Monday, October 17, 2011

As Wendy Larry goes into the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame, we reflect

Wendy Larry will be inducted into the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday night, and I will be the one inducting her. Though I've never loved speaking in front of large groups, honoring Wendy in this way is something I always wanted to do. And today I am going to write a post I've wanted to write.

I loved covering the Lady Monarchs. I started in 1996 with passing knowledge of women's basketball. It's 2011 and I now co-produce a blog that doesn't make me rich, yet it gives me satisfaction in knowing I support and report about a sport that enriches my life in a way I never thought possible.

I used to write about Old Dominion for a newspaper. That all changed one night when I received an email during senior night, 2007. I was being reassigned to the news department, an editor told me. I was stunned, hurt, angry. I had become an AP Poll voter, a voter for the Wooden Award. My coverage of the sport in the state had elevated the profile of the newspaper in this regard, and my coverage of women's sports had been recognized nationally. And I had relationships -- many, many significant relationships -- with players, coaches and fans that meant the world to me.

None of that mattered. I was to cover the Lady Monarchs until their season ended in 2007.

You are supposed to be objective as a reporter, and despite my many friendships and professional relationships within ODU and the CAA, I never had a problem doing that. But I had a lump in my throat at the JMU Convocation Center that year watching ODU fall for the first time in the CAA Tournament. The loss was to Drexel and I knew what that meant as the final seconds ticked down.

My time was over, too.

The big news, was, of course, that ODU was not going to win the CAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years. I remember pacing outside the press conference room, awaiting Wendy, and thinking about everything covering the Lady Monarchs had meant to me. I saw Okeisha Howard nail a jumper in the corner of the field house to defeat Penn State in overtime. I was there that storied night in 1996 when ODU romped over top-ranked Stanford, and I was there once again to see the Lady Monarchs eliminate the Cardinal in the Final Four. I saw Shareese Grant keep that CAA-Tournament string alive with an amazing performance against Delaware. I had been to Paris to meet Lucienne, been to Portugal to see Ticha's home, been to Knoxville and sat in Pat Summitt's living room. Esther Benjamin had become a friend. So had Ticha, Mery, Clarisse, Nyree, Stacy, Tanty, Max .... Cassie Calwell shared her mother's story with me. So, too, did Lawona Davis. Natalie Diaz picked me up, whirled me around and planted me back down on the floor at Mackey Arena when ODU beat Florida to go to the Final Four. I was closing in on 6 months pregnant at the time.

Those were the thoughts spinning in my head awaiting Wendy and her Lady Monarchs, who were set to come into the postgame press conference to talk about the end of their glorious streak. There would be lots of painful questions for her and the players and no easy answers.

Wendy walked in first and stopped when she saw me. She gave me a warm hug.

I didn't ask a question. I planned to in the locker room. Going to the locker room after the last loss of the season was something I made a point of doing, usually to speak to the seniors. In journalism, you deal with highs and lows, huge extremes in emotions. It's tough for coaches. It's tougher for kids. By the time the Lady Monarchs were seniors, they had become used to sharing the good times and the bad with me, and I always made it a point to tell them how much I appreciated them for that.

On that night I walked into the locker room and there were the players who had been beaten over the head for several months with talk of not wanting to be the class that ended "The Streak." Before I said a word, each one of them gave me a hug. Jessica Canady. Jen Nuzzo. Jazzmin Walters. Mairi Buchan. Sierra Little. Russia. Shadasia Green. Jo Guilford. Tiffany Green. Jasmine Parker. Margaret Harvey. Pryncess Tate-Dublin. Vicki Collier. Many of them thanked me. Then came the hugs from the coaches: Belle, Celeste, Niki.


The Lady Monarchs had just lost for the first time in 17 years in the tournament and they were saying how sorry they were to me.

I react emotionally. Always have. It's never easy when you wear your heart on your sleeve. I never saw it as a negative. I invest in relationships with people and never, ever forget that they don't owe me anything. They share their emotions, their stories, their words and trust that I will not betray them. Sometimes I've had to write things they haven't liked or agreed with, but no one ever accused me of not being  fair.

Thank you for that night, Wendy. You certainly have larger-than-life accomplishments beside your name. Twenty NCAA Tournaments. 17 straight CAA titles. Eight Sweet 16s. The Final Four. Six-hundred and eight coaching victories. WBCA President. USA Basketball. The Buddy Walk. Work with the Kay Yow Foundation.

It's quite a list and growing, too, no doubt, and I am proud to induct you into the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame.

Thanks, Wendy, for the small stuff, too. I'll never forget it.

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