8/12/10

"Basketball Beyond the Floor"

"Their failures were my fault, their successes my responsibility" - Pat Summitt, Raise the Roof. If you have been following "Basketball Beyond the Floor" since its inception, you'll know how important I think reading is. Reading is knowledge and knowledge is power. Even if I don't agree with the arguments an author makes, I believe reading opens your eyes to a different way of thinking, opens your mind to realize there's more to the world than just you and your beliefs. With this being said, there are only three books I have read in my lifetime I can read over and over and still be totally engulfed in its pages: Hoop Dreams, The Monster at the End of this Book (starring Grover from Sesame Street) and now I am adding, Raise the Roof by Pat Summit (with Sally Jenkins). I had a few chapters left to read last night around suppertime and I was literally stirring the meat sauce with one hand and holding the book in the other. Only when the pasta pot overflowed did I think to put the book down. I related to this book on so many levels. I never had the chance to play basketball past high school other than fun leagues, but the effect Pat had on her players and what she accomplished throughout her career, is amazing. The book focuses on the 1997-1998 season of the Tennessee Lady Vols and what they went through to have a 39-0 season, win the Final Four and be called by so many, 'the greatest Women's College basketball team ever'. Let's dive in.

"I don't like that word, 'girl'" - Pat Summit

When most books are written about great teams and great coaches, the focus is on the control the coach has over his or her players. In Raise the Roof, Pat Summit describes how she lost control, how the team changed her and not the other way around. She describes the word 'girl' as something someone calls you when they really mean 'nice little girl' or how nice you are supposed to be. It's funny there was actual debate surrounding the referral to her team as the 'Lady' Vols. To Pat, it at least showed these young athletes were adults. I've said this before in "Jiggly Bits" before the NBA trade deadline, in that when you evaluate how a traded player will fair on a new team, you must look at the system the coach runs on that new team before anything. For athletes even at the collegiate level, its all about buying into the system and even when you think your coach is full of it, make it work. "I was learning that a coach is far more than a strategist or a disciplinarian. You are a peculiar form of crisis counselor and interim substitute parent...The more trusting my relationship with the players, the better teacher and coach I could be with them". Do you believe this woman started at Tennessee in 1975 as Head Coach when she was 22 years old? To make matters more challenging (and also proving her determination) 4 players on that team were twenty-one and it would be 14 years before Tennessee won it's first championship. She has been compared to the late great coach, John Wooden. I think this is not so much for her success and longevity in the game, but for her ability to see and treat her players as people, tap into their backgrounds and personalities to help her players gel as a team. Sure, she yelled just like many coaches, but her heart and soul was in that team and developed a team mantra all players had to buy into:

DEFINITE DOZEN
1. Respect yourself and others.
2. Take full responsibility.
3. Develop and demonstrate loyalty.
4. Learn to be a great communicator.
5. Discipline yourself so no one else has to.
6. Make hard work your passion.
7. Don't just work hard, work smart.
8. Put the team before yourself.
9. Make winning an attitude.
10. Be a competitor.
11. Change is a must.
12. Handle success like you handle failure.

Words to live by. She would do anything for her team. (This next part is not for the squeamish). She describes in the book how she found a lucky penny in the lady's bathroom. In the toilet. When she couldn't fish it out with a plunger, she rolled up her sleeves and dove in with her bare hand to get it. Turning to the Lady Vols' ticket manager who was right with her, Dara Worrell, she says, "This is it. We're going to win a championship. You remember this". Oh, did they ever.

"Does the drive on this team come from so many players raised in single parent homes? 'Yes' - Kyra Elzy, sophomore guard, Tennessee Lady Vols.

This is the part which struck me most about the book. Nine of the twelve players on the '97-'98 Tennessee Lady Vols were raised in single-parent homes at some point, including all 4 freshman and half the coaching staff. This is a huge deal since they all left these families, came to Tennessee to play basketball under the guise that no one has had it like them. It wasn't until Coach Pat Summit held what she called 'family night' where each player came to the gathering with pictures or stories about where they came from and who their families were, even the coaching staff. This is when they really started coming together as a team: "...basketball was no game to us. It wasn't just a way to earn a varsity letter or eventually a better living, although that was important motivation for us. [For Kyra it was] a form of requital. 'I'll show him what he walked out on." Basketball was a chance to really prove themselves and perhaps, give new definition to the word family. I think it was important for Pat Summit to describe Kyra Elzy's story and Kyra's stalker since it showed how even at the collegiate level, high profile athletes are vulnerable. This man would send her letters that were passed off as jokes but then he started showing up at games and harassing her. She couldn't go anywhere on her own, campus police got involved and eventually he stopped bothering her. Campus life is unique. For any college or university student, the focus should be on getting an education and not worrying about a stalker or your safety to this extent. Kudos to campus police departments of college and universities everywhere for creating an environment for students to study and play basketball (or any other sport) with peace of mind.

"This was the team I worked twenty-four years for" - Pat Summit.

The women's basketball program at the time was growing and still continues to grow. It was finally being written about in newspapers and given air time on live television. In 1996, two new pro leagues launched: the WNBA and the ABL. The ABL didn't last very long and merged with the WNBA which meant fewer spots for lesser known college players. This certainly did not refer to Tameka Catchings or Chamique Holdsclaw who currently play in the WNBA for the Indiana Fever and San Antonio Silver Stars, respectively. They got their start with Tennesse, though and went on to great things after that. Pat Summit describes this process in the book: "They are with you for four long years. You teach them, you shout at them, urge them on, hear their deepest confidences, feed them from your own kitchen...and then you let them go. How?". I remember broadcasting the PWHL Final Four and describing the emotion felt from the Stoney Creek Sabres coaching staff, especially Head Coach Stacey Monarch. She's as tough as nails on the outside but really has a heart of gold when it comes to her team. I chatted with her just before her team took to the ice for a pre-game skate and she talked about how the bulk of her team were graduating and how tough the tournament was for her emotionally, going through the same things Pat Summitt describes in letting go. It is a powerful and wonderful thing to experience the support of teammates and the love of a coach. I only wish more could be so lucky. I have and it really changed my life. (Thanks to my ladies (and coaches) - you know who you are).

Flick Pick of the Week

Ok. I know some of the regular followers of this feature and those who know me well are going to laugh at the movie I want you to watch this weekend. Ready for it? Blue Chips. Not just for Nick Nolte and Ed O'Neil starring in it but for Shaquile O'Neil, Bob Cousy, Penny Hardaway just to name a few. Definitely not a movie with academy awards won for its stellar acting but a fun movie nonetheless.

Tune in next week to "Basketball Beyond the Floor" when we will be discussing A View From Above by Wilt Chamberlain. Some people say he made up all those stories about sleeping with a gazillion different women but lets hope there's more basketball than his personal exploits. I bought this book a while ago and haven't got around to reading it yet - a case of 'too many books, so little time'. Believe it or not, I found it in a discount bin for a couple of bucks. Yes, I know - very "16th Round" of me (a reference for those of you who have watched The Hurricane, a movie based on the life of Rubin Hurricane Carter). Until we meet again, happy reading and see you on Tuesday for another serving of "Jiggly Bits".

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