Tuesday, December 15, 2015

1,000 wins for Old Dominion: A personal reflection

Attaching the link to a story I wrote for espnW on Old Dominion achieving 1,000 wins as a program. While talking to some folks for it, they noted I was part of the story, too. I dismissed that comment -- reporters, and a blogger now -- are never part of a story they are telling. They are flies on the wall, listeners more than talkers, objective -- at least that is how they teach it in journalism school.

But some 20 years later after Old Dominion came into my life, I cannot deny they are part of my story.

I knew next to zilch when I covered my first women's basketball game on Dec. 21, 1995 when Ticha Penicheiro was a freshman and the opponent was South Florida. I knew ODU had just upset a Georgia team ranked No. 1 in the nation, but never in a million years could I have guessed the impact that covering this team would have on my life. My editor at the time told me not to make too big a deal out of ODU; it was women's basketball after all.

Lucky for me, ODU made a big deal out of itself with a trip to the Sweet 16 followed by a magical run in 1997 that ended with a loss to Tennessee in the national title game. Minus one year, I covered ODU until the 2008 season when the curtain came down on my newspaper sportswriting career. Now I was lucky enough to have my best friend suggest we create this blog to keep my hand in the game, and now I'm a regular contributor to espnW and co-producer with him of the best blog in the sport. But that took some time to unfold.

I grew up as a writer covering Old Dominion. My early stuff wasn't very good. I didn't have the context when I started, and it showed. I didn't know that interviews shouldn't be interviews at all -- they should be shared conversation. Wendy Larry, initially, intimidated the hell out of me. Then I finally realized she's a person; it's OK to say hello to her before you broach into a series of questions that sometimes she answered willingly, especially if they were about the latest CAA rout, and some not -- "Why did she transfer again?"

My first son was born in 1997, one reason it is easy for me to remember all the ODU highlights of that year, none more vivid than freshman Natalie Diaz picking me up on Purdue's court and spinning me around -- five months pregnant me, that is -- to celebrate the Lady Monarchs advancing to the Final Four. Man, was I dizzy.

That December, baby's first Christmas, I went to France and Portugal for 10 days with the Lady Monarchs. I had never flown internationally, and the flight was so bumpy, dishes flew. I remember everything from Lucienne Berthieu,  a new recruit, racing to bring pink toilet paper back to her club team's gym when someone noted there was none in the bathroom to being stranded all night on a bus on a snowy highway in France. Somewhere around 3 a.m. Wendy giddily compared it all to an "I Love Lucy" episode and Diaz trotted off the bus with a "Will work for food" sign.

I remember Tiffany Thompson's hot night at N.C. State and Kay Yow later coming into the press room handing me the box score I was looking for. I spent my son's third Thanksgiving in Hartford for an ODU/UConn game; thank goodness for that mall in Paramus where we finally let him stretch his legs for a few hours. The trips to Penn State -- brutal. My husband drove with me on those -- seems like we were always fleeing down the mountain with an pending snowstorm looming.

When baby No. 2 came along, the family travels largely ended, though one James Madison road trip became a tricky one when my husband forgot to pick up my suitcase before we headed to Harrisonburg.

Going solo as a driver was a huge confidence boost; it gave me freedom to see things for myself. In '97, my first-ever trip to California for Ticha's first pro game, I was a slave to the hotel, stressed about California drivers. I saw nothing despite lots of spare time, as I needed to stay extra for the "Saturday night stay" lower airline rate.

While ODU didn't have such a great time there in 2007 -- they lost to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Stanford -- I had a blast. I got extra days there as my ticket was made as if ODU had advanced to the subregional final. I trekked everywhere myself -- Alcatraz, the stunning Santa Clara campus that is alma mater to this blog's co-producer, even San Jose for a men's lacrosse game (had a story to do). Loved it so much I took the family there two years ago.

I've seen the country thanks to the Lady Monarchs. Been back to Colorado, site of my first job, headed to Minneapolis for another national tournament game in 2005, drove from Lexington to Nashville for games there against Kentucky and Vandy.  Saw Mall of the America, Churchhill Downs and the Grand Ole Opry along the way.

One more note on baby No. 2 -- after a win over SMU in the NCAAs, I got food poisoning that hit while I was writing my game story. I've never vomited so much in my life, including all the way home. I got the story in and remember my husband saying from the ER that night/wee small hours of the morning -- "The security guard is reading the story you wrote last night."

Took the fam to the Virgin Islands for one of my favorite Thanksgivings. Got to see Maya Moore as a freshman in one of her first games, but what I remember best was the crystal blue water in the Caribbean, this marvelous bird show atop a mountain that thrilled the kids (the bird rode a bike) and the barkers on the street trying to lure tourists into the stores for good deals on diamonds.

I loved going to Tennessee. I never saw ODU win there, but what a place Thompson-Boling is. On my first trip there, a rare snowstorm blew into town, and by the time I was done with my story, I swear I was the only one in a building the size of Alaska. Outside my car looked like a hut buried in snow. Needless to say, that wasn't one of my favorite times. But I'll never forget the trip in 2004 when I was lucky enough to be writing the cover story for the Final Four program and needed to talk to Pat Summitt. I got to go to her house, and man, I remember every last detail down to the floating hoop in her pool to the mural on Tyler's bedroom wall to the fresh red polish on her pedicured toes.

I've never shared this last memory in writing as I've been careful in telling ODU's story over the years to make it about them, never me. But given the nature of this blog post, here goes. I loved covering ODU. Now realize, writers never root for teams the way fans do. I've never clapped after an ODU basket or cheered for the team in any way. But I cared about what I did, loved the relationships I built and hated it when I wasn't doing it anymore the traditional way (did I say thank God for this blog yet?).

ODU's CAA Tournament winning streak ended with the last game I covered for the newspaper. That's 50 straight CAA tournament wins halted on James Madison's floor against Drexel. The game wasn't close, and even though ODU hadn't ever lost in the tournament before, everyone saw this coming. Drexel had romped over them earlier in the year. But as I had written earlier in the week, no ODU class wanted to be the one to end that streak.

I knew it was the last game for me. The newspaper had reassigned me to news. I paced and kept a stoic face during the press conference and was the only reporter to go into the locker room. I was ready to ask the tough questions. But Wendy had told the players this was it for me, and every single one of them, on the day that streak ended, hugged me and told me how much they appreciated my coverage over the years.

I will never, ever forget that gesture.

While I deny being part of ODU's story, they are definitely a part of mine. Congrats to the team that is the fourth in Division I to amass 1,000 program victories.

No comments:

Post a Comment