Excerpt from Standing Tall
Every time one of my girls moved, an official blew a whistle. Never mind that the players on the other team were much bigger and more aggressive—they had not a single call against them.
Those refs were seeing fouls because of who my girls were, not what they were doing, and my girls knew it. But they didn't say anything, and neither did I.
That might surprise you. But they were prepared. We'd spent countless hours in practice readying ourselves, mentally and physically, for whatever we might encounter, and none of us was willing to concede that the game was in anyone's hands but our own. We would not let them break our spirit.
The onslaught continued, and yet my team never stopped knocking at the door; their courage was magnificent. You see, my young ladies knew that in order to prevail, they needed to think like champions. That means stepping up, no matter what kind of obstacles life puts in front of you. It means digging deep within yourself and finding the will to fight, no matter how many times you get knocked down. Most of all, it means never taking the easy road out.
It means no excuses, no matter what.
I am the last stop before the young women I coach take their place in society, and it is a responsibility I take seriously. My goal is to give them the confidence to dream big and the skills to overcome any challenge they face, whether it's under the basket or in the boardroom. The drills we run in practice may be designed to condition my players' bodies and minds for competition, but for me, there's always a larger prize at stake than any individual win or season. By the time one of my players throws her cap in the air on graduation day, I want her to know that she is a true winner, in every sense of the word.
As much as I love basketball—and I do, as much as anything else in the world—it has always been a vehicle for me to instill values and self-respect in the girls I coach. For thirty years, my mission has been to create the next generation of leaders. As I always say to my teams, "It's more than a game; I'm teaching life lessons here." My hope is that they will come to share my fundamental and unshakable faith: that each and every one of us has the ability to triumph in the face of adversity, to lift ourselves up and succeed, no matter what trials we encounter.
I have prayed a great deal, and in those prayers, I have asked why these things have happened to me and my family. One answer came during my darkest hour. In 1981, my fourteen-month old daughter, Nina, lay in the hospital, fighting for her life. A missed diagnosis of spinal meningitis left her brain hopelessly damaged; my happy, dancing baby girl would never walk or talk again.
In those early days, just after she was devastated, I looked to every quarter for comfort and counsel. A priest, passing me in the hospital chapel one night, suggested that perhaps this terrible thing had happened so that I could go on to inspire others, to give them hope.
It spoke to something I already believed. From childhood, I had believed that I had a purpose on this earth: to give hope to those without hope, strength to those whose strength had failed. At the time, the price seemed far too steep. It was not until more than twenty years later, when my own life was in danger, that I truly appreciated what that priest had said, when a woman I had never met reached out to comfort me.
To rise and give hope. Whether by bringing pride to a small, historically black school through basketball excellence or simply by believing in a young woman even after she has stopped believing in herself, I have been able to achieve that purpose in my life. But I believe that the time has come to widen the circle.
As Myles Brand, the head of the NCAA, pointed out, we became part of a great tradition of athletes who helped shake America out of its complacency, who set an example in the eyes of the world. When Jesse Owens sped past Hitler in the stands to take four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he didn't just make America proud; he showed Hitler's ideas of racial superiority for the dangerous nonsense they were. When Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling in 1938, he was there as an American, not a black athlete. But he was a black man, and when President Roosevelt told him, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany," he was putting the hopes of the whole country in the hands of a black man—and that sent a message to the world. When the Brown Bomber beat Schmeling, it felt like more than a fight; it felt like a country united against all the prejudice in the world.
They say that God never gives you a burden you can't bear, and maybe that's true, but I know that there have been plenty of days when I have not been able to see my way forward, days where I have thought, I cannot lift my head and go on. But I know that it has always been better for me to pick up that burden, no matter how heavy, and to carry it to the very best of my abilities.
You have to stay true to yourself and to what you believe. The minute you allow disappointment or tragedy to stop you in your tracks, you have stolen something from yourself, something more precious than you can even imagine: your dreams.
It is through overcoming that we understand what we are capable of; it is only after we have been tested that we can go on to offer comfort to others. My dream for the young ladies I coach is that they never measure themselves with someone else's yard stick, or simply by wins and losses. I would like them to know that real success is achieved when you set your own worth, fulfill your own destiny, and stand up for what you know to be right. And I want these young women, the leaders of tomorrow, to go forth and multiply: what we have learned, we now must teach.