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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 toplay 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 fact--and 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 credit--she 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 perfect--this 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.