In Memoriam – Illinois State University Redbirds

Redbird logoWhen you are recruited to play college basketball these days, the university welcomes you into the family. Though we never called it that during early infancy of the women’s game, we knew our college team had our back. A loyalty to Illinois State University basketball remains imprinted in my soul. Even though I did not personally know the victims of the tragic plane crash outside of Bloomington, my heart mourned for the lives lost – an ISU men’s basketball Associate Head Coach, Torrey Ward, a Deputy Director of Athletics, Aaron Leetch, and alumni Terry Stralow ’74 (co-owner of Pub II in Normal), Andy Butler ’96, and Jason Jones, M.S. ’93; and former student Scott Bittner.

All seven men who were on board the plane, including pilot Thomas Hileman, were “Redbird guys,” said Athletics Director Larry Lyons ’86.

How can I feel connected to a university of over 20,000 when I haven’t lived in the state or even the country for decades? The memories of the people at that place, where interstate 74, 59, and 39 intersect in the Corn Belt, left a lasting impression.

When I played in the late 70s, we had three women’s teams, a platoon of peeps to lean on in hard times. Coaches like Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, and Melinda Fischer invested so much in me, not only as a player but also as a person, and Schnied (Kathy Schniedwind) taped me up for every battle in Horton Fieldhouse. Nor will I forget the teammates like Slate, Von, Char, Guppy, Apple, Woody and others or those who followed after me to leave their own mark like Bethie, Bos, and Vickie.

In addition to teammates, five friends called “the family” rented a townhouse together. We pulled all nighters to prepare for finals, wet our whistle at the ol’ Pub II watering hole and scarfed down Avanti’s pizzas.

Whenever I am back in the Chicago ‘burbs, we reunite. Our “cousins” another cohort of ISU alumni meet up annually. My ol’roomies from Dunn Barton Hall still wish me happy birthday every year.

Back then I had my own sorority – a gym full of sisters – including my own biological ones, also ISU grads. During my senior year my middle sister shared our house; my baby sister shared my Redbird locker.

When the news about that the fatal return flight from the Final Four celebration in Indianapolis reached Switzerland, I felt sick to my stomach.

After every tragedy we are reminded how fleeting life is. Our paths may only cross once, but the impact we have on others is everlasting.Redbird forever

In light of that, I wanted to give a shout out to my ISU family to thank you for your support, for keeping the ties across the miles, for having my back.

Everyone is vulnerable. Every. One. Every. Day. Always.

To those folks in the Bloomington-Normal area and the ISU community who grieve for their lost loved ones, I offer my deepest sympathy. It is not enough. No, I never met you, but I know where you come from and what you represent.

Your loss is a loss for all Redbirds.

We are family.

 

Call Me Coach – A March Madness Epiphany

IMG_4467_copyEver the misfit, I struggled to find my niche as an athletic girl on the cusp of Title IX. Even in adulthood, I continued to wonder what I was supposed to be doing with my life. During March Madness when I checked scores and brackets long distance, it dawned on me. I am a coach.

Last year, I had opportunity of a lifetime to speak at the DIII Final Four at UWSP. For the first time since moving abroad, I experienced March Madness firsthand. I marveled at the evolution of the woman’s game and realized the impact the pioneers had in paving the way.

Some children know what they want to be from the time they are five-years-old; I was in my fifth decade before I figured it out. In kindergarten, my dad announced that he wanted to coach like his dad, Coach Mac. But when I was growing up coaching never crossed my mind; girls weren’t allowed to play ball, so how could a woman make a career out of coaching.

I used to think that I was born to play basketball, but when that dream ended abruptly it took me decades to grow into my real calling.

I went on to coach middle school, junior varsity, and varsity girls’ and boys’ teams. I called La Chat boys teamplays in English, German, and French and learned to swear in a dozen different languages. When the opportunity arose, I humbly assisted coaching a wheelchair basketball team in Germany. I was equally inspired teaching kids with Down Syndrome how to shoot hoops.

As I helped athletes cope with divorce, depression, disappointment, academic pressure and the death of loved ones, we held it together with jump shots, high fives and team huddles. We created a bond that one cannot fathom unless having been a part of a team.

During hard times, sometimes the only difference between hope and despair was knowing that someone believes in you.

Coaching at an international school in an international league, every year the team composite is unique – with African, American, French, German, English, Indian, Japanese, Philippine, Puerto Rican, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Uruguayan players– but the outcome remains the same. We put differences aside to become a tight knit group in pursuit of our goals. We shared our camaraderie, competitive drive and love of the game.

In a lifetime of seasons, coaches never really know how many lives they helped shape. La Chat teamRecently, one of my former players – who now runs marathons and the Wellness Program of entire city – honored me by calling me her mentor on the front page of the local newspaper.

Though I have won my share of championships, there is no greater testimony of success when working with kids, than seeing them as productive adults.

“It’s not about trophies,” Coach Mac said it best to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, “The important thing is how you develop your athletes, how you mold their hearts and minds. The real reward is being able to look at your athletes in later years and seeing how you’ve contributed to the development of their character, so that they can serve as leaders of their community.”

In college, I thought I would save the country, as a social worker instead I became an international coach guiding kids from ‘round the globe, to go out and save the world.

I never dreamed I’d see the day when one of the senior boys would stop me in the hall to say, “What’s up, Coach.”

I have arrived! Today even the guys address me with respect.

They call me coach.

riding the rails to another tournament

riding the rails to another tournament

Another Birthday, Another Ball Game, Another Big Reminder

image1Why is it the older we get the less we feel like celebrating our birthdays? We knock ourselves out planning parties for babies who have no clue what is going on and then when we reach those senior age milestones when we really should be rejoicing at reaching another year, we downplay the idea trying pretend we are not aging, not a day over 40something.

When you feel like you have been granted 9 lives, birthdays feel like a blessing. The earliest birthday I recall is when my mom made me a bunny shaped cake covered in coconut. Growing up celebrating with my lil’ sis whose birthday is March 1st only doubled the fun. And who can forget those slumberless parties as teens when friends gathered in your basement giggling and offering earrings that turned your newly pierced ears green. Ah, part of the joy was picking out that perfect present at the brand new Northland Mall.

But wB-partyhat I associate most with my birthday is ball games because my birthday always fell during the height of basketball season. In the day before Instagram, I freeze framed those priceless moments in my mind when my folks came to my game carrying a cake and teammates gathered round in a corner of the gym to celebrate. Regardless of the outcome of the game, I felt like a winner.

What makes birthdays so meaningful is not really the fanfare, cards, or cake –although I do LOVE cake – it is knowing that family, friends, colleagues, teammates, and players want to commemorate the day you were born.

So how am I celebrating this birthday? I’ll be in a bus on a road trip to Zurich to coach my team in a Swiss basketball tournament. We will laugh and sing and share chocolate cake and Cutie Pies and I will feel like a kid again. We will enjoy being together, sharing the moment, knowing that we will never pass this way again.

From the surprise party my husband threw me in a Swiss wine cellar, to the unexpected cakes appearing in my classes, to the time my friend and her daughter decorated my homeroom, bringing cheesecake for breakfast, the birthday memories blur. The place and party may change but what remains the same is the date on the calendar, and the way the people around you fill your heart, the touching little ways they remind you they are happy that you are still around to celebrate.

Oh yeah, even though my back may be breaking, my knees aching, my legs quaking, I am dancing today!

In Team Sports Girls Win Even in Loss

I am sure a lot of people back home wonder why I am still coaching in Switzerland, the land of ski, where basketball is a minor sport at best. Facilities are limited, practices sporadic, and talent questionable.

But I still get a kick out of coaching the varsity girls. Last Thursday after teaching until 5 pm, the team and I hopped on 2 different buses and 3 different trains, to travel to Zug to compete in an international SCIS tournament. We lost every game except one, but the results don’t tell the whole story.

When we were down by 20 points against the American School of Vienna, who went on to win the tournament, we came back within a couple baskets. We fought intense battles, losing by a point or two in other games.

Sometimes you play your hardest and still finish next to last. Normally I would be frustrated, but after our final game, I felt content. Our losing tournament was really a success. My players bonded together, improved with every game, and built long lasting memories. They learned to play all out every game even when falling behind.

Though I hate to lose, winning is no longer the be all of my existence. One becomes wiser with age; I know that regardless of the score, the value of team sport is immeasurable. Team competition helps girls grow stronger and healthier, better prepared to negotiate conflict, overcome set backs and believe in themselves.IMG_6207_copy

This year, my players are going through tough issues that come with adolescence. During a scary time period where terrorist attacks, date rape, and random violence reign, they take those tottering steps toward adulthood. They face challenges with heartache and tears: break ups with boyfriends, friends falling out, college rejections, academic pressures, poor grades. But when they come to practice, they run hard, forget their troubles and giggle again.

They make up crazy systems of attack with even sillier names, like double D – sounds like a bra, not a double pick, high post play – Quiznos, peanut butter, and Dani boy.

Towards the end of one game earlier in the season, when we were ahead by 20 some points, our point guard called out, “Mississippi.” I watched in disbelief as all my players sat down on the court except for our point. While our opponents froze in bewilderment, stunned by our bizarre, sit-down offense, our guard dribbled right up the middle of the key for an easy lay.

And I laughed. Gotta love Swiss basketball.IMG_6214

This would never happen in America.

Though I am still every bit as competitive; I still study the game, call crucial time outs, diagram perfect plays, I am more mellow about the outcome. I understand that by just competing and being part of a team even my least talented players will learn lessons lasting lifetimes.

Teaching Tolerance in the Age of Terror

le_chat_14sept11_223I began and ended my holidays with a moment of silence, a solemn reminder that the threat of terrorism lurked on every street corner, in every train station and every international airport. Just before our winter break, 7 militants from the Pakistani Taliban entered an army-run, public school in Peshawar and fired at random killing 132 students and 9 teachers during 8 hours of terror.

In solidarity, the next day, our Swiss and International School of Geneva flags flew at half-mast; otherwise we resumed our regular school day. That evening we had a basketball game at another large international school where I looked forward to seeing the opposing coach, my American friend, and my son’s former coach.

Instead of being greeted with his usual bear hug, when I walked in the gym he raised a finger to his lip, and apologized, “Sorry, Pat, we are in lock-down.” He urged us to duck behind a pile of gym mats where his team crouched low.

Overhead the loud speaker blared, “Le train ne s’arrête pas à Lausanne.” (The train doesn’t stop in Lausanne). The code was repeated over and over again heightening our anxiety. Teenagers in hiding whispered nervously, while I wondered why would they “practice” a lock-down drill after school hours.

The following morning, back on my own campus, students from the age of thirteen to eighteen gathered in an assembly to sing, dance, and perform. One was a world champion tap dancer, another played the piano and sang a piece he composed, two students from my home room class, co presidents of our school, spoke eloquently. I marveled at such talented kids, such bright minds.

From the balcony, I overlooked our gym floor covered with chairs lined in rows representing 6 classes in each year group from grade 7 to 13. In a sea of joy, heads bobbed and arms, representing 135 nationalities, waved in rhythm to the jazz band. So young, innocent, so earnest.

Then our principal spoke breaking the festive atmosphere.

“In an international school about our size, terrorists wiped out an entire year group in an unimaginably, appalling attack. Some students were finishing exams; others were in first aid class or in normal lessons. All the children were just trying to learn, trying to better themselves through education.”

Our principal asked us to observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims. The stark contrast between the previous noisy, frivolities to absolute stillness was eerie. Though we practiced lock-down procedures, Switzerland seemed unrealistically safe. A safety we take for granted.

At the world’s oldest and largest international schools, we remained one of the few campuses left unguarded and unenclosed. Teachers, students, parents and visitors come and go freely admiring the bucolic countryside and spectacular view of Lake Geneva surrounded by the Alps.

I left school that day deep in thought. Three weeks later, after our holiday, I returned to school with an even heavier heart. As the sun rose over the Alps, I walked to campus and contemplated the lessons I had prepared for that day. Reeling from barbaric terrorists attacks in he heart of Paris on January 7th; I contemplated how to discuss the events in a school composed of students representing so many different nationalities, ethnicities and religions.

While across Europe, leaders debated ways to assure safety in light of the recent attacks, my school hosted a joint Education for Peace Conference at Palais des Nations to celebrate our 90 years of international education and 70 years of the United Nations. We joined forces around our common values of peace, tolerance, respect and diversity upon which we were founded.

I am an educator, but what information should I impart?

How can we teach vigilance without invoking fear?

How do we protect our citizens without infringing on personal rights?

How do we practice tolerance in the face of terrorism and impart an understanding that terror is not synonymous with Islam?

How do we safeguard intellectual freedom is such gifted, promising, malleable young minds?

Paris Under Siege New Tactics of Terrorism

Charlie 1Within minutes of one of the worst terrorist attacks in Paris, I skimmed a French newspaper while on layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport, en route to my home in Switzerland.

While I enjoyed the freedom to travel between borders, AK-47 toting terrorists gunned down Charlie Hebdo journalists at an editorial planning session in the heart of Paris.

While France mourned, democracies around the world chanted, “I am Charlie” in solidarity. I know from my own family that the French love satire and the freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo, born out of the student protests in 1968s, reflects the French tradition of ‘esprit critique’ (critical spirit) and a place where journalists can speak their minds.

Since 2006 Charlie Hebdo received terrorist threats for having published caricatures of Prophet Mohammed. Stephen Charbonnier, the editor in chief, one of 12 victims of the attack, was under police protection. But bodyguards and officers stationed outside the door, also slaughtered, offered little protection against terrorism.

Charlie Hebdo poked fun at all, including the Pope and Jesus Christ, as well as political class leaders including extreme right wing Marine Le Pen and other prominent personalities. Though it often ruffled feathers, it also provoked thought and symbolized the right for freedom of expression.Charlie

Charbonnier said his job was not to defend freedom of speech. “But without freedom of speech we are dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than live like a rat

As an American living abroad, I will never forget the impact of 9/11; now January 7/15 stains my soul. Like 9/11, the attack sent ripples of anxiety and outrage across national borders, racial divides and among the traditional French Catholic as well as the 5 million Muslims across the nation.

As the story unfolded live on national TV, the horror escalated. Less than 24 hours later, police were shot on the street in another attack. While the public froze, the government mobilized 90,000 police officers to search for the two terrorists who fled taking refuge in a printing company in a village near Charles deGaulle Airport. Meanwhile the other gunman encamped in a kosher grocery store at the Porte de Vincennes and killed several hostages. Nearby students cowered in lockdown, shoppers hid in garages, homeowners were confined, the peripherique (highway circling Paris) shut down, the nation held its breath.

I waited and watched as experts explain a new era of terrorism, a terror that reigns within. French citizens target their own country in an attempt to disrupt and paralyze society with fear.

President Holland attempted to calm his nervous nation with powerful speeches defending human rights. In spite of the Franco- American differences, our fundamental ideologies remain the same. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity — the bedrock of French values – are also the pillars upon which America was built.

“Each and every American stands with you today,” President Obama said as he offered support to our oldest ally. “The universal belief in freedom of expression is something that can’t be silenced because of senseless violence.”

As an American writer married to a French printer, intellectual freedom has been part of my family’s foundation. My children, born and raised in Paris in early years, were educated in Geneva as global, international citizens.

Over this past winter holiday, feeling discouraged, I contemplated stopping my blog and quitting writing. Yet with a heavy heart, as we embark on a new year, I am compelled to put my pen to paper.

Today I mourn for mankind, for the vulnerability in each of us against the faceless enemy of terrorism that threatens our existence. Like so many people, I want to do something, anything, to stop the madness. Helpless and hopeless I wring my hands and scrawl until my fingers bleed.

I must write.

Because I can.

And I will!