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To her Duke basketball teammates she was "Momma," someone watching out for them, making sure they were in a good place. To her coach she was the equivalent of a coach on the floor, always knowing when, where and how to move the ball around the floor.

To her father, forever demanding, she has become all he had hoped she would, on and off the court. To the Lynx, who begin their ninth WNBA season Saturday, she is the symbol for the beginning of bigger and better things.

But weighed down? Lindsey Harding will tell you that burden can't overtake a moving target, and she has no plans of slowing down.

WNBA superstar? Actress? Broadcaster? Women's sports advocate? Harding, 22, sees it all happening in her lifetime, and she's raring to get started.

A résumé that already includes college player-of-the-year honors and first overall draft pick figures to soon be too rich for one page. But Harding and those who know her best agree the biggest mistake in her young life will continue to be the key to her successes.

'A dumb teenage thing'

Harding was coming off a freshman season at Duke, during which she earned the starting point guard job, when Blue Devils coach Gail Goestenkors informed her that violation of team rules would result in her being suspended for her entire sophomore season. To this day, the specifics of Harding's transgressions have not been made public. All concerned hope that never changes, just as they agree Harding is a changed person after going through the toughest year of her life.

"It was a dumb teenage thing," Mike Harding said of his daughter's mistake. "The kind of thing all of us do, and we all learn from it. But we're not all the starting point guard at Duke.

"It was a tough period to go through, but it made her a more solid person. She became an adult very quickly. I saw a whole different [person] come out of that."

Harding said she has "heard all the rumors" regarding what supposedly happened. She said if she were the only person who might be impacted by revealing the rest of the story, she probably would be more willing to do so.

"I'm the kind of person who is always trying to please people," Harding said. "It's always been, if you're OK, I'm OK. I went through a lot of personal things that year, and I needed things to be more about me. It came down to realizing what was really important in my life.

"The issue wasn't about not playing for a year, it was about getting myself together so I can be the best person I can be."

Harding continued to practice with the team throughout the suspension, and sat next to Goestenkors for games. A professional relationship grew to be much more.

"She's always been a great person," Goestenkors said, "but sometimes good people make poor choices, and that's what she did. Because she was going to sit out a year, I told her she could transfer, because that would be the easy thing to do.

"No one would even know she was in trouble. But that if she wanted to be the person and the player she could be, she needed to stay. Not for a second did she think about transferring."

A father's influence

Mike Harding said he had taught his daughter not to run away from adversity. It was an education that began well before Harding's sophomore season.

"I tried to help her understand what the expectations are," Mike Harding said. "I tried to be the person who told her what other people wouldn't tell her. Expectations, discipline, accountability.

"When you're given a scholarship, there's something that goes with that. You don't go to practice or you don't feel like playing? It doesn't work like that in the real world."

Harding admits there were times when she would hear her father's voice from the stands and wish he would just be quiet. But she remembers just as clearly the times he commended her on a job well done. She appreciates the guidance her father offered, and lists him as one of the biggest influences in her athletic career.

"The biggest thing I took away was to always work your hardest," Harding said, "because no one is ever going to give you anything."

Goestenkors, now the head coach at Texas, was an interested observer of the relationship between father and daughter.

"Her dad is really hard on her," she said. "He's a vice president at Anheuser Busch, and he's gotten to where he is through hard work, dedication and motivation. He's a self-made, very successful man. He expects the same from Lindsey. He's never been really satisfied, he's always pushed her to greater heights."

The perfect outlet

Mike Harding said he and his wife, Lillian Andrews, knew from the time Lindsey was a toddler that they needed to find an outlet for all her energy. Harding already was excelling as a track athlete in junior high when she attended a Houston Comets WNBA game with her dad.

The next day, she told her dad she wanted to play basketball. She has been playing ever since. Goestenkors offered Harding a full scholarship when she was a sophomore in high school.

"She attended one of our camps," Goestenkors said, "and as soon as we saw her sprint with the ball past everybody else we knew she was something special."

Harding went on to establish herself as one of the best college point guards the women's game has ever known. Her talent was matched by her reputation as a clutch player, which only added to the dramatic conclusion to her college career.

Harding missed a pair of free throws with one-tenth of a second to play in a 53-52 upset loss to Rutgers in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

"What went through my mind was, 'God, how did I let [the game] get that close,' " Harding said. "The other thing that sticks in my head is, if I get in that position again, what will I do to change things?

"As for the free throws, I would shoot them the same way. They felt good. They just hit the back of the rim. Any loss sticks with me because I take on a lot of responsibility as a point guard."

Said Goestenkors: "There was nobody else I would have wanted to have on the line. I feel the same way now."

Goestenkors has no doubt Harding will be an instant success in the WNBA. Her history suggests Harding certainly seems prepared for anything that might present itself.

"I think I've always been a young person with an old soul," Harding said. "But I think I might have even gotten older."

Dean Spiros •