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MOTHER-DAUGHTER DUO GIVES UTES A DIFFERENT LOOK DURING PRACTICE

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Something strange is going on with the University of Utah women's basketball team these days. Coaches and players are fussing over a new kid even though she is on the small side and can't control her dribble. There's a crib in the film room, and toys on the practice court, and everywhere the patter of little feet. Meanwhile, the team's new star player is named Amber, but she also answers to Mommy, and, by the way, is that a diaper bag over there by the bench?

The arrival of Amber McEwen has certainly changed life for the Lady Ute basketball team. McEwen, a 6-foot-4 junior center, has brought to Utah a soft jump shot, good hands, and, oh yes, a 20-month-old daughter, Dakota."This is kind of an experiment," says Coach Elaine Elliott. "No one's been in this situation before."

A single mother, McEwen and her daughter have become part of life with the Lady Utes. The first time Elliott ordered her team to line up during practice this fall, she looked down the row of players and there was Dakota taking her place in line.

"Now when we line up we look for her if she's not there," says Elliott. "It's something we've had to get used to. It puts things in perspective. You realize this is what matters."

Not that Elliott didn't expect changes. When she signed McEwen last spring, she explained the situation to her players and told them they would have to adapt and help their new teammate. Dakota is a daily visitor to the practice court and the athletic department, and everyone - coaches, players, trainers, managers - helps to care for her in some small way.

"We take turns in practice," says star forward Andrea Herold. "If we're subbed out, we entertain her if she wants to run on the floor."

"It's been a joint effort," says Elliott. "If Dakota is crying for mom, a player who's been subbed out will hand her milk or play with her until she gets subbed back in. I've felt good about that. The kids have been fine. No one's made an issue of it."

Indeed, Herold, who has complained for years that Utah's post players couldn't catch her entry passes, was hardly concerned about the potential distraction of a baby. When first told of McEwen's situation, she wanted to know just one thing: "Can she catch?"

Yes, and much more. McEwen can run the transition game, shoot from 15 feet, rebound and put the ball on the floor. In an exhibition game against a touring European team, McEwen had 21 points and 14 rebounds and held her 6-foot-8 opponent to two points. In Monday's season opener against Southern Utah, she had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

"She's one of those players with size, skill and mobility," says Elliott. "Her only weakness is that she's not strong (at 165 pounds)."

McEwen is playing about the way many expected she would when she graduated from Snowflake (Ariz.) High School three years ago. She was ranked as one of the top five prep players in the nation in 1991 by Street & Smith magazine and was the Gatorade Player of the Year.

The sixth (and tallest) of 10 kids, McEwen inherited her athleticism and height from a father, Gary, who played basketball for the University of Idaho. So far, four of the McEwen kids have won athletic scholarships (Gary played football for Dixie College and Northern Arizona, Heather played volleyball and basketball at Idaho, and Erin plays volleyball at College of Southern Idaho).

Amber converted from a seventh-grade cheerleader into an eighth-grade basketball player, and by her senior year more than 50 Division 1 schools, including Utah, were recruiting her heavily. "I'd get home at 5 or 6 and the phone would be ringing," she recalls. "I'd be on the phone (with recruiters) until 10 or 11." She chose the University of Hawaii, and the following season she was named Big West Conference Freshman of the Year.

And that was the end of her career at Hawaii. She become pregnant the following summer and subsequently parted ways with her boyfriend. Eventually, she moved in with her parents, who by then had moved to Kimberly, Idaho. They were in the delivery room when she gave birth on March 6, 1993.

In the coming weeks she began to think of returning to school. "I wanted to finish my education and play ball," she says. "I wanted to get my education paid for. I probably couldn't have gone back if I hadn't had a scholarship."

Five months after becoming a mother, McEwen, weighing 200 pounds, played basketball for nearby College of Southern Idaho and helped her team win the national junior college championship. After earning all-region honors in basketball, her phone began to ring again. Eager to avoid another recruiting assault, she called Elliott.

"I told her about my situation, and she told me they'd help me any way possible," recalls McEwen.

Elliott and the Utes have delivered, but there is only so much any of them can do even in the best of situations, and thanks to the NCAA rules, it isn't the best of situations. NCAA rules forbid coaches from providing services not available to any student, such as free babysitting.

"There's so much I'd like to do for her, but I can't," says Elliott.

McEwen, who says she can't afford daycare and receives no financial assistance from Dakota's father, arranges and pays for her own babysitters. She leaves Dakota at a babysitter's home until noon each morning to attend class, then she takes her back to their apartment for lunch and a nap. A friend stays at the apartment while McEwen goes to practice, and then brings Dakota to practice when she wakes up. After a three-hour practice, McEwen gathers up Dakota and they return home for dinner, playtime and bed.

"I'm always rushing around," says McEwen. "I'm always in a hurry. After the first week, I called my Mom and said, `Come pick me up. I want to go home.' But she told me it would be all right."

The life of a single mother, student and athlete has been overwhelming for one woman alone; at times she calls her mother and simply cries into the phone.

Says Elliott, "It will be a rollercoaster ride. She feels all that stress. She wants to make a life for herself and her child, but I can't think of anything more difficult to tell you the truth. I know there are women playing college ball with children, but how many don't have family nearby to help. We've talked a little lately. I've asked her how it's going. There have been tears."

McEwen gets some help from her mother, Beverly, who drives three hours from Idaho to Salt Lake City to watch home games and tend Dakota. Amber drives Dakota to her parents' home and leaves her there during road trips.

Elliott and her staff also have accommodated McEwen in every legal way they can. She is not required to attend the team's early-morning weightlifting session; she lifts alone in the afternoon during her baby's nap. She has been excused from practice when Dakota was sick. And on the rare occasions when McEwen has been unable to find a babysitter, she has left Dakota to play in the coaches' offices while she attended class, or put her down for a nap in the film room while she practiced, leaving assistant coaches to watch over her.

"When we first signed her, we brainstormed to find ways to make it work," says Elliott. "Obviously, we can't treat her like every player. She has a big responsibility. Her first priority has to be this child. She can't lift weights at 6:30. We had to come to grips with that. And yet we wanted to make sure she fulfilled her responsibilities as a scholarship athlete. We just have to be flexible. We have to be understanding of her situation."

All this notwithstanding, McEwen remains devoted to basketball. After all, we're talking about a woman who continued to practice with the Hawaii team during the first seven months of her pregnancy, with the aid of a support belt. She hopes to play professional basketball in Europe someday, or beach volleyball in California.

"Her problem is that she has not been in a Division 1 program for two years," says Elliott. "She'd be farther along if she had. Plus, she had a child, and she's had to get in shape again. Those two things have taken their toll in her development as a player, in what she could have been if she had been just a player and student."

Still, McEwen's rapid return to the game and her early performances have been impressive by any standard. Who knows what the next two seasons will bring.

"If it happens to someone, I'd tell them not to quit," says McEwen, reflecting on the events of the last two years. "But I wouldn't recommend it."