Time Out for Sports, Drawn by the Legacy of “Point-Guard U.”

Ford Burkhart

Two factors drew Shanita Arnold to the University of Arizona. One was the list of guys who established “Point-Guard U,” starting with Steve Kerr through Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Gardner, and Jason Terry — a group she’d feel at home with after growing up as one girl in a family with nine brothers. Intimidated? Hardly! She’d like to join the club. Maybe she already has.

“When I was growing up I used to watch Arizona on TV,” Arnold says, “and I remember the announcers saying Arizona is “Point-Guard U.” I knew I would fit in.”

Oh yes, the other factor, head Coach Niya Butts. When Arnold was a sophomore point guard at guard-rich Arkansas in 2009 and thinking about a transfer, Butts was pulling together a shaky 12-19 first-year crew at Arizona and in need of a point guard.

But the seed had been planted long ago. “I knew about Coach Butts long before she heard of me,” Arnold says. “I followed her and Shyra Ely when they played at Tennessee.” (Shyra Ely helped Tennessee get to four Final Fours; Butts was on two NCAA Championship teams.) Arnold, you see, had set tough goals for herself since she was old enough to run.

And today, Arnold runs the UA offense. No. 5 seems to be everywhere on the court and her name pops up across the stat charts. After the mandatory red-shirt year as a transfer, in her junior year she has started with 81 assists in the first 13 games. Against Oregon, she scored 25 points with seven assists, and 17 against Oregon State with seven more assists.

For Butts, her 5-foot-5-inch point guard is delivering as expected.

“I can’t say enough about what No. 5 brings to our team as a player,” Butts says. “She’s a basketball player before anything else.”

Arnold was born and lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, before moving to Fort Smith, Ark., where she was a tough, skilled young girl with a ball. “With all those brothers, there was a lot of bumping heads,” she recalls. “I always had a knack for ball, and I got them out there to play with me.” She settled in Arkansas and established herself as a basketball superstar at Northside High School.

Her early life centered on the Stephens Boys and Girls Club, where her uncle, Bill Martin, was on the staff and became a life mentor. “Every day I was going there, and I stayed in the gym until the lights went off,” she recalls. “I’d help out. Hang out with my brothers. Live and learn.” In sixth grade, she chose to learn to play the cello when her best friends picked violin and bass. By ninth grade, she faced a choice — orchestra or basketball? She did play a really good version of I Heard It through the Grapevine on the cello. She chose basketball. Arnold majors in sociology with a minor in communication, and carried a textbook along on a winter-break road trip. Her favorite UA class is interpersonal relationships. (“I am a people person.”) Her language class is Spanish. (“I am OK at it.”)

One of those “Point-Guard U” guys, Damon Stoudamire, scored 40-point games twice. Could she? “Well, the closest I’ve come was 34 points in a state championship,” she says. Asked who she’d want to face in some NCAA title game, she chose UConn, adding, “I like to show up and show the team that if we go in against anyone, we can fight. Only the strong survive.”

Meanwhile, No. 5 is catching on as the soul of a rebuilding UA offense (at 11-2 in January, 2-0 in the Pac-10), seeking to earn an NCAA tournament berth. The UA’s last was in 2005. Says Arnold, “If that’s my role, then that’s what I will do.”