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Duke women's basketball greats Alana Beard, Gail Goestenkors reflect on Beard's retirement

<p>Alana Beard had a legendary career with the Blue Devils from 2000 to 2004.</p>

Alana Beard had a legendary career with the Blue Devils from 2000 to 2004.

In 2004, Alana Beard became the first woman to have her jersey hung up in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Now, after a record-setting college run and all-star WNBA career, she’s hanging up her basketball shoes too.

Beard, who played at Duke from 2000 to 2004 and is the Blue Devils’ all-time leading scorer, announced her retirement from the WNBA on the Tim Fletcher Show Jan. 23 after a 15-year career. 

“I’ve been craving this transition for a while now,” she told The Chronicle. “I’ve been preparing, and I can say that even at Duke, I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that basketball doesn’t last forever.”

The Shreveport, La., native fell in love with basketball while playing on the weekends with her family and found her competitiveness schooling her older brother and his friends on the court. Beard walks away from her playing career with a lengthy resume that reflects her elite combination of scoring ability and lockdown defense.

The 2004 National Player of the Year holds 10 Duke career records, including the most steals and minutes played, while also leading the Blue Devils to a pair of Final Four appearances. She picked up ACC Player of the Year and first team AP All-American honors three times and helped the Blue Devils to four consecutive years of ACC regular season and tournament championships. 

That’s all before she was picked No. 2 overall in the 2004 WNBA draft and went on to be a four-time All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and leader of the 2016 champion Los Angeles Sparks.

“As good as she is on the court, she’s a better person,” said Gail Goestenkors, who was head coach of the Blue Devils during Beard’s time in Durham. 

‘The finest women's basketball player to play at Duke’

Beard was not originally on Goestenkors’ recruiting radar, but when the Duke coach was scouting other players at a tournament during the summer after Beard’s junior year of high school, she saw her play and was immediately interested. 

“From the first time I saw her go up and down the floor, I knew I wanted to coach her,” Goestenkors said. 

Beard said she knew she wanted to come to Duke after her first drive through campus during an official visit. Despite coming in as a homesick freshman, Goestenkors noted that Beard was always a leader on the court because of her work ethic.  

“Anytime I stepped up on the court, my goal was to be at my best at all times,” Beard explained. 

Beard walked into a program that had a foundation and high expectations. The Blue Devils were the reigning ACC champions, and two seasons before she arrived, they had made it to the national championship game.

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She would lead the team to similar heights, making it to the Final Four twice while topping Duke’s all-time scoring list with 2,687 points. The Blue Devils captured the ACC championship all four years, though a national title continued to elude them. 

They also defeated giants. During Beard’s senior year, Jessica Foley hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to take down powerhouse Connecticut, cutting the Huskies’ win-streak off just short of 70 games. The Blue Devils had been down by as much as 20 points in the game, but Goestenkors said she knew they were going to win as the team headed toward the locker room at halftime. 

“We could hear [Beard] inside the locker room yelling at her teammates that this was not acceptable and this was not going to happen,” Goestenkors said. “I got goosebumps, because I knew, when I heard Alana speak like that, I knew we were going to win. It was priceless.”

Later that month, Beard would become the first woman to have her number lofted to the Cameron rafters as her parents watched. Then-Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva called Beard “obviously the finest women's basketball player to play at Duke University, and one of the best to play anywhere in the country.”

A few months later, Beard would be named the AP National Player of the Year and go on to be drafted second by the Washington Mystics. 

‘[She] deserved to win championships’

Beard spent several years with Washington, including a trio of All-Star team nods, and led the team in scoring for four years before injuries sidelined her for two seasons. She started over with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2012. 

In Los Angeles, Beard’s defensive prowess shone through as her scoring cooled. She was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018 and started every game in the 2016 championship campaign. The Sparks beat the Minnesota Lynx to win the championship, and it was a full-circle moment for the record-setting player who had come oh-so-close to winning a national title at Duke. 

“When Alana won the WNBA championship, I can’t tell you how happy I was for her, because she’s someone who deserved to win championships… I think I cried because I just felt so happy for her finally getting to win that championship,” Goestenkors said.

After pushing through a potential career-ending injury just a few years before, Beard said capturing the championship made it all worth it. 

Beard missed about half of the 2019 season with a hamstring injury. She said she decided to retire in part because she never wanted to make herself play if her body wasn’t able to, but also to keep from taking a spot away from a younger player.

“I never ever want to take an opportunity away from a young woman who has been dreaming of playing in a WNBA her entire life,” Beard said. “I've had 15 great years, some ups and downs, but that's just the way it goes. There's someone else that's coming in behind me that wants to experience what I just experienced, and who am I to take that from them?”

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However, she wasn’t planning on announcing it when she went on the radio show last week. After the host asked her if was going back for her 16th year, she decided to be honest and say “no.”

“I remember walking out of the radio station and getting into my car and seeing someone tweet something about it, and I just grabbed my head was like, ‘Oh God, I literally just announced my retirement,’” Beard said. 

It wasn’t just friends and family that noticed. Players, coaches and reporters tweeted to congratulate Beard on her career. 

So did Kobe Bryant, who welcomed her to retirement “after an amazing career” in one of his last tweets before he died. 

“[The tweet] did something to me. It felt absolutely amazing. It put everything into perspective in terms of what I've done throughout my career,” Beard said the day after his death, her voice still raspy from crying. 

Instead of tweeting him back, Beard had sent him a private message a few hours before the helicopter crash, telling him that she admired his approach to the game and life after basketball, particularly how he interacted with his daughters. And she thanked him. 

“I only hope he understood the impact that he had on people around the world,” Beard said.

‘None of that means anything if you’re not a great teammate’

Beard is making room for another player in the league by retiring, but she’s also aiming to make room for female athletes in a new space—venture capital. She hopes to head towards Silicon Valley and join a firm soon, with an eventual goal of opening her own firm to “be that bridge or that resource for other professional women athletes.” 

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But for right now, she hasn’t completely left the game of basketball. She’s an analyst for the ACC Network, which recently led her to covering a Duke women’s basketball game against Clemson. 

As to whether she would ever return to the sideline as a coach, Beard said that she never considered coaching, but that she loves it. And she would only want to do it at one place. 

“I always said that the only place I would consider is Duke,” Beard said. 

For now at least, her legacy at Duke hangs up in the rafters, sits on top of handfuls of records lists and pops up in the media guides she often reads to prepare for analyst duties.

“As I'm reading, I see my name and I keep seeing my name, and that's when it starts to hit home that I did some pretty amazing things at Duke,” Beard said, acknowledging that it’s hard for her to say that. 

When asked about what she hopes her legacy is, Beard doesn’t talk about the trophies or banners or retired numbers or scoring records. So what does one of Duke’s all-time best players hope she’s remembered for? 

“That I was a great teammate,” she said. “The physical aspects of it, the accomplishments, the numbers, stats, the championships, none of that means anything if you're not a great teammate, if you're not a great person, if you don't have a hand in the future of the game.”

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