Women’s basketball takes center stage in March, as postseason tournaments that will lead to women’s basketball championships in Divisions I, II, and III in early April get underway. Over the next couple of months, I will be holding discussions about Finding A Way To Play in various locations. First up is a talk at my hometown library in Rockland, Mass. on Feb. 21. I’ll also be speaking at the Yarmouth public library and at a retirement community in Orono in early April. If you are part of a community group that would like to schedule an event coinciding with Women’s History Month or March Madness, you can contact me at email@example.com.
Finding A Way to Play: The Pioneering Spirit of Women in Basketball earned second place in the narrative nonfiction category of the Independent Publishers of New England’s (IPNE) book awards, announced at its annual conference this past weekend!
Earlier this year, the book was a silver award winner in the sports category of the Forward Reviews/INDIEFAB awards contest for independently published books in 2015.
More information about Finding a Way To Play can be found here. The book is available on this website, at local independent bookstores in Maine and New Hampshire, and via Amazon.com. It is also available at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame gift shop in Knoxville, TN. It will soon be available at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. It also will soon be listed on Baker and Taylor, as well as on the Barnes and Noble website. Plans are in the works for a second edition, which will include a chapter on women who have played internationally. The e-book version of Finding a Way to Play is scheduled for publication in 2017.
For more information, contact the author, Joanne Lannin, at firstname.lastname@example.org
I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Final Season, the story of Pat Summitt’s 38th and final year as the University of Tennessee Lady Vols coach in 2012. After reading it (in just a couple of sittings), I interviewed the author, Maria Cornelius, who has covered the Lady Vols since 1998 and written for Inside Tennessee since 2004. To say that Maria has had a front-row seat through the best of times and the worst of times in Lady Vols history is an understatement. She brings the perspective of a seasoned journalist and a long-time observer to this incredibly detailed, heartfelt account. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.
What made you decide to write this book?
It started with Sally Jenkins. Sally is a friend of mine, and she sent me a copy of Sum it Up (the book she co-authored with Pat Summitt after Summitt revealed her Alzheimer’s diagnosis) and asked me if I would review it for my column. It was the definitive book on Pat, but I noted that Pat’s final season (2011-2102) was just one chapter because the book was published in March 2013 and had to get into production quickly. Sally read my review and sent me a text message. She said, ‘You’re right. I wasn’t there. You were there. You write it.’… It wasn’t a thought until she sent me the text message.
Pat Summitt touched so many lives. Once you chose a publisher and signed a contract, how did you decide whom to interview?
I signed the contract in early Oct. 2013. We decided it would be best to interview the (current) coaches and players when the season ended. So I started reaching out to former players. Angie Bjorkland (a 2011 grad) was one of the first. She was on the transition team and saw Pat at her finest in 2008 and then was there for the earliest indications of the decline. She saw Pat when the slippage was beginning to show. Even Angie said I would never have dreamed that it was as serious as it was. It was apparent that some things were just off with Pat.
What were you hoping to accomplish through your efforts? Was it hard to balance the day to day chronology, which you capture in great detail, with the larger issues you were trying to explore?
It’s unprecedented in sports to announce you have dementia and then stay on the sidelines. (Pat) grew to be the public face of a disease. And I wanted basically a permanent record of how that season went, so there’s a lot of game coverage, a lot of fresh interviews. It serves the purpose for the Lady Vols fan who wants to relive that season and for somebody who may not want to know (all the details) but wants to know how that team dealt with such a devastating disease. I have so much respect for that team even though they ran into the juggernaut known as Baylor that year. That team persevered through what 18-22 year-olds are not usually asked to persevere through outside of combat. They hung in there through tremendous bad news, through wanting to fight for Pat. I hope the book captures how much that team meant to Pat and how much they fought for Pat.
After finding out in 2014 that your own mother has Alzheimer’s, how difficult, personally, was it to continue to write?
It became more personal for me. I specified that a portion of every sale go to the Pat Summitt Foundation. We’ve got to find a cure for this. It’s crushing families. Pat Summitt being taken from us at the age of 64 is crushing. She should still be coaching.
What were the hardest things about writing the book?
The interviews were tough. The toughest part was the emotion. They all cried. They are so used to interviews and they would be doing great, but you’d get them talking about Pat and the anguish in their voices was tough to hear. This was two years before she died. It was raw still for them, jolting to their lives, and it was tough to listen to them. A lot of the interviews were over the phone because they were all over the country. Some were playing overseas …. After Pat died (on June 28), I had to pull the manuscript back. We were revising it in July, which is unheard of. We wanted a tribute page. One of the hardest things I had to do was change the verbs to past tense.
Although she did turn many duties over to her assistants during that season, you also recount many examples of how Pat was still very much in control during her last season. I’m wondering if you think she could have coached another year?
I’ve been asked that quite a bit and I could actually argue that both ways. She definitely was in decline. The assistants were doing much more. But that press conference she held right before the team left for Chicago (the opening round of the NCAA tournament), after she had been told (by the athletic director) that this would be her last season, that was feisty Pat. That gleam in her eye was back. As I said in the book: she deserved to go out on her own terms. As I said, I don’t know why that decision couldn’t have waited until the end of the season: let’s let Pat talk to her family, talk to the administration. I understand why the decision would have come to that point, but I think Pat could have been treated much better.
Why do you think the decision was made before the season ended?
It was odd because the narrative the whole time had been: let’s talk about it at the end of the season. Let’s let the players focus on the day to day. I think if that decision was going to be made they should have talked to the players and that clearly didn’t happen. I do not necessarily think it was the wrong decision for Pat to step down, but I do not think it was handled well, and that was upsetting because Pat deserved better than that.
You mention in the book the scandal surrounding Tyler’s (Pat’s son’s) short-lived tenure as a Division I coach. Why did you include his story?
Tyler’s coaching career was announced at the very same press conference as his mother’s retirement. So now the news is conjoined. When what happened at Marquette and Louisiana Tech came to light, I couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. It became an author credibility issue. Had he never been in the book, it may not have been an issue. He was a big part of that last season. He’s a wonderful young man. Too much too soon was given to him. Too much too soon was expected of him. His mother was deteriorating in front of his eyes, an only child. When someone does what he did, that’s almost sabotage of a career…. Tyler is an incredibly bright young man. He’s the type of person who could own things, run things. But in terms of an author writing a credible account, I felt that I had to tell the whole story.
Was his resignation shielded from Pat?
Maybe she was aware, but would that stay with her? No. Conversations with someone with Alzheimer’s are literally like Groundhog Day.
What are some things that people will learn about Pat Summitt that they didn’t know?
I think the national narrative is of Pat the proper Southern woman and that was fine, but she had a biting wit and she enjoyed the media. She’d come over and talk to us. She was so engaging. So warm. She really cared about people. I remember a longtime beat writer had to have surgery for colon cancer and the team was at Stanford. She called from Palo Alto to reach him to see how the surgery went. She couldn’t get him in his room, so she called the nurses’ station and said ‘This is Pat Summitt. One of our reporters has had surgery and I can’t reach him. I want to know what’s wrong.’ This is the day before they went out and played Stanford, and she wanted to know if one of their reporters was OK. That’s her. I don’t know of many coaches who would be checking up on a reporter the night before a game with Stanford. She was just so warm and funny.
Her relationship with (UConn coach) Geno Auriemma was of a different stripe. What do you think happened there?
It was a fun, competitive series and also a respectful one. It started deteriorating in 2000 in Philly. There were pointed remarks about Pat by Geno that people said were Geno being Geno, but it went deeper than that, and Pat knew it. A lot of things got back to her. That’s not real bright. She knew the series was good for the game, but she had finally had enough. She did not feel the playing field was level. People begged her to bring the series back, but once she made up her mind, she was not going to change it. Pat respected him as a coach. That’s why the recruiting shenanigans bothered her so much. She knew lesser talented coaches cheated. She knew it. That’s the only way they could get recruits. But she didn’t expect it from a peer. She expected a level recruiting field from someone at his level, and she didn’t get it.
One of the biggest disappointments of Pat’s final season was the failure to make it to the 2012 Final Four. Were people surprised that Baylor and Tennessee ended up in the same bracket (and had to face each other in the Elite Eight)?
Baylor was a juggernaut. Nobody was going to beat Baylor that year. I don’t know if Tennessee would have made it in another bracket, but if you wanted to guarantee in 2012 that a team would not get into the Final Four, put them in Baylor’s bracket. I think it was tone deaf (on the selection committee’s part). More incompetent than intentional.
When all is said and done, what do you want people to take away from this book?
Maybe a better understanding of Pat. Why she did some of the things she did, why she coached the way she did. Of course, number one is to keep driving the research and funding for Alzheimer’s. With our aging population, this is a public health crisis, and it’s not being addressed at any level. So I hope it brings attention to that. It’s hard to tell anything new about Pat. But I hope it gives people a view of Pat that they haven’t seen. That chapter when she was crying on the phone (after the season ended)…. A lot of people have never seen her vulnerable. That was a tough conversation to have, to hear her voice so small and sad. Also an appreciation for her final team. I know they fell short of what they wanted. They wanted a Final Four for Pat, but the way that team endured, I hope the book shows how much they loved Pat, how much they fought for Pat.
The USA Women’s basketball team’s sweep through the Olympics for its sixth straight gold medal was predictable but still a lot of fun to watch. With Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore leading the way (with 15.6 and 12.0 points per game respectively), the American women averaged 102 points per game and held opponents to 64 points.
But as the WNBA season resumes, and teams play their final 10 games between now and September 18, the games will be a lot less predictable and the margins of victory much slimmer on the way to a WNBA playoff berth.
The two key players to watch down the stretch are not named Taurasi and Moore, by the way. They are Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks, who failed to make it onto the Olympic team (much to the consternation of their fans and lots of women’s basketball pundits). At any rate, that oversight has given Ogwumike and Parker a month to rest up, practice with their team, and work on their individual games as they prepare for the home stretch of the WNBA season. The month also may have given Parker time to come to terms with the death of Pat Summitt, her long-time mentor, on June 28.
Parker, who sat out the first half of the WNBA season last year because of fatigue from playing overseas (Taurasi sat out the whole 2015 season), is averaging 16 points a game, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. Parker, a two-time Olympian, had to have been stunned (like the rest of us) when she found out that she wouldn’t be going to Rio with the Olympic team. But the Tennessee grad, who led the Lady Vols to the last two NCAA championships in the Pat Summitt era in 2007 and 2008, will be using that slight to motivate herself and her team in the next month.
Ogwmike is leading the league in field goal percentage at a Wilt Chamberlain-esque 71 percent. She’s scoring 19 points per game and pulling down 9 rebounds. The Stanford grad was the WNBA co-player of the month in July (sharing the honor with the Liberty’s Tina Charles). In June, she made 23 consecutive field goals over a three-game stretch to help the Sparks start the season 10-0.
The Sparks record is 21-3, while the Minnesota Lynx are just a half game behind at 21-4. The only other team with a solid winning record is the New York Liberty, which sits at 18-8. The next four teams (Chicago, Atlanta, Indiana, and Phoenix) are hovering around .500, while Seattle, Dallas, Washington, Connecticut and San Antonio will likely be vying to snag the last playoff spot. Lots of UConn fans wearing Breanna Stewart or Sue Bird jerseys are rooting for Seattle to get that last spot, but Washington and Connecticut, who have both beaten the Lynx this season, might be better bets.
The Sparks and the Lynx have already clinched playoff spots and will both be getting byes into the semifinals in the new playoff format adopted this year. The third and fourth place teams will get byes into the second round, which like the first round, will be single elimination. The semifinals and finals will be best of five series with the fifth game (if necessary) going to the higher seed.
Home court advantage isn’t likely to be much of a factor down the stretch or in the playoffs. The Sparks blew out the Lynx at Target Center in Minneapolis, 94-76, while the Lynx pulled out a win in Los Angeles, 72-69 earlier this season. The Lynx also lost a home game to the New York Liberty during a three-game losing streak in June. The Lynx and the Sparks will meet on Sept. 6 in Minnesota in an ESPN2-televised game that may well determine who gets the number one seed for the WNBA Finals come Sept. 18. All I can say is, bring it on!
As I walked around the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville two weekends ago, one video exhibit caught my eye. By pressing a button, you could choose to watch a legendary coach give a locker room talk. Some of the choices were Geno Auriemma, Van Chancellor, Jody Conradt, and Pat Summitt.
It was an easy pick. I was in Knoxville to do a book signing in conjunction with the WBHOF Induction weekend, and Summitt figures prominently in my book, as well she should. I wrote about how her father moved the family to another town in Tennessee so that Pat would have a chance to play high school ball. I wrote about how she worked her rear end off to come back from an ACL tear in time to make the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. I wrote about how she was the first U.S. Olympian to win a medal as both a player and a coach after she coached the 1984 team to victory in Los Angeles. And, of course, I wrote about those 8 national championships, along with some of the athletes she groomed for coaching jobs of their own and for starring roles in the WNBA.
As I watched Pat go through her extensive pregame list of things for her players to remember, I thought back to the times I was fortunate enough to interview her at several Final Fours in the late 90s and early 2000s. In 1997, I was seated right behind the bench in Cincinnati when Tennessee played Old Dominion for the NCAA National Championship. I’ll never forget that steely-eyed stare and those tough-as-nails talks.
If you talk to any local people, as I did during the Induction weekend, they’ll tell you stories about meeting her and about seeing her at Lady Vols games, and they’ll make it clear in just the way they talk about her how much they miss her presence. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease for those who have a loved one in its throes. It’s like you’re stuck in a stage of grief and know you could be for a long, long time.
Pat’s condition worsened soon after the WBHOF induction weekend, and she passed away on June 28, surrounded by those who loved her most. We’ll all miss her terribly now that she is gone. Still, as Pat herself has said, “You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you react to it.” That’s why she started a foundation to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. You can find information about Summitt’s Foundation here.
Pat Summitt has left behind a legacy of dedication and devotion to women’s basketball for those of us who follow and care deeply about the women’s game. So rest in peace, Pat. Your spirit will always pervade women’s basketball.
I was invited to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction weekend to do a book signing and to attend the Induction ceremony. These are a few photos from the event. You can read more about the people who were inducted here
The WNBA will begin its 20th season with lots of fanfare this weekend, and this milestone certainly deserves to be celebrated. But some media outlets will, in all likelihood, devote space to discussions of why more fans don’t support the league. They will dredge up remarks that NBA commissioner Adam Silver made at a Sports Business Journal Game Changer conference last fall. (Silver was quoted saying, “We’re not where we hoped it would be….We thought it would have broken through by now.”) And they’ll point to the fact that WNBA players must play overseas in the winter to make a decent living out of playing basketball.
But former WNBA coach and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Lin Dunn has pointed out that the WNBA needs to be judged in context. “Compared to the NBA, we are a baby.…I think the WNBA is improving and growing every year,” she said in my 2015 book, Finding a Way to Play: The Pioneering Spirit of Women in Basketball.
As recently as two weeks ago, New York Liberty president Isaiah Thomas, an NBA Hall-of-Famer, echoed that sentiment, saying the WNBA is actually positioned well when you compare it to the NBA’s status after 20 years. If you look at NBA history, you’ll find support for Thomas’s remarks. The NBA started its 1949 season with 17 teams, most in cities with major ice hockey arenas, bankrolled in some cases by the NHL hockey owners. By 1954, the league had shrunk to 8 teams and in 1967, the league endured a serious threat from the American Basketball Association, which forced lots of changes that helped the league grow.
Still, it wasn’t until Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came along in 1980 (actually 30 years after the league began) that the NBA really took off from coast to coast and became as popular as men’s college basketball. The emergence of Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1984 solidified the league’s popularity.
Women’s professional basketball has endured its own fits and starts and has emerged in 2016 as a league that draws 7,500 fans per game in 12 cities. So the question is: what does “breaking through” really mean? Would the league have to draw what the NBA does (17,800 per game) to be considered a viable entity?
In another 10 years (when the WNBA is as old as the NBA was in 1980), perhaps this will come to pass. But then again, it may never come to pass for some practical and social reasons. First, the WNBA is a summer league that competes with Major League Baseball for family’s entertainment dollars. As a Connecticut Suns fan who lives 3 hours away from Mohegan Sun, I can’t make it to weeknight games. I can make it to Fenway Park, though. Guess where I spent more time last summer.
Another consideration is the fan base. Most WNBA fans are not couch potatoes. They spend their summers playing sports or watching their kids play. They also don’t bet on sports, and frankly, if you eliminated the NBA fans who have a horse at the starting gate when they turn on the TV or go to an NBA game, you might find the viewer and attendance totals more closely aligned. Eliminating all the corporately-owned tickets marked as sold – even though no one uses them – might also level the playing field a bit.
And don’t forget the role that the media’s attitude towards women still plays. My book has lots of examples of girls and women’s teams that were hugely popular when the media gave them a chance. Immaculata College in the 1970s is probably the best example. They were the darlings of the East Coast media when they made their Cinderella-like mid-1970s championship runs from their base outside Philadelphia. Going back to the 1950s, the AAU drew big crowds, especially for its national tournaments in the Midwest, and in Iowa, girls basketball games were much more popular than boys games throughout most of the 20th century. One reason was the Des Moines Register’s smart decision to promote tournament time as a way to gain more readers in the small, rural communities beyond the state’s largest city.
Today, many local news outlets feature women’s sports events fairly prominently, but national outlets still tend to relegate them to the back pages of their sections (or to a hard-to-find link on their websites). The sad fact is that many sports talk show hosts wouldn’t be caught dead saying something positive about women’s basketball. Even Geno Auriemma’s 11th national championship with UConn this spring, which broke John Wooden’s 10-win streak record at UCLA, was marginalized by some national media outlets.
Attitudes are beginning to change however. Stars emerging from college basketball, such as Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, along with established stars such as Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, and Elena Delle Donne, have the kind of celebrity power that can make a difference.
So, this summer, women’s basketball fans will be celebrating what is, as opposed to what isn’t. Against long odds, I’d say the WNBA is exactly where it should be – and actually has broken through in a way that many of us could not have imagined 20 years ago.
As various news outlets have reported: three high-profile female coaches are (or have been) under investigation or “evaluation” by their universities this spring.
The first, Connie Yori, who had been the coach at Nebraska for 14 years, resigned in early April even as the university was investigating allegations that she had been abusive toward several players.
Meanwhile, Duke’s Joanne P. McCallie is “being reviewed” by the school’s HR department in the wake of two high-profile recruits deciding to transfer this spring. This follows the departure of another player last year and rumblings of mistreatment of several players.
The last and perhaps most surprising situation involves Melanie Balcomb, the coach at Vanderbilt, who resigned while she was being “reviewed” by the athletic department because of the team’s failure to make the NCAA tournament for the past two years after 12 straight previous appearances. Four players transferred out of Vanderbilt after the 2015 season but Balcomb had assembled the sixth best recruiting class in the country this spring to replace them. Lack of chemistry was cited as an issue with the team.
(Another coach, Hall of Fame player Sheryl Swoopes, is being investigated at Loyola as a result of 10 of the team’s 12 returning players either transferring or making it known that they would like to be released from their scholarships. But her situation seems to stem from lack of coaching experience. Swoopes took over the program in 2013).
I don’t pretend to know what’s going on at any of these institutions. It wouldn’t be fair to judge any of the situations without knowing the facts. But the track records of Yori, McCallie, and Balcomb suggest that something outside of their spheres of influence has changed. The thought occurs to me that if Tara VanDerveer, Muffett McGraw, Geno Auriemma, or Pat Summitt were just starting out today (or were even a few years into their coaching careers), they could be subject to the kinds of accusations and rumblings coming out of Duke, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt.
One take-away from all of these cases is how they illustrate the importance of women’s basketball as a big time collegiate sport that (finally) matters to the public and the powers that be. Gone are the days when a female coach with an established track record or a stellar resume would, in essence, be granted unofficial tenure and along with it, the benefit of the doubt when such things as disgruntled players, a poor recruiting class, or a bad string of injuries or luck undermined results on the court. Now, college coaches seem to be on shorter and shorter leashes. Results matter much more than ever, and rumblings that in the past were considered matters to be handled quietly and internally, are being bandied about on social media and in the comments sections of blogs and fan websites. Eventually, the clamor leads to an “investigation” or “evaluation.”
Another generalization I can make (having been around high school coaching for many years) is that coaching has become a job fraught with peril because of the widely disparate work ethics of student-athletes and the unrealistic expectations of many parents. Social media often becomes the accelerant that turns sparks into flames and demands that an outside force be called in to extinguish them. In high school basketball, it is not uncommon for players to quit, transfer to another school, or try to get their coach fired for unfair or abusive treatment.
But could the same thing be happening at the college level? I would have thought that the elite student athlete who has gone through the recruiting process would understand what she was getting herself into. Pat Summitt always apprised her recruits of how tough playing for her would be. Team members and assistant coaches would be there, however, to assure the newbies of how rewarding it would be to survive and be part of a winning tradition. As Chamique Holdsclaw said in the pages of Raise the Roof, “Everything she told me when she came to my house, it’s true … I felt like she was pushing me too hard, and I thought, ‘My God, this lady doesn’t like me!’ ”
What Summitt was able to count on was her players’ “buy-in” — the belief and trust in Summitt’s basic principle that if an athlete is to achieve her potential, she MUST face adversity. And if she never has faced adversity (perhaps because she came from a winning program where everyone put her on a pedestal or parents coddled her), then it is the coach’s job to break her down, put her to the test, help her find the talent or the toughness that will continue to be potential until she’s come through the fire of experience.
What seems as if it may be lacking in some of today’s college athletes (and/or their parents) is the buy-in: the belief and trust that the coach does, ultimately, have the players’ best interests at heart. In the cases of Balcomb, McCallie, and Yori, you would think that their past successes would help players deal with adversity and keep the faith. You would think that such normal thoughts as: “This lady must hate me,” would spur these athletes on, instead of causing them to grumble about abusive treatment. But perhaps (and again, I am speculating here), all the things that today’s coaches have to deal with: the pressure to win or keep winning now, the need to get the “best recruiting class” (no matter what the family backgrounds or personality quirks of the recruits), and the ease with which minor incidents become major conflicts via social media, have conspired to make it harder to achieve “buy-in.” And if buy-in — and the commitment and trust that it implies — isn’t there from the starting five to the end of the bench, a coach can find herself fighting an uphill battle. The constant criticism, the occasional sarcasm, the cold, hard stares that Pat Summitt was famous for — and that players endured because they believed they were all working toward the same goal — become easier to label “abusive.” And the program that previously produced good results will no longer have the foundation needed to weather the inevitable storms of injury, disappointment, and conflict.
Truly abusive coaches are pretty easy to identify (even if they do manage to fly under the radar for a few seasons). It is not abusive to get angry about sloppy play or to bench players for their lack of commitment. It’s not abusive to have strict rules or to refuse to allow players to voice their objections in the middle of a practice or a game. What marks a truly abusive coach is someone who tries to control their players’ every move, like Rene Portland did at Penn State, like LaVonda Wagner did at Oregon State for five years, and like Kelly Greenberg did during her 10 year-tenure at Boston University. They play head games with their athletes, are inconsistent and uncommunicative, and don’t listen to their assistants’ advice.
I think it is essential that coaches continue to be as tough and demanding as they can be. But now more than ever, they need to have a buffer, an assistant like Chris Dailey at UConn or Mickie DeMoss at Tennessee, who can play the good cop or the tactful reinforcer and help players keep the stress they are feeling in perspective, while helping the head coach understand how they may be coming across to their athletes. As recounted in Raise the Roof, DeMoss urged Summitt to go easier on her 1997-98 team, which included the three “Meeks” (Chamique Holdclaw, Semeka Randall, and Tamika Catchings). “Pat, don’t yell at this team,” DeMoss told Summitt. “They want to play for you.”
Yori and Balcomb have resigned, but I hope that Duke’s McCallie is able to weather the storms. Her record proves her to be among the best coaches in the game today, and she deserves the chance to get her program back on track.
Geno Auriemma is piling up the kudos for UConn’s success over the last four years in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies have been a juggernaut, particularly in the last two seasons in which they ran their most recent winning streak to 75 games. This latest UConn championship placed Geno ahead of a legend. John Wooden amassed 10 titles during his glory years coaching UCLA back in the 1960s and 70s. The “four-peat” also eclipsed the record of three-straight titles that Auriemma had shared with the Lady Vols legendary coach, Pat Summitt.
Yet some people only begrudgingly give Auriemma his due, saying that his success has as much to do with three legendary players who laced their sneakers for the Huskies over the last 15 years, as it does his coaching prowess. Diana Taurasi was the driving force behind three of Geno’s titles from 2001 to 2004. Maya Moore’s incredible three-point shooting fueled the Huskies’ runs in 2009 and 2010, and Breanna Stewart was the key to the Huskies’ dominance in the last four years. As Geno himself was quoted as saying in 2004, “The difference between us and everyone else is that we have Diana and they don’t.” And when he waxed poetic about the Huskies’ latest run, he said that he doubted he would see a player of Breanna Stewart’s caliber any time soon.
If John Wooden, who coached UCLA from 1948 to 1975, were alive today, he would likewise tell you that he couldn’t possibly have had all the success he did from 1967-1975 if it weren’t for two legendary post players — and a complementary cast — who stepped on the floor for UCLA during those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ruled the court for UCLA from 1966 to 1969. Bill Walton came on campus two years later and dominated the paint from 1971 to 1973. Both were also game-changers in the NBA and were inducted as soon as they were eligible to the Naismith Hall of Fame. But Wooden was a Hall-of-Famer too: a coach who brooked no argument from his players. As Walton recalls, it was Wooden’s way or the highway, even during the tumultuous early ’70s when colleges were teeming with anti-war demonstrations and counter-culture rhetoric.
So who deserves the credit? The stars or the coach? In some ways it is a chicken/egg argument. Someone had to recruit Taurasi, Moore, and Stewart and convince them to buy into a system that emphasizes teamwork, rather than individual accomplishments. Each of the three was the consensus high school player of the year when they chose UConn over the hundreds of schools that would have loved to recruit them. But would they have reached their legendary statuses without a coach who was constantly pecking at them (there’s that chicken-egg thing again) to be the best they could be? Taurasi and Auriemma butted heads on many occasions because of her brash ego. In his book Unrivaled: Jeff Goldberg recounts how Auriemma benched Taurasi for talking back to him during a game. “She has not been wrong for four years and it’s catching up to her,” he said after the game. When Stewart was a freshman, Auriemma was constantly denigrating her defense. A player with a wingspan like Stewart’s could rely on her physical advantage in high school. But defense against college players demands timing, intelligence, and a work ethic that high school players can only imagine. By not coddling his future stars, by treating them as imperfect specimens, by using older players and his coaching staff to help create buy-in, Auriemma saw to it that Taurasi, Moore, and Stewart reached their other-worldly potential early on in their college careers.
As proof of what other-wordly players Auriemma developed: the WNBA team that drafted Diana Taurasi in 2004 (the Phoenix Mercury), doubled its win total (from 8 to 16 or 17) in each of the next two years and finally won the WNBA championship in 2007. Maya Moore, the first pick of the 2011 WNBA draft, has led the Minnesota Lynx to three championships in the last five years. Breanna Stewart’s WNBA career is just beginning, so it remains to be seen whether she’ll lead the Seattle Storm out of the doldrums and into the spotlight in the coming years. The chances are she will. She combines the shot-blocking ability of Brittany Griner with the three-point shooting ability of Taurasi and Moore. More importantly, she has learned, as all UConn players do, how to keep things in focus. By practicing and doing warm-up drills at game speed, the Huskies learn to act instinctively and with confidence once they get into pressure-packed game situations.
“You’ve got to block out all the noise of the future and just focus on the present,” Moore said at USAB camp in February. “One of the things I appreciated so much about the coaching staff while I was (at UConn) is they do a great job …. preparing our minds to think about how we’re going to react in certain situations.”
Who will be the next high school phenom that Geno has a chance to mold into a legend? We probably won’t have to wait too long to find out. Success attracts the best players who want to be challenged. And the best coaches are able and willing to oblige.
When sophomore Gabby Williams front-rimmed a foul shot in the third quarter of the UConn-Mississppi State regional semifinal Saturday, the crowd gasped. It was an indication of just how perfect the Huskies had been that an errant free throw would seem so out of place. On Saturday, UConn could do no wrong in its regional semifinal game in Bridgeport. Every time Mississippi State tried to take it to the hoop, Breanna Stewart had been there to block or alter the shot. Time after time, Moriah Jefferson and her Huskies teammates had tipped Mississippi dribble drives and converted them into fast-break points. At the half, the Huskies were up by an amazing, 61-12. At the end of three (after we’d seen the last of the UConn starters), the score was 84-20.
No one doubted that UConn would beat Mississippi State. But the Bulldogs had the stingiest defense in DI women’s basketball this year. Only one team had scored 70 points against them all season (and the Bulldogs had won that game by six points). But Mississippi State seemed powerless to stop the Huskies. In the post-game press conference, Vic Schaefer, the Mississippi State coach, said his team had played horribly, and yet he praised them for their courage in continuing to play their hearts out in such a lopsided affair. “It felt like we were playing a WNBA team,” said Schaefer. “You’ve got to give them their due.”
The 2016 Huskies have won 72 in a row and the margin of victory has averaged more than 30 points. Only one team has held them to less than 70 points — South Carolina, which lost to Syracuse Friday night. Only one team has scored more than 70 points against them — Notre Dame, which lost to Stanford Friday.
In answer to a question about the Huskies’ place in history, Schaefer said their record — if they four-peat in Indianapolis next weekend — would easily make them the best team in history because of the increased parity in the women’s game. “When John Wooden’s teams were winning all those games, there wasn’t the parity there is today,” he said.
Schaefer’s remarks run counter to the grudging respect most women’s basketball fans pay the Huskies. (Not to mention the misogynistic naysayers who declare that UConn is ruining the game). Many women’s basketball fans bemoan the team’s incredible dominance and the lopsided nature of the games they play. Even the biggest UConn fans at the game, the season-ticket holders all decked out in their Husky navy blue, admit that they wish the games were more competitive. “I feel sorry for the other teams,” said Sara Foster, who was there with her family from nearby Trumbull, CT.
But to be in Bridgeport and to watch how a Huskies’ win unfolds is to come away with a newfound appreciation for the artistry this team displays and the incredible confidence they have in themselves and each other. Time after time after time, mistakes against UConn turned into fast-break baskets at the other end. And those fast breaks were textbook things of beauty — usually ending with the wing being rewarded with the ball after two passes down the court found her open and in position for the easy score. Mississippi State is a young team and it didn’t take long for them to get that deer in the headlights look when they brought the ball up the court.
“They are like piranhas at a roast,” said Schaefer. “You can’t get that bone out of there fast enough.”
Occasionally this season, the Huskies have come out of the gate a little more slowly, feeling their way, which sometimes allowed the other team to gain a little momentum and actually hang around — scorewise — until halftime. But Breanna Stewart admitted that the team was determined to start strong and keep the pedal on the floor the whole way Saturday. They’d watched South Carolina and Notre Dame, the number one seeds on the other side of the bracket, be upset by lower seeds the night before.
“We weren’t going to let that happen to us,” Stewart said.
Stewart made sure of that. She started the scoring with a long three and ended up with 22 points on 80 percent shooting. She controlled the defensive boards with 14 rebounds and five blocked shots and a steal in just 25 minutes of play.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Schaefer. “It’s a challenge. That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams have.”
Schaefer had seen plenty of film of Stewart. But watching her on film or on TV gives viewers but a glimpse of her many talents. Seeing her up close, and watching her away from the ball, reminded me of the first time I saw Bobby Orr play in person at the old Boston Garden. Being quick, being smart, and being strong leads to being in the right place time after time.
Stewart’s hardly doing it alone. While she will be far and away the top pick in the WNBA draft this spring, teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck (if Tuck, a red-shirted junior, decides to declare for the draft) will also be selected early in the first round of the draft. Still, Stewart is making a strong case for being the best Husky ever. Geno Auriemma gets a little choked up when he talks about his 6-4 forward. She has three games left in her college career “knock on wood,” Geno says, and he is making sure to appreciate every moment.
“Right now at this point in time, everything that she does, it hits me a little bit harder because I know I’m never going to see this again,” he said in the postgame press conference. “Now, again, I said that when Diana graduated, when Maya graduated, but I don’t see anybody like Stewie coming along anywhere in the near future….”
The “knock on wood” part starts Monday in the Bridgeport final against Texas, which staged a strong comeback after being down by 10 to defeat UCLA in the second regional semifinal Saturday. Led by 6-7 senior Imani Boyette, Texas is tall and capable of dominating the glass. Geno Auriemma says he approaches every game with the same fear: “What if the shots don’t go in today.”
For a team on a 72-game win streak, the end has to come sometime. But with Breanna Stewart leading the way, no one’s betting on anyone stopping the UConn juggernaut this season.
“I know I shouldn’t do this, ” Geno said. “But every time she plays the way she played today, there’s a point in time during the game when I go, ‘Wow, man, this ain’t going to happen next year. All these shots that are getting blocked, they’re going in next year. All these buckets that we’re making, they’re not going to happen next year…So, I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to appreciate it. I’m appreciating it right now as it happens.”