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Sonja Tate: Hall of Famer

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Raised in rural Crittenden County near the community of Edmondson, Sonja Tate learned to compete athletically at an early age.

“I had eight brothers and two sisters,” she says. “Everyone was very active. I played outside a lot when I was young with my brothers and my cousins. I always wanted to be a part of their basketball games. They made it clear to me that they didn’t want a girl out there with them. I wouldn’t back down, though. I wanted to play with them, and I knew I had to get stronger and tougher in order to do that. I had to develop my skills.”

Tate developed those skills to the point that she became perhaps the best basketball player to ever wear an Arkansas State University uniform.

Tate, who played at ASU from 1989-93, remains the career scoring leader at the school with 2,312 points. She returned to Jonesboro prior to the current season to serve as an assistant coach on the ASU women’s basketball staff.

In addition to being the school’s career scoring leader, Tate holds the single-season scoring record with 820 points during the 1992-93 season. She has the top five single-game scoring performances at ASU. She also remains the only ASU women’s player to have scored 40 or more points in a game, a feat she accomplished five times.

Now, she’s an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Tate played junior high basketball at West Memphis and then really began to blossom once she reached high school.

“I wasn’t a starter at the first of my 10th-grade year, but I was starting by later in the season,” she says. “I had a brother who broke a leg playing football and a sister who broke a leg in the long jump in track. I was determined to prove myself quickly since I had seen how other people had their playing careers shortened by injuries.

“There were great high school teams in the state at that time. We had our ups and downs, but I was able to play against some of the most talented players in Arkansas. That made me better.

“I’ll admit that I was not the best student coming out of high school. Basketball was my main subject back then. I was struggling to improve my ACT score. I talked to Coach Joe Foley about playing at Arkansas Tech and was also being recruited by the University of Missouri at Kansas City. I thought I was going to sign with Tech, but I ended up at ASU. I didn’t sign until the summer after I graduated.”

Basketball fans across northeast Arkansas were glad she made that decision. Tate earned a starting position during her freshman season. Following that season, she was named the Co-Newcomer of the Year in the American South Conference. She earned All-American South Conference honors as a sophomore and All-Sun Belt Conference honors as a junior and senior.

Prior to her senior season, Tate was named a preseason first-team All-American by Dick Vitale’s Basketball Magazine. Following her senior season, she was named to the Kodak All-America team and was honored as the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.

In addition to being the leading scorer in Arkansas State history, Tate:

— Owns the top five single-game scoring performances, including a 50-point outing against Louisiana-Lafayette during the 1992-93 season

— Connected on 95 three-pointers during the 1992-93 season, an ASU record that still stands

— Holds the single-season rebounding record with 327

— Is third on the all time rebounding list with 1,006

— Is the school’s career steals leader with 402

— Owns ASU’s top two single-season steal records with 125 during the 1992-93 season and 114 during the 1991-92 season

— Is the only player in ASU history to have a quadruple double after finishing with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in an 86-59 victory at Mississippi Valley State University on Jan. 27, 1993

— Won most valuable player honors in the 1993 Women’s National Invitation Tournament at Amarillo, Texas, after leading ASU to a 67-54 victory over SMU in the finals

Tate’s first contact with Arkansas State as a high school student had been with the track program rather than the basketball program.

She says modestly: “I did pretty much everything in track.”

Indeed, she was a track All-American and remains in the top 10 in ASU history in six events. She set the school record in the heptathlon in 1994 with 5,247 points.

After finishing her college basketball career in the spring of 1993, Tate went to Europe to play basketball and didn’t like it. She returned to Jonesboro to finish her course work toward a bachelor’s degree while competing in track, in which she still had eligibility remaining.

In 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved the creation of the WNBA. The new league was announced at a news conference on April 24, 1996. At about the same time, another women’s professional league known as the American Basketball League was formed. The surge in interest in women’s basketball had followed the gold medal performance of the U.S. women’s team at the 1996 Olympics.

The ABL lasted just more than two seasons. On Dec. 22, 1998, the ABL declared bankruptcy and suspended its operations. At the start, however, the ABL had been considered a better league and generally paid better salaries than the WNBA.

“I went to try out for the ABL at Atlanta,” Tate says. “The tryouts were held on the Emory campus, and it was a huge event. I was broke at the time, and I had to collect donations to even afford the trip to Atlanta.”

The visit paid off. About a week later, Tate learned that she had been selected to play for the Columbus Quest in Columbus, Ohio.

“We only had six players at the start, so you got a great deal of playing time,” Tate says. “It was a good league for the players, and I was with it until it folded.”

The Quest won the ABL’s Eastern Conference during both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Columbus went on to beat Richmond for the title the first year and defeated Long Beach for the title the second season. Columbus was leading the conference again with an 11-3 record in late 1998 when the league folded.

“After the ABL ended, there was a disbursement draft for the WNBA that followed a camp I attended in Chicago,” Tate says.

Tate was a three-year starter for the Minnesota Lynx. She led the team in minutes played, assists and steals. She also was among the top three rebounders on the team. After leaving the Lynx, Tate went to Europe and played professionally in France, Russia and Spain. She retired at the end of the 2004 season and returned to Jonesboro.

Tate earned her master’s of education degree from ASU in 2005. She was inducted into the ASU Hall of Honor in 2004.

After obtaining her master’s degree, Tate decided she wanted to coach. A friend talked her into moving to North Carolina, where she coached on the high school level at two schools. Most recently, she was the girls’ coach at William A. Hough High School in Charlotte, leading the team to a two-year record of 37-19 and two trips to the state playoffs.

At the end of the 2012 season, Tate began applying for college jobs.

“I was on the NCAA website every day looking at the job listings,” she says. “One day, I hadn’t gone to the website yet. A friend walked into my classroom with a sticky note that said there was a job opening at Arkansas State. Everything circles back around. It was a blessing to play basketball and see the world, but it’s good to be back in Arkansas.”

ASU head coach Brian Boyer said at the time of Tate’s hiring: “One could argue that she has accomplished more here at Arkansas State than not only any other women’s basketball player but more than any athlete period. What she has accomplished as a player speaks for itself, but I’m now convinced that she’s ready to make a name for herself as a coach.

“Sonja was not successful as a player because she was just better than everyone. She was successful because she was driven to be better than everyone. This attitude will be great for both our current athletes and our future athletes to be around. … As a bonus, our program has sent a message loud and clear to all other programs within our athletic department that we are not to be taken lightly when it comes to noon pickup games. I’m convinced that the women’s basketball staff will now be considered the favorites.”

Tate lives back in Crittenden County with her aging parents and commutes to Jonesboro each day.

“It’s a blessing to be able to spend time with my parents and be back at ASU at the same time,” she says. “That’s priceless.”

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