Remembering a legend unlike any other
She walked through the doors of the pre-draft camp and grew eight inches. What was a could-be productive 6’6 post player on paper became the 7’2 1998 No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick Margo Dydek, an incomparable force unlike any player the league has seen since.
Born Malgorzata Dydek in Warsaw, Poland, in 1974, there was no doubt she would grow up to be tall. Her dad was 6 feet 7 inches tall, and her mom was 6 feet 3 inches herself. While her sisters grew up to be 6-foot-6 (younger sister Marta) and 6-foot-7 (older sister Katarzyna), Margo ended up towering over even them, growing to be over 7 feet 2 inches tall and prime for athletics.
As the story goes, though, she didn’t initially care for basketball. Katarzyna pulled her along to play, and over time, little sister changed her mind.
“Now, I can’t live without basketball,” she said during a pre-draft interview.
And the WNBA couldn’t live without her. The Utah Starzz finished the league’s inaugural season 7-21 and at the bottom of the standings and so had the first pick the following April. Their roster was built around forward Wendy Palmer and center Elena Baranova out of Russia, both double-digit scorers, but the team was bottom of the league in offensive rating and one spot out of last in defensive rating.
There was no special excitement surrounding the “6-foot-6” Dydek entering the pre-draft workouts, but when she walked in and everyone realized her listed height was a clerical error, everything changed. No one could pass on a unique player like Margo, who actually stood over 7 feet tall.
Like Baranova, Dydek had experience playing overseas before coming over to play in the WNBA. She played from 1992 to 1994 in Poland, followed by a pair of years each in France and Spain. In fact, she was familiar with Baranova from her time in Europe and expressed interest in the interior presence they could create together.
Consider that the year before the tallest player in the league was Haixia Zheng, a 6-foot-8 sturdy interior player for the Los Angeles Sparks who averaged just under 20 minutes roaming the paint.
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Dydek had six inches on her and nine inches on her teammate Baranova, who played better as a strong forward with the ability to pull out to the arc and shoot. Adding Dydek gave them a true center with a soft touch and the ability to make sound passes out of the post.
“She has great court awareness, understands the game and is fundamentally sound,” Starzz head coach Denise Taylor said at the time she was drafted. Her versatility at her size made waves across the league, skyrocketing the Starzz’ potential in the minds of many of the game’s greats.
“Dydek is going to make Utah an instant contender,” Nancy Lieberman — then head coach of the upstart Detroit Shock — told reporters. “She will change the game of women’s basketball because she’ll change shots. She can palm the ball, dunk the ball.”
And, while it’s true — she absolutely could dunk — it was never her priority.
“I saw a video of my dunk, and I don’t like it. So I prefer to leave that to Jordan,” Dydek told Sports Illustrated.
So she left the dunking to Jordan and focused on the areas she could be more effective: scoring inside and protecting the rim on defense. It took no time for her to establish herself as a shot blocker.
In her rookie season, she averaged 3.8 blocks per game for a total of 114 across the 30-game regular season. That included six games with at least six blocks each. In a game against the Cleveland Rockers, she swatted away nine shots, still the record for blocks in a game by a first-year player.
Her 114 blocks in 1998 still stands as the record for first-year players as well; in fact, it was the overall record until 2014, when the league’s current shot-blocking leader, Brittney Griner, recorded 129 blocks. It should be noted, however, that Griner had four more games than Dydek, so Dydek’s average in 1998 (3.8) is still slightly better than Griner’s 2014 mark (3.79).
She also contributed 12.9 points per game, tied for second on the team with Baranova and behind only Palmer (13.5 PPG), but Utah still finished at the bottom of the league, last in the Western Conference and ahead of only the expansion Washington Mystics.
Dydek, like many post players in the WNBA still to this day, struggled with officiating on both ends of the floor.
“In Europe, when they hit your arms it’s a foul. Here, it’s hard… I don’t understand yet,” she told reporters during the season. Local reporters at the time noted that on the defensive end, she also seemed to be called for phantom fouls, where referees appeared to be assuming that she was only able to block shots because she had fouled the offensive player somewhere.
Becoming acclimated to the league would take time, but as the center of the Starzz offense, she would have to adjust on the fly. She played 28 minutes per game in her rookie season and started all 30 games, finishing as runner-up for Newcomer of the Year and third place in voting for Defensive Player of the Year behind Teresa Weatherspoon and Kim Perrot.
With Dydek returning in 1999, the Starzz started their upward movement in the league, adding in ABL stars including Natalie Williams and Debbie Black, both defensive threats and Williams an unstoppable force on offense.
The Starzz improved from 8-22 in 1998 to 15-17 in 1999, and Dydek also experienced success overseas. She helped lead Poland to a gold medal in the EuroBasket Women Championship that year, averaging 19.3 points per game en route to being named tournament MVP. That also earned Poland a berth in the 2000 Olympics.
The next two years saw some retooling of the team, as Fred Williams took over as head coach and some major roster changes were made. Kate Starbird and Jennifer Azzi were brought in, the latter Williams called “one of the biggest deals in WNBA history.”
It certainly gave them a more solid point guard presence to help run the offense, while Dydek held down the defense. On June 1, 2000, Dydek became the first player to record 200 blocks in the WNBA. She did so in 64 games, second now only to Griner who reached the same mark in 2014 in 57 career games.
Dydek suffered a sprained ankle partway through the 2000 season, and she wasn’t able to make the same impact, though still solid with 9.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game in 24.2 minutes on average. In the old East/West format, the Starzz finished just outside the Playoffs though they were sixth overall in the league out of 16 teams.
2001 saw an increased in production from Dydek. After a 5-8 start and during a three-game skid, Williams abruptly resigned, leaving assistant Candi Harvey to take over. And, frankly, the team flourished. They finished 14-5 under Harvey with an overall record of 19-13, good for third in the Western Conference and their first playoff berth.
Dydek averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks, her best mark since her rookie season, and on June 7 in a game against Orlando, she had a performance that still stands out today. With 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 blocks, she recorded the league’s second triple-double and set a new record for blocks in a game. (Lisa Leslie would match the blocks record three years later, and Griner eventually broke that record in 2014 as well, when she had 11 blocks in a game against Tulsa.)
The Starzz were swept by the Sacramento Monarchs in the conference semifinals that year, but their momentum was in the right direction. In 2002, they posted their first 20-win season and beat the Houston Comets 2-1 to get to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to the eventual champion Sparks.
Before the 2003 season, the Starzz relocated to San Antonio, where they became the Silver Stars, and Dydek earned her first All Star nod as a reserve, but the Silver Stars were back to the bottom, finishing ahead of only the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference.
A coaching change brought in Dee Brown, and Dydek’s minutes and production fell dramatically in his system. By July of 2004, rumors had started swirling that Dydek wanted to be traded. The Silver Stars finished at the bottom of the league again that year, and then Dydek’s request came to pass.
The Connecticut Sun, who had similarly relocated from Orlando prior to 2003, were looking for a true center and were able to strike a deal with San Antonio, sending Katie Feenstra and a 2006 first round pick to get Dydek. Similar to Utah drafting Dydek to move Baranova over to the forward spot, this allowed head coach Mike Thibault to slide Taj McWilliams-Franklin to the power forward position.
There was some uncertainty around the move, as there would be for any team that finished atop the Eastern Conference the previous year and fell one game short of winning it all. But it soon became clear Dydek was as professional as they came.
“She just goes about her business,” teammate Asjha Jones said at the time, and Dydek undoubtedly knew why she was there.
“The blocked shots is what I like to do,” she told reporters. “I can see offenses changing. It’s good. That’s why I do it.”
That year, she became the first player to record 700 career blocks in her 243th game. In 21.6 minutes per game, she averaged 7.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. The Sun swept Detroit and Indiana to get back to the WNBA Finals, but once again they fell just short, this time to the Monarchs.
Everything seemed aligned in 2006, with the Sun getting five players to the All Star game, including Margo’s first nod as a starter in the Eastern Conference. Teammates Lindsay Whalen and Nykesha Sales were also starters, while Katie Douglas and McWilliams-Franklin were named reserves in the East, making them the first starting five to all get to the same All Star Game. With Thibault as coach of the East, they got their first All Star win over the Western Conference, and they were primed for a postseason run.
Dydek upped her production in essentially the same time on court, recording 9.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in 21.9 minutes per game as the Sun secured the top seed overall.
Unfortunately, they were upset by the Detroit Shock in the Eastern Conference Finals, and an early exit in the 2007 Playoffs spelled the end of the Sun era and the height of Dydek’s career.
While playing in Spain prior to the summer of 2007, Margo started to experience back issues, local reports at the time citing “two injured disks.”
“In offense, I don’t feel too comfortable just to get in a physical game,” she said at the time.
That October, she announced she was expecting her first child, and many assumed that Dydek would retire from the WNBA, as she questioned her desire to return back.
After giving birth in April of 2008, she signed with the Los Angeles Sparks in an effort to fill a spot left by Christi Thomas’ injury. After playing just seven minutes over two games, she officially retired from the WNBA and ended her historic run in the league.
Over her 11 seasons, she amassed 3,220 points, 2,143 rebounds, and 877 blocks in 323 games played. She still leads the league in blocks, nearly 300 ahead of Griner and Sylvia Fowles, the closest active players.
She averaged 2.72 blocks per game, just under 0.5 more than Lisa Leslie, the next closest behind her in history. However, Griner currently sits atop those standings at 3.11 per game. If she can achieve longevity like Dydek’s she could easily take over the record for total blocks as well.
From her start in 1998, Margo made it clear dunks were not her focus, and she never did dunk in a game. Defense was her focus, and she earned All-Defensive nods in 2006 and 2007. That team was named starting in 2005, so given that she led the league in blocks from 1998 to 2003 and again from 2005 to 2007, she was likely a lock for the theoretical All-Defensive team earlier in her career.
To this day, she is still in the top 25 in several categories:
- Blocks: 877 (1st)
- Block Percentage: 9.0 (1st)
- Blocks Per Game: 2.7 (2nd)
- Defensive Rating: 91.3 (7th)
- Rebound Percentage: 16.7 (12th)
- Rebounds: 2,143 (19th)
- Rebounds Per Game: 6.6 (20th)
- Player Efficiency Rating: 20.3 (21st)
- Defensive Win Shares: 17.0 (21st)
Her numbers jump off the screen, but her legacy in the WNBA doesn’t end there.
In May 2011, while pregnant with her third child, Dydek suffered a heart attack and was placed in a medically-induced coma. The following week, she tragically passed away, rocking the basketball world.
Words of praise and celebration of Margo came from around the league following her passing.
“She just had that big heart and she just loved everybody and it showed every day,” Sun teammate Jones told media at the time. Whalen agreed, adding “She was such a good friend… She was someone you could always depend on.”
For a 7-foot-2 intimidating physical presence, Margo’s spirit was far from that. “Large Marge,” many called her, but her heart was felt most prominently.
“Not only was Margo a great basketball player, she was one of the kindest people I had the opportunity to play against and later work with,” Sparks general manager and former player Penny Toler said after Dydek’s passing.
Dydek’s former teammate and assistant coach Tammi Reiss told Sports Illustrated of her playful and sweet personality.
“Seeing how much she cared was a profound moment for me,” she said. “She just wants to have fun, go out and play.”
Beyond her legendary play, Dydek embodied the spirit of someone who soaked up her international experience more than just the game of basketball itself.
“She had friends everywhere we went, basketball, non-basketball,” Thibault told reporters after her death, adding that she had an appreciation for life unlike so many others, saying that she perhaps knew better that “basketball is what we do, not who we are.”
Dydek was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, and a unique, game-changing presence in the WNBA.
In 2012, she was included in the Sun’s All-Decade Team, and her number is honored along with Sales and Douglas in the Sun’s Banner of Honor for her impact on the franchise in even her short time in Connecticut.
In 2015, she was named one of the top 20 Polish female athletes of the previous 20 years, and she is set to be inducted in to the FIBA Hall of Fame on August 30.
Most notably, her name comes up every year as the Sun have given out the Margo Dydek Award every year since her death to a woman who “has distinguished themselves while positively impacting the community.” Past recipients include Connecticut great and Naismith Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, University of Connecticut Associate Head Coach Chris Dailey, and ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
Rowe, who covered the Utah Starzz in the early years of the WNBA when Dydek was drafted, really brought the award and its meaning full circle last summer when named its most recent recipient.
As tough as Dydek ever was to score on, her personality stood in fierce opposition to her on-court presence, as Rowe so perfectly summed up:
“She was gentle and kind while working hard and being tough on the court.”