This feature on WNBA player Maria Stepanova appeared in The Moscow Times in July 1998.

Russian Teenage Star Looking to Shine in WNBA

By Ed M. Odeven

PHOENIX, Arizona — Six-foot-8 Russian basketball phenomenon Maria Stepanova doesn’t just have extraordinary size. She has extraordinary aspirations, too.

The former CSKA center from St. Petersburg is excited by the opportunity she has been given after being chosen by the Phoenix Mercury as the No. 8 pick in the first round of the 1998 Women’s National Basketball Association draft.

But that’s not good enough. Stepanova wants to prove her worth to the defending WNBA Western Conference champions.

How? By giving “400 percent or more,” said the soft-spoken blonde teenager in a recent interview.

Although that kind of exemplary effort would certainly be commendable, Stepanova’s play has already commanded the attention of her well-respected boss, the legendary Basketball Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller.

“It’s exciting to look out on the court and see someone so young and so tall running the floor as fast as our guards,” said Miller, who serves as both coach and general manager of the Mercury, after a recent practice at America West Arena. “We’re happy with her.”

Stepanova, 19, began her professional career in 1995 with Forse-Majore St. Petersburg of the EuroLeague. She spent the next two seasons with CSKA, where she led the league with 12.4 rebounds per game last season, while averaging 15.9 points per game.

Despite her accomplishments on the pro level at such a tender age, Stepanova’s biggest thrills so far took place in the summer of 1996 on the amateur level.

“I loved the Olympics,” she said. “I was really happy to be there. I was really, really young [17]. It was really hard to get there. It was really hard to get on the Russian national team.”

As for the transition to the WNBA, Stepanova is right at home with the Mercury. “I really feel welcome here,” She said. “My stay here has been made very comfortable by people around me, especially by my teammates.

“Of course, when the players have support, you feel more welcome and you want to go out and do it even more,” she said.

Those teammates, who comprise Phoenix’s international melting pot of talent, have greatly helped her transition to the WNBA. “Everybody has a school, in terms of where they come from and played basketball, but we all g et along great,” said Stepanova of her team, which includes players from Australia, Germany, Japan and Slovakia.

The budding Russian star now wants to build on her past success.

“There’s always something to work on,” she conceded. “I’m always trying very hard and I want to improve in anything and every that I can.”