Small town rejuvenation: WNBA product Murriel Page’s long-standing journey from childhood farm to Mount Pleasant
Louin, Mississippi. State highway 15 intersects through, but there isn’t much else to offer besides a small bank, one gas station, the post office, city hall and a Dollar General – all in a quarter-mile radius.
This is the town that built Murriel Page.
Nobody knew it at the time, but she would go on to become a basketball legend.
Amidst the meager 277 residents in the town, Page grew up on a farm where cows and horses roamed the land.
As a teenager, Page traveled 7.2 miles south down MS-15 to attend Bay Springs High School.
Bay Springs, home of the Bulldogs, is not much larger than Louin, but there were enough bodies to field a girls basketball team when Page was there from 1990-94.
Following two state championships, a stellar four-year career at Florida, 11 seasons in the WNBA and eight years as an assistant coach at Florida, Page now finds herself in Mount Pleasant – a small college town in Mid-Michigan.
Formally a two-time All-SEC player and first-team All-American (1997), the 6-foot-2 forward rejoined the Gators in 2010 as an assistant coach under Amanda Butler.
After an 11th-place finish in an ultra-competitive SEC during the 2016-17 season, Butler was fired.
Subsequently, Page was forced out of Gainesville – a city that once praised her name.
Upon hearing of Page's departure from Florida, Central Michigan women's basketball coach Sue Guevara quickly dialed longtime friend Carol Ross, who was the head coach at Florida during Page's college playing career.
Guevara wanted to hire Page, but she wasn't sure if she would fit the small town feel of Mount Pleasant. Page spent nearly all her adult life in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and at an SEC powerhouse in Gainesville, so Guevara was concerned at first.
"Carol, if you think about it, she's coming from Florida where they (fly) everywhere," Guevara said to Ross over the phone. "We're the bus league. How is she going to be?"
"Sue," Carol responded, "she'll be fine."
When Guevara interviewed Page in the offseason prior to the 2017-18 campaign, she discussed the situation with her. Plain and simple, Guevara didn't want or need a diva anywhere near the Chippewas.
"Coach, when I was overseas, we did everything by bus," Page exclaimed, adding she was a product of a small town in Mississippi.
Along with having a connection with Ross, Page played against Kristin Haynie, an assistant for CMU in 2016-17, at the WNBA level. Both coaches gave her name to Guevara.
"She called me, we talked and I came up to visit," Page said. "It was a match made in heaven."
Page skied through the air, grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back for two points. She dove on the floor for the loose basketball underneath her own basket. On the other end, when she caught the ball on the right block, she put a Kobe-like fadeaway on her defender and found the twine.
After a made basket, she exemplified tenacious defense.
That’s just the type of player Page was – defense first, rebounding second, scoring third.
Page is one of the best players to ever put on the orange and blue jersey in Gainesville, Florida. The now-43-year-old ranks second all-time in points (1,915), rebounds (1,251), field goal percentage (.550) and free throws made (334). She was a finalist for the 1998 Naismith Player of the Year.
As Page took the court for the Gators, the team rallied around her.
But it wasn't always easy.
Entering as a freshman in 1994-95, Page was in the shadow of center DeLisha Milton. Sitting behind the two-time gold medal Olympian forced Page to trust the process.
When Page was a freshman, Milton was a sophomore.
"Our body structure, we were identical players," Page said. "I had someone in front of me who played the way I wanted to play."
For the Chippewas, Page sees a similar situation with senior forward Reyna Frost and freshman center Jahari Smith. The pair have different games, but Page teaches them the same skills.
The same way Page went to Florida to watch Milton, Smith focuses intently on Frost without being told to do so.
"Reyna is a perfect post player in my eyes with the rebounding, scoring and defense," Smith said. "I'm extremely fortunate."
Eleven years in WNBA
Page competed with USA Basketball as a member of the 1997 Jones Cup Team, one year prior to her arrival in the WNBA. She paced the team with 14.7 points per game while Team USA lost to South Korea in the gold medal game, 76-71.
Less than a year later, Page was selected third overall in the 1998 WNBA Draft by the Washington Mystics. As the first ever draft pick made by Washington, Page is referred to as “The Original Mystic."
She moved on to the Los Angeles Sparks due to a March 2006 trade. Page was packaged with Tameka Johnson for the Mystics to acquire Nikki Teasley.
When Page took the court in Washington D.C. for the Mystics, NBA legend Michael Jordan was the general manager. When she was playing in Los Angeles for the Sparks, her head coach was Joe "Jellybean" Bryant – Kobe Bryant's father.
"I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people," Page said. "I got a chance to sit down with Michael Jordan and meet him."
The best season Page spent in the WNBA was the 2000 campaign for the Mystics. Starting all 32 games, she logged 9.8 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and shot 59 percent from the field.
Page signed a contract to play with the Phoenix Mercury in the 2009 season, but she tore her Achilles tendon on the final day of training camp and never played in the WNBA again. She finished her 11-year WNBA career with 2,154 points, 1,603 rebounds, 412 assists, 204 steals, 194 blocks and a 46.4 percent shooting mark.
"She knows all about the places I want to go, which is awesome," Frost said.
Along with time spent in the WNBA, Page also played professionally in Spain, Italy and Brazil before joining the coaching ranks.
"I had to adjust culturally," Page said. "I speak Spanish fluently because I was in Spain for eight years. Whenever I'm somewhere else, I do what the locals do. When I came (to CMU), it reminded me of my hometown."
Frost stands at 6-feet and hails from Reese, Michigan, a town of 1,382 people. Growing up away from the bright lights, Page is preparing Frost on and off the court.
"Coming from a small town, we don't get as much exposure," Frost said. "We have to take the extra step to get your game watched. She's been able to give me advice to make sure people can see me."
Paige coached several players at Florida who earned All-SEC honors, including Jennifer George and Ronni Williams. Both were selected in the WNBA draft.
Frost is on the clock.
She averages 19.8 points per game and 12.8 rebounds thus far in 2018-19, much like Page once did at Florida.
The first time Frost met Page, the assistant coach put her through a rigorous workout. Frost was dripping in sweat and knew her game would improve while working under the WNBA veteran.
"She's getting Reyna more confident facing the basket with the moves she's developed," Guevara said. "They have a great relationship."
Guevara said Page, within two short seasons, has built her own niche in the community. Every so often, a fan of the team or member of the athletic department will speak with Guevara about the need to keep her with the program.
"I'm trying really hard to make sure she stays here," Guevara said. "I'm surprised we still have her. I'm very grateful we do."