Michelle Duhart recently recalled her ninth grade year as a member of the Wakefield High girls basketball team. That Warriors squad, coached by current Wakefield Athletic Director Noel Deskins, struggled to be competitive that season. So team members looked for little victories.
"Our team was terrible," recalled Duhart, a 1996 Wakefield graduate, with a laugh last week. "We would set goals for ourselves — like to score 30 points against Hayfield. We lost by 40, but when we scored 30, we jumped up and down we were so excited."
Duhart and the Warriors improved greatly over the next several seasons. As a senior during the 1995-'96 season, Duhart, then in her fourth year as a Wakefield varsity player, led the Warriors to a perfect 12-0 record in the National District record season. The Warriors' standout players that winter consisted of the six-foot Duhart, who could handle the ball on the perimeter as well as work inside the paint; 6-2 center Diamond Desmond; and 6-1 forward Anya Adams. The trio was known as `The Big Three.'
Wakefield, in that season's playoffs, reached the district tournament finals before losing to Kenny Farmer's Mount Vernon High team. Then, at the Northern Region tournament, the Warriors saw their season end with a first round playoff setback to Herndon.
Duhart earned Honorable Mention All-Met honors following her senior season. For her career, Duhart scored over 1,000 points to become Wakefield's all-time leading scorer. She ultimately had her No. 33 jersey retired. Today, the jersey is showcased outside the Wakefield gymnasium, along with trophies and pictures highlighting the Arlington school's storied athletic past.
"She was a real smart player," said Deskins, of Duhart. "It just seemed like basketball was second nature to her. Her court sense was phenomenal."
Deskins recalled the first time she saw Duhart play during a fall league game as a ninth grader.
"I'll never forget walking in the gym and seeing her play and asking one of the coaches, `Who's that kid?'" remembered Deskins.
When told the talented youngster was a ninth grader, Deskins recalled replying simply, `She's mine.'"
Deskins, indeed, utilized Duhart's talent on the hardwood that winter and the building block was set for the Warriors varsity program for the next four years.
"She played primarily under the basket," said Deskins. "Her quickness [stood out] and her understanding of the game. She always had to work hard [underneath] to get her points."
When Deskins became Wakefield's A.D., Marcia Richardson became the Warriors' varsity basketball coach. By that time Duhart was a junior and had emerged as one of the district's top players. Wakefield finished 9-3 in the district in that 1994-'95 season as Duhart averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. Duhart, who was utilized as both a guard and frontcourt player by Richardson, was named District Player of the Year in both her junior and senior years.
"Michelle pretty much played everywhere," said Richardson. "She rebounded, pushed the ball up the court and set up the offense. She was a good, multi-dimensional player. She didn't have the greatest outside shot [but] when she had to she could hit [from outside]. She had a lot of steals, fastbreak points and putbacks as well."
Said Duhart, "I learned a lot about the game from [coach Richardson]. She made me play outside [on the perimeter]. That helped me read the court better and know the game."
Richardson, a Wakefield assistant under Deskins prior to becoming the program's head coach, said Duhart's game blossomed throughout her high school career to where she was able to showcase her teammates around her.
"Her decision-making skills and her ability to involve the whole team came a long way," said Richardson.
Duhart suffered through some tough injuries — a broken wrist as a junior and a separated shoulder as a senior — but persevered to lead the Warriors.
"Michelle was not the most vocal player," said Richardson, currently a health and physical education teacher at Wakefield. "She led by example, by what she did on the court and in the classroom. She led by going to class and doing the right things. She was just a natural leader."
DUHART, A GOOD STUDENT with a grade point average over 3.0 and SAT's over 1200, was not highly recruited as a high school basketball player. But through the help of coach Richardson, a former All-American player at the University of Maryland, Duhart ultimately caught the eye of Purdue coach Nell Fortner. The lady Boilermakers were going through a transition phase at the time as numerous new players were entering the program. Little did Duhart realize at the time that she would be part of a national championship team two years later.
As a Purdue freshman, Duhart's nickname was `The Big Zero.' According to the Purdue women's basketball web site, the nickname, while it did not sound flattering, was actually a compliment.
"Though it may not sound complimentary, it was used with the utmost respect," said a write-up of Duhart's role on that year's team. "Oftentimes, Duhart had nothing but zeroes on the stat sheet, but she contributed mightily with her hard-nosed defense, generally on the opponents' best post player."
Duhart said she was highly motivated to make the most of her playing time as a freshmen at Purdue.
"I think because I was so appreciative of being on the team, it might have been easier for me," said Duhart. "Any chance I got [to play], I gave 100 percent."
Over her four years at Purdue, Duhart, although her statistics were never glamorous, saw lots of court time and helped her team in various ways — by playing outstanding defense, moving well without the ball, setting picks on offense, and competing with fierce determination.
In Purdue's national championship season (1998-99), Duhart, then a junior, played 30 minutes a game for a Purdue squad which, under coach Carolyn Peck, captured the Big 10 title as well as the national crown with an overall record of 34-1. Duhart averaged 3.7 points per game and 5.7 rebounds.
Purdue, in winning its first national title that season, won its final 32 games, including six in a row at the NCAA tournament. In the NCAA title game at San Jose Arena on March 28 versus Duke, Duhart scored five points in the Boilermakers' 62-45 win over the Blue Devils.
Duhart was on the floor in the final seconds of that breakthrough victory for Purdue.
"The ball was going out of bounds at the end of the game," she recalled. "There were like five or six seconds left. I saved the ball to our point guard. At that point the game was over."
Duhart said it marked the first time an African-American head coach — coach Peck — had ever led a women's team to a national collegiate basketball championship.
She said the realization that she was part of a national championship team hit her as she was taking part in postgame festivities.
"The moment that we cut the net [following the win], I was like, `Wow,'" said Duhart, of that shining moment.
One of the other incredible moments Duhart recalled about that championship night was prior to the game when the Purdue team was preparing to go out onto the floor.
"Coming down the ramp before the championship game, [I remember] the cameras and crowd and just being there at that moment," she said. "I hadn't even been recruited and then I was at the national championship game.
"Here we were in San Jose in a packed stadium [17,773 fans]. It was just a fantastic experience," said Duhart. "It was a lot of fun. We weren't intimidated by the situation."
A year earlier, Purdue had reached the tournament's Elite Eight before losing. But, as a junior, Duhart was part of a squad which had broken through and won it all.
"It was surreal," she said. "You see the Final Four on TV but don't know what it's like [being part of it]."
She never imagined she would ever be part of a national championship team at a big-time collegiate program like Purdue.
"Not even in my wildest dreams," she said. "When I first got [to Purdue], I was intimidated by [my] situation. I wasn't even recruited in high school."
In her senior season at Purdue, Duhart averaged 4.7 points and 6.5 rebounds (2nd on the team) a game. She had 30 steals and 30 blocked shots that season for a Purdue team which, under new coach Kristy Curry, finish 23-8 overall. The Boilermakers captured the Big 10 title again that season with a 71-63 finals win over Penn State. Then Purdue defeated Dartmouth, 70-66, in a first round NCAA tournament game before seeing its season end with a second round loss to Oklahoma, 76-74. Duhart missed the Dartmouth game because she was attending the funeral of her grandfather, James Duhart, in Miami. She did play in the loss to the Sooners — her final collegiate game — scoring two points and bringing down four rebounds.
TODAY, DUHART is back at Wakefield High where she teaches special education. Along with teaching, Duhart, a former Wakefield High Class Officer, is also working on her masters degree at George Mason University. She is married to Mike Robinson, a former Purdue men's basketball player from 1996 to 2000 who is currently playing professionally in Argentina.
Duhart said the two began dating at Purdue when both were a part of their respective basketball teams.
"It was busy, busy," recalls Duhart of those days. "When we did see each other, we were tired. It was fun to see him play [in college]. It was cool."
Richardson, Duhart's former high school coach who is now a co-worker with her former star player, is proud to call Duhart a friend.
"She did well as a high school athlete at Wakefield and well at Purdue," said Richardson. "She's a great person and a good friend. It's nice to have her back."
Duhart has just completed her first year of teaching.
"I hope I'm making a difference," said Duhart, who grew up in Arlington. "I really enjoy what I do. [The kids] really keep me young."
Michelle Duhart is 90 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.