They all came in uniform…of sorts. Each person wearing the outfit that most reflected the role in life that they now play because, at one time, they played for her. There were mostly basketball uniforms, both college and pro, a couple of military uniforms, the power suit of a corporate leader, and the robes of a judge. This last one spoke on behalf of the crowd as the casket was being carried by a few of the others. A few because the casket was not the normal size and length due to the petite size of the guest of honor. Only four people were needed to carry her from the hearse. But, looking upon the casket being placed, the judge couldn’t help but make a comment that erupted laughter throughout the crowd.
She would have gotten the joke, but she would not have laughed…at least, not in their presence. Not because she didn’t think it was funny. She would have thought it hilarious! But when it came to her girls, she stayed above the fray. It was of the utmost importance to her that they respect her and not worry so much whether they liked her. And it was not because she ruled with an iron hand or wanted them to fear her. On the contrary, she wanted every one of her girls to know they could come to her about anything…for any reason. It was just that she was already at a slight disadvantage being only 4’11”.
This initial impression sometimes gave her an automatic disadvantage with some of the ladies that walked into her gym being that almost all of them were at least a foot taller or more. But that did not last for very long. She had a calm about her when she spoke conveying a seriousness making you listen to every word. Also, it was the way she talked to you looking straight at you never swaying from eye contact even as she pushed her horn-rimmed glasses back in place. One can only assume these practices were honed to an expert level from the way she had to fight for any respect at all being one of the first female basketball coaches at the college level after the passing and implementation of Title IX.
Growing up with 3 brothers quite taller than her, mainly due to their towering father, and her, taking her height from her equally petite mother, one might think she would be more on the demure side. But then, you would have to know her mother. Lovingly called “The Warden”, the occupants of this house knew the fear of having your name called a certain way, the stare that made you abate your eyes like a frightened puppy, or the sting of a pinched piece of flesh when you have gone a bit too far. The thing that sealed the deal for the children was the fact that their father was never heard raising his voice to her and often had a smiling, “Yes, dear” for her in matters of discussion.
So, it was that when their little sister wanted to tag along or play with or get a turn, The Warden insisted on them treating their baby sister fairly and inclusively, something that wound up being quite a boon to the future men. Because while boys will be boys, each of the three will tell you quite honestly that their sister not the other two nor their parents are responsible for pushing them to play harder, study more and just be better people. Even if the rest of the world were not yet recognizing the equivalent potential of the female population, the men in this house could not ignore nor deny what they saw with their own eyes. Their smallish sister was the best basketball player of them all.
No, she couldn’t dunk, but she didn’t need to while raining down set shots like perfectly drawn arcs. No, she couldn’t block shots, but she didn’t need to while darting back and forth studying your every dribble until it was no longer in your hands but headed the other way in hers. And even when she was not in the game, she would watch so intently and uninvitingly offer advice on what her siblings could do to improve, which would often bring a scowl or two. Problem was…she was often right. There was only one real advantage her brothers had in basketball that she did not. They could realistically dream of being a pro ballplayer and she could not.
Though it is true that more than a few of the uniforms surrounding her casket were worn by former, current, and future All-Star WNBA Pros of the female persuasion, during her prime playing days that reality was a long way off. It was, however, that realization of her path forward that made her work as hard on the court as on the books that defined her coaching style and outlook on life. She had a tenacious work ethic and an equally driven desire for knowledge in all forms. Therefore, all women who became a part of her basketball program were not only encouraged but required to give as much effort to their studies as they were instructed to play ball.
She had an encyclopedia-like mind for the world of basketball, but she understood as lucky as she is to have her dream job, most of her players would not find the same opportunities. So, she dedicated her time, her wisdom, and her foot in the behind of any of them that she felt wasn’t giving their all to their own potential. It was probably partly this reason that none of her teams ever got the chance to cut down any championship nets, but it wasn’t for a lack of hustle or spirit of teamwork. When it came time for recruiting, she had a way of cutting thru the bull in that prospective player’s living room. She would simply advise the parents that while she is the basketball coach, she is also a college faculty member, and her players are students.
It had a way of reassuring the ones that were concerned about their daughter’s future aside from the game and weeding out the dreamers or singularly focused players that weren’t as serious about the books as the balls. No pun intended, but even on that subject she had a habit of keeping tabs and quiet console with most of her players to inspire them to see the big picture without sacrificing too much of the full college experience. This is not to say she was always right, or a saint, or that all her players felt gratitude or love for her. Hell, some of them probably wish that they were here today, if only to get the last word.
But it was the fact that she was honest and straight-forward in her ways and her words. You may not like what she said, but you knew why she said it. She also could have words with you one minute and the next she’s asking how your sick uncle from back home is doing and please give him her best. She volunteered in the community, she helped look in on her Dad after her Mom passed and was the best Aunt her brother’s kids could have…even if she was their only one. Every season she ran up and down that court shouting plays and giving refs the business. And year after year, she cheered for every one of her players that crossed that stage, shook those hands, and got that degree. As loud as she was over the crowds in the gym, she was just as boisterous out in the audience of graduating students.
So, although she never won a championship or crossed over to the professional side of coaching when the WNBA came to town, she would always show incoming freshman the news clippings, announcements and letters of her former players that are now lawyers, doctors, engineers, and various other professions as well as the ones that also got paid to play. She also didn’t have to make trips to living rooms anymore as she garnered a well-deserved, if not, ironic reputation as the basketball coach you send your kid to if you want them to have a better chance to succeed in life in something other than…basketball.
So, it was that as the years passed on and she aged as did the building in which she coached, it was a fact that now professional ball for women was not only a possibility but a desired outcome not only for the players but also the school. Current administrators, as much respect as they had for her legacy, now wanted a coach in that living room stressing that while “Yes, of course, a degree is important”, they would do all they could to get that student-player to the professional league. And while they did not dare come out and ask for her to step down, she was and always had been smart enough to see things very clearly.
Even as the NCAA money started to pour into the university coffers on behalf of the women’s program as well as the men’s, there were plans proposed and signed-off for the construction of a new sports facility. The old gym and the old grey mare weren’t what they used to be as one was being set to be torn down and the other was being put to pasture. Yes, there were the requisite plaques, dinners, and there was even talk for a moment of naming the new building after her. But some local business member who had a hand in donating a great sum of money and being a former alumnus who played for like five years or so with as many teams was also mentioned in the discussion.
She didn’t care about any of that though. Things like that just didn’t rise to the level of love and pride she had looking back at all the students that she helped to build into monuments of society that stand tall on their own. The fact that a short tenacious basketball player born way before her time to shine as one of the best to play the game made an even bigger impact on the lives of numerous female legal and STEM graduates as well as a couple future WNBA hall of famers. One who has become the most well-respected judge in the whole state and stands ready to eulogize her true hero who lies before her in this tiny box.
It was in that moment that the judge looking at all the living examples of this phenomenal woman’s life’s work remarked, “Not for nothing but we’d all be doing sprints now if she could see this tiny box we put her in!” There was immediate laughter and almost as suddenly another spoke up to fill the next silence, “You know, it’s not too late to fix that.” Some puzzled looks, but also a couple of knowing nods as another mentioned, “They just tore out the floor in the gym. It’s just lying there in two big sections out in the field.” That was where the plan really started to take shape and people started to huddle close. Several female engineers, construction workers, the funeral director and the judge leaned in for the huddle calling a last play for their coach.
“Ok, everyone else go home and grab something that you would like to contribute, and we’ll all meet back here at…”, as she paused and looked at the huddled crew. The funeral director spoke up, “It looks like it’s going to take until at least sunset!” “So, sunset it is everyone!”, the judge shouted, “Don’t be late!” So as the crowd dispersed and the judge walked off talking on her cellphone to a probably very confused university dean, the grave digger talked to the construction crew about getting a much bigger shovel. The funeral director loaded the coach back into the hearse and headed back to the parlor.
When the construction crew got to the parlor, the body of the beloved coach was already out of the original coffin and waiting patiently on a slab in the next room. The funeral director and crew worked as fast and as efficiently as they could taking the pieces of the court that had been played on by hundreds, but consistently walked up and down by one very small woman with a bigger than life stature. The original coffin had been disassembled and the pieces and handles would be attached to this newer, much larger version. Although, the handles would now be mostly for show as this one will be far too heavy to be carried by even a greater number of pallbearers and will more likely be on the back of a flatbed with a crane doing the lifting.
Meanwhile, at the cemetery, a large excavator has been procured from a local site and is in the process of expanding the original hole that will still be the final resting place of the beloved coach, if not just a bit bigger. There are also people in their homes pulling copies of diplomas from walls, trophies from shelves, and various pieces of mementos that they will donate to what can only be described as a modern-day tomb that will be filled shortly with the world’s biggest coffin in the biggest grave dug for one person.
As the original attendees gathered back at the site, word of the activities of the day had spread far and wide. Now the site of the grave was surrounded by most of the town, save for the group that is driving in with the now highly anticipated guest of honor. Before the crane is attached to place the coffin in its final resting place, the funeral director asks everyone who brought a memento to now place it in the newly built casket so it can be forever sealed. Everyone filed by, dropped their items in, and gave one last look to the coach. The judge now presiding back at the head of the crowd simply said, “You may have never won a championship, Coach, but your win record in our lives will never be beaten!”
The group lowered their heads in their last goodbyes as the crew close the lid and secured each side. The crane carefully lifted the monument up and into a now much bigger grave that could easily be the foundation for a small home. But then again, that is what it is now. Because in a small town with a small college that once had a tiny coach, the world’s largest casket filled with trophies, diplomas, law degrees, ribbons, and medals of military honors was being lowered into its final resting place. The new home of a woman who taught each of her players to live life honestly, and with integrity to have a winning legacy.