And One: Tina Hutchinson, unrealized freshman phenom

Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics)
Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics) /

So much early promise, remembered

They had to restrain Tina Hutchinson. Southern California’s star Cheryl Miller blew her a kiss and gestured to the scoreboard, which indicated a 25-point lead for the reigning champions over up-and-comer San Diego State. This wasn’t just a game; it was a battle.

Before the game’s end, Hutchinson’s teammate Paula Perczynski and Miller’s running-mate Cynthia Cooper — yeah, that Cynthia Cooper — were ejected after exchanging words and squaring up to fight.

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Ultimately, USC was the better team. Coming off their 1983 NCAA Championship, they may have been slightly agitated by a bad run to start January that dropped them from their No. 1 ranking to top-4, and the Aztecs were an undoubtedly physical team scratching and clawing — perhaps literally at times, as USC head coach Linda Sharp contended after that game — for respect on the national landscape.

And, more specifically, Miller and Hutchinson were on a collision course as the best player on each of their teams, two of the best in the country, and individual front-runners in a stacked West Coast Athletic Association.

While anyone would say they just want to win the game, there’s no doubt it meant a lot that Hutchinson won the individual battle, scoring a then-program record 41 points over Miller, who finished with 36.

Hutchinson would best that single-game total twice more and still today holds the record for the highest freshman season scoring total and average in NCAA Division I. She stuffed stat sheets with points, rebounds, and steals regularly and was a shoe-in for All-American any time she was on the court. Nearly 900 points in her first year in college, but she’s nowhere to be found amongst NCAA career scoring leaders. She was a cornerstone of the WCAA in the mid-1980s, but now she’s mostly a comparison point for rising talent out of Illinois. How could that happen?

Starting in the late 1970s, Earnest Riggins built an Illinois high school powerhouse in East St. Louis, taking Jackie Joyner and crew to a Class AA state championship in 1980 before she shipped off to the West Coast to compete at UCLA. 500 miles south, Ida “Tina” Hutchinson was showing potential as a basketball talent in Birmingham, Alabama, but she was coming up on shaky ground.

“Where I first went to high school, you didn’t have to go to class, they protected the athletes,” she later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Living with her mother and grandmother, her father was out of the picture. At a summer basketball camp in Georgia after her freshman year of high school, she met Riggins, and he offered the stability she craved, on and off the court. Hutchinson moved to live with her aunt in East St. Louis to play for Riggins at Lincoln High, and difficulties surrounding living with her aunt eventually pushed her to live with Riggins and his family, and he eventually became her legal guardian.

“Back (in Birmingham), I didn’t like to go to class and I didn’t like people telling me anything,” Hutchinson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. What Riggins did was tell her how to play elite-level basketball.

It didn’t take long for Tina to become the talk of the town and a coveted recruit nationally. A 6’3 versatile forward, Hutchinson regularly dominated the court and the box score. In a January 1983 rout of Lindbergh — East St. Louis won 111-15 — she made 22 of her 36 field goals and six of eight free throws for 50 points, and she added on 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals, and four blocks.

“Jackie (Joyner) was the best (female) all-around athlete ever at Lincoln, but Tina is coming close to her,” Riggins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, adding on later that he gets so many calls about her that he kept a mini biography near his phone at home.

Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics)
Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics) /

Hutchinson wasn’t just a prolific scorer; she was a forward ahead of her time. Her defensive prowess combined with her ability to handle the ball on the break made her fearsome competition.

“Girls that tall aren’t supposed to be able to dribble that well,” Jodi Rathbun, an Illinois and later Arizona State legend in her own right said after losing to Lincoln. Slowing down her scoring was necessary to win, but beating Lincoln was a matter of making Hutchinson a complete non-factor.

In 1982 after Marshall beat Lincoln for the state championship, their star Jennifer Jones told reporters how important the match-up was. “Out-rebounding (Hutchinson) was kind of important to me.” Her coach and future Hall of Famer Dorothy Gaters agreed, saying, “We knew we had to contain her better.”

As her senior year rolled around, the national attention rose exponentially, and Riggins praised her all-around game.

“She is a threat any time she’s on the floor from any position. She can shoot outside, inside, she’s a threat to drive, she’s a great passer, a great leaper and she can bring the ball up the floor. She causes things to happen,” he said in February 1983.

Both UCLA and Tennessee had extended her offers, along with many other schools, and their legendary head coaches offered their praise for the senior, both incredibly prescient in hindsight.

“A lot of people have compared Tina to Cheryl Miller. I don’t think her game is as polished yet, but she has the same potential and the same ability,” UCLA head coach Billie Moore told the Los Angeles Times.

Pat Summitt only questioned her ability to make the transition to the next level, saying “Her freshman year is very important. Her mental and emotional maturity will be a factor in whether she makes the team.”

As her high school career wound down, the accolades joined the praise. Scoring more than 3,000 high school points on 78% shooting from the field and 80% from the free throw line, she averaged over 35 points and 15 rebounds in her senior year, capping it off with 41 points and 17 rebounds in her final game, the quarterfinals of the state tournament. She was named the Parade Magazine Girls High School Basketball National Player of the Year along with USA Today All-American and Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

With her pick of the field, Hutchinson was destined to play at UCLA, to join fellow Lincoln alumna Jackie Joyner and play under future Hall-of-Famer Billie Moore, but things would never be quite that simple for Tina.

Ernest Riggins. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics)
Ernest Riggins. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics) /

Riggins had built a reputation of his own in building his program in East St. Louis, and he was offered the head coaching position for the women’s basketball team at San Diego State. It would be a rebuild, to be sure. The Aztecs had a few 20-win seasons but never cracked the top of the WCAA and were coming off a 10-18 finish in the 1982-83 season.

He took the job, and Hutchinson and a pair of teammates came with him to San Diego. The familial bond was strong, perhaps above everything else.

“I see him as my real father,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t picture him as anything else. I have to be careful not to call him Daddy when we’re at practice.”

There’s no way to say how either Riggins or Hutchinson would have done without the other, but what we can say for sure is they were a force together. Despite having a young team, they had the unusual advantage of having three freshmen who had played together under Riggins before.

And they ran roughshod over the competition to open that season. After just 10 wins total the previous season, they opened the 1983-84 season 15-0 on the back of some big performances from Hutchinson. On December 2, she had a triple-double with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 14 steals in a 111-41 win over Lewis-Clark State. Two weeks later the Aztecs beat Utah State while setting an NCAA record with 132 points and 58 made field goals, including Hutchinson’s program-record 45 points.

Their first losses came at the hands of the powerhouses of the conference. On January 17, Long Beach State got a narrow 82-76 win over the Aztecs, setting up that epic matchup with Miller and the USC Trojans two days later.

Hutchinson put up her 41 points, but the game wasn’t close. With 4:11 left in the game, USC’s Pam McGee and San Diego State’s Paula Perczynski exchanged words, followed by a verbal battle between Miller and Hutchinson. USC was up 95-70, and Miller made sure Hutchinson knew it. A few minutes later Cooper and Perczynski were ejected before the Trojans left with the 101-84 win.

Hall of Fame USC coach Linda Sharp was critical of the Aztecs’ play, telling reporters, “There is no place for this in women’s basketball.”

“You can’t compare them,” she responded to a question about Miller and Hutchinson’s games. “Miller is a fundamentally sound player. Although Hutchinson is good on offense, she has a lot to learn about defense.”

Of course Sharp would favor her own All-American, but she was spot-on about Hutchinson’s weak point. She was an aggressive player, which on any given night could lead to double-digit steals and blocks but could also lead her in to turnovers and foul trouble. In their loss to Long Beach State, the Aztecs had 20 turnovers and Hutchinson was limited after her three fouls in the first 15 minutes of play.

As conference play wore on, her minutes were frequently limited by foul trouble. While that problem would follow her the rest of her basketball career, it also made her freshman year all the more impressive.

Her 46 points against Cal State-Fullerton is still a program record, and she finished the season with 898 points over 30 games for an average of 29.9 per game. Both are still freshman records across NCAA Division I, and 29.9 points per game is 11th all-time for any class. She added 10 rebounds and 6.2 steals to help turn the Aztecs from 10-18 to 23-5 in the regular season with an NCAA Tournament berth.

Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics)
Tina Hutchinson. (photo courtesy of San Diego State Athletics) /

Hutchinson was named to the WCAA First Team, the second-leading vote-getter behind Miller, joining Paula and Pam McGee from USC and Kirsten Cummings from Long Beach State. She was also on the national All-America Second Team and named the “Outstanding Freshman” by the Shreveport Journal.

The Aztecs made it to the Sweet Sixteen that year, beating Oregon in the first round 73-60 before falling to conference foe Long Beach State 91-73 in their second game. An early exit for San Diego State, but they looked primed for a huge 1984-85 season.

That summer saw the first hitch in Hutchinson’s legacy. With a good shot at making the Olympic team ahead of the 1984 games, she missed the February application deadline and was prohibited from attending the team trials. The opportunity to play with the nation’s best and continue developing her all-around talent slipped through her fingers. But bigger challenges were still ahead.

Back in San Diego, Riggins added another top recruit in 1984, bringing in freshman point guard Penny Toler to a team stacked with post talent. San Diego State earned their first preseason ranking at No. 13 in the country coming in to the season, and Hutchinson picked up where she left off.

She had 28 points on 14-17 shooting, adding nine rebounds and eight steals against Central Michigan. The Aztecs ripped off eight straight wins on their way to a No. 9 ranking. You can see the talent on display in this rough cut of a game against University of San Diego.

(As a note, while we’re here: I can’t help but think of Natasha Howard when I watch her play in this clip. Wiry and lean with a smooth jumper and explosive ability off the bounce, her ability to pass around the basket is so fun as a forward.)

Then, on December 15, Hutchinson’s career was rocked forever. She injured her left knee in a 77-73 upset loss to Southern Illinois. Arthroscopic surgery was required to repair torn cartilage, but the outlook was initially promising, as she could be back on the court in three weeks.

She did come back on January 4 and looked to be back in prime form, scoring 26 points against Hardin-Simmons off the bench, but she re-aggravated the injury the next night against Northeast Louisiana and sat out of a loss to conference opponent Long Beach State.

Once again she bounced back strong, putting up 28 points (13-22 FG) on January 19 in a win over UCLA, but looking back, it was probably too soon a comeback. Late in January she re-aggravated the injury in practice and was unable to play more than five minutes against USC in the following game. Ultimately her injury got so severe she was scheduled for reconstructive surgery.

Before her knee was wrecked too far to play on, her 17 points per game helped San Diego State to a 20-8 finish (9-5 in the WCAA) and a spot back in the NCAA Tournament.

She was named to the All-America Third Team by the Shreveport Journal despite a limited season. On March 12 she underwent surgery to replace ligaments in her left knee, and recovery was predicted to keep her out 9-12 months. The team was prepared to red-shirt her the following year, but things only got worse.

In a 1988 story for the Los Angeles Times, Hutchinson’s roommate and teammate Dee Dee Duncan described her dismal response to recovery.

“It was a constant, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do this; I wouldn’t be able to do that'” Duncan said of her roommate’s mindset as she constantly doubted her ability to improve her condition. “She got to the point where she was going to the therapy, doing what she was supposed to be doing. But as soon as she got to the point she could play some again, she knocked off the therapy.”

Not only was she not going to rehab, but she stopped going to class consistently along the way. By the end of the spring semester, she had flunked out of several classes. By the time her junior year rolled around, she wasn’t qualified academically to return to the school, let alone to her team.

And she never would.

That downturn ultimately foreshadowed the end of a fantastic run for Riggins and crew at San Diego State. Toler left San Diego State after that year and ultimately finished her college years as an All-American at Long Beach State. Teammate and fellow post player Toni Wallace also failed off the team and struggled to return after taking classes at a local junior college.

Unrest with a struggling team and changes in leadership with the athletic department led to Riggins’ firing after the 1988-89 season, after which he returned to Illinois and the AAU/high school ranks.

Hutchinson moved on to professional basketball, but she was never the same after the knee injury.

“After an injury like Tina’s, your mind begins to play tricks on you,” Riggins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1986, after it became clear she would not return to college. “I don’t think she handled it well. She felt a failure on the court and in society.”

She spent some time playing in Italy and Switzerland, and while she had a run of success, getting her team to the Swiss Cup tournament averaging 35 points and 15 rebounds, foul trouble reared its ugly head again. In the final game, she played just 28 minutes and her team ultimately lost.

The team voiced frustrations, telling the Los Angeles Times in the 1988 LA Times story that her physical condition had been misrepresented and they would not extend her a new offer. Whereas Riggins understood how to teach and communicate with Hutchinson, overseas proved to be a much different challenge that affected her mentally on top of her physical woes.

“She has star qualities,” Christian Udasse the manager of her team in Switzerland, told the LA Times. “But on the court, Tina’s attitude is not very good.”

Her reputation was irreparable, like her physical condition. She made her way around some local leagues to work her way back, but her career was ultimately cut short.

But her legacy lasts. No one in Division I women’s basketball has scored as many points as a freshman as Hutchinson did. That includes Kelsey Mitchell, one of the most prolific scorers the game has seen, who played five more games (35) but had 25 fewer points (873). Based on averages alone, Valorie Whiteside was the closest there has ever been the following year (27.1 points per game compared to Hutchinson’s 29.9), and Elena Delle Donne in 2010 had 26.7. Those are both players who had to carry a major load for their teams, so they are comparable situations.

On top of all of that, keep this in mind as always: Hutchinson played without a three-point line. She scored 1,256 points over 51 games at San Diego State with ones and twos alone.

Such a short career and an unpleasant finish has likely kept her out of Hall of Fame consideration at San Diego State, but in 1999 she was named to the Chicago Tribune’s second team in its “Team of the Century“, behind only Hall of Fame forwards Tamika Catchings and Janet Harris.

And when I saw Tamika Catchings’ name so close to Tina’s, I couldn’t help but think how different this story might have been if it came 10-15 years later. Catchings faced a similar leg injury in her senior year at Tennessee that could have threatened her future career, but she rehabbed through it to become one of the most decorated and respected basketball players of all time in the WNBA.

In no way do I mean to suggest that Hutchinson could have turned it all around if she were just mentally stronger. I wonder more about the circumstances: nearly two decades separate the two players’ injuries, and advances in treatment options and rehabilitation could have made a big difference. Not to mention, the difference in facilities and personnel at up-and-coming San Diego State versus Tennessee at the program’s height have to have been substantial.

And from a mental perspective, I can’t help but think what a difference it makes for someone to have the prospect of playing basketball professionally as a potential future in front of them. Sure, Tina ended up playing overseas, but this was in the mid-1980s when Americans were starting to make their mark overseas and didn’t see even what they do today.

On the other hand, players now have the prospect of the WNBA in front of them. A tough league to make, you can’t deny it could serve as a motivator for the country’s top players. In the mid-1980s, the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA) quickly came and went before Hutchinson could have even considered it as a profession.

Those what-ifs can be hard to swallow. How differently might the basketball community regard Tina Hutchinson today if even just one of those bumps in the road had been smooth? There’s no way to know.

What we do know is everything Tina showed in those two years in San Diego: an unmatched ability to score that helped take down UCLA, a competitive spirit that took her toe-to-toe with Cheryl Miller and an unstoppable USC team, and a fierce loyalty that hitched her to Earnest Riggins’ Aztecs team in the first place.

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