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On the way home, we passed through the Atlanta airport again. It was December 21, and we were all flying home to different destinations for the holidays.
While we were lounging at the gate, Betsy Roberts, our assistant athletic director for development, handed me a quarter that she'd found. Betsy knew how superstitious I was. I was especially superstitious about lucky coins. Particularly pennies.
But a coin was only lucky if you found it lying heads up. If it was tails, I wouldn't look at it twice, much less pick it up. This quarter was heads up, so Betsy retrieved it and handed it to me. "I know you prefer pennies, but I found you a lucky quarter," she said. I thanked her and stuck the quarter in my pocket.
A few minutes later, I went into the rest room to freshen up. I entered a stall, and looked down, and saw something in the bottom of the commode.
It was a penny.
It was a heads up penny.
Dara Worrell, our ticket manager, was also in the rest room. I decided I needed a second opinion.
I said, "Dara!"
Dara poked her head in.
I said, "Look in that commode."
Dara gazed at me strangely.
"No, really, look," I said.
Dara glanced down once, quickly, as if she was afraid something in there might be alive.
I said, "Dara, do you know what that is?"
She said, "Well, it looks like a penny."
"It is!" I said. "But it's not just a penny. I think it's a heads up penny. Do you think it's heads up?"
She looked again, and said, "Yeah, it is."
I said, "I got to have it."
"Pat, no," she said.
I said, "How can I get it?"
I looked around the bathroom.There was a plunger in the corner. I grabbed it.
I caught the penny with the plunger, and tried to drag it up the side of the bowl. But right at the top, it fell out and slid back down in the water. I tried three or four more times with the plunger, splashing around without success.
It was time to board the plane.
I said to Dara, "I don't care. I've got to have it."
I set the plunger down. I rolled up the sleeve on my right arm. I was wearing an orange and white flannel shirt. Then I took my rings off.
Dara turned green.
I reached in and got the penny.
Then I went to the sink and turned on the hot water. I lathered up. I washed the penny, and my whole arm.
I started to hand the penny to Dara. "Hold this," I said.
Dara didn't want to hold it. I had to wrap it in paper before she would touch it.
I said, "This is it. We're gonna win a championship. You remember this."
I went out to the gate, where several of our players, boosters, and Betsy were waiting to board. I told them the whole story.
All of a sudden they didn't want to stand next to me.
Someone piped up, "Do you know how many people go through the Atlanta airport each day?"
I didn't care. I had gotten what I wanted.
And that's how we broke for the holidays, with a perfect 13-0 record, and a lucky penny. It had been a long autumn, and we all needed a rest.
But when I got home, I had trouble sleeping. There was something in the back of my mind, a thought or a sensation, trying to force itself forward. Ever since the Illinois game, I'd had a feeling of something impending. It wasn't a bad feeling. It was good. In fact, it was something wonderful. So wonderful, I was afraid to voice it.
The thought woke me up in the middle of the night.
This was the team I had worked twenty-four years for.
* * *
Finally, after so many disturbing events, something good happened for us off the court.
We met Michael Jordan.
After the Kentucky game, we flew to Chicago to play DePaul. The night before the game, we took the team to eat at Jordan's restaurant. I hoped the team might be able to meet Jordan, the Chicago Bulls star whom I'd known since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when I was a coach and he was a player for the U.S.
Jordan, as everyone knew, was an acute businessman, and an increasingly interested fan of the women's game. What's more, he was preparing to launch a line of women's athletic gear for Nike, including a sneaker. Meanwhile, Chamique's stature was growing daily, and Michael was interested in meeting her. Michael and I spoke. The whole team, I suggested, would love to meet him.
Michael agreed. So the next afternoon, we all traipsed over to Michael's headquarters in downtown Chicago. We walked into a suite of offices, and there he was, sitting behind his desk. He had on a muscle shirt and sweats, and looked just like a poster. Then he stood up.
Kellie Jolly just stared at him, open-mouthed. I won't forget the look on her face. She, Semeka, and LaShonda were bashful to the point of speechlessness, but Ace, Kyra, and Niya descended on him. Niya sat in his chair. Ace put her arms around him. They besieged him with photos and T-shirts to sign. Then Michael saw Chamique, sort of hanging back.
"Hey, Chamique!" he said. "I heard about you. How you doing? You and me need to play some one-on-one."
What do you say when the most recognizable man on the planet recognizes you?
Chamique opened her mouth and then closed it again. She was "Michaeled."
He started in again. "I mean it," he said. "You and me need to play."
Chamique finally found her voice. "You got a court in here?" she said.
As we got ready to go, Michael said again to Chamique, "When are we going to play?"
Chamique said, teasingly, "One of these days."
Outside, Chamique tried to regain her composure. "He knew my name," she giggled, whooping. "Oh, my goodness."
That night, we beat DePaul by 125-46. It was the second-highest point total in Tennessee history. The four freshmen combined to score 82 of our points. Catchings still had a scar over her eye, but she threw in a UT rookie record 35 points. Typical, I thought. What a bunch of fearless exhibitionists; you introduced them to Michael Jordan, and how did they respond? They hung 125 on the board. Funny thing was, Chamique only had 8 of our points. I think she was still Michaeled.
By late January, there was only one thing bothering me. Chamique was chafing at the restrictions of college life. Rumors were rife that she was seriously considering turning pro. Despite all of her protests to me personally, when it came to talking to the press, she still refused to reject the possibility outright.
Plus, we got a call from a sneaker company representative who was worried; the rep had heard that Chamique was being pursued by an unsavory agent. I had to deal with this once and for all. I called her in.
I said, "Chamique, I wanted you to be the first to know. I'm seriously considering taking a pro job at the end of this year."
Chamique stared at me, in shock.
"Are you serious?" she said.
"No," I said. "But now you know how all the rumors and speculation over you turning pro could affect this team."
Chamique nodded. She got my point.
Then I laid it on the line. "You've left the door open, and we need to close it," I said.
If, at the end of the season, she wanted to consider turning pro, that was her decision, I said. When the time came, I would even assist her in finding a reputable agent. But until then, I didn't want to hear another word about it. What's more, I said, if I ever heard she had anything to do with a disreputable agent, I would wash my hands of her. It would be the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I'd do it, I said.
"I'll leave you to the sleazeballs who want to take all your money," I said.
I think we understood each other.
We sped through the rest of January, racking up win after win. Towards the end of the month, Georgia came to town. Anyone who knew about the Tennessee-Georgia rivalry knew there was no love lost between the two programs. Before the game, our promotions department gave out ten thousand mask replicas of my face. Right before tip-off I went by the Georgia bench. "This must be your worst nightmare," I said to Georgia coach Andy Landers. "There's not just one of me. There's ten thousand." We both laughed.
We won by fifty-nine, 102-43.
At the end of the month, we were 20-0. All I thought about now, all I breathed, was this team.
One afternoon, some reporters asked me who I favored in the Super Bowl.
"Well, fellas, let me ask you a question," I said.
"Who's playing in it?"
No Girls Allowed
I'm a forty-five-year-old woman with a controlling nature and crow's feet from squinting into the country sun, and it's just not like me to act the way I did. To be so free with my feelings, and to wear blue jeans, of all things. Ordinarily, I'm in charge. I wear a suit and a perpetual glare. I'm a coach, so I take the issue of control personally. I've always seen the movements of players on a basketball court as an extension of myself, like puppets on a string. Their failures were my fault, their successes my responsibility. I demanded that they act like Pat, and think like Pat. A row of little Patlings. So when, exactly, did I let go? When did I decide to let this team run? And when did they start running me?
The truth is, I loved them. Of course, all coaches say they love their teams. When really, you love some of them more than others, and some of them you don't like at all. But love or like, I've always yelled at them. I yell, because I'm a yeller. I'm a yeller, and so I yell. My voice gets so hoarse it sounds like tires crunching over gravel. During the season, I go through economy-sized packages of throat lozenges.
With this team, though, I was different.
My top assistant coach, Mickie DeMoss, was the first person to suggest I should go softer on them. As our recruiting coordinator, she knew the strengths and sympathized with the flaws of the 1997-98 Tennessee Lady Volunteers more deeply than any of us. Something in them got to her, early. Maybe it was the fact that they were so young and unguarded, or that they had such large eyes, begging to be taught. "Pat, don't yell at this team," Mickie said, back in the summertime. "They want to play for you."
We were driving through a desolate strip of Texas on a recruiting trip. I said, "What do you mean?" I'd been shouting for twenty-three years, as long as I had been the head coach at Tennessee. It had always worked before. We had been to the NCAA Final Four fourteen times, and won five national championships in ten years. But Mickie said I ought to consider something new. For once, I should try not raising my voice.
Mickie said, "They're different. They're spirited, and I don't want to see that spirit broken."
I thought about it for a minute.
I said, "Well, I can't promise you.
Mickie said, warningly, "Pat . . ."
I said, "All right, I'll try."
I'm not saying I didn't have my snappish moments. It wasn't like I underwent a complete personality transplant. But something happened to me. In the 1997-98 Lady Vols I finally met a group of players more driven than I am. They were harder on themselves than I ever could have been. That was clear from the moment they stepped on campus.
The funny thing was, what turned out to be the toughest game of the year may have been played before the season ever started. And I wasn't even there for it. I should have known right then that this team was out of the ordinary.
It was a sweltering night in the dregs of summer, August 23, 1997, a Saturday, their first day on the University of Tennessee grounds. What's the first thing they did? They went looking for a basketball. Long before anyone put on a Tennessee uniform, the whole team, a dozen young women clad in baggy, mismatching rayon shorts and raggedy T-shirts, gathered to play pickup. It was a contest of us against ourselves. A showdown. The Tennessee Lady Vols against the Tennessee Lady Vols.
There were no scoreboards, no officials, no crowds, no coaches. It was just pure game, a strictly private affair. I didn't even know about it until after the factand I probably still don't know the half of it. You could ask one of our players for the full story, but I doubt they would tell you because, like most great teams, they're a secretive bunch. And even if they did tell you, you probably wouldn't understand much of what they said. As someone remarked not long ago, the Lady Vols aren't a team, they're a cult. They have a tendency to speak in code. For instance, a ball is not a ball, it's "the rock," and you don't shoot it, you "throw it down." Your best friend is "your dog." If something is great, it's "tight," or if it's silly, it's "sadiddy." And this isn't a beginning, it's "the jump."
So it's up to me to tell the story.
The thing about that pickup game is that right from "the jump," it was no everyday contest. It was more than that. It was an initiation. Earlier in the day, four new freshmen had arrived, a quartet of high school All-Americans with big games and even bigger reputations. They were being called the single best recruiting class in history. And maybe they were.
But each one of them came to Tennessee with a host of private insecurities.
One by one, the freshmen parked in back of Humes Hall on the Tennessee campus and began unloading their bags and carrying them to the suite they would occupy together for the next year. They drove in from various points of the compass, from Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. The 1997-98 Lady Vols were about to arrive.
Kristen ""Ace'' Clement had one thought in her mind as she pulled up to the dorm. "Please God, don't let it be like high school." She was a glamorous left-handed point guard from Broomall, Pennsylvania, with a floppy ponytail and an almost illusory passing ability, a sleight-of-hand artist who could make the ball seem to flicker around the court. And she had a remarkable record to her creditshe had broken Wilt Chamberlain's all-time city high school scoring mark in Philadelphia. But Ace was to prove fragile, as I would discover.
Ace was the youngest of six children, the daughter of a fifty-five-year-old divorcee named Sue Carney. I knew Ace wasn't the only one starting a new life that day. So was Sue. When Ace went south, Sue simply decided to go with her. Sue had reared her six kids largely on her own, despite the fact that she had struggled to work ever since complications from back surgery had left her with a long-term disability. She was scraping by on savings and a military pension.
Sue wanted to get out of the cold northeast, having spent her whole adult life moving from job to job in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Sue imagined that the south represented an easier kind of living. So when Ace was recruited by Tennessee, Sue made up her mind. She visited Knoxville with Ace and found that the pace was slow and the people friendly. It was perfectthis way she could change her life, and follow Ace's career at the same time.
Ace and Sue were wracked by nerves the day they left Philadelphia. Sue was a fast-talking, enthusiastic woman under any circumstances, but as they packed up she was going one hundred miles an hour. "Come on, come on, we're going to be late," Sue told Ace, in her staccato Philly accent, as she hustled Ace out the front door of their Broomall condo for the last time. It was 11 p.m., and they had a ten-hour drive ahead. Sue intended to make Knoxville by early morning. She wanted Ace to be on time, to get off on the right foot in the program. They had heard that I was exacting on the subject of punctuality.
When they pulled up to Humes Hall, it was only a little after 9 a.m. The doors were just being unlocked. Ace rolled her eyes. They were the first ones there. There wasn't another car or student in sight.
One thing about Sue, she didn't intend to baby Ace, even if she was her youngest. She loved her daughter enough to follow her to Tennessee, but she wanted this day to be a genuine leave-taking. Ace should feel like she was going away to college, not like she was crossing the street. That meant living in the dorm, not running home at the earliest opportunity, and not calling her mother every time she felt a stab of insecurity.
Ace was feeling plenty insecure, all right. Already, she missed Philadelphia. She was city bred. Her whole life, all of her friends, her dates, her sisters and brothers, were back in Philadelphia and New Hampshire.
Together, Ace and Sue unpacked the car. Sue hung pictures and helped Ace put her belongings away, and then she lingered in the dorm, making sure Ace was settled in. For all of her determination to let Ace go, Sue needed to feel comfortable and sure her daughter was okay before she could leave. But it was time. Sue had to apartment hunt and find what would be her own home for at least the next four years. Sue kissed Ace and was gone.
Ace was alone. She surveyed the two-bedroom suite that she was to share with the other three freshmen. Ace hoped fervently that they would get along. In high school, it seemed there was always someone who hated her. They hated her for being good. They hated her for being beautiful. It wasn't her fault she looked like a Miss Hawaiian Tropic beauty contest winner (which she was). "It's your cross to bear," Sue would tell her. This time around, Ace was determined to be liked for who she was, not hated for how she looked.
She finished unpacking. She wondered how long it would be until the first vacation. She wondered how quickly she could get back to Philadelphia.
From the Trade Paperback edition.