Geno Auriemma arrived in McKeesport the first time thinking the place reminded him of his hometown across the state in Norristown.
He saw a lot of working-class, hard-nosed people. So this basketball recruit he was about to meet, this girl named Swin Cash, surely she'd fit right in with the ethos of his budding University of Connecticut program.
Well, on first glance, not exactly.
"Swin was a diva," Auriemma said. "She had more jewelry on her than I think there was in any jewelry store I've ever seen. She was all dolled up. If you hadn't known she was a basketball player, you would have thought she was a model."
About 15 years later, not much has changed. Cash and Auriemma are together again, joining forces on the United States women's basketball Olympic team, and, at age 32, Cash was recently photographed for ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue." Yet, while she takes great pride in keeping up appearances, she is still the same determined basketball player she was at McKeesport High School when it's time to put the makeup kit away and take the court.
That Cash is in London for these 2012 Games is a testament to her will. She did not make the '08 team because an injury kept her from playing up to her ability, and she has spent the last four years trying to scrub away at the pain she felt in not joining '04 Athens teammates Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings in Beijing.
Thus far, the Americans appear to be on a mission. They dominated Canada 91-48 on Tuesday afternoon to advance to Thursday's semifinal against Australia.
Cash may have a lesser role than she did in Athens -- she has played just 53 minutes in six games, averaging 3.3 points on star-studded Team USA -- but it warms Auriemma's heart to know she has a chance at a second gold medal.
"Swin didn't make the '08 team because she had been injured, and she was almost left for forgotten," said Auriemma, who did not coach the team in Beijing. "Here's one of the best players in the country, and all of a sudden it's like she doesn't exist anymore.
"With Swin -- Diana and I talked about this -- there's going to be a point in these next two games when Swin's going to be the only player you can bring off the bench that will be able to do exactly what you need done."
During the fourth quarter of Tuesday's blowout victory, Cash played for nearly 12 minutes. Her best moment came when she found Maya Moore on a backdoor cut for an easy assist.
Cash is approaching this tournament with the urgency that comes with knowing it's likely her last hurrah. She has other things she wants to pursue -- possibly a broadcasting career, and, of course, her foundation, Cash For Kids, which operates in McKeesport, Chicago (where she plays for the WNBA's Sky) and Atlanta (where she lives).
"I like to call it 'Swin Cash Incorporated' or 'Swin Cash LLC,' " Auriemma said. "She's got so many things going on in her life."
But, first, one more run at gold for her country.
She wants to make sure that she is prepared for whatever Auriemma needs from her, and that has meant staying glued to her Bible. She and Catchings share a strong faith and have spent a lot of time together the last few weeks.
"Whenever we can steal 20 minutes, 30 minutes," Cash said. "I think you have to keep feeding yourself from a spiritual standpoint."
Cash also feels obligated to put as much pressure as possible on her younger teammates at practices.
"Oh, we just tear each other apart," Cash said.
This being her last Olympics, Cash is also trying to enjoy the full experience. Her mother, Cynthia Cash, and her stepfather, Reggie Smith, arrived a few days ago from McKeesport, and they joined Swin Cash on a tour of London on Monday.
"We went to the London Bridge," Swin Cash said. "My mom, she loves the [track] stuff, and she was doing the Usain Bolt pose on the London Bridge. I want them to do goofy stuff, and they'll remember it."
Her family may be out of McKeesport, but they can't seem to escape the bad news. On Sunday and Monday, two homicides occurred in her hometown, bringing the total for this year to seven.
"It's one of those devastating things," Cash said.
From thousands of miles away, all she can do is pray.
"So much is going on, and you're heavy a lot," Cash said. "You really have to grab ahold of something, and that's kind of been a staple in my family, what I was raised on. It's my comfort, my place of peace."
Starting with that first trip to McKeesport, Auriemma has noticed how much of a connection Cash shared with the place.
"I can't say enough about what Swin has meant to UConn, to me, to the people in Pittsburgh, to all of her friends and supporters back there," Auriemma said. "I don't know who's more proud of what she's done: her family or the people she's touched in that community."
Auriemma has watched Cash develop as a woman and a player for half her life, and it's a process he'll always remember fondly.
"From the time I saw her play in high school, Swin's been one of my favorite players ever, and there's a soft spot in my heart for how hard she competes," he said.olympics
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.