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February 23, 2005The question was whether any basketball player had a better work ethic than Laurie Koehn. Then, with eight days left in her final regular season, and with it being miserably cold and foggy, the question became whether Koehn would show up Tuesday at 6:15 a.m. for her daily shoot-around at Bramlage Coliseum or go back to sleep. Well, that was answered at 6:07 a.m. with a pair of headlights from an early-'90s Honda Civic that steered into the parking lot. So then the question finally became: Would there ever be another basketball player with as much dedication as Laurie Koehn?
Kansas State athletics has been home to its share of diamonds. Yet it was impossible to watch Darren Sproles, the greatest and most elusive running back in the school's history, practice a 360-degree spin against three defenders in an empty KSU Stadium. Sproles possessed arguably the best work ethic in the program's history. But as Sproles still insists, the moves, they were all instinct.
But there's another player from another sport that six mornings a week for the last four years has been the first one to turn on the lights at Bramlage Coliseum. Why not seven mornings a week, you ask?
"Because I won't let her," K-State women's basketball coach Deb Patterson said. "Laurie has to take the seventh day off."
So, yes, it was quite impossible to see Sproles rehearse his jukes and weaves that spun him into standing among the Top 10 rushers in NCAA Division I-A history, although it would have been quite breathtaking to watch.
However, for the first time ever, Laurie Koehn on Tuesday morning invited one guest to witness what exactly goes on behind the curtain in the Purple Palace. Her plan was simply to do what she normally does almost every morning, before class, during the basketball season. Instead, she showed exactly why there would probably not be another Laurie Koehn. Ever.
Entering Wednesday's 7 p.m. tip-off at Nebraska, Koehn, a senior guard from Hesston, Kan., (pop. 3,012) has made 364 career 3-pointers. Only two other women's basketball players in NCAA Division I history have made more. Koehn could be a couple weeks away from moving into No. 2. She needs 16 to do it. After that? Who knows? She needs 28 3-pointers to become No. 1. But time is her enemy.
Koehn's five 3-pointers against Colorado last Saturday moved her into a three-way tie for sixth place in averaging 3.2 3-pointer per game this season. She is currently one of just eight players to sink at least 70 3-pointers.
"I don't think about the records," she said.
Here's what Koehn thinks about. No. 17-ranked K-State, 18-6 overall and 9-4 in the Big 12 Conference, has three games left in its regular season. A win over Nebraska, 16-9 and 8-5, could prove tough, as the Huskers have lost just one home game this season -- 68-58 to No. 10 Texas Tech on Jan. 19.
Koehn also knows she's still not perfect. She also refuses to "cheat" the game. So she practices when nobody else is watching.
"It's one of those things where I feel like if I went away from my shoot-arounds I don't think it would affect my ability to shoot at this point, but it is still important to stay committed to the game," Koehn said. "The game has given me so much and has allowed me to meet so many people. The last four years have been the best of my life. I need to give back to the game. I need to put that time in and make sure I stay devoted and keep trying to improve. For me, that means coming into the gym and putting up shots."
After the 30-minute session Tuesday, and after Koehn carefully placed three balls back in the locker room, she zipped her black coat, and walked out into the parking lot while the guest pulled out his pad and put a small checkmark next to an item on his Things-To-Do-Before-I-Die list.
"I got to warn you, though," she said prior to her private workout. "My shoot-around, it might be 'blah.'"
Laurie Koehn remembers the story. In the summer prior to her sophomore year at Moundridge High School, near Hesston, she and friend Kendra Wecker sat in a classroom at one of those big, invitation-only basketball camps. Guest speaker Ann Meyers was addressing practice habits. Koehn looked around the room. Campers were rolling their eyes.
"I can't imagine that anyone is here without doing what I'm doing," she thought.
As the speaker rattled off a list of practice suggestions, Koehn heard smirks from nearby kids. Stuff like, "You want me to do what?"
But something, a newspaper article, had driven Koehn long ago. Yes, she was 11-years-old when she first read about a sophomore at Claflin (Kan.) High School named Jackie Stiles, who shot 800 baskets a day.
"Well, I'm only shooting 600 shots a day," Koehn thought. "I'd better up that."
So she did.
"Some people just have talent," Koehn reasoned. "Some people just play and that's awesome and great. There are so many great people in this game and I love them and would love to play like them. I know that a lot of people are just talented."
Koehn, 5-foot-8, knows she isn't the most physically gifted player on the court. Although she's improved her defense this past season, she still isn't the quickest defender on the ball. She isn't a constant slashing threat. And, no, not every shot is guaranteed to fall through the hoop. That's basketball. Still, Koehn averages a second-leading 11.8 points this season and among numerous accolades owns the top career free throw shooting percentage (87.9) in school history.
But, really, it comes down to this. Marriages begin and end in the time it takes a Koehn 3-pointer to swish through the net. Her craft will be on display at Bramlage for the final time against Kansas on Feb. 26.
So as Koehn on Tuesday morning guided a rebounding machine called "The Gun" underneath the hoop, an electric catch-and-bullet pass contraption with a huge net funnel, the guest recalled a few quick memories.
Yes, there's a story to tell. It's about determination. And we'll start with Nov. 7, 2001. Sixteen months after she first felt the twinge of pain shoot from her right foot, which spurred an unfathomable nightmare with more twists than a Stephen King book, Koehn sat quietly in Bramlage, sweat trickling down her brow, and said, "It was indescribable. I can't even put into words how much fun this was."
Koehn had scored eight points in 20 minutes during an 83-53 win over Houston. Koehn had finally overcome the biggest obstacle of her budding career: Injury. After suffering injuries prior to each of her first two seasons as a Wildcat -- a severe stress fracture in Koehn's right foot caused her to redshirt the 2000-01 season, which was followed by a stress fracture in her back/pelvis region in July 2001 -- Koehn scored a personal triumph in the first game of her highly-anticipated collegiate career.
All else was Swiss cheese. As a freshman, she hit an NCAA-leading 122 3-pointers. Comeback? When was the last time you heard of a player going from shooting a daily regiment of 1,000 shots while sitting on a box -- yes, a box -- to earning ESPN.com's Rookie of the Year award?
"Laurie's faith, drive, determination, passion, and her unyielding commitment to attack adversity head on with courage and with an I-can-do-it attitude was evident to all those around her," Patterson said. "Her 500-shot shooting sessions on a box will forever live in K-State basketball lore."
There's another story, Feb. 19, 2003. Perhaps you've heard it, already. It's a must-read. See, Koehn was a sophomore. She had injured her foot (again). K-State was in the Hearnes Center in Columbia, Mo., for its morning shoot-around. Hours later it would take on Missouri.
While the team ran plays on one side of the court, Koehn put on a show on the other, although she would hardly call it a show. This was Koehn in her environment. This was Picasso in front of a canvas. This was Sinatra on a Vegas stage. This was the most unbelievable thing one observer had witnessed. The machine.
Happy Gilmore once yelled at his golf ball, "Don't you want to go in your home? Are you too good for your home?"
Koehn sent each basketball ball into its home.
At first, the repetitive motion captures your attention. Then the motion. Now follow the net. Each time, it's the same. See? It was a clinic. It was the picture, the desire that summer camp basketball directors and coaches preach about across the country. This environment. This motion. This consistency.
Look at the follow through. So graceful yet exact. The left hand steadied on the side of the ball, the right perched underneath it, bearing a small crevice between the palm and the ball. The ball steadies, underneath her eyes. The feet spread shoulder-width apart. The right foot about six inches ahead of the other.
Swish. The follow-through. Listen. Swish. Swish. Swish.
A team manager rebounded Koehn's free throws after each swished through the net, each time delivering a soft bounce pass to the middle of the lane that planted the ball firmly in Koehn's awaiting hands at waist level. Each time, Koehn dribbled once and shot. It sounded like a machine at work. Swish. Boom. Swish. Boom.
While Koehn pulled on warm-ups afterward, she was asked: How many?
"Two-hundred and thirty-eight," she sighed. "I made 238 straight, then made 49 out of the next 50," she said. "So whatever that comes to."
That's 287 out of 288.
Koehn shrugged and re-tied her shoes. She was upset because shoot-around had ended. She didn't have time to reach her routine goal - 300 free throws.
Still, the feat made for a nice tidbit in the USA Today two days later.
"I still wanted 300, though," she said.
Time for one more story. One Saturday morning in early August, Koehn walked into the home she shares with teammates Wecker, Megan Mahoney and former All-American Nicole Ohlde. She plopped on the couch and during casual conversation with Wecker, Koehn mentioned, "You know, I broke my 3-point record today."
Wecker said, "Oh, really? What was it?"
"Shut up. You're crazy."
Indeed, Koehn made 91 straight 3-pointers. She rimmed out No. 92 and grew so irate she nearly kicked the ball toward Ohlde's retired jersey in the Bramlage rafters. But Koehn maintained her composure and finished her set, finishing 99 for 100. It broke her previous record of 71. She did that when she was 17 inside the meager gym at Hesston College with her father, Perry, rebounding.
"To be honest, when I shoot it I think of it going in," she said. "Whether it goes in or not, I don't let it affect my next shot on the court. It's one of those things where if you do it enough and practice it enough, every shot feels good to you."
It was Tuesday at 6:10 a.m. and without a word, Laurie Koehn, dressed in a purple T-shirt and shorts, and wearing white New Balance running shoes without socks, tossed three balls into The Gun, backed up behind the 3-point arc and started to shoot.
Go ahead and think back for a moment as she begins her regimen. You've seen her drill 3-pointers so many times before. But how many people in America really do this?
"A lot of us are just so used to it that we take it for granted," Wecker said. "But at the same time, she'll still hit shots that will make Coach P turn around and look up like, 'Oh, my gosh.' We'll cheer. She works so long and so hard for what she's developed in that part of her game. It's paying off significantly for her and it brings so much excitement to the crowd and everyone else involved."
Some numbers. First, Koehn was recently named to the 2005 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VII Women's Basketball First Team in holding a 3.97 cumulative grade-point average in elementary education. Last season as a junior, Koehn became the first women's basketball player in school history to be named a first team CoSIDA Academic All-American, showing equal talent in both hitting shots and the books. K-State is 54-6 when Koehn scores at least 12 points. K-State is 60-9 when Koehn makes at least three 3-pointers and 39-2 when she sinks at least five. K-State is 43-2 and has won 33 of the last 34 times when Koehn has connected on at least half of her 3-point attempts. The string of 33 games was snapped, of course, in a 64-60 loss at home to No. 13 Texas on Feb. 16. In that game, Koehn had a chance to nail a 3-pointer with 40 seconds to go that would have tied the score at 63 apiece. That time, to everyone's disbelief, the shot didn't fall.
It was back to Bramlage the next morning.
Still, Koehn has made 364 of 873 3-point attempts (41.6 percent). She has made 178 3-pointers at Bramlage, 141 on the road, 23 in the Big 12 Tournament and 22 in the NCAA Tournament. She has made at least five 3-pointers in 40 games. She has made at least three in 69. When she played in the Pan-American games a few years back, Koehn hit more 3-pointers than some entire countries.
Apparently, some other countries didn't know they had to guard Laurie Koehn.
"It's amazing to think Laurie Koehn over the years has been someone that everyone in America knows they have to guard," Patterson said. "They lock on her. They put great athletes on her and still she's found a way to become one of the top 3-point shooters ever. You can't admire that enough. It's really an astounding feat. It's classic Laurie Koehn. It's a tribute to her work and commitment and competitiveness she brings to the floor."
Wecker, who rebounded for Koehn during summers as teammates on an AAU team, already knew of Koehn's work ethic. So it came as little surprise to Wecker when both roomed together in the dorms that she would roll over to find Koehn tying shoelaces in the dark. Wecker would look at her alarm clock, rollover and go back to sleep. Ohlde, a light sleeper, now awakes almost daily to Koehn opening the door in the morning.
"I'm thinking, 'Yes, 6 o'clock, I can still get a couple more hours of sleep,'" Ohlde said. "She's going to the gym. I'm going back to bed. That's fine. I don't think it's obsessive. It's Laurie wanting to get better. That's how much she loves the game. Sometimes I wish she would rub some of that off on me."
"I know people that have a really good work ethic, but it's not consistently as hard as Laurie works," said Ohlde, who in May will enter her second season with the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx. "I haven't seen anyone else that has it."
But back to Koehn, who had just completed her first trip around the horn Tuesday morning. She has just finished shooting 100 3-pointers. It was 6:17 a.m.
"Made only eighty-eight," Koehn said. "Not very good."
About halfway around the horn on Koehn's second set of 100 3-pointers, a couple of baseball players entered Bramlage and stopped to admire her touch before they began running steps inside the 13,400-capacity coliseum. A baseball coach, pedaling a nearby stationary bike, pulled down his newspaper and watched Koehn as well.
After she drilled 88 (oh, the embarrassment), Koehn made 89 and then 95 3-pointers.
"Usually with the first set," she said, "it takes me a little bit to get warmed up."
Following the total of 300 3-pointers, Koehn made 43 of 50 jumpshots. Then she made 20 straight free throws, just to cool down.
How does 95 out of 100 3-pointer fair?
Koehn wiped her brow and picked up a ball.
"It ranks OK," she said. "I usually get that about four times a week. But I normally don't get it on a morning when I go 88 and 89. But I guess I'm satisfied with that."
Does it ever get boring?
"It can," she said. "What I do during the season is very blah compared to the off-season, when I mix it up a lot. I do a lot of movement and work on my footwork. I'll do about 800 shots a day during the off-season."
Eight hundred shots. That's 4,800 shots a week or roughly 67,200 shots between late May and early August.
So, what did you do over summer break?
Joking aside, there's a serious topic to consider. These days, parents think kids watch too much TV. Kids would rather live out their dreams on NCAA 2005. These days, Laurie Koehns are becoming a rarity. Yes, there very well might not ever be another Laurie Koehn.
Laurie Koehn hopes that isn't the case, though. See, she knows she has a gift. The gift isn't shooting 3-pointers or free throws. Those are mere products of her gift. The gift is work ethic. Just as Koehn once followed Jackie Stiles, Koehn hopes she has inspired someone. K-State freshman Carolyn McCullough has joined Koehn on occasion this season, to which Patterson insists, "It's going to pay dividends."
"You can't bottle up and give to people what Laurie Koehn has on the inside," Patterson said. "She's extremely passionate and so special. It's something I could go my entire coaching career and I'm not sure I'll have the opportunity to see it again, although I suspect (2005-06 signee) Shalee Lehning might be a great deal like Laurie Koehn. She models herself a great deal after Laurie in that respect."
Koehn also realizes somewhere in Kansas, or perhaps someplace else, there's a young girl who wants to pursue a dream. She wants to be the next Laurie Koehn.
"That really makes you feel like you've got a responsibility," Koehn said. "In many ways it makes you feel really good. It's great because for a lot of little girls in Kansas there's so much value in getting in a gym or shooting in your driveway growing up, just working on your game. I hope in many ways this all inspires them to do that.
"I know some kids aren't going to make it to this level, but there are a lot of kids that could if they wanted to just because they go out there and practice and practice and practice. I would love it if I found out there were girls that want to make it to this level but didn't realize what they needed to be doing to make it. Because of all of this perhaps they were able to commit themselves to spending time every day, putting out 600, 700 or 800 shots. Just them, the ball and the hoop.
"Maybe they have a parent rebound. Maybe not. Maybe they have to get their own ball every time. But I believe if somebody commits themselves to doing that from a young age and does it ever day religiously that anyone can get where they want to go."
Silently, Koehn deconstructed The Gun, grabbed the three balls, and headed toward the locker room. She turned and looked at the clock inside Bramlage, which read 6:42 a.m.
"When I was in high school," she said, "this workout would have taken me an hour and a half. With the rebounding machine, I can do it in 30 minutes."
With a flip of a switch, Koehn turned to the guest, smiled, and said, "That's all she wrote."
Perhaps next year or the year after, or perhaps 10 years from now, long after Laurie Koehn has left K-State, somebody will start turning on the lights inside Bramlage at 6:15 a.m. again.
Copyright 2005 Spirit Street Publishing, Inc./Powercat Illustrated/GoPowercat.com
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