If the Long Beach State 49ers had known about Christa Gannon’s study habits, they might have avoided fouling the UCSB sophomore in the last minute of the 1992 Big West Basketball Tournament championship game.
“That year, I’d been reading Psycho-Cybernetics,” Gannon recalled. “I was practicing things in my mind—like shots at the end of the game—so I was prepared.” With UCSB’s first invitation to the NCAA women’s tournament in her hands, Gannon swished both free throws to put the game out of Long Beach’s reach.
“That was a moment that shaped the rest of my life,” Gannon said. “I face clutch situations all the time in my work, and I tell myself: ‘I can get this done. Be calm and confident.’”
Gannon’s mission in life now is to reshape other people’s lives. A top-of-the-class graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the founder and CEO of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), a nonprofit organization that tries to pull teenagers and young adults out of the downward spiral of crime and drug addiction.
Her work is a shining example of what can be accomplished by somebody who takes the lessons of sports—perseverance, determination, teamwork—to heart. Gannon, who has been called “arguably the most outstanding student-athlete in UCSB’s history” by former Gaucho coach Mark French, will be the featured speaker Monday, February 1, at two events celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day: a luncheon sponsored by the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table at Earl Warren Showgrounds (11:30am) and a free lecture at UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion (7pm).
Few young women who participate in sports need Gannon’s help. Most of her clients are high school dropouts who are on probation or flirting with criminal behavior. When she entered law school, Gannon intended to become a district attorney. Performing volunteer work at a juvenile hall, however, she saw young people who needed to be propped up rather than prosecuted. “Once they screw up, people write them off,” she said. That led her to launch FLY in 1998 with a modest budget of $32,500.
Now Gannon oversees 23 employees, 90 volunteers, and a budget of almost $2 million. It is a huge bargain. FLY works to keep 3,000 at-risk clients in the greater San Jose area away from crime. Gannon said the most acute cases receive intervention at an annual expense of $8,000—a fraction of the cost of incarceration, which exceeds $70,000 per individual.
To anybody who knew Gannon during her UCSB years, her achievements are no surprise. “Early on, I got labeled as the hard-working, smart one,” she said. “I was passionate about basketball, and I was passionate about school.” She was not the most gifted athlete, but she has stature (6’2”), and she learned how to make her shots count. Her career field-goal percentage of .495 still ranks No. 8 in the Gaucho record book.
UCSB had one of its greatest seasons (27-5) her sophomore year, when she was one of eight players on the roster. The Gauchos lost to eventual national champion Stanford by an 82-73 score in the NCAA tournament. Gannon was one of the four players who battled the Cardinal down to the wire after four others fouled out. “I have some FLY donors who remember that game,” she said.
In her senior year, Gannon was one of 10 finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award, which recognizes athletic accomplishments, academic success, and community service. She is married to Scott Alexander, another UCSB graduate, and they have two children. Their daughter Haley, 6, played on a YMCA basketball team and went through the whole season without scoring until she was fouled in the last second of the last game. “I prayed, ‘Please, Lord, let this go in,’” Christa said. Just like Mom, Haley made the free throw.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Cal Poly and UCSB, both 5-2 in Big West men’s basketball games, meet at the Thunderdome tonight (Thu., Jan. 28). UCSB will be shooting for its fifth straight victory at home, a streak that was saved last Saturday night when Orlando Johnson mimicked Kobe Bryant. The Gauchos were trailing Cal State Fullerton 72-69 with time running out when Johnson sank a game-tying three-pointer over two defenders. They went on to win in overtime, 85-80. … The Gaucho women, underdogs against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo tonight, begin a home stand at 2 p.m. Saturday against Cal State Northridge. … Westmont College will honor its 1999 NAIA Final Four team during its Saturday-night game against San Diego Christian. … There will be a San Marcos-Santa Barbara High hoop showdown Friday, January 29, at the SBCC Sports Pavilion, the girls’ game at 5:30 p.m. and the boys’ to follow.