Book smart

When Angie Bjorklund was in middle school and supposed to be studying English she instead tucked Pat Summitt's book inside her textbook and read about the Lady Vols. "That's embarrassing," Bjorklund said with a sheepish smile when asked about her surreptitious research on Tennessee.

The story was told by her parents, Jim and Kris Bjorklund, this past season when Tennessee traveled to Washington state to play Gonzaga for the sophomore's homecoming game. Angie Bjorklund is the first Lady Vol basketball player to hail from the Evergreen State. Her interest in the orange began by seeing Tennessee on television.

"I've been watching Coach Summitt and the Lady Vols since I was little, and I always wanted to be a part of it," Bjorklund said. "Now, I'm here and being a part of it is a big milestone."

She got both of Summitt's books – the inspirational business one, "Reach for the Summit," and "Raise the Roof," an account of the undefeated 1997-98 season. She also watched the HBO documentary on the 10-loss "Cinderella Season" in 1997 that ended in a national championship.

"That book, ‘Raise the Roof,' she read that twice," Kris Bjorklund said. "She was telling us the story about they're reading the English book in class, and she has the book and then has Pat's book behind it reading it. She watched that (documentary). She wanted to play for Pat Summitt. That was her dream."

Three things had to happen to bring that dream to fruition.

First, Bjorklund had to develop into a top player.

"When I was little, I'm talking middle school, I was carrying my basketball everywhere," Angie Bjorklund said. "I'd be in the mall bouncing my ball. People would be like, ‘Who's the kid?'

"I was just obsessed with the game. I watched NBA games, college games. I would watch the Lady Vols. Sometimes I would be sneaking the book. I think it's being obsessed with the game at such a young age."

Her older sister by two years, Jami Bjorklund – she is now Jami Schaefer after getting married last summer to Drew Schaefer – also played basketball, and the sisters squared off against each other.

"We played one on one for hours," Schaefer said. "She tried to beat me but she couldn't because I was bigger than her. In high school Angie would go to the gym and play pickup with the guys all the time. She'd ride her bike with her basketball. She was always in the gym."

Second, Bjorklund had to attract the attention of Summitt and Tennessee.

An assist for the Lady Vols' early interest should be credited to Fred Crowell, who leads Northwest Basketball Camps and has spent his life in coaching. His camps are Christian-based and he travels the country and overseas with players from youngsters to post-college.

"I have to give a lot of credit to Fred Crowell," Summitt said. "He knew Angie, and I had worked with his guys at Baden's (ball manufacturer) clinics. He told me about Angie. She was in the seventh or eighth grade when he first mentioned it. She had gone to his camps quite a bit.

"He said, ‘Pat, I've never told you about anyone, but I'm telling you about this kid, and she's really, really good.' He was the first one to tell me about her."

When Summitt overheard Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer talking about Bjorklund in the summer of 2004, she stepped up her efforts.

"I was sitting at an adidas event, and Tara was talking about her," Summitt said.

Summitt left the room to call her secretary, Katie Wynn, to get Crowell's contact info. She then placed a call to Crowell.

"I called to find out where she was going to be," Summitt said. "She was going to be in Arizona for an AAU competition. I called Dean and I said, ‘Get on the plane and go to Arizona.' We started following her closely."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood was in Kentucky when he took the call from Summitt. It was July 28, 2004 – Lockwood keeps meticulous travel records – and he was ready for a new location that day.

"I was in Louisville at a camp at Bellarmine College and for us, at that point, there wasn't a lot of players there so I was very happy to leave," Lockwood said. "I called our travel agent and by 4 or 4:30 I was on a plane. It was the summer of 2004 – I was just on board (as a new assistant coach at Tennessee). Angie was going into her sophomore year."

Lockwood landed in Tempe and still remembers his initial assessment of Bjorklund.

"A skilled kid, especially to be so young," Lockwood said. "I am somebody who is more conservative than I am superlative when it comes to players. As enthusiastic as I am (on the practice court and during games), when it comes to evaluating I might see somebody and say, ‘Oh yeah, she's solid.' But I thought this kid is very skilled. For as young as she is to be as skilled as she is, that's what impressed me.

"She could shoot the ball really well, she had a good feel for the game, she passed it well. She wasn't as strong as she was going to be. Her sister was on the team and she played with a terrific point guard who's now at Arizona State, Briann January. Briann was the fastest kid on the floor. I remember thinking, ‘This is just such a team.' The team was well coached. Ron Adams does a really good job. He's still with the Spokane Stars. My impression of Angie was here's a kid for as young as this kid is she's extremely skilled, and her body is only going to mature."

Adams is a legendary basketball figure in the Pacific Northwest and well known nationally by the basketball cognoscenti, because of his work with the Spokane Stars AAU team. Adams was in attendance when Bjorklund and the Lady Vols practiced at Gonzaga the day before the game, and he also was present for the Dec. 30, 2008, matchup. Schaefer, a senior guard for Gonzaga, was unable to play in the game because of an injured knee, and Tennessee won 77-58, behind 14 points from Bjorklund.

Third, Bjorklund had to opt to not play for Gonzaga with her sister in their hometown of Spokane. The city sent her away with its blessing, as did Kelly Graves, the coach of Gonzaga.

"Oh my goodness, how can you pass up on Tennessee?" Graves said. "You grow up as a kid and that's where you want to go and you have the opportunity to go there and play for arguably the best coach in our business, not just the women's side, in basketball in a storied program like that? You want her to go. That's where she belongs.

"Would we love to have her? Of course. But I'm happy for her and how can the Spokane community begrudge that?"

The family has been teased on occasion about letting Bjorklund slip away – Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference this past season and made the NCAA Tournament's field of 64 – but the community understood.

"Most definitely," Kris Bjorklund said. "We get ribbed a few times about why didn't she stay. She's friends with the whole Gonzaga team and she plays pickup in the summer. Everybody is happy for Angie. She's fulfilling a dream that she's always had."

"I think the Northwest in general, and especially Spokane, are great basketball fans and everyone knows Pat Summitt and the tradition here," Bjorklund said. "I think a lot of people in Spokane would have liked to have cheered me at Gonzaga, but I know at the same time they really supported my decision to come here."

When Bjorklund was introduced before the Tennessee-Gonzaga game – her parents wore their "TennZaga" T-shirts to support both daughters – the crowd roared so loud her name was drowned out on the public address system.

"It was great," Bjorklund said. "I really wasn't expecting that at all. It was definitely a warm welcome and I really appreciated that from them."

Every time Bjorklund hit a shot the crowd cheered.

"I think that was mainly the Bjorklunds, the whole cheering section," Bjorklund said. "I know for them, it's really special. Of course they would have liked to have seen Jami out there but to be able to see me come back and play in my hometown, they've been excited for that game. You saw the T-shirts. My family, along with a bunch of friends and family friends, everyone was excited."

The extended Bjorklund clan and friends filled a section – those fans had special gray T-shirts that commemorated the game – but fans wearing just Gonzaga gear openly cheered for Bjorklund.

"I just appreciate that from them," she said. "It means a lot to me."

After the game and media interviews, Bjorklund returned to the court and expected a few family members to be waiting for her. Instead, a crowd of Gonzaga fans – young and old – surrounded her in the stands to get autographs. She stayed for nearly 30 minutes – her family returned her to the team hotel, as Tennessee wasn't departing Spokane until the next morning – to accommodate each request. Her coach also drew quite a crowd.

"When I came out I was just expecting my family to be there and it was awhile after the game ended," Bjorklund said. "I saw Pat stay and sign autographs. I thought that just says a lot about Pat Summitt. It was overwhelming there towards the end."

Bjorklund has athletic basketball genes. Her uncle, Steve Ranniger, played at Oregon. Her maternal grandfather, Duane Ranniger, played at Washington State. Her paternal grandfather, Leon Bjorklund, ran track at Washington.

The team departed the state of Washington the next morning for a cross-country journey to New Jersey and a matchup with Rutgers. Tennessee was trailing at the half in that game, 33-13, and CBS' in-locker room camera aired Summitt challenging Bjorklund about putting on a show in Spokane and being a no-show in Piscataway.

"I had so many people asking me about that," Bjorklund said. "They were like, ‘They showed that three times!' I was like, ‘What?' "

Bjorklund didn't react on camera except to nod in agreement, and Summitt's tone wasn't derisive. It was simply matter of fact.

"That's how Coach is," Bjorklund said. "She was getting into me the whole first half a little more aggressively than that. I think they filmed the not-so-crazy part at halftime. That's her coaching style – sort of short and to the point and staring at you. That's why she's the best."

Bjorklund ended up with 12 points against Rutgers, and Tennessee staged the biggest comeback in school history with the 55-51 win.

"I think we have a better understanding," Summitt said. "That first year they probably think they're getting picked on or singled out. I think now she can take it."

Adjusting to college is a process for any freshman. It can be especially challenging for one so far away from home with rare chances to see her family and coming of age on the biggest stage in women's college basketball.

"It's difficult as a dad," Jim Bjorklund said. "Moms are more emotional and when things aren't going great it's not only caring for Ang and her needs cross-country but it's supporting Mom and saying, ‘Yes, she did the right thing.' It's very good for her to mature. If she had gone to Gonzaga I'm sure we'd still be doing her laundry and coming over for meals."

Bjorklund agreed with that conclusion.

"Definitely," Bjorklund said. "I've grown up and learned a lot being this far away from home. Yes, it's been a challenge but at the same time there's no other place I'd rather be."

Kris Bjorklund readily agrees that it was hard to turn loose of both daughters – one went nearly 2,000 miles away and the other stayed home for college but got married.

"That's the motherly thing, especially with Jami married now," Angie Bjorklund said. "I think if I did stay home I'd still be taking my laundry home. I really have learned a lot. I don't regret any of it."

The Bjorklunds have made twice-yearly treks to Knoxville to visit with their daughter and attend Lady Vol games.

"That way she gets a piece of home," Kris Bjorklund said.

When Jim Bjorklund visited last fall he checked out his daughter's off-campus apartment and was startled to see her 2008 national championship ring sitting atop a dresser.

"She had it on her dresser there in her little apartment," Jim Bjorklund said. "I was like, ‘Ang, this is pretty valuable.' She said, ‘This is really cool. I don't think I'd ever wear it because it's really gaudy and heavy and showy.' I said, ‘How about if I just take it home for you and put it in a safe place?' She said, ‘OK.' "

"I know, I know," Bjorklund said when asked about leaving such an item unsecured. "I gave it to him to take back and show everyone and definitely put up. I'm not into the big bling-bling, wearing it on my finger. I'll definitely keep it forever."

She also would like to add to the collection. Bjorklund entered Tennessee a year ago with a senior-laden team in place and carved out a spot as a season-long contributor because of her long-range shooting and willingness to play defense.

"I came in at a great time with Candace (Parker) playing and a senior class," Bjorklund said. "I learned a lot from them and it was definitely a special year, but I still have three more years to work for it and hopefully another one."

In her second year Bjorklund was on the court for Summitt's 1,000th career victory. She had 11 points and seven assists in the milestone win over SEC rival Georgia last February.

"Wow," Bjorklund said. "To be a part of something like that was awesome … celebrate Coach and how successful she's been. The numbers just say it all. I'm just lucky to be a part of that."

While still in high school Bjorklund attended one of Summitt's camps and was clearly star-struck as a young teenager. When she called home on that trip her father advised her to return to Washington before making a final decision. He knew how much she wanted to attend Tennessee, but he also knew it was something she should consider with a clear head.

"She was probably fourth, fifth grade and very interested in basketball and in sixth grade started reading some books on Pat Summitt," Jim Bjorklund said. "Tennessee and UConn always battled, and Angie then inspired to be a Tennessee Lady Vol after watching them. She always talked about ‘the Meeks' (Chamique Holdsclaw, Semeka Randall and Tamika Catchings), in the book and how cool that would be. So she set her goals.

"I remember when she was at camp. She called home a couple of times and said, ‘Dad, I'm on Summitt Boulevard, you can't believe this.' And then she goes, ‘Dad, I've got to go. There's a black Mercedes pulling up and it's Coach Summitt. I've got to go!' She hangs the phone up. She calls back the next day and said Coach basically offered her a scholarship. She goes, ‘Dad, what do I do?'

"She really wanted to take it right then. I said, ‘You've got to calm down and say I'm very flattered and will probably take it, but I'm going to think about it for awhile.' That's what she told her."

Bjorklund returned home, checked other schools, thought it over and committed to Tennessee while a junior in high school. Her commitment never wavered, and she arrived in Knoxville a few weeks after turning 18 years old.

"She's adjusted very well," Jim Bjorklund said. "Last year was tough being away from home, but she's adjusted, just like all freshmen. She made the decision that that was the best place and I agreed, but I did make her look at other schools rather than going on a dream. Sometimes dreams when you get there aren't what you think they would be. She's doing well down there. The main thing is to get her education and mature."

Bjorklund has done well in the classroom and on the court. She is an honor roll student in the College of Arts and Sciences. After being selected SEC Freshman of the Year in 2008, she followed that with All-SEC Second Team and SEC All-Tournament Team recognition in 2009.

She wears No. 5 because it was the Tennessee jersey number of Shanna Zolman, a sharpshooter from Indiana and now a member of the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars.

"I watched when Shanna was here, and I looked up to her, too," Bjorklund said.

Zolman, now Shanna Crossley, holds the single season and career marks for three-pointers – 103 and 266, respectively – and Bjorklund has already made her way to a tie for seventh place on the career list with 128 three-pointers through the 2009 SEC tourney. She could overtake Tiffany Woosley and Sidney Spencer with a solid showing in the 2009 NCAA tourney and claim fifth place on the list after just two seasons.

Bjorklund likely isn't even aware of her place on the list.

"She's always been that way," Kris Bjorklund said. "I think that helps the team be a better team when you're unselfish. Angie's never tooted her own horn. She's humble. Both the girls are. She doesn't have trophies up in her room. She said, ‘Dad, hold onto the championship ring.' She's a very unselfish player."

Schaefer and Bjorklund grew up as tight-knit sisters and remain so despite the distance. When Bjorklund returned to Spokane for the Christmas break – the Gonzaga game was the first on the schedule after the holidays so she got an extra day at home while the rest of the Lady Vol team flew west – she spent some nights with her sister and brother-in-law.

"We were the only siblings so we were always best friends and hung out and did everything together and had a lot of the same interests," Schaefer said. "We've always been close. It's kind of weird having her so far away, but it's awesome when we get together again. It's just like how it was growing up."

"They never fought," Kris Bjorklund said. "I think that that's their faith. They went to Varsity Academy (a Christian-based group in Spokane). It was not just basketball; it was life skills. They went on retreats."

Schaefer graduates from Gonzaga this spring and the business/marketing major said her first objective is to "find a job," possibly in pharmaceutical sales. The sisters remain in regular contact despite the distance and both being Division I student-athletes.

"Definitely," Schaefer said. "We always send each other scriptures, motivate and encourage each other, try to keep each other strong in our faith."

The timing of the Gonzaga game benefited Bjorklund because she returned home a week before the tipoff. Homecoming games can be overwhelming for players as they juggle visits with family and friends with team commitments in what is often a narrow window of time.

"If I wouldn't have been able to see my immediate family before that I would have been even more overwhelmed, but I had been able to spend time with them and see some friends and other relatives," Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund had not been home since last summer when she returned for her sister's wedding and was the maid of honor. Schaefer's dress colors were citrus ones that matched the sisters' effervescent personalities – bright yellow, orange and lime green.

"It was a fun wedding," Schaefer said.

It was a short trip home, and then Bjorklund was back on campus to finish rehabbing her right knee following arthroscopic surgery to fix a torn medial meniscus. She will make another trip home this coming summer but will also spend considerable time in Knoxville to attend summer school and work on her game in the off-season.

"I'm very proud of her," Schaefer said. "She works extremely hard and she has a lot of God-given talent that she uses to her full potential. She just loves Tennessee basketball."

Summitt smiles when she is told of Bjorklund tucking one of the coach's books into a textbook at school.

"It's very fitting for Angie because sometimes she's not always focused on what she needs to be focused on," Summitt said.

That's a quintessential Summitt quotation – an underlying challenge to a player mixed with humor. But Summitt is thrilled that Bjorklund chose to cross the country to play at Tennessee. She is Summitt's kind of player.

"She's a gym rat," Summitt said. "I love gym rats. Love 'em."

(This story originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Rocky Top News.)

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