Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Oak Ridge grad James hopes to end Stanford career with NCAA women’s basketball title

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

The beginning of the end – or, really, the beginning of life after basketball – is hours, days, or at most a week away. And Sara James smiles and shakes her head, and like most adults, wonders when the calendar started to run the fast break.

Four years ago, she was still a kid, an Oak Ridge High School senior who drove around in a compact car, took humanitarian trips to Mexico, played pickup games against her brothers and earned gas money by yanking weeds and old plants out of her grandparents’ garden.

Life in the scenic ’burbs was never lacking for color. In the pre-drought era, El Dorado Hills was actually green. And in a final prep season when James and two of her friends were highly coveted national recruits – with McClatchy’s Ariel Thomas opting for Oregon and Sacramento High’s Brittany Shine signing with Florida – James ended the game with the grand slam that resonated ’round the state. She led Oak Ridge to a Division I state championship over heavily favored Long Beach Poly before packing up and driving to Palo Alto.

Tara VanDerveer had called. Sara James had answered. And who says no to the legend?

So now here it is, four years later, and James will start against Penn State on Sunday in yet another of the sixth-ranked Cardinal’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinal appearances. You might need a calculator to count the seasons since Stanford’s last NCAA title – and that would be 1992 – but VanDerveer’s teams always throw punches and beautiful passes and sprint between the baselines until the brutal end. They are postseason fixtures, having reached the Final Four in five of the last six seasons, routinely compensating for underwhelming athleticism with size, balance, execution, superior coaching and the presence of at least one exceptional player.

This year’s squad is led by senior Chiney Ogwumike, the dynamic 6-foot-4 forward who has demolished many of the Pacific-12 Conference scoring and rebounding records, and combines with 6-foot-3 senior Mikaela Ruef in a potent high-low attack that creates angles, open shots and opportunities for the guards.

James loves the system. She just hasn’t always been in love with her body.

Ah, yes. About her secret. Hidden behind her modest stats and limited playing time is an impressive comeback story that James, never one to make excuses, details only when pressed. Sometime between her senior season at Oak Ridge and her freshman year at Stanford, she says, she began experiencing bouts of discomfort in her lower legs.

Initially, the 5-foot-10 James – known for her strength and stamina in both volleyball and basketball in high school – ignored the pain and concentrated on adjusting to college life and establishing a more dominant role.

“My freshman and sophomore years, I didn’t play too much,” she said after Saturday’s practice at Maples Pavilion. “I was fine with it – I wasn’t fine with it, because obviously I wanted to play. To go from being the main person on the team, to being asked to provide something else for the team, was completely different. But I didn’t want to give up, and my junior year, I finally got the opportunity to start.”

Unfortunately, the more she played, the more she hurt. Midway into her junior season, she finally was diagnosed with chronic exertional compartment syndrome, an ailment described on the Mayo Clinic website as “an exercise-induced muscle and nerve condition that causes pain and swelling.” Other symptoms include aching, cramping, numbness and tingling. In the most severe, persistent cases, surgery is among the treatment options.

James, a human biology major who will begin a two-year pediatric practitioner’s program at Columbia in late May, researched the condition extensively. Abundant resources were available at Stanford’s renowned medical center, of course, and it didn’t hurt that her mother, Kelly, is a nurse. James even joked that she became something of a Google junkie before deciding to undergo the procedure that, as she would learn, is not without risk.

“The surgery basically cuts the fascia open to release the muscles,” she continued. “My biggest problem is that my leg muscles would seize when I would run, and it would be very, very painful. I just wanted to get through my junior year and have it done.”

As she explains the condition in layman’s terms, she leans down and points to two 4-inch scars that run on the sides of her calves. Though the procedure has provided some relief, she is averaging 10 minutes per game and playing in briefer spurts, down from 16 minutes a year ago. But if she’s perhaps not as lean or mobile as the do-everything 17-year-old who orchestrated the greatest upset in girls state championship history, the essence of Sara James remains the same.

Diving for loose balls. Relentlessly tapping back rebounds. Making the extra pass. Hitting two three-pointers that rallied the Cardinal against UCLA.

“She’s one of those players … it’s those intangible things,” said Ogwumike. “She has that picture of herself face-planting on the floor. She did that and got us going.”

James adds a cautionary note; she isn’t finished yet. She owns one state title and has been to two Final Fours, and in the back of her mind, she keeps thinking about the overriding reason she chose Stanford (apart from VanDerveer) to begin with: “It was whether I wanted to be the best player on the team or be on a championship team,” she added, smiling. “I want to cap off an awesome year.”