Obviously only four teams can reach the Final Four, so the chance to play in college basketball’s semifinals is an exclusive opportunity.
Former area standout and Rockdale High team captain, Traci Waites is in even more limited company, as possibly the only collegiate player ever to appear in two Final Fours with two different teams.
After leading Rockdale to the 1984 state championship, earning two Parade All-American honors and being named Miss Georgia Basketball following her senior year, Waites attended the University of Georgia over dozens of other offers.
Playing alongside legendary players such as future Olympians Katrina McClain and Theresa Edwards and under legendary coach Andy Landers, Waites started as a freshman as the Lady Bulldogs compiled a 29-5 record and marched through the NCAA Tournament. Georgia reached the 1985 Final Four in Tacoma, Wash., and played in the national title game, with Waites tallying 19 points.
Then, after transferring to Long Beach State — which Georgia happened to beat to reach the 1985 Final Four — Waites was again part of the Final Four, in 1988. This time, Waites and her team didn’t make the championship game but the Rockdale resident still earned what her former high school coach, Charlie Bryant, and others believe is the distinction of being the only player ever to reach the Final Four with two different teams.
Both Final Fours were experiences Waites will never forget, and was among the highlights of a career which took her to Italy for eight years of professional basketball.
“It’s the stage of all stages,” Waites said. “There are four teams left and when you get to the final game, you’re talking about two teams left to see who’s the best out of all 320 institutions.”
When Waites went to the Final Four with Georgia, she was still relatively new to collegiate basketball in her freshman year, but had the experience of winning the SEC tournament championship.
“It was just a new experience,” Waites said. “I was excited.”
The Lady Bulldogs started the 1984-85 Tournament run with a 91-74 victory over Tennessee Tech, defeated UCLA 78-42 and then beat Long Beach State 97-82 to reach the Final Four. Georgia lost to Western Kentucky 72-67 earlier in the season with McClain being out with an ankle injury, but took its revenge in the national semifinal, winning 91-78.
Georgia fell to Old Dominion 70-65 but not without a big effort from Waites, who led the Lady Bulldogs with 19 points.
Waites made her second run to the Final Four in 1988 as Long Beach State defeated Colorado 103-64, Washington 104-78 and Iowa 98-78. The 49ers averaged more than 100 points per game that season before facing Auburn, which reached the Sweet 16 in 1985 and ’86 and went to the Elite 8 in 1987. Auburn defeated Long Beach State 68-55 as Ruthie Bolton had a record 10 steals for the Tigers.
Since the loss, Waites hasn’t returned to the women’s Final Four and attended a mens’ event as a spectator when she was head coach of Pittsburgh.
However, as the Final Four comes to Atlanta this weekend, she will be watching and rooting for Louisville because of fellow Rockdale alumni Kevin Ware. Ware, who helped lead Rockdale to the 2011 state championship game, was a key contributor for the top-seeded Cardinals off the bench before breaking his right leg.
“I feel so bad for Kevin Ware,” Waites said. “He’s going to be able to sit there and take it all in. He’s going to be a big factor for them but I know it’s going to be hurting him inside.”