Standing 6'8" and weighing in at 181 pounds of muscle, center Maria Stepanova is one powerful force on the hardwood. No right-minded competitor wants to be caught on the receiving end of a patented Stepanova stuff. They don't call her the Russian Rejector for nothing.
I talked hoops with Stepanova via email through her Russian translator, Andy Wright.
Can you still do your grocery shopping without getting recognized?
It depends on where I am. I like it a lot when people come up to me and call me by name and ask how I am doing rather than by [interest in] my height. It is ridiculous when people come up to me and ask if I play basketball and say, "Just in case, can I have your autograph." Many people in America ask how tall I am and how tall I was when I was ten or how much I weigh—stupid questions.
Did kids have any nicknames for you when you were growing up?
Yes, of course. I got offended at first, but then it was OK. They called me giraffe and ostrich. When I was small, I didn't really understand, but then as I got older, I started to hang out with others who were also giraffes and ostriches.
Is there a downside to being so tall?
Maybe, with clothes and beds—beds can be a problem and I can't always find the clothes I want.
Can you dunk?
Yes. But I haven't yet in a game in Arizona. I had two chances in America the season before the last I think. I dunked once with my friends in Finland after the Olympics. We were playing a poor team, but it wasn't an official game.
Will you ever dunk in a game?
Yes, of course. If the opportunity arises, I will try. It is better for me early in the game when I have some strength rather than late in the game when I'm tired. I have to do it with two hands because of the size of the ball.
Shaq has his patented jump-hook, Mutombo has his finger wag, and Jordan sticks out his tongue. Do you have a "signature move"?
No. If something happens in the last seconds [of a game], maybe I'll show some emotion. I can't run around on the court and flap my wings. I guess I just keep my emotions to myself. Even if I am worried about something on the court, no one will be able to tell.
What are the major differences between playing in the Euro leagues and the WNBA?
American basketball is more powerful and rough. In America, there's one leader on the court—in Europe, everybody on the court is a leader. I don't want to offend American hoops, but that's my opinion. Of course, basketball came from America.
European basketball is more "team" and classic. I like to play more in European basketball. I'm more certain of myself when I play in Europe.
Is there any trash talk in the WNBA?
It doesn't bug me, because I don't' understand English. If someone does something to me or whispers something, I can do the same thing back to them. So far, I haven't run into it in the WNBA.
What would you consider to be your biggest weakness?
I'd say that my defense is my weakness. I try to put an emphasis on blocks, [etc.]. To play defense is tougher than scoring, at least for me.
Addendum: In 2004 Stepanova won the IOC sports star award which honours the top players from each of the 28 sports at the Olympic Games. Pau Gasol (currently with the Lakers) took home the male honors. My Q&A with Maria firsts ran in the Summer 2002 issue of the now defunct Rev Magazine.