Back blogging again

There was a place called “Serendipity Cycles” in the park in Spokane, Wash., that caught my eye 10 years ago. I mentioned it in a March 2001 column for espn.com that previewed all the NCAA Elite Eight women’s basketball games but focused on the one I was covering in person: Southwest Missouri State vs. Washington.

What I wrote then was:

OK, to get from the ESPN2-less media hotel to the Spokane Arena, one goes through Riverside Park and across two bridges, past a carousel and a not-open bicycle rental place called “Serendipity Cycles.” Now, wouldn’t it be nice if serendipity did come in cycles? You wouldn’t have to have it all the time, just as long as you knew it was coming around again.

I was in Spokane again this March, but I didn’t see Serendipity Cycles. It might still be there and I just missed it. Or it may be gone. A lot can change, of course, in a decade.
When I wrote the above, the newspaper business was still going relatively strong, for one thing. Ten years ago, The Kansas City Star sent me to Spokane to cover Jackie Stiles and SMS _ yes, now it’s Missouri State – without any hesitation.

This year, the newspaper _ which I don’t work for anymore – didn’t even send a reporter to Indianapolis for one day when two Kansas City natives _ Texas A&M’s Danielle Adams and Tyra White _ were starters playing in the women’s NCAA title game. The Star “covered” it by phone.

I mentioned that the hotel in which I stayed back in 2001 didn’t have ESPN2, which wasn’t unusual for hotels then. But this caused some consternation, as all the regional semifinals were held then on the same day, and some of them were on that network. I wanted to watch them before covering the “late show” – SMS vs. Duke and Oklahoma vs. Washington – that night in Spokane.

The Oklahoma traveling party solved this problem and invited me to join them. They found a bar that had ESPN2 and agreed to open at 8 a.m. Pacific time so we could watch games. OU coach Sherri Coale’s son and daughter were young children then. They are teen-agers now.

I don’t recall when wireless really became widespread. But I certainly didn’t have it then on my Star-issued laptop, which took about 15 minutes just to turn itself on and warm up.

Tennessee lost that day to Xavier, but the Vols wouldn’t be the only No. 1 seed to fall in the Sweet 16. Duke would lose, as well, thanks to a fabulous Jackie Stiles performance: 41 points against every kind of defense that the Blue Devils could throw at her.

I hadn’t returned to Spokane since 2001 until going there again this year for another regional. Back in Spokane Arena, I looked around and thought, “This is just so weird: To be here, talking to these players now who were little kids the last time I was in this building.”

The legend of Jackie and SMS is not ancient history to me; it’s very accessible. So it was disconcerting to listen to today’s college players speak of Stiles as if she were some murky legend from the distant past. Not because it made me feel “old,” actually, but because it made them seem as if they were out of touch. Which I knew was completely illogical, of course.

None of them had – or should have been expected to have – any visual memory of her. She was just someone they maybe had heard of; in the case of the Gonzaga players, that was because coach Kelly Graves used her performance as motivation for his own “mid-major” team. Because he had seen her play in Spokane in 2001.

Stiles didn’t have a lasting WNBA career that would have made her more likely known to today’s 18- to 22-year-olds, the way her fellow 2001 college graduates such as the Indiana Fever’s Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas are.

Anyway, in the two months since I got back from Spokane, I’ve periodically gone through in my mind various things that were different in the spring of 2001 compared to now.

The number 911 was still just what you dialed in case of an emergency, not the date of a national tragedy. Most people in the United States had not heard of a politician named Barack Obama, let alone conceived of him as president. The majority of people I knew actually did not yet own a cell phone. I somehow got past my guilt that it was an absurd extravagance and purchased my first in April 2001. I wouldn’t know what a text message was for another few years.

In sports, the only team that had won a WNBA championship was Houston, which took the first four in a row, but is now a defunct franchise. Lauren Jackson was a kid out of Australia who was the No. 1 draft pick. She was supposed to be pretty darn good, but, you know, we’d have to see how she did living/playing in the United States.

Diana Taurasi had yet to win an NCAA title. As a freshman for UConn, she’d struggled with her shot at the Final Four in St. Louis, in which Douglas’ Purdue team fell to Notre Dame in the championship game. Catchings was rehabbing the knee injury that robbed her of the conclusion of her senior season at Tennessee and delayed her WNBA rookie year to 2002.

The idea that Texas A&M could win the Big 12 women’s hoops tournament – let alone the NCAA title – was so ridiculous no one would have even suggested it. The Aggies had won a grand total of one game in the first five Big 12 tourneys combined.

No one would have guessed Jackie Stiles’ competitive basketball career was actually almost over then, just as her time in the WNBA was starting. A series of chronic injuries piled up unceasingly on one of the most intensely committed but sincerely humble athletes I’ve ever met. Why “fate” did that to somebody who lived to play basketball, I’ll never understand.

Admittedly, you can ruminate like this about events on opposite ends of any 10-year period that you experience. Ten is a standard demarcating number. But perhaps this decade-long span _ bookended by trips to Spokane – is so notable to me because the spring of 2001 was career-changing.

I decided then I didn’t want to be an editor anymore – after doing that in some capacity everywhere I’d worked – and that I would leave KC, if need be, to focus only on writing. It turned out I stayed; my sports editor at The Star talked somebody else into taking my college-editor position, and I shifted to writing full time.

I know, ultimately, what was the deciding factor in pushing me into my sport editor’s office then to say, “I must make this change:” The story I’d written on the 1961 plane crash that killed the U.S. figure skating team. (That’s what my previous three blog entries this year – posted in February and March _ were about.)

I don’t want this to sound corny or contrived. But a kind of clarity in purpose was a gift to me from those fallen skaters – or at least something I took from getting to know them from others’ memories.

To say the least, the media world is a lot different now than it was in 2001. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing how naive we were about the impending changes. I’ve written about this a few times before on this blog, but I’m still processing what it all means. Especially for the future of women’s sports coverage.

There were more national newspaper covering the Women’s Final Four in St. Louis in 2001 than there were in Indianapolis in 2011. But there were more bloggers and networkers and “activists” – if you will – at Indy.

(Aside: Among them was Ann Gaffigan, a former Nebraska track athlete, who is a co-founder of the Women Talk Sports web site. Ann re-designed this blog for me one recent afternoon while her baby daughter was taking a nap. This is such simple stuff for Ann, she could have done it while she herself was taking a nap. But it’s not like I could figure out how to do it. My lack of tech-savvy is one thing that really hasn’t changed that much in 10 years.)

Among topics discussed at Indy was frustration over certain things that have happened – and continue to happen – in the so-called mainstream media. Newspaper sports departments have devolved into being even less diverse than they were a decade ago.

And the culture of “no” is so pervasive, particularly in regard to coverage of women’s sports, that nonsensical decisions like The Star’s to not go for one day to Indy wasn’t even really a “decision.” I doubt any thought was genuinely put into it. The answer was no before the question was even asked. “No” has become the default position for coverage of many things.

But … there is also a kind of energy that comes from the acceptance that the old system is not only no longer progressing, it’s actually regressing. And the realization that one way or another, passionate people do figure out how to best serve that which they are passionate about.

All of which eventually brings me to this: I took an extended break from this blog not because I lost any passion for doing it … but, well, I just needed a break.

It’s been an interesting school year for me, covering a range of college sports for ESPN.com, not just women’s basketball. A few of these sports I’d never had occasion to pay much attention to before. Others I might have monitored randomly in the past, but not really covered. Others I’d written about a fair amount, but not previously for ESPN.com.

Thinking/planning in terms of the whole Division I college calendar -which runs into WNBA season at the start and finish – took some brain power and energy that I’d have put into this blog the previous couple of years. So I set this aside for awhile.

As we approach the start of the WNBA season again – No. 15, it is _  my intention is update this blog regularly again. (Yes, the address now is different: mechellevoepelblog.com.) First, though, I needed to get the Spokane-induced memory avalanche out my system without it becoming too much of a get-to-the-point ramble-fest.

And having failed at that, I just needed to post it anyway.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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6 Responses to Back blogging again

  1. tlis says:

    Glad the blog is “back.” Like others, I’ve periodically checked for new posts, and am looking forward to future ones. I particularly like that you’ve added links to your other articles. Thanks again for your insights!

  2. norwester says:

    Welcome back, Mechelle! While I totally understand the need for a break, I’ve checked your blog every once in a while hoping to see something anyway. Your candor and clear voice are very welcome in today’s shifting and often murky/corporate sports environment.

  3. BearLady says:

    Glad you’re back, Mechelle! I always enjoy reading your thoughts. And you share some great memories! Keep ‘em coming!

  4. Howard says:

    Glad you’re back, Mechelle. Your voice is clear in all your work, but this blog is the best of YOU. :-)

    Marvelous musings. I especially enjoyed the Spokane framing to the past decade….really made me ponder all those things, and more.

  5. Jay says:

    Welcome back Mechelle!

  6. Carol Anne (aka Scamp) says:

    Welcome back, Mechelle!

    I’ve missed your more personal observations of women’s basketball, past and present. In my web-wandering, I found a link to the new blog on HoopScoop.