Coach, interrupted (for now)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. _ It’s a warm January afternoon, with sunlight streaming in a window at Chick’s Oyster Bar. Despite the nice weather, it’s still winter in this popular summer-vacation city, so there’s no lunchtime crowd.

But even if there had been a wait instead of your choice of tables, Wendy Larry wouldn’t have minded. For the first time in her adult life, she can casually spend time chatting on a weekday during basketball season. There is no practice to prepare, or meeting to run, or luncheon to speak at, or film to watch.

In May, she resigned after 24 seasons and 559-203 record as head coach at Old Dominion. A contract dispute with athletic director Wood Selig – Larry was entering her final year, and Selig wouldn’t give her an extension – was unpleasantly played out publicly.

Long the primary face of ODU’s athletic success, Larry opted to resign rather than muddle through what she felt would be a perfunctory season before being let go. She is getting her last year of salary, but she no longer has a real role in the athletic department, and her ties to ODU are severed. At least for now.

Maybe the wound will be repaired with time. Or maybe it won’t. She wasn’t planning to leave and never imagined ODU’s 72-55 CAA tournament quarterfinal loss to Delaware would be her last on the sidelines of her alma mater.

I went to the Tidewater area recently as part of ESPNW’s “Hoops Across America” project, and wrote about the past, present and future at Old Dominion. But there was more to say specifically about Larry and how her situation reflects where women’s basketball is now.
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The road we’re on

The first time I went to Stillwater, Okla., I drove by myself on a rainy Saturday in February 1987. It was Valentine’s Day, and the Missouri women’s basketball team was playing a late afternoon game at Oklahoma State. I didn’t go to cover it; I just wanted to watch. In those days, Missouri’s women were literally never on television. Very few women’s teams ever were, especially not in the regular season.

I was a senior at the University of Missouri then, a few months from graduation and what I hoped was a future covering sports for a newspaper. But I already was well aware that what I wanted most to cover – women’s basketball – was not valued by the majority of people who ran newspaper sports departments.
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Sad news prompts another Yow memory

Some very sad news was reported by colleague Mel Greenberg last week about the death of former N.C. State player Linda Page. She was 48 and a former Philadelphia high school star.

It reminded me of a story I wrote about the late Wolfpack coach Kay Yow in 2003, before she went into the Naismith Hall of Fame. It ended with a recounting of a conversation I’d had with Page in the mid-1990s about about Yow’s influence:

From ESPN.com, September 2003:

Ever had laryngitis? Not froggy throat, or hoarseness or cough-every-time-you-talk. Flat-out laryngitis, where you can open your mouth and try to scream and absolutely no noise comes out.

I had it for one day in May 1984. I didn’t really believe you could completely lose your voice _ I thought it only happened on sitcoms, like suddenly being allergic to your brother _ until I woke up, back home for the summer from college, and couldn’t even begin the usual monologue over breakfast/newspaper: “Oh, God, I bet Mondale’s not even going to win Minnesota ….”  No words. Nothing.

So years later, I was empathizing while watching Kay Yow coach her North Carolina State team while having laryngitis. She gestured and paced, her eyes got big, her hands clenched. She had a dry-erase board, and she’d scribble messages for her assistants.  She was pretty quiet in the post-game interview, too. Har-har-har.

“Coach, what did you think of Chasity Melvin’s performance tonight?” was the question. And Yow would nod vigorously. One of her assistants, if memory serves, provided the sound, saying, “Well, Coach Yow thinks Chasity played very well tonight …”

Truth is, though, I’ve never heard Yow actually scream even when she did have her voice. Yell just a little to be heard over the din of a game, maybe. But scream? I’m not saying it’s never happened, it’s just hard to picture.   Yow, with that soft North Carolina lilt, doesn’t have a coach’s voice. She has a “Did you want to check out this book for two weeks?” voice.

And yet she is the consummate coach. Her record, combining her days at Elon and North Carolina State, is 625-268. She will go into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this week, along with Larry Brown, Lute Olson, Magic Johnson, the late Drazen Petrovic and the Harlem Globetrotters team.  Yet you won’t find a person so successful who makes less of a fuss about herself.  She has overcome breast cancer. She has overcome all the changes in her sport that have ended the coaching careers of many of her fellow “pioneers.”

She’s about as square as Sponge Bob, but she still finds ways to relate to kids who listen to music that hurts her ears.  Some people knock over barriers with their bulldozer personalities, and good for them. They’re needed. But others, like Yow, do it another way. They’re persistent at chipping the mortar and the blocks that heed progress; even when you think they should be tired, they somehow aren’t.

Yow so often looks serious that you might not know she has a sense of humor, albeit a gentle one. She has been friend and teacher and coach to so many young women.

A favorite Yow story? One of her many stars, Linda Page, once told me about running into Yow by chance in Philadelphia outside a department store in the mid-1990s. Page lived in Philly; Yow was visiting someone in town.  Page had scored 2,307 points in her career at N.C. State, from 1982-85. Her college days seemed far in her past, though.

And yet seeing her former coach brought back a rush of everything good that had happened to Page during those four years in Raleigh _ and how much it had shaped the person she now was.

So they stood talking and laughing and remembering, and Page thought how lucky it was that they’d happened to be in the same place at the same time for another day.  Then Page realized that Yow _ and all she taught _ had, in fact, been with her all along.

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The parallel sports universe, Part 2

Late Monday night, actually just into Tuesday morning. It was 12:01 a.m., in fact, in Salina, Kan. A stop for gas.

The big headline on the paper in the Salina Journal rack was about how it had been a record-breaking 111 degrees the day before in this central Kansas town. The banner teasing to the sports section, though, caught my eye just as much. It was a photo from the Women’s World Cup after the victory over Brazil.

My parallel sports universe had intersected, at least for a while, with the standard sports universe. This happens sometimes. The WWC became a hot story nationwide with the Rapinoe-to-Wambach connection Sunday in Germany.
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The parallel sports universe, Part 1

It occurred to me driving home from work one night in 1997: To a degree, I lived in a parallel sports universe.

I had never really defined it as such before that point, at least not with that specific term. But ever since then, I’ve thought of it that way.

At that time, the sports world was enthralled with a young golf superstar who had won the Masters. Tiger Woods was everything, and everything was Tiger Woods.

But Woods honestly wasn’t what most intrigued me in the sport of golf. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing. Of course I was. But in the summer of ’97, I was actually more interested in how Karrie Webb _ who’d been LPGA rookie of the year and won over $1 million in 1996 _ would do in her second full season on the tour.

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More on the ‘Rainbow ceiling’

I took part in a “webinar” last week, which was put together by reporter Stefanie Loh as part of the Association of Women in Sports Media convention.

The topic was a familiar one that people talk about … and yet don’t talk about: homosexuality in sports, in this case, particularly women’s sports.

Involved in the “webinar” were Dr. Pat Griffin, a leading advocate of incorporating GLBT sensitivity to education, Portland State women’s basketball coach Sherri Murrell, former Belmont women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe (who lost her job for coming out publicly as gay), Olympic and pro softball player Lauren Lappin, and me.

You can read the highlights from the discussion here, or download the full transcript from that site. Or you can listen to it here, which also allows you to download a podcast.

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The “empty-bucket” list

Ever since the movie came out in 2007, we’ve all heard people talking about their bucket lists: Things they hope to do before they “kick the bucket.” Or maybe you’ve made such a list yourself. I don’t know how long – or if _ the term “bucket list” existed before the film (which I didn’t see; I’m not a Jack Nicholson fan). Most people probably called it a life-wish list or something.

I have a friend who, on her birthday each year, writes down a list of things she wants/hopes to do, and the number has to correspond to however old she is. So she was 50 this year, and listed 50 things. Some of these are “huge” things that she might never do (scale Everest and such), some are very small (finally paint that damn chair on the back porch) and some are the same year-to-year, such as “walk my dogs more” or “listen better to my patients.”

Rather than her list getting smaller as she does things, it gets longer every year. This is a type of ambition rather alien to me.
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Why 3 popular WNBA players are sitting out 2011

Mike Cound, a sports agent specializing in women’s basketball, certainly has a vested interest in the success of the WNBA. But … that’s not his employer.

“I work for my clients,” Cound said.

And so while in ideal circumstances he’d rather that clients Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Janel McCarville were all playing in the WNBA this summer, he understands why they are not.

For each one, the specifics are all a bit different, but the overall reason is the same: The economics of professional women’s basketball.

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Sometimes, we find we’re closer than we think

There are people with whom we run on parallel planes of existence, sometimes for many years, and know … but don’t really know.

We have jointly witnessed several significant moments, have been bored together, have been awed together. Our jobs are linked in such a way that we go through similar rhythms at certain times of the year.

We say hello with the familiarity of so much time spent in the same places, but without the familiarity of long conversations. Or even short ones about much of anything other than the tasks at hand.

Still, we pick up things. Just bits and pieces, observations. Usually, we’re not even consciously aware that we’ve noticed them or stored them away. We may not realize the degree to which we’ve fleshed out the life of a person who is “in” our world, but not really “of” our world.

And then something happens to that person, and we feel sadness, grief, concern – emotions that make us realize what does resonate with us about that person.
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A reminder to relive a fantastic finish

My mom is 88. Her mind is as sharp as ever, but her vision isn’t. So she doesn’t read much anymore. When she did, though, she “cheated” on books. Always.

She would go to the conclusion of a book well before she was even halfway through it and read the ending. Sometimes, she’d read merely a few pages before cheating. When I was old enough to realize she was doing this, I was baffled as to why.

After all, wasn’t reading a great joy partly because you didn’t know how a book would end until you got there? Not to my mom. She said, “I’d rather know early on how it ends. So if I don’t like the ending, I won’t waste my time reading the whole book.”

If a person has this mindset, you really can’t argue with them about it. But, foolishly, I tried.
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