Notre Dame’s Diggins a star, on and off the court

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’s got 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 pretty much
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.

Though Diggins acknowledges it’s ”pretty cool” to have someone
like Lil Wayne following her, she has stayed true to the values her
parents instilled and refuses to get caught up in her own hype.

”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.”

Though this is only her second year at point guard, Diggins
looks like a natural, running the floor as if she knows how plays
will unfold before they even begin.

Her basketball IQ has always been off the charts. Maurice Scott
is a referee as well as a high school and AAU coach, and little
Skylar would tag along to his games. She sat in on officials’
meetings and watched as he broke down film, soaking up knowledge
about every aspect of the game.

But success has only driven her harder. She’s always asking the
Irish coaches questions, and she watches more film than any player
McGraw has ever coached. She’s logged dozens of hours just studying
her teammates, trying to pick up on their tendencies and
preferences.

”Skylar’s always amazing at passing,” Kayla McBride said.
”It’s just something that comes naturally to her. She sees
everywhere, everybody on the court.”

”I just know my teammates very well,” Diggins said, rattling
off where each likes to get the ball. ”I never thought I was the
fastest or the strongest or the most athletic. I just think I have
the ability to be the most crafty. I try to use my intelligence,
and my knowledge of the game to try and overpower somebody.”

Though Diggins and Natalie Novosel are Notre Dame’s top scorers
at 16.4 points a game, she no longer feels a need to score. With
three other starters back from their national runner-up team, the
Irish have plenty of options offensively. If a shot is there,
Diggins will take it, like the 3-pointer she drilled from the
corner early in the shot clock to put away No. 8 Kentucky last
weekend.

But she’s just as happy to finish with seven or eight points and
10 assists.

”I think I’m learning what I need to do to become a better
point guard for this team,” she said. ”We have scorers. … My
job now is to just manage the game, to create.”

Notre Dame’s only loss this year came last month at top-ranked
Baylor. If the Irish keep winning – they host No. 2 Connecticut on
Jan. 7 in a rematch of last season’s national semifinal – the
expectations, not to mention the attention, will surely grow.

That’s OK, Diggins said. She knows what’s important, and that
will never change.

No matter how many followers she has on Twitter.

”You can’t put any greater expectations on me now that I don’t
feel already. I want to be the best. I want to be the best person.
I want to be the best player,” she said. ”I know what I carry
around with me, and I respect it.”

Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour