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A Born Fighter

Danielle Green overcame huge obstacles to become one of the top basketball players in the city and then at Notre Dame. Her next challenge might take her to Iraq.

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When Danielle Green was growing up poor on the south side she used to dream about being a soldier. "I'd see GI Joe on TV and dream about being in the military and winning all those ribbons," she says, laughing. "Just thinking about all those ribbons and medals was enough to get me hooked."

Now her childhood dream is about to come true--on the eve of war. On January 23, two weeks after she turns 26, she's heading off for the army. "I feel blessed in that I've managed to achieve almost all of my dreams and goals," she says. "Of course as you get older you realize your dreams are not quite what you think they will be when you're dreaming them."

Followers of local high school basketball will undoubtedly remember Green's name from the sports pages. One of the city's great prep stars of the 1990s, she played four years of varsity ball at Roosevelt High School, earning a full athletic scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. But most people don't know what a long, hard road high school was. "I kept a lot of stuff inside," she says. "These aren't easy things to talk about."

She was, as she puts it, "born out of wedlock" in 1977. "I didn't see much of my father," she says. "Maybe once a year. My grandmother raised me. Sometimes my mother lived with us, sometimes she didn't. The way I look at it, I lost my childhood. I was always very self-motivated and self-sufficient. I didn't want to be a burden. My grandmother was on disability--she's a diabetic--and money was really tight. I was just grateful that my grandmother took me in. And I didn't want to do anything that might make her want to turn me out of the house."

When Green was 11 her grandmother moved to an apartment at Division and Keeler, so Green wound up attending Piccolo Middle School, at 1040 N. Keeler. To help her family make ends meet, Green went to work at a candy store across the street from the school. "I worked there throughout middle school and high school," she says. "They started me out at $5 a day, and then I went up to 10, 15, 20, and then $25. Eventually the owner gave me the keys to the store. I was buying from suppliers, opening it up in the morning, and working the cash register."

In sixth grade she discovered she had a talent for basketball. "I learned on my own," she says. "I didn't go to camps or classes. I played against the boys on the outdoor courts at Orr High School. I'd tell my grandmother, 'I'm going for a bike ride.' And I'd ride over to Orr."

As an eighth grader she helped her team make the finals in the city's middle-school tournament. "There was so much I didn't know about basketball, but I made up for that by being fast," she says. "I had a dream--I was going to play basketball for Notre Dame. Why Notre Dame? I guess I liked the color of their uniforms. I told my mother, 'That's where I want to go.' She said, 'Notre Dame's an expensive school and we're poor.' I said, 'I'll earn a scholarship.'"

At the end of eighth grade Green was recruited by Dorothy Gaters, coach of the girls' team at Marshall High School, a perennial powerhouse. "Coach Gaters was very nice, but I didn't want to go to Marshall," says Green. "See, my mother had gone to Marshall, and I guess things didn't go well for her there. She told me, 'You aren't going to Marshall.'"

Instead Green went to Roosevelt, which had never had a very good girls' basketball program. "I didn't go to Roosevelt because of its basketball team," she says. "I knew nothing about its team. In fact, I didn't know much about Roosevelt. I just saw in a catalog of high schools that Roosevelt had a computer-science program. I thought, computers--that sounds good."

Green broke the news to Gaters, and Gaters called Jerry Taylor, the coach of the Roosevelt team. "The first I'd ever heard of Danielle was when I got a call from Dorothy saying, 'There's going to be a fantastic player coming to your school--you'd better take good care of her,'" says Taylor. "I said, 'OK, Dorothy.'"

In the summer of 1991 Green came to Roosevelt for orientation. "I sought her out right away," says Taylor. "I had her come into the gym and take a couple of shots. I could see right away she was a player. That was the beginning of years of fantasia for me with Danielle."

At the time Green was living in a six-room apartment in Englewood, near the intersection of 55th and Carpenter. "It took me over an hour to get to Roosevelt each day," she says. "I'd catch the 55th Street bus to the Dan Ryan, and then a train to the Loop, and then the Ravenswood to Lawrence, then I'd walk along Kimball to Wilson. There was a vacant lot near the bus stop on 55th. At first my grandmother walked me to the bus stop, and she'd be holding a steak knife in case anyone messed with us. The thing is, I had to get up really early--about five o'clock--to get to school on time. So my grandmother couldn't do that all the time. After two or three days of that, my grandmother said, 'We're just gonna have to put this in the Lord's hands. Just gonna have to pray on it.' I guess God was watching out for me, because I never had any trouble all the years I stood on that corner waiting for the bus."

At Roosevelt she made a name for herself as a freshman with a big game against Von Steuben. "I remember that game as if it were yesterday," she says. "I couldn't miss. I just kept grabbing those rebounds and putting up those shots. Next day I open up the newspaper, and there's this little article, talking about this little freshman from Roosevelt who went 42 and 17. Man, that was something, seeing my name in the newspapers."

According to Taylor, Green's the greatest basketball player Roosevelt ever had. "It got frustrating for Danielle, because she rarely had the help she needed," he says. "But Danielle just kept trying. She never quit. She gave 110 percent in everything she did. She always played hard through double teams against girls that were bigger than her."

Several other adults--including assistant basketball coach Van Walters and Arnie Kamen, leader of the school's alumni association--helped Green during high school. "On many days I'd drive Danielle home after practice," says Taylor. "At the time my son, Darius, was going to Lake View High School. He was also playing basketball, and they'd be in the back talking about school and sports and different things."

Few people at Roosevelt knew how Green struggled. "It was sort of chaotic at my grandmother's place," she says. "My grandmother was there and my auntie and her daughter. My mother and I shared a room. A lot of times I'd get home from school at eight and go to sleep. Then I'd get up at two in the morning, when it was quiet, to do my homework. At 5:30 I was out the door to do it all again. It was tough mentally, and sometimes I wanted to explode. But you know something? Roosevelt High School was the best four years of my life. Coach Taylor always came through with a hug when I was down. People don't realize the power of a hug. And Coach Walters and Arnie, they were always there for me."

In her senior year Green averaged more than 28 points a game and was heavily recruited by several colleges, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Notre Dame. "Arnie drove me down to Notre Dame one fall day in my senior year for a recruiting trip," she says. "They took me to a football game, and I talked to an academic counselor. I told the women's basketball coach, Muffet McGraw, 'This is my dream school.' She said something about making your dreams come true. So that was that. Looking back, I can see none of the other schools really stood a chance."

In the fall of 1995 she headed down to South Bend, Indiana, and began a five-year roller-coaster ride. "It was a different environment--only about 2 percent African-American and 80 percent, or whatever, Caucasian," she says. "A lot of the kids were rich and preppie. I was intimidated. I felt lost and a little homesick."

In her sophomore year she blew out her Achilles tendon, but by her senior year she was a dominant player, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds a game. She graduated with a degree in psychology in 1999 but didn't have a job. "I didn't really know what I wanted to do," she says. "Notre Dame's very good at preparing you for a career in corporate America, but I didn't want to go that route."

In 2000 she tried out for the Detroit Shock, a WNBA team. "I came within one cut of making the team," she says. "I was close, very close." She returned to her grandmother's apartment in Chicago. "I came back with disappointment. My grandmother was like, 'How can you go to college and not have a job?' I didn't know what to tell her. I suffered from migraines. I was stressed-out. I didn't know what direction I was going in. I thought I'd give teaching and coaching a try."

That fall she took a job teaching phys ed at a public school on the south side. Coach Willie Byrd hired her as his frosh-soph coach at Washington High School. "But I was restless with coaching and teaching," she says. "I liked it, but I didn't love it. I did it for two years, but I wanted to do something else. Then it came back to me--the military."

She says she was still infatuated with the idea of it. "I thought, I'm looking for adventure. I'm looking for excitement and challenges. I never lost that love for the military uniform and the military pride. I don't want to look back at my life when I'm 45 years old and say I missed it. This is all about not having any regrets in my life."

In the fall she signed up. "I'm going in as an E-4, which is a specialist," she says. "I'm going in with some rank because I've been to college. I'll be a military occupational specialist, which is military police training. They'll send me to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri."

Most of her old friends and teachers have been encouraging though cautious. "You have to understand," says Taylor, "I consider coaching Danielle to be one of the great blessings in my life, so naturally I'm a little worried as she heads off." Like most of Green's friends, he's especially concerned given the possibility of war. So is Green. "Personally, I don't want to fight," she says. "I don't even know why we're talking about fighting in a war. Now I see they're talking about fighting in North Korea, and I'm thinking, what are we getting into? I look at the military as a way to make a little money, get some training, have some fun. Maybe I will make it my career, maybe I'll use it to find a career in law enforcement. I certainly didn't join to fight in a war."

And if she's sent to war? "I talked to my recruiter, and she told me that a lot of people sign up into the army looking to fight," she says. "Well, I can tell you I'm not one of them. If it comes down to being sent to a war, to tell you the truth, I don't know what I will do. Right now I'd have to say I'd want a discharge. But who knows how I'll feel in five months, after basic training. Maybe that will change my mind-set. The way I see it, this is another challenge. I've been taking on challenges my whole life. I will get through this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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