Recently, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Sacramento Monarchs icon Yolanda Griffith — a seven-time WNBA All-Star, the 1999 WNBA MVP and a WNBA champion in 2005 — has been nominated for induction into its hallowed halls.
A 2014 inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Griffith not only is a deserving Hall of Famer because of all she accomplished on the basketball court — which was a lot — but also because of how she is a symbol of a particular, important era of women’s basketball history.
Griffith’s peripatetic basketball path was exemplary of elite women’s basketball players of her generation, coming of professional age just as the ABL and WNBA were established. Griffith, like many of her peers, had to navigate struggles and sacrifices before, eventually, finding great success.
Yo Griffith’s journey to greatness
A native of inner-city Chicago, Griffith’s mother died when she was 13. Her evident basketball ability represented an avenue to improved circumstances. However, her road to basketball excellence was unsteady and unpredictable.
In 1988, she committed to play for C. Vivian Stringer at the University of Iowa, but she was academically ineligible as a freshman. Soon thereafter, she learned she was pregnant, ending her short stay at Iowa and, possibly, her basketball career.
As Griffith would later tell the New York Daily News, “I never pictured myself being a mother, all I ever pictured was being a basketball player.”
Yet she found a way to be a mother to her daughter Candace and a dang-good basketball player. In 1990, she restarted her hoops career at Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth, FL.
Even as she also worked as a secretary for a car repossession agency to support herself and her daughter, her game did not suffer. After two standout seasons, Division I schools, including the vaunted Tennessee Lady Volunteers, were eager to offer Griffith a scholarship. She shunned the big schools, choosing to stay in South Florida in order not to disrupt Candace’s day care routine. Griffith enrolled at then-Division II Florida Atlantic University, leading the nation in scoring (28.2) and rebounding (16) as she was named Division II Player of the Year for the 1992-93 season.
Desiring to provide as much financial security for Candace as possible, Griffith next took advantage of the opportunity to play professionally in Germany, where she would average 24.7 points and 16 rebounds per game in three seasons with DJK Wildcats Aschaffenburg.
The ABL then sought her services, with the expansion Long Beach Stingrays selecting her with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 ABL Draft. Griffith instantly made her game, and her name, known, posting 18 points and 11 rebounds per game as she finished second in MVP voting. For her second and final ABL season, Griffith suited up for her hometown Chicago Condors. Before the ABL suspended operations in December of 1998, she was averaging 17.2 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
Yo Griffith becomes a WNBA legend
After briefly biding her time as a YMCA basketball instructor, Griffith was the No. 2 pick in the 1999 WNBA Draft, selected to be the savior of the struggling Sacramento Monarchs.
Griffith soon was synonymous with Sacramento — the intense, undisputed face of the Monarchs. She led an organization that only won 18 games total the two seasons prior to a 19-13 record in 1999. Along the way, she captured a trifecta of WNBA awards — Newcomer of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP.
Griffith’s outstanding 1999 season also served to seal the seamless incorporation of ABL players into the WNBA, a melding that resulted in a better, stronger women’s professional basketball product.
Unfortunately, a late-season meniscus tear prevented Griffith from piloting the Monarchs through their first postseason. Yet, with Griffith in tow, Sacramento would become a playoff fixture. In 2005, Griffith and the Monarchs finally scored their big breakthrough. Finishing with the league’s best record behind an All-WNBA and All-Defensive performance from Griffith, Sacramento won the WNBA championship over the Connecticut Sun, with Griffith named Finals MVP.
Griffith would spend two more seasons in Sacramento before winding down her WNBA career with single-season stops in Seattle and Indiana.
Retiring after the 2009 season, she finished her 311-game WNBA career with averages of 13.6 points and 7.9 rebounds and a player efficiency rating of 25.4. Her other career highlights include:
- 1999 MVP
- 1999 Defensive Player of the Year
- 5x All-WNBA (1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005)
- 2x All-Defensive (2005, 2006)
- 7x All Star (1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007)
- 1st all time in offensive rebound percentage
- 3rd all time in defensive rating
- 9th all time in win shares
- 15th all time in rebounds (tied exactly with Hall of Fame classmate Lauren Jackson)
The great Yo Griffith
Griffith also was a two-time Olympian, leading the 2000 gold medal winning team in rebounding and serving as an off-the-bench force during the 2004 gold medal run.
Speaking to San Francisco Chronicle in 2000, Griffith aptly summarized her basketball path, stating:
I’ve been through a lot. That’s just the way things worked out. Some people have it easy, and some have it rough. I’m glad it was kind of rough, because it made me realize that I have to work hard and not take things for granted. I never want anybody to have sympathy for me or give me anything that I haven’t earned. If you don’t earn it, it’s not worth getting.