Doctor on the court: Kristine Anigwe’s surgical brand of basketball

Kristine Anigwe has turned herself into the most prolific rebounder in college b

Kristine Anigwe has turned herself into the most prolific rebounder in college basketball this season – men or women. (Photo by Mollie McClure/McClure Images)

Kristine Anigwe won’t be going to medical school after she graduates this year from UC Berkeley.

The best women’s basketball player Berkeley has ever seen knows what it would take to become a doctor - her older brother Chris is on that path, studying at UC San Francisco. But back home in Arizona, Anigwe says she sees the passion Chris puts into fulfilling his dream to be a doctor and plans to apply her passion to playing in the WNBA.

The 6-foot-4-inch center/forward will play with Berkeley in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament starting tomorrow as the Golden Bears face North Carolina in Waco, Texas.

"Everybody else in my family wanted to be a doctor," she says. "I wanted to play basketball. And I thought, ’Maybe I can’t be the doctor in the family, but I can be the really good athlete.’”

"Because my brother worked so hard and studied so hard, when he was studying all the time, I would use the same time to work out. It was almost like, ’If he’s going to work that hard to get what he wants, then I’m going to work that hard, too.’"

Born in London to Nigerian parents, Anigwe came rather late to basketball. The Nigerian tradition that the Anigwe clan followed was centered on hard work and the pursuit of academics. But once the family moved to Phoenix, that gradually changed. It was evident in Arizona that sports could open doors. And it was about that time, in the seventh grade, that Anigwe took up basketball with an eye toward being the best.

"There is something in my family where you have to do it now," Anigwe says. "Putting it off until tomorrow is just not done in my family. If you are going to do something, go all the way. It takes the same amount of time to be mediocre as it does to be great. So why not strive for that?

"So I was always serious when I said I wanted to play in the WNBA. People would say, `OK, cool.’ And now, it’s a reality, and in a couple of months, it will be something that I’ll actually be doing by the grace of God. I’m just so grateful to be here at Berkeley. At this time last year, I didn’t think I would be in this position."

As a junior, she averaged 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, good enough for All-American Honorable Mention status. But not good enough for Anigwe, who spent the offseason redoubling her efforts. She heads into the NCAA tourney averaging 22.9 points and 16.3 rebounds. She’s seventh in the country in scoring and No. 1, for both men and women, in rebounding.

Anigwe’s coach, Lindsay Gottlieb, loves those particular statistics, but says the numbers aren’t the best way to judge Anigwe. She points to Feb. 1, when Anigwe had 25 points and 24 rebounds against Stanford.

"The fact that she did that in a home win against Stanford is unbelievably significant," Gottlieb says. "Stanford’s game plan was to take Kristine out of the game and make others beat them. She got 25 and 24 anyway. But she fouled out with about a minute to go.

"Her teammate, (point guard) Asha Thomas, doesn’t have the same kind of celebrity, but she’s very popular, and on that night, she hit the game-winning shot. It was really cool to see Kristine celebrate a win that she helped us get, but to see her equally thrilled that her buddy and teammate hit the game winner. That encapsulated what is special about her. What she cares most about is winning."

With her four years at Berkeley winding down, Anigwe could focus solely on basketball and let her academics slip, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

A sociology major, she’s spent part of the last week working on a paper about the NCAA after taking a class that focused on French sociologist Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of the field.

"I’m writing this paper about the NCAA," she says. "It’s about how some athletes can also can feel alienated at the same time they can feel together. You can feel alienated in the sport, if you don’t love it. And part of that is being part of a team. You are stronger when you are together. I think it’s a really interesting paper. I’m learning that I really do love the sport."

Anigwe says she picked Berkeley, in part, because her mother was insistent on her going to a good academic school and also because she "fell in love with the coaches, the school and the atmosphere here."

Four years later, what is she going to take away from her time at Berkeley, beyond a degree and the probability that she’ll be one of the first players chosen in the WNBA draft?

"When I came here, I really didn’t have any women athletic role models," Anigwe says. "Now, I have one in my coach, Lindsay. And I know I’d like to be a role model for other young girls. Lindsay never lashes out. Instead, she’s showed me you don’t have to be very aggressive to be a good strong leader. Just have to be a good person.

"In the four years, I think I’ve grown a lot. My work ethic, if anything, has gotten stronger, even since last year. I’ve come to understand what it takes to get to the elite level. Every single day, I grow and I learn. I want to make myself proud."