November 8, 2009 in Sports

Multilayered Shives finds home

Zags greeted guard after dreary year at Michigan St.
Christopher Anderson photo

Gonzaga’s Tiffanie Shives was a McDonald’s All-American during high school in Michigan.
(Full-size photo)

Don’t be surprised if there are mixed messages coming from Tiffanie Shives when the Gonzaga senior is on the basketball court

At times she will look, well, almost arrogant, or, at the very least, deadly serious, especially when her shot is falling and the Bulldogs are rolling.

At other times, maybe when the shot is bouncing high off the back rim, she might smile and shake her head.

There are layers to Shives. Like an onion?

“Oh yeah,” she said, a touch of resignation in her voice. “Pull them apart.”

The gunslinger swagger is what caught Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves’ attention.

“What has always drawn me to her is her confidence,” he said. “You’ve got to be to be as good as her. (And) she can really shoot it. … We missed her last year. She’s the kind of player, in any game, she can just go off. People have to game plan for that.”

Because of an injury that resulted in microfracture surgery on her left knee, Shives only played 10 games last season when her teammates advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“Nobody on the team can shoot as quick, as accurate and consistent as she can,” assistant coach Michelle Elliott said. “A 3-point shot is like a free throw to her.”

The anticipated 10- to 12-month recovery had her contemplating retirement until she healed quickly.

“I didn’t want to end my career on an injury, not being able to finish a season,” Shives said. “I also thought it was a great opportunity to get my master’s degree in one year and this is a great group of girls. We’re so deep and we have a chance to do something really special and I wanted to be a part of it.”

But there are so many more layers to Shives and her story.

The 5-foot-10 guard was all-everything in high school, from a McDonald’s All-American to Michigan’s Miss Basketball to the Detroit Free Press Dream Team.

While leading her team, Lansing Christian, to the State Class D title, Shives averaged 25.1 points, 8.0 assists, 5.2 steals and 4.4 rebounds. She ended her career with a state-record 311 3-pointers, second with 653 career assists, seventh with 2,283 points and 441 steals.

There was no recruiting tug of war because Shives had committed to the hometown national power Michigan State Spartans – as a high school freshman.

But by the time college classes started, she knew she had made a mistake. There was no chemistry with her teammates.

“I was a baby when I decided,” Shives said. “I was consumed, they wanted me. … I was a local kid and I got all this publicity. … My head might have been a little bit too big.”

By the first game she was a different person.

“I always had coaches who, obviously I was the best player, were always nice to me,” Shives said. “I had never been cussed out before in my life. Little Christian school kid, I was really naive. That was my issue. When I got cussed, I just got into a little shell, didn’t know how to respond. Instead of taking it as a challenge, I became a head case.”

Joining a team that lost the NCAA tournament championship game to Baylor the previous spring, Shives played in 26 games, averaging 9 minutes and 1.9 points as the Spartans returned to the Sweet 16.

“They were good, (but) I knew I was leaving pretty much after the first couple of games,” she said. “I was playing a good bit then, but I’m not kidding when I say we didn’t get along.

“I think it was more an ego thing for me. … The All-American kid got backed down.”

Graves doesn’t even remember who to credit for the circumstances that led Shives to Spokane.

“Some fan sent me a link, an e-mail,” he said. “I don’t even know if it said anything other than you might be interested in this. I clicked on the link to this newspaper, it was about Tiffanie leaving.”

Graves was aware of Shives – her high school credentials made it hard not to be – but the Bulldogs had also played MSU the previous season in the Virgin Islands.

“We had heard she was leaving, but I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “As I was reading the story, she said she always wanted to meet Adam Morrison. I’m not a genius, but I thought, ‘Ah, that’s our in.’

“We got permission to recruit her, brought her out on a visit … and the rest is history.”

Yes, another layer.

Shives was diagnosed as a Type I diabetic when she was 10, even before Morrison, a former GU star and diabetic, was making national headlines for his scoring.

“I never even heard of Gonzaga until they called me,” Shives said. “When I came out here, I got to meet with Adam and his doctors. That was really cool. There was that experience piece, they had been through it before. And I just fell in love with this team.”

The final selling point was the teammate she never had.

“Sarah Schramm was transferring at the time and she had nothing but good things to say about the coaches,” Shives said. “I thought that was so cool, somebody that was leaving the program was talking very positively about the situation she was in. That doesn’t happen very often.”

So Shives tucked her tail and ran, though her view has changed.

“It was hard to leave, but I wanted to get as far away as I could,” she said. “I kind of was embarrassed by the year. I hated it there, I hated seeing my fans come to see me and I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I felt bad I was letting them down.”

And now?

“It was good for me. I call it the worst best year of my life. I grew up a lot. I realized basketball wasn’t my life. Now I’m able to see basketball for what it is, a sport which I love to play.”

Part of that is getting a handle on her diabetes, starting with her conversation with Morrison.

“Adam told me it took him a while to listen to what other people were saying because he’s pretty stubborn,” Shives said. “He told me he loved Dr. (Harold) Cathcart and if I stay tight with him, he’ll really be able to help me. That’s been true.

“I realized after I left Michigan State it’s all about my diet. They tried to carb load me and make me thicker because the Big 10 is all about thick players. Here it’s all about agility.”

A case in point: The Spartans’ strength coach was a football strength coach. At Gonzaga it’s former men’s basketball player Mike Nilson.

The redshirt year was still difficult, though Elliott, a former GU player who transferred from San Diego State, helped.

Shives started three of 34 games her first year and hit 52 3-pointers, averaging 8.8 points. She was averaging 10 points, with a high of 25, before she was hurt last year.

“I remember sitting down with Michelle and praying before the season,” Shives said. “I felt like I was home, because I had that atmosphere around me. She’s been able to keep me upbeat. Without that, I kind of go back into my little hole.”

While getting her master’s in organizational leadership with a long-range goal of working with inner-city youth in a Christian-based program, Shives plans to savor every minute of her final season.

“The way I’m looking at this year is I’m fortunate,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to get to play. I want to be able to contribute. I know I’m not as fast as I should be, but there are ways I can contribute to this team. I want to be able to do that and have fun every step of the way.

“Coach’s motto is: ‘Love Each Other.’ We think it’s so funny. It’s kind of dorky, but it’s so true. It fits for our team.”

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