March Madness My Way

Though I miss the basketball frenzy in America especially at this time of year, I learned to celebrate March Madness my way. As an expat in Europe for the past 35 years, the only March Madness I experienced was in 2014 when I traveled to the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point to be the keynote speaker at the DIII Final Four banquet in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

Fortunately after my international playing career ended, I joined a collect of coaches – many former players – who brought a taste of March Madness to the international schools in international and national competitions.

I have had my fair share of championship teams and though I am every bit as competitive as my cohorts across the Atlantic, over here the stakes are not as high. My players don’t perform in front of sell out crowds and my job is not dependent on the number of wins.

So though I retired from teaching in June, no one who knows me will be surprised that after medical treatments in the States, I came back to coaching in Switzerland to finish the season with my high school team.

At our international tournament in Basel, my team felt like they let me down when they lost their defending title to Zurich in the SCIS.

“I didn’t come back to watch you play basketball,” I said in the locker-room after the game. “I came to be with you. To help you get your international baccalaureate degree and to remind you that I believe in you. Always. Even in defeat. Especially in defeat.”

No one goes through life beating every opponent. It is what you do when the chips are down that builds character. Second effort is the difference between, well, going on and giving up. So after that disappointing defeat, we went back to gym and practiced. A month later we beat that same Zurich team to win the Swiss championship SGIS.

We can beat ourselves up reliving our errors. Forget the mistakes. The game goes so fast no one else will remember that you dribbled off your toe, threw the ball out of bounds or shot an air ball, what they will remember is that you hustled back down court on defense and played tough until the final buzzer.

The emphasis in international schools is less about winning and more about learning, so academics always play the biggest role.

No doubt I have book smart players. But playing basketball teaches self-discipline and perseverance and other valuable lessons that can’t be learned in a classroom.

This year one of my star basketball players is heading to Stanford and another one is off to Oxford; they won’t be going on athletic scholarships. They play hard, but study harder. And maybe that is how it should be.

Basketball basics 101 – a valuable part of any curriculum. It’s a throw back to the good old days in the early infancy of Title IX when we played for love of the game and to get a good education.

March Madness my way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skiing Above the Clouds

When I first moved to Switzerland 20 years ago, I was sick every winter and friends told me, “Go above the clouds to breath.” Sure enough if you drive up into the mountains the cloud curtain opens revealing blue skies. Though we live in a picture perfect country with pristine views of the lake and mountains, we are surrounded by smog and fog, which becomes locked in over the basin every winter. That’s why each weekend people here fasten skis on their car hoods and head up.

Without access to mountains when I was growing up, I never learned to alpine ski. The only descent I conquered was the bunny hill at the golf course. Even though I am still wobbly sliding on 2 sticks, I love cross country skiing. To a flatlander from Illinois, cross country skiing in the mountains is every bit as challenging as downhill skiing due to the steep inclines.

Although I can only ski for no more that an hour or so, for 9 euros ($9) you can spend an entire day on groomed trails with spectacular mountain views. Our favorite spot, only a half hour away is La Vattay, on the plateau between the Valserine and Menthières in the Jura mountains.

Over 90 miles of trails wind through the pine filled forests and onto the open plateau where cows graze in the summer. Though I have skied the same route many times, I still get stymied because I am unable to navigate the 60 foot drop offs that end in sharp turns.

Luckily strategically placed gym mats are propped against trees at the bottom of curving slopes. To me those bright red mats are like STOP signs, so whenever I see one I pop off my skis and proceed by foot to the bottom of the steep incline. The only “snow plowing” I learned as a kid involved my back and a shovel, not my legs and skis.

If you grow up in this area, skiing is like riding a bike. You learn at an early age and never forget. Schools here take kids on ski day outings and across Europe people plan vacations around the sacred “ski week” holiday, a mandatory February break from school.

Depending on weather conditions ski stations are open from the end of mid December to end of March. Alas each year the ski season is shortened due to lack of snow. Global warming is wreaking havoc on the lower level of ski resorts.

But until the day snow becomes extinct, I will keep heading up going above the rim where I breathe, glide, breathe, slide, and savor life above the clouds.

Happy Father’s Day Coach – Thanks for the Legacy

Coach "Mac" - Ralph McKinzie

Coach “Mac” – Ralph McKinzie

On June 5, 1983, mere months after a car accident in France ended my career as professional athlete, I wrote this letter to my grandpa Coach ‘Mac’ Ralph McKinzie. a beloved college coach.

Today, I can address this same letter to my dad, who influenced just as many high school athletes as my grandpa did at the university level.

 

 

Dear Coach Mac,

I want to wish you a Happy Father’s Day, not as your granddaughter but as an athlete. Though I never had the opportunity to play football on your team (football is forbidden for girls, even tomboy girls) I still look to you as an example. As an athlete I know the impact you had as a coach, but as a woman I can express emotions more openly than a man. Today I am writing on behalf of all the boys you fathered on the football field who would wish you a Happy Dad’s Day if they could find the words.Jim & Grandpa

In our society men are not allowed to show feelings; it is uncharacteristic of the American male, especially husky football players, to write thank you letters, so you’ll never realize the number of lives you touched. Your influence on one boy, Ronald Reagan, who became President of the United States, is probably the most outstanding example of the far-reaching effects of your coaching. Many men, less acclaimed perhaps, but equally important, are fathering children and becoming productive citizens because of the impact you had as a coach, developing character. Many continue to hurdle life’s hardships because of the never-give-up attitude you instilled on McKinzie Field.

Coach Jim

Jim McKinzie – Eureka College

I am one of those former athletes. I never endured the duck walk, but I know enough of your coaching philosophies to have that iron will ingrained, a will that kept me alive this year. After the accident I thought I would never get out of bed, days passed from minute to minute enduring pain. When walking from one room to another seemed insurmountable, you were my inspiration. I thought of you pacing the football field. Not all your former athletes will have suffered the same trials as I, but each will have endured hard times, drawing on the strength you helped them develop off the field.

Since I can no longer compete, I feel useless. Again I look to you and see how you are still coaching, influencing lives even at the age of 89. So I think I will try to follow your example as a coach. Unfortunately, in organized sports today, coaches often must focus more on winning championships than on shaping individuals. However I intend to follow your philosophy and be a coach of life.

Perhaps you too are weary from life’s aches and pains. Many mornings you, a man that once kicked 50-yard field goals, has trouble pulling on his socks. Like me you wonder what your purpose is here now. But your very existence continues to be an inspiration to us all. Thanks Coach from all your athletes.

P & Nic-2My grandpa officially retired from coaching in 1962, and then was called back to the game a year later. My father retired from coaching boy’s football and basketball only to return to coaching girl’s basketball in the infancy of Title IX.

Looking back my letter reads like a prophecy; I went on to coach and teach internationally for 33 years. Together grandfather, father, and daughter have dedicated nearly a century and half to helping shape kids on the playing fields. Only days after my grandfather died in 1990, our son was born. Today that young man, Coach Mac’s great grandson, has become the fourth generation to go into teaching and coaching.

I think that is what you call a legacy.

From Corporate World to Homestead – Reinventing in Retirement

IMG_0407In my final year of teaching, I have been a basket case of emotion, while my husband appeared to waltz effortless from the corporate world to the homestead in retirement. When Gérald lost his job; he found a new life. What happens when a caring boss goes head to head with the powers that be in the cutthroat, save-at-all costs, corporate world? At perpetual odds with top management for the past 5 years of his career, losing his job was inevitable, but what surprised me was how much happier he is now without his printing career.

I chose the early retirement option, while I always assumed Gérald would pursue his career into his 80s. After working long hours from the age of 14, instead of pining over his lost job, he embraced early retirement and found the freedom liberating.

Gérald worked in the printing business for 36 years producing everything from carton packaging to brochures to books to newspapers. As director of a newspaper printing firm, he lived on the edge ever ready to meet the impossible demands of clients and shareholders in a dying industry. Sleeping with one eye open, he waited for emergency phone call in the middle of the night. How do you put out a half a million copies every night without making a mistake somewhere along the line of distribution?

IMG_0294To be honest I thought he would be lost without the constant buzz. Instead he found time to enjoy his passions long overlooked when trying to make ends meet as a director, father and husband.

Now he plays volleyball, manages the neighborhood association, and serves as CEO of my website. He fired the gardener and finds pleasure in doing his own yard work and is giving our home a much-needed facelift after 2 decades of neglect. He learns new sports, helps me coach, and takes online classes. And he cooks gourmet meals and serves up fare that would put most restaurants to shame.

As my final school days approach, I look to him for inspiration. For the past 30 plus years, I have worked with kids. What will I do with my hours if I am no longer helping students write papers, organize schedules, navigate exams and wait for the next bell to ring?

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personally designed wine labels from colleagues

With his new found joie de vivre the Frenchman demonstrates that happiness and fulfillment is attainable even after one quits the day job. And he bowed out of his arena with so much class. While I was crying over the injustice and worrying about his mental state being put out to pasture, he sailed into retirement with the same grace that he faced each day in a field filled with adversity. I admired his dignity as he spent the last 6 months training his replacement and preparing his staff for the transition of management. Then after the fanfare of colleagues, clients and employees heartfelt farewell, he never looked back, content in knowing that he served his company as an honest, well-respected, hardworking leader.

He left his profession with his integrity intact.

Basketball Blues and Brotherhood: Remembering Mike Maloy

Mike MaloyEvery February, I celebrate Black History month in the lessons I teach. I know what a travesty it is to be left out the history books by the powers that be. I owe a lot to my African American teammates who overlooked my skin color during our time together. Shared passions, common goals and interdependence out weigh prejudice. But nowhere was the bond greater than when I moved to Paris and joined the expats ball club.

It doesn’t matter if you are blue, green, orange, purple or female when you are flying solo in the Euro basketball league. Only a fellow American can appreciate our love for the game and understand the isolation of living in a foreign land 4,000 miles away from home.

When I first started coaching high school ball at international schools, women coaches were rare, but my male contemporaries – players recruited to play in Europe and who stayed on – accepted me with open arms. At the American School of Paris, Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French Basketball, took me under his wing in the international coaching “brotherhood.” Another mentor, Mike Maloy, like Henry broke down racial barriers, and left his mark in Austria.

Mike, a tall lean guy with an endearing personality, winning grin and a raspy, heartbreaking bluesy voice, never belied the bitterness that a lifetime of discrimination could create.

He was so non judgmental and unassuming. You would never know by talking to him that he put Davidson College on the map of the NCAA basketball, dominated in the Austrian pro league and sang lead with Boring Blues Band in the Viennese music scene.

Under the leadership of the legendary Coach Lefty Driesell, Mike became the first African American to play at the small southern, predominately white Davidson College where the New Yorker worked as hard to fit in as he did to rebound. In 1967 Mike also became the first African American to pledge SIGMA CHI fraternity, an action that created scandal within a system that had a long-standing tradition of discrimination.

In 1970 Mike was drafted by the Boston Celtics. In 1976 he became the first African American in the Austrian league. He again overcame intolerance and went on to win four national titles with UBSC Wien Basketball team before becoming a successful coach in the league.

In Austria, Mike admitted the he started to enjoy the game again. “It wasn’t about money. It was about chillin out and getting my head straight. I kept staying another year.”

That line echoes the sentiments of dozens of former American players that have befriended me during my decades of living abroad.

After his untimely passing, American International School of Vienna (AIS) named the high school basketball gym in his honor. And it was on his court that I remembered him best.

My fondest memories of Mike were seeing him at international tournaments, sitting at the bar sipping beer after a game, ever ready with a pep talk.

Once while lamenting getting beat out of the final, I asked, “What am I doing wrong?

“Wrong? With your tiny, lil’, raggedy team you got no business being in the same gym with goliath – I saw you coach your skinny butt off to get into the semis.”

When many seasons later, my lil’ raggedy team from Geneva snatched the Sport Council International School (SCIS) championship from the 7-time champion AIS on their home court, I thought I heard my old buddy laughing from the rafters.

“I told you so, girl.”

Thanks for believing in me, bro.

This one is for you.

Ten Tips for Survival When Sidelined by Back Pain

DSC00183I am back. I missed my friends out in the global blogosphere. When I logged out before the holidays, I did not intend to be away so long, but s*** happens.

Especially when you have a bad back. I am only a sneeze away from a catastrophe. Some people who have never suffered from back pain, poo poo the idea that back pain can be so incapacitating, but once it happens to you, you know.

Was it one too many cross Atlantic flights, too many basketball road trips, too many holiday cookies, who knows? But due to a major flare up, I was out of commission. I struggled to endure my school day. Every free minute I wasn’t preparing lesson plans or school reports, I spent lying flat or in therapy – deep tissue massage, spinal adjustments, thermal baths.

Stretch, walk, teach, rest, repeat.

Take one crooked old spine and an arthritic neck, add two herniated lumbar disks, three compressed dorsal vertebrae, and what do you get? One heck of a backache! My body has undergone a lifetime of trauma. Bad back is an understatement. Yet if you look at me, except for the basketball player slouch, from ducking through too many low French doorways, you’d never know, how I struggle to remain upright and shuffling forward. For any of you who suffer from chronic back pain or an occasional flare up, I put together a few tried and true tips.

  1. Never jump out of bed – flop on the floor first and roll like a ball
  1. Stretch – at regular intervals. Legs against wall, arms stretched overhead in L shape for a full body stretch.
  1. Exercise – walk, swim, bike but avoid high impact sports.
  1. Avoid sitting
  1. Limit computer time – strains your neck, shoulders, and wristsDSC00182_copy
  1. Take rest breaks flat out – stash a yoga matt under the couch, in the kitchen, at the office
  1. When it hurts too much to stand upright, crawl (preferably on carpet,) to loosen the SI joint and hips
  1. Use heating pads, thermal baths, body pillows, heat lamps, cold packs
  1. Do whatever you can to keep mobile
  1. Then ice baby ice!

A lifetime of hard hits, accidents, and high intensity competitive sports has left me fragile, but I am not broken. As long as this ol’ heart keeps ticking, I will fight to put one foot in front of other. I have tried every alternate therapy out there to avoid undergoing the knife.

Why not opt for surgery? I have too many weak links. Do you know anyone moving around with a total spinal fusion?

Nooo, give me my chiropractors, masseurs, physical therapists. From all my research and experience this is one area where integrative medicine and non-surgical intervention have the best long-term results.DSC00178_copy

That said I am always looking for the newest, non-invasive cure all. Next summer, if I can save enough money, I may head back to Wisconsin to my all time favorite chiropractor to try deep tissue, heat laser therapy. He and his brother use this to treat elite athletes including those giant cheese heads in the green and yellow jerseys. Hey, if it is good enough for the Greenbay Packers, it may work for this crazy, headstrong gal who got sacked one too many times in the game of life.

What is your best trick for coping with a bad back?