Her April began with a defeat that ended her Iowa career. Yet, it became the Month of Megan.
Megan Gustafson learned something in the month that followed her Iowa women’s basketball team’s April 1 loss to Baylor in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Namely, she was beloved. Not just in her Port Wing hometown in northernmost Wisconsin, or at Iowa, where she led the nation in scoring her last two seasons.
This was an America thing.
“The recognition everywhere of who she is was pretty striking,” said Brian Ray, the director of photography for Iowa’s athletic department.
“Everybody knew who she was. She’s a genuine rock star.”
Ray was with Gustafson for most of her national travels following the loss to Baylor in Greensboro, N.C. From April 4-6 she was at the Women’s Final Four in Tampa, Fla., to receive four different women’s National Player of the Year awards. Then came the WNBA Draft in New York where she was a second-round pick of the Dallas Wings, two national awards events in Los Angeles, and a trip to St. Louis for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association awards to receive its women’s Player of the Year honor.
That took her to mid-April. Once back in Iowa, Gustafson had public appearances in Des Moines (twice), Davenport, and in Iowa City-Coralville.
UI assistant director of athletic communicatons Brandee Britt was with Gustafson for virtually every mile.
“Obviously she was the National Player of the Year,” Britt said. “But the reach she had, I didn’t really know it until we were outside Iowa.
“We would be in (Chicago airport) O’Hare and people were asking her if she were Megan Gustafson. It was the same thing in New York and Los Angeles.”
Adults and kids wanted to meet her, wanted to be near her.
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“So many parents thanked her for being a good role model for their children,” said Britt. “I’m glad she got to hear that directly from parents.”
Gustafson’s play, of course, was sensational. But she grabbed heartstrings because of her sunny personality, the joy and fire she played with in games. Off the court, she was always upbeat, humble and accessible.
“Something that stands out is when we were at the Iowa Statehouse (on Aprll 24, where the state’s Senate and House passed resolutions recognizing Gustafson’s achievements),” Ray said. “We were walking out. A boy (part of a sixth-grade class from Ankney on a field trip at the Capitol) saw us and said ‘That’s Megan Gustafson!’ They were yelling ‘We love you!’
“She handled everything so well. She never turned down an autograph, never denied anyone a hug.”
The appreciation extended beyond Iowans. Gustafson met Basketball Hall of Fame player Karl Malone at the Wooden Awards in Los Angeles. Malone told Gustafson she should have been picked higher than 17th in the WNBA Draft.
“You should have gone higher,” Malone told her, according to Britt. “If you can ball, you can ball.”
Duke’s Zion Williamson, honored as the men’s Player of the Year, watched in amazement as Gustafson did her “Mikan Drill” at a Los Angeles event they both attended.
The drill involves her laying the ball in the basket with her right hand, rebounding it with her left, laying it in the basket with her left hand, and rebounding with her right. Oh, she does it with two basketballs at a time so she’s rebounding and making layups with each palm at the same time. She does it for 40 seconds.
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Ray said Williamson’s dumbfounded reaction was “I can’t do that. No way.”
After the national travels were over, Gustafson had autograph signings in Davenport and Coralville, had her jersey number retired during a salute to her team at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Iowa Cubs game. But there were two other things she fit in, too.
“The day we got home from Los Angeles,” Britt said, “she went directly to Carver to work out. Her home is the basketball court.
“When we’d go to events in Iowa, I did the driving and Megan would be in the seat next to me studying.
“Her professors were pretty great about scheduling things when she was gone. I know she was pretty stressed this week. She had a final exam on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. And, she had to pack up her things at her apartment, and find time to say goodbye to her friends.”
Gustafson left Iowa for Dallas on Thursday. The Wings’ training camp opens Sunday and their first preseason game is May 13.
It may not be accurate to say her life will slow down now that she’s entering pro basketball. But now she can focus on basketball again.
“I kept thinking I hope this isn’t my one time in a lifetime to be around something like this,” Britt said, “but Megan clearly is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.”
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