Attaining any level of athletic success requires a certain measure of drive and determination. Attaining the level of athletic success that Valerie Still has achieved in becoming one of the most decorated women's basketball players of all time requires drive and determination unknown to most.
Valerie Still's road to becoming the top scorer (2,763 points) and rebounder (1,525 rebounds) in Kentucky men's and women's basketball history was paved, to a large extent, by her willpower. Still's achievements at UK came at a time when women's sports were still in a budding stage at the college level and her professional career began before a women's league even existed in the United States, yet she was undeterred.
For all that she overcame as a player, her perseverance was not fully tested until after her career was over. It was then that Still encountered some of the tragedies and personal troubles that can befall any of us, no matter what we have or haven't accomplished.
"People see us as professional athletes who have been successful and that lived the high life," Still said. "I'm an example of how you can do incredible things, but we're still human."
In handling those problems, Still has conducted herself the same way she did through the now much more trivial-seeming problems she came upon as a player. She has held her head high and taken them in stride. In fact, Still sees the bigger picture.
"I've always kind of been this way, but with everything that's happened, God has a specific plan for me," Still said. "Everything that's happened to me I use as a stepping stone."
The first of those tests came in the form of becoming a single mother. In 2005, Still and her husband, former UK basketball player Rob Lock, filed for divorce. Still took over sole responsibility of raising their son. It's a role she never anticipated and one for which she could not have prepared.
"I never would have thought I'd be a single mom," Still said. "I understand what single moms go through. I can relate in that way."
Although preparing for being a single mother is impossible, her strength in going about the task came from two sources: God and her own mother.
Still's mother, Gwendolyn, was the rock of her family. The ninth of 10 children in poverty in Camden, N.J., Valerie Still saw the passion of her mother and felt her unconditional love. Still and her siblings were inspired by their mother and success followed. Three of her brothers played college basketball and another, Art, went on to football stardom at UK and the NFL.
"She was really the foundation of our family," Still said of her mother. "Everything that we've done, all of my brothers, it was all about who she was: a strong woman building our self-confidence."
Drawing from that strength is what gave Still the ability to raise her son, but another test would follow when her mother passed away.
"When something like that happens, it changes your life dramatically," Still said.
While her mother was ill in the hospital, Still flew out to Kansas to be with her family. She and her brother Dennis, who was living in Kansas at the time, carried the burden of making decisions on behalf of their mother, culminating in taking her off of life support.
Still was working towards a doctorate in sports humanities at Ohio State when her mother died. Living in Ohio at the time, Still decided to move from Ohio to Kansas permanently. She had always been extremely close with Dennis, who played basketball at South Alabama, and dealing with her mother's death made her realize that she and her son needed to be physically closer to him.
Still had done her best in raising her son, who is now 15, but as he entered adolescence, it became clear that a male role model like Dennis would benefit him greatly.
"I'm a pretty strong woman, I'm pretty assertive; you could say I'm feminist in a way," Still said. "I'm pretty self-sufficient and I raised him that way. I surrounded him with as many positive male role models as possible. As he was turning 14, I thought he really needed to have a stable male father figure in his life."
Additionally, Valerie is working with Dennis. He started a business called "Ol School" Sports Academy where he trains young athletes and his sister is now involved as well.
"He has a facility that trains young athletes and he needed some help with running it and I needed a job, so I'm running it," Still said. "I help with training as well, but mainly deal with the administrative kind of things."
Still was in need of a job because she was dismissed from her position as head women's basketball coach at a small school in rural Kansas after one season. Still says that she was terminated wrongfully due to racial and gender discrimination and is involved in an ongoing legal claim against the school system.
"They hired me, I did really well and at the end of the season they actually fired me," Still said. "I've been all over the world, all kinds of places, and in 2011 had this experience."
After all that she has endured, from life as a single mother, to the death of her own mother, to being fired from a job she truly enjoyed, Still would be more than justified if she narrowed her focus down to her family and their life in Kansas, but that's simply not in her character.
What about the doctorate she was pursuing at the time of her mother's death? Still decided to pursue it again and changed her dissertation based on what happened in her life recently. Originally, she was studying the American Basketball League, the lesser-known predecessor to the WNBA that Still played in.
"Now I'm really interested in gender and race discrimination in high school and college athletics," Still said. "(With my doctorate), we study those kinds of things. We study sports law and how Title IX and Title VII work. Me being in it like this, it's going to be really educational. My new dissertation that I'm working on is all about race and gender discrimination and Title IX in high school athletics."
For all of her accolades as a player, Still's education is the accomplishment that means the most to her. Not only is she proud of her undergraduate degree from UK, master's at Ohio State and soon-to-be doctorate, she also will be putting them to good use.
In 1999, she founded the Valerie Still Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that "works to ensure that girls are encouraged and instructed to develop all their natural talents." While living in Ohio, Still coordinated a number of events and camps through her foundation to help young female athletes build confidence like her mother did for her.
After her mother's death, Still curtailed her work with her foundation to focus on her family. Recently, she has begun to devote her time to the foundation again and that work has inspired her to do even more.
"It's just been recent that I've actually got started again with that," Still said. "We've done a big event in central Ohio that we had in May. The Valerie Still Foundation does it along with the Junior League of Columbus. When I went back to do that, it really kick-started me. It really made me think that I had to push even more so for girls, young female athletes."
Armed with her education and experiences, she believes she can make a big difference.
"There's a lot of work to be done in the field of high school athletics and females," Still said. "I've connected with another non-profit here in Kansas City called Young Women on the Move. We are the process of getting ready to do another big program with young middle school girls. That's definitely my passion."
After her last high school coaching experience, Still also could have packed it in and said she was finished with that, but she will be heading back to the sideline again this fall. In fact, she will be coaching her son's team at Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence, Kan.
"It's a small school, but it has a really good basketball program, which they've asked me to coach," Still said. "I'm actually going to be coaching boys and helping with their girls' program as well."
The one regret she does have about the arrangement is that she is smack dab in the middle of Kansas Jayhawk territory.
"The only thing is that we need to be closer to UK though," Still said. "The Jayhawk influence is there now."
Although she is nearly 30 years removed from her college playing career, she still looks back fondly on her time at UK.
"When I go back to Lexington, I feel at home," Still said. "I spent more time academically at OSU, because I did two years with my master's and three or four with my doctorate, but I still feel like I'm a Wildcat."
UK was also a first step toward a professional career that saw her play in Italy before returning to the States to play in both the ABL and WNBA. Still also came back to play for the Washington Mystics after having a child, something few had accomplished at the time.
Still loves bragging about UK, but even she hasn't been brave enough to talk too much when the Jayhawks have lost before her Wildcats in the men's basketball tournament each of the past two seasons.
"The last two years, Kansas has lost the week before Kentucky in March Madness," Still said. "For that week that Kansas has lost, I've had to kind of quiet down. The Big Blue Nation is all over and I'll always be a part of that. I'll always bleed blue."
These days, Still has plenty of reasons to be proud of Kentucky's women's program as well. Head coach Matthew Mitchell is taking the Wildcats to heights unseen since Still wore the uniform in the 1980s. Still even brought up the possibility of becoming directly involved with the program in the future if the opportunity ever arises.
"The program now, with Matthew taking it on, that's what you want in a program," Still said. "You want a future in it. It's got the foundation and I think what we're doing right now is building on that so we can become a program that has great tradition like a UConn, like a Tennessee. I'm excited about it."