Oregon Trail: Hebard hopes next stop is Dallas

Photo of Brian Koonz

BRIDGEPORT — Dorothy and John Hebard had never seen a judge’s chambers quite like this one in Chicago.

“We walked in and it looked like a daycare with toys and slides and things like that,” John Hebard said Sunday by telephone from Fairbanks, Alaska. “They even had lollipops on the bench for the other siblings.”

The little girl with the bottomless brown eyes, soon to be named Ruthy Hebard, was just four days old when her parents adopted her.

Ruthy joined an older brother, Jacob, who was adopted in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And then, two years after Ruthy was adopted, the Hebards opened their hearts to another baby from Chicago. His name was Isaiah.

Each time, the love was palpable, a swollen smile catching every tear and every promise.

“You sit with the baby in your lap for a couple of hours signing paperwork,” John Hebard said. “That’s the moment when you start to feel the blessing.”

On Monday, Ruthy Hebard and No. 10 seed Oregon will meet No. 1 seed UConn, the 11-time national champions, for a spot in this weekend’s Final Four in Dallas.

Conventional wisdom says the Huskies (35-0), winners of 110 straight games, are the prohibitive favorite against the Ducks (23-13), the team with three freshman starters, including Hebard.

And yet, there is nothing conventional about Hebard, who leads Oregon in both scoring (15.0 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg). From the start, her trajectory has been jet-fueled.

“It’s motivating when people say we don’t stand a chance and we’re young,” Hebard said Sunday at Webster Bank Arena. “Yes, we’re young, but we still play like ballplayers. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”

A child of Fairbanks

Dorothy and John Hebard spent 10 days in Chicago learning to navigate the Circuit Court of Cook County before they took Ruthy home. They couldn’t wait to share their daughter with everyone back in Fairbanks.

“For us — and our entire family — it’s been an incredible blessing to raise three, wonderful children,” Dorothy Hebard said. “Ruthy doesn’t just have two brothers. She also has almost 25 cousins, and her aunts and uncles, and her grandparents here, too.”

For West Valley High coach Jessie Craig, none of Ruthy Hebard’s success is accidental.

Hebard received 81 Division I scholarship offers, although UConn never came calling. She was also the three-time Gatorade State Player of the Year and a consensus top-50 national recruit.

“My favorite story about Ruthy was during a regional championship game. I had to take her out for 30 seconds to get some water,” Craig said. “All of a sudden, I look down the bench and there are two little 5-year-old twins sitting next to her.

“They were like, ‘Hey Ruthy, whatcha’ doing?’ She told them, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now because I’m in the middle of a game, but I’ll talk with you later.’ That’s just how she is. She makes everyone feel special.”

Ruthy Hebard was swaddled in hope the moment she left the Cook County courthouse. Her parents made sure of it — and they haven’t stopped since.

“I love my family,” Hebard said. “We’ve always taken care of each other. That’s how my family is. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I couldn’t ask for a better family.”

Shouting in the library

In a remote city where water is pumped like gasoline, resilience is the currency of survival in Fairbanks.

“It’s so expensive here that a lot of the rentals are dry cabins without running water. They usually have outhouses,” Craig said. “You fill up five-gallon jugs at the Water Wagon and heat up water on the stove.

“Fairbanks is just different than other places,” Craig said. “We really don’t get snow days here. They only cancel school when it hits 50-below. We’ve got kids in hoodies walking to school when it’s 30-below.”

While John Hebard pushed his shopping cart in Fairbanks on Saturday, three or four people stopped him in the aisle — like they always do — to talk about his daughter, the basketball star.

“Her high school has been showing the games right after school in the library,” Hebard said. “They’re going to do it again for the UConn game.”

For two hours Monday night, Fairbanks will turn its TVs to the other side of the country and shout for another upset, just like the Ducks pulled against No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Maryland.

“We all believe in ourselves,” Ruthy Hebard said. “It’s like, ‘Why not us?’ We’ve come this far, right? I’m hoping we can go out and show the world we have what it takes to do it again.”

bkoonz@ctpost.com; @briankoonz