It was the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the only time a No. 1 seed was knocked off by a No. 16. And without the huge performance from Allison Feaster of Harvard, it never could have happened.
By her senior year of high school Allison Feaster-Strong had assembled some impeccable basketball credentials. She had become the career leader in points in the state of South Carolina and earned the designation as the best basketball player in the state. She had been a six-year starter (yes... she started for the high school varsity team beginning in sixth grade) and, not surprisingly, she had been offered full scholarships to Duke and Rice among others.
Had she been choosing colleges based primarily on basketball, Duke seemed to be a perfect fit. Her sister was a student there, and the basketball team was on the cusp of being the dominant women's program that it has since become. But Feaster-Strong, valedictorian of her class, feared that her college experience would be narrowed by virtue of being a scholarship athlete.
"One of the main reasons I chose to attend an Ivy League school was to avoid the "business" of college athletics. I wanted an anonymous university experience where students aren't segregated into subcategories," she explains.
In addition to Duke and Rice, she considered Dartmouth and Yale as well. In what was clearly a deliberated decision — she didn't accept her offer of admission until the last possible day — she said no to her full rides, and yes to Harvard. In doing so, she also completed some unfinished business for her mother.
"My mother used to say that she would have attended Harvard if she did not have to forgo college due to an unexpected pregnancy. She wanted us to strive for the best in all things... this meant choosing Harvard. Simply stated, I believed Harvard was the best academic institution. Coming from Chester, S.C., Cambridge was an entirely different world. I wanted that experience. Basketball was not a huge factor in my decision. However, I was impressed by Kathy Delaney-Smith and the players that I met on my visit."
To pay for her education she worked in the Harvard mail room and took out loans, trusting that the career opportunities afforded by a Harvard education would, one day, give her the means to repay them. When Feaster-Strong matriculated she became the first student from her high school, Chester High, to attend Harvard. That was to be only the first time she would make history with the Crimson.
Under the tutelage of Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, Feaster-Strong embarked on a phenomenally successful collegiate career. Her impact was immediate, as she averaged 17.0 points per game and led the Ivy League in rebounding during her freshman season. She was an honorable-mention All-American and an obvious and unanimous choice for Ivy League Rookie of the Year. That year Harvard finished a close second in League play.
The following three years, Feaster-Strong led the team to three consecutive Ivy crowns and the NCAA Tournament appearances that accompanied them. These were the first-ever 'Big Dance' invitations for the Harvard women's squad, which capped its three-year run in the tournament in history-making fashion. Led by Feaster-Strong's dominating 35-point, 13-rebound performance in the opening round of the 1998 tourney, the 16th-seeded Crimson pulled off an implausible upset of the top-seeded Stanford Cardinal. That victory remains the only time in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament — men's or women's — that a No. 16 seed has defeated the No. 1 seed.
The team lost its second-round game, but the stunning victory over Stanford was a fitting end to Feaster-Strong's amazing Ivy League career, in which she averaged a double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds). On the strength of those stats she became the first women's basketball player in Ivy League history to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She was a first-team All-Ivy each year, only the fourth woman to achieve that. And she was chosen Ivy League Player of the Year in each of her final three seasons, becoming the first Ivy League athlete in any sport, men's or women's, to be dually honored as a three-time Ivy Player of the Year and an Ivy Rookie of the Year. She is widely considered the greatest player in Ivy League women's basketball history.
As most would expect of such a talented player, Feaster-Strong has gone on to a successful career as a professional basketball player. Surprisingly, this is not, perhaps, what Feaster-Strong expected. During spring of her senior year, prior to the NCAA tournament, the economics major was interviewing with top financial firms for a career on Wall Street. Although she successfully landed some impressive job offers, the best one was proffered by the Los Angeles Sparks when they selected her with the fifth overall pick in the 1998 WNBA draft.
Despite some setbacks because of injuries, Feaster-Strong has had a rewarding nine-year career playing professional basketball on both sides of the Atlantic. In the WNBA she played in Los Angeles for three seasons before being traded to the Charlotte Sting, with whom she played for the past six seasons. In Charlotte, playing her home games just an hour from her family's home in Chester, she blossomed in to an All-Star. In 2002 she led the league in three-pointers and led the Sting to the best three-point percentage in the league.
Meanwhile she has continued to sharpen her skills by playing in Europe during the WNBA's off season. She played in Portugal for one year before settling in France for a six-year stint with Valenciennes with whom she won the French and Euro League titles in 2004. She now lives in Valencia, Spain, playing for Ros Casares with whom she went to the Euro League Final Four this past season. Her husband, Danny Strong, who played collegiately for North Carolina State, has also been playing in Europe joining her in France and now playing in Italy. The couple's first child, a daughter, was born in February, 2006.
The Charlotte Sting franchise folded during the off season. Feaster-Strong is a WNBA unrestricted free agent who will compare offers before picking a new team with which to play this WNBA season. Whatever the future brings, Feaster-Strong is enjoying her journey. She genuinely appreciates the opportunity to earn her living playing basketball. The chance to do so overseas while learning and experiencing a different culture is a bonus.
Nearly a decade after graduating she still counts her college teammates amongst her closest friends, and those friendships are only part of what remains from her Harvard years. Coach Delaney-Smith's guidance has also endured. "Along with my mother, she is my role model. She not only taught me basketball, but she also taught me valuable lessons in life."
While relishing her present, she also seems to feel well prepared for what lies ahead. "Being a team leader and having served as co-captain during the 1998 season, I feel prepared for any situation professionally. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to attend Harvard. It opens doors that would otherwise be closed if I had not lived that experience."
— Meredith Rainey-Valmon