|The Write Space and Time|
June 3, 2012 -- As coaching careers go, mine was born lucky. My grand introduction to women's college basketball coincided with the collision between the old Big Eight and the Southwest Conference. Football power conference plus women's basketball hotbed equals the Big 12 Conference, a new concept and a fertile breeding ground for explosive growth. Nationally speaking, women's basketball was poised for a coming out party. New programs and personalities were on the scene, attendance was rising, television was flirting...lightning was begging to get captured in a bottle. I was new to the collegiate scene, barely cognizant of the perfect storm I had landed in the middle of, and yet there I sat at the table with the giants of our game.
I was young and dumb in 1996 and yet smart enough to be quiet (read: keep opinionated mouth shut) and pay attention. Pioneers in their prime were running the room. Marsha Sharp was the captain of this juggernaut known as Lady Raider Nation. She coached Sheryl Swoopes (who scored 47 points in the National Championship game and would become an Olympic Gold Medal winner) and together with their throng of faithful followers they won a National Championship and took west Texas and the country by storm. Jody Conradt sat at the table--a national title, an undefeated season, the architect of Texas Women's Basketball and a figure so respected, and at times so imposing, that she could have run for governor in that enormous state. And she would have won. Across from her sat Ceal Barry, the Colorado coach whose teams won four Big Eight titles and whose tenacious man-to-man defense and post player development had been building blocks of my high school teams for years. I loved watching her win and I so admired how her team did it. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! At those early Big 12 spring meetings held in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it was often hard to tell if my shortness of breath came from the altitude or the luck of my draw for getting to be a mouse in that room.
I'm not sure I really knew it at the time, but the twelve of us around that table were readying our game for a rocket ship ride.
The room always pulsated with that anxious, weighty vibe that often hangs around tethered dreams. I could feel it but I couldn't ever give it a name. I didn't know enough about where we had been to be able to identify where we were, much less where we might be headed. But I knew something way more important than Big 12 business was taking place. I could feel the ragged cusp of it. Every discussion we dove into bore tentacles rooted in a passionate, sacrificial past, and yet these plodding women were bound for the outer edges of things.
They were on a mission. That was always crystal clear.
Looking back, I often wonder if they knew they were powdering the keg for explosion, or if they thought they were just going to light a grass fire. I guess it doesn't even matter. What was obvious was that they would not be derailed.
I always knew the legends around the table had stories to tell. But they never sat around telling them. They didn't show us their scars and they sure didn't wear their medals around their necks. But you could tell they had an intimate relationship with the game, the kind of relationship forged only on arduous, lonely roads, where you only survive if you tap into the very marrow of your bones. The message was always clear. They were caretakers of the game, first and foremost. They made decisions based on the blood, sweat and tears of lives spent creating opportunity. Discussions about anything and everything were always subjected to the litmus test of what is best for our game. It wasn't ever, "What is best for Texas, or Colorado, or Texas Tech?" It was always, "What is best for women's basketball?" I learned quickly that the sieve through which you pour all issues great and small is the one that grows our game. Because that's how you think when pieces of your soul are woven into a thing.
That's the part my generation--those of us who were handed the golden baton--have a hard time understanding. And that is our greatest charge.
Those of us who waltzed into this basketball explosion in the 90's and have been stepping through the doorway ever since don't really know much about life before Title IX. We know about the law. They made us read about it in school. And we get it. But we don't get it like they do. And the generation that follows us? They get it even less. That's the nature of a thing. That's how history works. And yet if we're not careful, if we don't strive to stay connected to it, we can wind up back where they started. We have to remember where we were in order to keep going where we need to go. And I don't know anybody who wants to climb that mountain all over again.
This past spring as I was driving my 15-year-old daughter to school and we were calendar meshing for the week ahead, she saw "Title IX Celebration" on my Blackberry and asked what in the world that meant. I jumped on the teachable moment and explained it.
"It's the 40th anniversary of the law that says you get to play basketball just like your brother. It's the law that says girls can go to college and study anything they wish to study, just like boys can," I said.
To which she responded with a snarled lip and a slanted eye, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Why in the world would anybody need a law to tell them that?"
And I had goosebumps from my head to the tip of my toes.
My daughter's generation can't even fathom a world in which girls are not allowed opportunities of participation. She can't comprehend not being able to play ball or go to medical school if she so desires, much the way my generation can't imagine that people actually spat upon Jackie Robinson. That discrimination seems foreign. My daughter's paradigm is different. She sees the world through a different lens.
And yet Chandler and her contemporaries all need to know. We have to tell them the stories, just the way we tell them about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and Prentice Gautt, we have to tell them about Bernice Sandler and Patsy Mink and Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs. They have to know how they got here so they can understand the responsibilities they hold.
Our charge as stakeholders of our game is to go about our business in the same way that those who gave us the opportunity to be here did. Our challenge is to work with their dogged determination, to compete with their hunger and to revel in competition with their joy.
Uh oh. That means we can't be entitled brats. We can't coach or play or market or promote apathetically. (I think I just created an oxymoron.) We can't whine and mumble and gripe and complain. We have no right, ironically, to play without joy. We disrespect those upon whose shoulders we stand when we do. Our mission is to honor their path with how we handle our platform.
Our mission is to play well.