit to within six points of USC during Tuesday's defeat, scoring 11 of her team-high 13 points during the second half. Coach Carlene Mitchell could find only 60 seconds to rest her during that 20-minute period.

"I'm excited for the fact that these two women sitting beside me competed until the final buzzer went off," Mitchell said while gesturing towards Aguirre and freshman reserve Kendra Morrison. "That's what I'd like our whole team to do from the opening tip to the final buzzer."

Angelei is not her father's daughter in another way. Mark Aguirre, who averaged 20 points during his 13-year NBA career, was all about scoring.

"Doing damage ... 'Give me the ball!' is how he described himself. But that's not what he taught young Angelei.

"When I got more serious about basketball in high school, he was a big influence," she said. "He just stressed being a complete player and really knowing the game.

"He didn't really emphasize offense so much. He just stressed that I should do all the little things - things that might not be on the stat sheet every night."

Aguirre, a 5-foot-11 guard-forward, leads the Gauchos in two disparate categories: Assists and blocked shots. She passes and she defends. She scores only when it's absolutely the best option, averaging just 5.0 points a game.

When she signed with Cal after leading White Plains High School to four straight New York section titles, her teammates used phrases like "a blessing" and "humble" and "never a better teammate" to describe her to the local newspaper. Her nickname was "Quiet Thunder."

Mark Aguirre soon realized that he wasn't the one who had actually created Angelei.

"The one thing about her that I really love is that - even in high school, and to a fault - it's never been about her," he said. "She's so unselfish, she actually misses a lot of opportunities for herself.

"It's the way she's built, and I wasn't about to take away what God gave her."

He laughs when recalling what he said about Angelei to former NBA rival Magic Johnson, one of the game's greatest play-makers:

"My daughter plays more like you than she does me."

Dad was in between back-to-back NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons when Angelei was born in September of 1989. She wasn't yet 5 when he retired in 1994 after his one season with the Los Angeles Clippers.

"I only vaguely remember seeing him play, but I've watched the films," she said. "We'd play around with the basketball when I was young. I'd go to the courts with him and hang out.

"We were living in Indiana - he was coaching with Isiah (Thomas), who's a great friend of his - when I was in middle school and got really serious about basketball. I was around NBA players all the time."

She admits that her mom, Angela, had tried to expose her four daughters to everything but basketball.

"She had us in every other sport ... Soccer, softball, volleyball," Angelei said. "Initially, I started playing basketball only as a social thing, to hang out with my friends outside of school.

"But when I started to love the game, she loved it, too. She's been very supportive."

As for Dad, "He just wanted me to do whatever made me happy and was passionate about."

And he realized that it was basketball after one, tough-luck youth game.

"The will to win, that's built in," Mark Aguirre said. "She always wants to win."

He saw that during the pick-up games she played with sisters Maschera, Alana and Michaela. The youngest two now star for Wakeland High School in Frisco, Tex.

"They were always playing in the back yard, and I'd sometimes have to separate them," Mark Aguirre said. "Boy, they had their little battles out there.

"They'd come into the house after playing and nobody would be talking to each other."

Of course, the first thing Angelei wanted to know after Tuesday's USC game was how Wakeland High had done that night in its game at Denton's Ryan High School (a 58-56 win). Angelei even helped coach the AAU team that Alana played on when she was a sixth-grader.

"I've got good kids, that's what I'm most proud of," Mark Aguirre said. "Angelei is a good student. I hear people say that she has the respect of everyone.

"When I hear people say that - talk about her as a person like that - well, it makes me feel pretty good."

Angelei played one season at Cal before transferring to UCSB, but she only has good things to say about her experience at Berkeley.

"It just wasn't the right fit," is her only explanation for leaving.

She's had to play for three different coaches - Joanne Boyle at Cal, and Lindsay Gottlieb and Mitchell at UCSB - but she even finds the positive in that.

"I know I've learned some things from each of them," Angelei said. "I consider that a blessing."

She likes what Mitchell has brought to the Thunderdome. The Gauchos caught fire after a slow start to win last year's Big West Conference Tournament, and Angelei expects nothing less this season, even after a 2-4 start. 

"We run an offense where we can have balance, because we have no superstars on our team," she said.

But a bonafide superstar does get a phone call from his favorite Gaucho after every game.

"If it's after a loss, she'll ask, 'What's not happening? What's going on?'" Mark Aguirre said. "I'll just tell her I don't know ... 'Go ask your coach. I'm not at your practices, I can only console you.'

"'And that's because you're my daughter.'"

And nothing makes Mark Aguirre happier than that.

The Gauchos will be back in action on Saturday, Dec. 1 when they host St. Mary's in the Thunderdome at 2 p.m. Season tickets and single game tickets for women's basketball are available at the Ticket Office in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building on campus, by calling 805-893-UCSB (8272) or online by clicking here

Saturday's game will be broadcast live on KZSB AM 1290 in Santa Barbara. It can also be heard online here.