Yolanda Yvette Griffith was born on March 1, 1970 in Chicago, Illinois. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) The youngest of five children, she lived with her family on the south side of Chicago. Sports were an important part of Yolanda’s life from an early age. She was quick and agile, and had excellent hand-eye coordination.
These skills translated well to two sports in particular, softball and basketball. In addition to being a gifted athlete, Yolanda was somewhat of a perfectionist. She wanted to be the best in everything she did. Whether competing on the blacktop or a dusty field, losing never sat well with her.
Yolanda was dealt
a severe blow after her 13th birthday when her mother died. Sports served
as an escape for her. By the time she entered George Washington Carver
High School as a freshman, she had developed into a star. Her focus remained
on hoops and softball.
Yolanda was in good company at GWC. Among the school’s most famous alums were NBA All-Stars Terry Cummings and Tim Hardaway. She followed in their footsteps. As a senior, Yolanda was named to Parade magazine’s All-American basketball team. She also earned All-American honors in softball, graduating from GWC with the Illinois record for most home runs.
Standing taller than six feet and possessing unusual dexterity for a girl her size, Yolanda had the college basketball world at her feet. But her plans changed radically when she learned she was pregnant. The baby’s dad was uninterested in sharing in the responsibility, and her father was furious. Yolanda had options, but only one made sense to her. She had the child, a girl named Candace, and put her hoops career on hold.
Four months after her daughter was born, Yolanda found she missed basketball terribly. Her first thought was to stay local and go to DePaul. This would allow her to resume her basketball career and take care of Candace as the same time, thanks to all of her relatives in the Chicago area. But when Yolanda realized she would have to sit out a year, she looked elsewhere.
Yolanda’s search brought her and Candace to Palm Beach Junior College in Florida. In her first season there, she put up eye-popping numbers, averaging 28 points and 19.7 rebounds. Her superb campaign at Palm Beach got her noticed by a slew of Division I coaches. She was set to transfer to Western Kentucky, but then thought better of the idea. Yolanda felt settled in West Palm Beach, and more important, so was her young daughter. A teammate named Charlene Littles had become a close friend. She often babysat Candace.
Littles was also there for Yolanda in the summer of 1990 when she was invited to play in the U.S. Olympic Festival. A member of the North Team that captured the bronze medal, Yolanda finished as the tournament's second leading rebounder at nearly nine a game.
ON THE RISE
following fall Yolanda joined the women’s team at Division II Florida
Atlantic University. She enjoyed a monster season, including 28.2 ppg
and 16 rpg, both tops in the nation. For her efforts, she was voted Player
of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
2003 Upper Deck Legends
Yolanda presented a scary match-up problem for most opponents. She could post up any defender, and was a demon on the glass. Defensively, she possessed a wonderful work ethic and tremendous instincts. Her combination of strength and quickness drew favorable comparisons to Cheryl Miller, the California prep legend who went on to stardom at USC and in the Olympics.
The difference between the two, of course, was a toddler named Candace. To support her daughter, Yolanda had to earn a living. She did that with a repo company. Yolanda started out as a secretary, but soon learned how to hot wire cars and pick locks. Though the money was okay, the hours were awful. Yolanda was usually dispatched on her missions in the middle of the night.
Drained by her exhausting schedule, Yolanda signed with an agent in 1993, and moved with Candace and Littles to Germany, where she turned pro. She logged the next three seasons in the EuroLeague, gaining confidence and experience with each game. (The money wasn’t bad, either.) By 1997 Yolanda had matured into the league’s top star. In her final campaign, she topped all players in scoring and rebounding.
With an eye on returning to America, Yolanda monitored the two fledgling women’s professional leagues in the U.S., the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association. The ABL, however, was the only one that showed any real interest in her. The Long Beach Sting Rays made Yolanda the #1 pick in the ‘97 draft, and she signed immediately. With Candace ready to start the first grade, Yolanda’s move back to the States was well timed. She also liked the fact that the ABL schedule mimicked the NBA’s, meaning she would have the summers free to spend with her daughter.
Yolanda dominated the ABL from the moment she stepped on the floor for Long Beach. Named First Team All-League, she averaged 18.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.1 steals in the 1997-98 campaign. Yolanda was voted the ABL’s defensive player of the year, and finished second in the MVP voting to Natalie Williams. The expansion Sting Rays advanced all the way to the league finals, but lost to the Columbus Quest in five games. During their playoff run, Yolanda posted 10 double-doubles.
end, the ABL engineered a trade that sent Yolanda to the Chicago Condors
and Williams to Long Beach. With the league struggling to keep its head
above water, the hope was that Yolanda would draw bigger gate receipts
in her hometown. She did her part, ranking in the top five in scoring,
rebounding, steals and blocks a month into the 1998-99 campaign. The ABL,
however, was a sinking ship. The league folded in December of ’98,
leaving Yolanda a free agent.
The WNBA scooped her up a few months later. After the Washington Mystics selected Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw with the top pick of the 1999 draft, the Monarchs grabbed Yolanda next. Again, it took her no time to adjust to a new league and style of play.
MAKING HER MARK
Yolanda won the MVP and rookie of the year in her first WNBA season. She also earned honors as defensive player of the year. She averaged 18.8 points a game, and led the WNBA in rebounding and steals. Her impact on the Monarchs was obvious. The team went 19-13, surpassing its victory total for the past two years combined, and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Unfortunately, a knee injury late in the campaign sidelined Yolanda, and doomed the Monarchs’ post-season hopes. She underwent surgery to repair the damage in mid-August, then watched Sacramento get bounced by the Los Angeles Sparks in the first round.
The Monarchs improved to 21-11 in 2000, winning most of the time on the strength of their swarming defense. Sacramento ranked first in the league in steals, and tied for the top spot with nearly five blocks a game. Yolanda was usually in the middle of her team’s defensive effort. She wound up second-best in the WNBA in rebounds and steals, and fifth in blocked shots. Her biggest night of the year was a 30-point, 19-rebound night against the Comets.
Houston got the last laugh, however, beating the Monarchs in two straight in the first round of the playoffs. Yolanda played well in her first post-season experience, averaging 14.5 points and 12 rebounds.
She was equally effective in the Olympics that summer. As the U.S. women rolled to an 8-0 mark and the gold medal, she had her way in the paint. Yolanda was the team's top rebounder at nearly nine boards a game, and the third leading scorer at 11.5 ppg.
Defense was again the name of the game in 2001. Sacramento went 20-12, with 17 of their victories coming when they held opponents under 70 points. Yolanda had another terrific year. Named All-WNBA Second Team, she averaged 16.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, and led the league with 18 double-doubles.
The Monarchs faced Utah in the first round of the playoffs, and dumped the Starzz in two straight. Yolanda was unstoppable. The stage was set for a showdown with Los Angeles. On the line was a trip to the WNBA Finals. Game 1 was a nail biter, which the Sparks took 74-73. Sacramento responded with a blowout in Game 2, winning by 20 points. But LA turned the tables in the decider, posting a 93-62 laugher.
After their disappointing
finish to the ’01 campaign, the Monarchs slumped to 14-18 in 2002
and missed the post-season. Part of the problem was an injury suffered
by Yolanda on opening night. Diagnosed with a cervical disc bulge, she
sat out 14 games. Sacramento never recovered. Fortunately, however, Yolanda
did. In fact, she was named WNBA Player of the Week in late August after
scoring nearly 22 a game and adding eight boards.
The Monarchs returned to the conference championship in each of the next two seasons. Few expected the team to advance that far in 2003. Sacramento had gotten off to a rocky start, but went 11-4 after the All-Star break to make the playoffs. Yolanda’s numbers dropped off across the board, but in the post-season she caught fire. Scoring 17 a night on 54% shooting, she led Sacramento to a first-round upset of the Comets. Again the Monarchs faced the Sparks for a chance to go to the finals, and again they lost in three games. This time around was particularly painful because Sacramento won Game 1 in LA.
The Monarchs finally got their revenge against the Sparks in 2004, beating them to start the playoffs. Yolanda was giving a repeat performance from ’03. After again being named All-WNBA Second Team, she raised her level of performance in the post-season. Her fine play lifted the Monarchs as they made their third trip to the conference finals. This time Sacramento fell to the Seattle Storm. The storyline was familiar to Yolanda and her teammates—a victory in Game 1 followed by tough losses in the next two.
The sting of those defeats was lessened somewhat by another gold for Yolanda and Team USA in the Olympics. Praised by coach Van Chancellor and her teammates for her unselfish attitude, she made her impact felt coming off the bench. Though Yolanda had all the credentials to be a starter, she accepted her role as a reserve—and became perhaps America’s most valuable player. She shot a sizzling 60% from the field and was a terror on the glass.
In 2005 Yolanda completed the job she had started with Sacramento back in ’99, though she didn’t do it all on her own. The Monarchs retooled, which at first didn’t sit well with her. But she showed up for training camp focused on coach John Whisenant’s defensive-minded game plan, urging her teammates to match her intensity. Forward DeMya Walker was named an All-Star, and shooting guard Kara Lawson fought through an injury to provide valuable minutes. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro had another strong season as well. Yolanda loved playing with the European star. In fact, the two became the league’s all-time leading assist-scoring pair in ’05. For years, Yolanda and Penicheiro had been known as the WNBA’s version of Karl Malone and John Stockton. This was partly because they were still without a title.
Sacramento blitzed through the regular season to finish at 25-9 and secure the top seed in the West. Yolanda enjoyed her best campaign in years, earning repeat bids to both the All-WNBA First Team and WNBA All-Defensive First Team. The Monarchs exorcized a pair of demons early in the playoffs. First they disposed of the Comets, and then eliminated the Sparks. Standing in their way for the championship was the Connecticut Sun. A key match-up would be Yolanda versus Taj McWilliams-Franklin. The two respected each other immensely. Their friendship went all the way back to their days in the ABL.
The Monarchs took Game 1 on the strength of Yolanda’s 25 points and nine rebounds. McWilliams-Franklin got the better of the action in Game 2, an OT victory in which she went for 24 points and 16 rebounds. But with the series shifting to Sacramento, Yolanda would not be denied. She paced the Monarchs to two straight victories with a pair of double-doubles, and Sacramento celebrated its first title in franchise history. Yolanda was crowned the finals MVP.
In the locker room afterward, all her teammates could talk about was how much they wanted to win the championship for her and how much she deserved it. Of course, winning has always been serious business for the woman everyone knows as Yo-Yo.
Few women have combined the array of skills Yolanda brings to the court. At 6-3 and 175 pounds, she is a load to handle around the basket. Yolanda uses her size to advantage on offense and defense. She's always in good rebounding position, and can out-muscle most opponents when she makes a move to the basket.
Yolanda still surprises people with her quickness. She has a nose for loose balls, and never gives up on a play. One expects to find her near the top of the list of shot-blockers each season, but Yolanda is also among the annual leaders in steals. These stats are testimony to her instincts and work ethic.
Yolanda's long road
to the WNBA has paid dividends. She learned her street-smart style of
play growing up in Chicago. The years she spent in Europe added depth
and polish to her game. And don't underestimate the challenges of motherhood.
Yolanda relates very well to her teammates, knowing when they need to
be counseled and when they need a good kick in the rear.
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