|Sunday, February 20
Frosh point guard making her mark at UCLA
By Beth Harris
LOS ANGELES -- Nicole Kaczmarski talks nearly as fast as she throws passes to her UCLA teammates. The freshman with the bobbing blond ponytail is a multitalented guard who can score, rebound or dish off each time down the floor.
Her frenetic pace comes from a life spent on the East Coast, where she built a reputation as the nation's most sought after high school guard last season.
Kaczmarski's choice of UCLA over some of the most storied women's programs was scrutinized and criticized, even by her own father.
But the noise didn't stop her from making an immediate impact on the Bruins (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today; No. 24 AP). She hit both ends of a one-and-one with 19 seconds left in a victorious college debut against North Carolina.
Although things haven't gone as well as hoped for the Bruins (15-7, 9-3 Pac-10), Kaczmarski has been solid all season, averaging 11.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals as a starter.
The first few weeks on the Westwood campus were difficult because the Bruins weren't yet practicing, so Kaczmarski didn't have basketball to distract her.
"I was like, 'God, I just want to be home,' " she recalled. "I was calling home a lot and talking to my friends. I would cry to my dad all the time. I swear, if I didn't talk to my dad I would just be crying. It was tough."
Though not as tough as the decision to attend UCLA, which hasn't won a national title since 1978. Kaczmarski turned down coach Pat Summitt of six-time national champion Tennessee for a chance to help a team that went 26-8 last season and lost to perennial powerhouse Louisiana Tech in the West Regional final.
Florida, Stanford and Virginia also were interested.
"I made this decision on my own, so if it doesn't work out, it's on me," she said. "That's why I want it to work even more because it was my own decision and it was against what everyone said."
Especially her father, with whom she has lived since ninth grade. Her parents divorced years earlier.
Peter Kaczmarski didn't like the idea of his youngest child moving 3,000 miles from their Long Island, N.Y., home. He's now relegated to watching games on TV and offering pointers based on what he has seen.
"Ideally, he'd like to see her out on the East Coast because he wants to see her play," UCLA coach Kathy Olivier said. "That's what he's done his whole life, watched her play and shown her the way in basketball. He misses that, which means she misses him."
The elder Kaczmarski hasn't seen what he calls "the real Nicole" this season.
"People out there haven't seen her play, haven't even seen the real Kaz," he said by telephone.
"The difference is when Nicole is Nicole, she's a thinking kid, worried about her teammates and she's trying to make everyone happy," he said. "When she's Kaz ... I've never seen a girl play like that. She can do things guys do."
The three-hour time difference sometimes interferes with their daily conversations. Other times Nicole is too busy with classes and basketball to pick up the phone.
"My dad would always know when I was doing well because he'd be like, 'I haven't talked to you in a while,' " she said.
Senior point guard Erica Gomez said Kaczmarski fits in better now that she knows where and when her teammates want the ball.
"It took an adjustment period where people were like, 'No, you're playing with really good people here and we need the ball just as much as you do,' " Gomez said.
"That's the whole process she's going through right now, realizing that she has so many other people that can help her. In high school, you're the one, you do everything -- rebound, shoot, steal."
In high school, Kaczmarski scored most of her team's points, creating a reputation that she doesn't like to pass.
"The first week of practice, I grabbed her and said, 'No one would believe I'm having this conversation with you, but would you shoot the ball?' " Olivier said. "She's so hard on herself and she expects herself to be so good."
Peter Kaczmarski has been accused of stage-managing every step of his daughter's career. Nicole attended three different high schools until settling in at Sachem High, where the team won a state title and she scored more than 2,500 career points.
"It's never been any kind of pushy parent thing," said Kaczmarski, who got his three children involved in sports to keep them out of trouble. "Whatever Nicole wants to do, that's been the way I operate with my daughter. She's the player, she's the show, and she's the one who deserves all the accolades."
Nicole insists she and father operate as a team.
"Everyone thinks that he puts too much pressure on me and makes me do things. It's never really been like that," she said. "I play basketball because I love to, and I'm just lucky that I have my dad there to help me."
Kaczmarski said he was looking at the big picture when he reminded Nicole that UCLA returned six seniors and all five starters. He pointed out that some early signings the coaching staff had promised didn't work out.
"If you tell her something and you give her your word, you better deliver," he said. "If you go to a program and you find out the coach isn't doing what they promised you, why do you have to stick it out there?"
But Olivier said she can't see the strong-minded Kaczmarski backing out of her commitment.
"I would be shocked if that happened," she said.