SOUTH BEND, Ind. – When Skylar Diggins was younger, stepfather Maurice Scott used to tell her about Michael Jordan’s famous “Be Like Mike” commercial. One day, he’d joke, she’d have her own ad like that.
“I want to be like Sky. Sky’s the limit,” Scott said, recalling his suggested tag lines. “We’d laugh about it.”
Funny thing is, he wasn’t too far off.
Diggins is the biggest thing going in women’s basketball these days, maybe in all of women’s sports. Her smooth shot and uncanny floor vision carried Notre Dame to the national title game last year, and she has the third-ranked Irish poised to make another deep run. Her engaging personality and cover-girl looks have made her a crossover hit, with 130,000-plus followers on Twitter and megastar rapper Lil Wayne, one of her biggest fans, rocking her jersey at a concert last spring.
All this, and she’s only 21.
“I think she’s great for the game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s a great student, she’s a great ambassador when she’s in the community and she’s humble. She’s got charisma. She’s the kind of person that people want to follow. When you point to somebody that’s doing things the right way, you look at her and say she’s got the whole package.”
That Diggins was going to be a big deal at Notre Dame was a given. She’s a local kid, having grown up on South Bend’s west side and played for her stepfather at Washington High School. She took Washington to the Class 4A title game all four years, winning it as a sophomore. She averaged 25.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 4.4 steals a game, and walked off with nearly every award possible her senior year: Indiana’s Miss Basketball. McDonald’s All-American. National high school player of the year.
“She’s one of those players that have an ‘X’ factor,” said Irish assistant Niele Ivey, who was Diggins’ favorite player growing up and was in charge of her recruiting. “She has that ability to take over games. I was at games they’d be down 20, 30 points in fourth quarter, and she would will that team back to win. She’d do whatever it took.”
Programs around the country wanted her – badly. When the recruiting process was at its height, Diggins got so much mail the carriers would have to take it up to the Scotts’ door.
Diggins narrowed her choices to Stanford and Notre Dame, and went to bed the night before signing day thinking she would join the Cardinal. When she woke up, she knew she was going to Notre Dame.
“I can’t leave this place,” Diggins said. “I couldn’t imagine myself not being around Notre Dame.”
When she announced her decision, Notre Dame’s season-ticket sales skyrocketed. Of the 18 home sellouts the Irish women have had, 12 have come since Diggins arrived.
“She’s brought an amazing visibility to our program in town,” McGraw said. “We’ve had great fans and we’ve done pretty well and people know who we are, but now it’s like one of our own. This is our daughter. Everybody in town is related to her somehow. Or knows somebody that knows her. Really, they feel like she’s one of their own.”
But no one imagined Diggins would become such a national phenomenon, too.
Witty and gregarious, Diggins embraced Facebook and Twitter as most other college students do. She figured it would help her keep in touch with her high school and AAU teammates, maybe give fans a glimpse of the person she is off the court.
“She is extremely, extremely passionate about basketball, and she’s extremely intense,” said her mother, Renee Scott. “And then off the court, she’s totally different. Totally different. She’s like the life of party, joking, laughing, singing, dancing.”
When the NCAA tournament began last spring, Diggins had about 5,000 followers on Twitter, a respectable number for a college athlete. But the deeper the Irish went, the more exposure she got. Not only was Diggins the engine driving the Irish – she scored 75 points in the games against Tennessee, Connecticut and Texas A&M – but she’s a striking young woman.
By the time the title game was over, Diggins had more than 60,000 followers, including Lil Wayne, who referred to Diggins as his “wife,” and Chris Brown, who called her “a cutie.” She’s more than doubled her followers since then, and Tweetscenter, which measures athletes’ effectiveness on the social media site, has her fifth on its current “Power Rankings and Swag Index,” one spot above NFL receiver Chad Ochocinco.
Serena Williams is the only other female athlete in the rankings, at No. 13.
“The sheer amount of followers, it’s pretty rare for any college athlete. In particular, I’ve never seen a female athlete have that impact,” said Eddie Yang, the creator of Tweetscenter. “She’s increasing the popularity of women’s college basketball, but she’s also bringing in fans that wouldn’t normally watch a college basketball game.”
There can be a dark side to celebrity, though, as Diggins soon discovered. Ten days after the tournament, someone posted what was purported to be a naked photo of Diggins on the Internet. She was quick to say the photo was not her, and any websites that claimed different heard from Notre Dame’s lawyers.
“People were just latching onto her because of what they see on the screen, and they don’t even know she’s a great person,” McGraw said. “That worries me with social media, the contact you have with so many different people, and you don’t know what they’re like.”
McGraw needn’t have worried.
“My priorities (are) my family, Notre Dame, school, basketball,” Diggins said. “This is what I represent, this is what I love, this is where I grew up, and I would never let anything come in and make it about me.”
Besides, there’s a bigger task at hand.
Last year’s Irish were the first team ever to beat Tennessee and Connecticut in the same NCAA tournament, and they seemed destined to win the championship. The Final Four was just two hours down the road in Indianapolis, and it was the 10-year anniversary of Notre Dame’s first national title.
But Diggins and the Irish couldn’t overcome Texas A&M and its high-pressure defense, losing 76-70. A turnover by Diggins in front of the Irish bench in the final minute sealed the Aggies’ victory.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that because I know how close we were. We were right there,” Diggins said. “You use it as fuel. Unfinished business.”