In High School Basketball Friendship Wins, Cancer Loses

I spent the first half of my life fighting to be allowed on the court and the second half learning to graciously cheer for others when I could no longer play the game I loved.

ISG teamEven though I can’t drive the baseline anymore, I get a kick out of seeing the players I coach at the International School of Geneva make a perfect pass, hit a jumper, and run a fast break.

Teamwork is a beautiful thing. I love watching well-balanced WNBA teams like the Minnesota Lynx run the floor or the precise passing of the UWSP college women. None of that coast-to-coast garbage.

But high school basketball is best. Players put their heart and soul on the line every week in front of the family, friends and community that shaped them. They play, not for money, or prestige, but for the camaraderie and love of the game. Most of these young athletes won’t make the college roster; even fewer will sign a pro contract. But the lessons learned on the hardwood during their chaotic, fleeting adolescence last forever.

Not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could still play basketball; not a minute passes where I don’t forget how lucky I am to be here wishing just that, because I could very well be 6 feet under. I am grateful to be in the game even if only from the sidelines. I love giving halftime talks, drawing up last second plays, and encouraging kids to gut it out in tough circumstances.

If I ever forget the gift of “overtime” on my own game clock, a twinge in my back, an ache in my shoulder, or a pain in my skull – repercussions from my accident – remind me of the other option. Life took on new meaning after I came so close to losing mine.

Fortunately, rarely is a young athlete confronted with his/her mortality.

Some win. Some lose. Some survive. Some die. Cancer, a formidable foe, strikes down opponents indiscriminately, but the loss is particularly painful when the disease steals the life of a child.

Hopefully most teenagers won’t be confronted with cancer, but they have all faced hard times which were made easier with the support of that special parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach or friend. When an innovative basketball coach at Bishop McGuinness High School in Greensboro suggested that his players dedicate the game to someone who had influenced their lives, he never expected his idea to go global.

One of his players, Spencer Wilson dedicated his game ball to an inspirational friend on the cancer ward, Josh Rominger.

On January 24th in that North Carolinian gym filled to capacity, a boy made a 50-foot last second shot to win the game in memory of a friend and found the courage to carry on.

Sooner or later, we will be faced with those defining moments when our best laid plans and deepest hopes are derailed by injury, illness, accidents and unforeseen disaster. Do we give up or go on?

We get one chance. To give it our best shot. To dedicate our game.

Bad stuff happens. So do miracles.

Friendship is eternal.

Keep fighting.

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Swiss Champions U21 – June 2008
Christoph Varidel,Paul Costello, Nicolas Lechault, Michael Shumbusho, Alex Gromadski

Together.

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Congratulations, Debbie! Your name was selected in a random drawing of commenters to receive a copy of my memoir, Home Sweet Hardwood: A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball.

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Warmhearted Minnesotans Take the Chill Out of Wintery New Year

My New Year’s resolution: never let the weather get me down. Celebrate each season. Even winter. That said, I struggled to step out the door when staying at the Carlson’s in Golden Valley, Minnesota in early January. My first achievement in 2014, surviving the Deep Freeze.

While visiting my Big Kids, nieces, sister and brother-in-law in the Twin Cities, I experienced those record breaking frigid temperatures that made even European news channel headlines.IMG_4236_copy

My niece, Hannah, told me that it was so cold that if I threw a glass of water outside, it would turn to ice before it hit the ground. Exposed skin would be frost bitten within 5 minutes. Sure enough, when I walked out the door, the cold felt like dry ice peeling the skin off my cheeks. Yet, Karen and I made it around the block on foot during the coldest day of the last decades.

Weather advisory – stay indoors. Even residents accustomed to long, harsh winters headed to the grocery to stock up on staples, just in case. Shops closed early. Sporting events were postponed. My folks in Illinois said even church was cancelled.

Due to extreme cold, the Minnesota governor mandated statewide school closing prolonging the holiday. Karen, a teacher, screamed with joy, « youpie another pajama day. »

We made the most of our moments together. We spent a super special Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field via satellite, enjoying spicy chili, nachos and cheese from the comforts of the Carlson’s living room. My first time tailgating indoors in Siberia!IMG_4342_copy

Like I reminded my sister, who begrudges the long winters, « it’s a healthy cold. » Unlike Switzerland where the mountains lock us in a fog trap of pollution, when I stepped outside the door in Minneapolis-St. Paul, my lungs felt invigorated from the pure air. The dazzling sun, reflecting off snow under cobalt skies, created an extraordinary light.

IMG_4340_copyIt is no surprise that so many Scandinavians settled in Minnesota. Folks up North come from a hardy stock used to harsh elements. Youngsters sledded, teens played ice hockey, couples skated, and « cheerful » ol’ men ice fished. Dick took us for a spin in his jeep on frozen Medicine Lake where we admired elaborate ice shanties and peeked through the lit up windows of the lake front mansions.

While the atmospheric pressures created record-breaking cold temperatures in North America, warm currents blew across Europe. Back home people were out and about in shorts and shirtsleeves enjoying a balmy 50F. Arriving in Geneva airport, felt like landing in Florida.

We never begrudged a minute of our holiday on ice because warmhearted northlanders magically thaw winter souls by welcoming travelers into their homes and hearth with open arms and a joie de vivre. Gotta love Minn-A-so-Ta. You betcha.

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Best Gift Ever– A Flight Home for the Holidays With My Baby

baby NatHome for the holidays takes on new meaning, when you live 4,000 miles away. Never has my longing for America been greater than after the birth of my daughter in Paris. The expatriate craves the loving cradle of family most during moments of great joy or sadness. Within the span of that year I had endured my fair share of despair. I struggled to recover from an accident that ended my athletic career, and a miscarriage that broke my spirit.

That winter of ‘84, I courageously tucked my 10-day-old daughter into a kangaroo pouch, navigated through the crowded Metro station and waited at the American Embassy for my baby to be issued her first U.S. passport. Just a short time later, with even greater trepidation, I swaddled my seven-week-old in a hand-woven blanket and carried her solo across the Atlantic aboard a 747.

At O’Hare airport, my sister’s and parents’ smiles lit up the universe as they welcomed the newest member to the family with tears of joy.

Outside the family homestead, light snow dusted the open fields and colored lights glittered, while inside, an aroma of gingerbread wafted through the air, a newborn’s cry rose above my brother’s piano rendition of Silent Night and my mom hung her handmade first grandchild ornament on the Christmas tree.

From Cleveland, to Omaha, to Chicago, to Eureka, to Sterling my siblings and grandparents coordinated the time and distance between a dozen careers, three states and two countries to be home for the holidays. That Christmas, I dressed as a svelte French Papa Noel to pass out presents.

But the greatest gift was not under the tree.

In the early years of marriage, we could not afford a cross-Atlantic flight, so in a gesture that showed incredible generosity and profound compassion, my Frenchman along with family contributions, gave me a round trip Air France ticket Paris-Chicago, so that the McKinzies could meet baby Nathalie.

This Christmas gift symbolized my husband’s love for his firstborn, his foreign wife and his American in-laws. By sacrificing his own holiday time, he acknowledged the importance of fostering family ties and respecting one’s cultural heritage in a mixed marriage.

The magic of those shared moments is engrained in my heart forever.

This December, that precious baby, now a dedicated doctor, offers another selfless gift. She sacrifices her family time to spend Christmas Day in the Children’s Hospital, taking care of kids too sick to go home for the holidays.Nat & dad

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Hug a Coach Day – Celebrating Our Mentors

IMG_4467_copyAfter 3 decades wondering what I should do with my life, I found my calling. From waitress to lifeguard to pro basketball player to journalist to educator, I have taught everything from primary PE to freshman English to learning support.

Whether I am teaching a 6th grader to do a forward roll, a dyslexic child to spell, a 10th grader to understand Shakespeare, a senior to write a personal statement or a ball player to make a jump shop… I am a coach.

When I help kids makes sense of their lives, my life makes sense to me. 

I help students discover their strengths, so they can one day navigate solo in our fast paced world filled with overwhelming demands and challenges.

However, when I was growing up, coaching was not an option. How could a girl have a coaching career if female athletes were non-existent and women weren’t allowed to participate in sports?

Today, coaching is in vogue. Coaching specialties run the gamut including life and personal coaches, to health/wellness/fitness/ coaches to business/leadership/executive coaches to organizing/ career/creativity coaches to parenting and retirement coaches. Even ADHD coaches are listed to identify tools to assist those with attention deficit hyperactivity and to develop positive coping strategies for every day life and specific tasks.

When I randomly googled transition coaches, Paula Ray’s website popped up. She explained the that transitional coaches base their principle on different disciplines, and states that her coaching philosophy is rooted in biomimicry.  Huh? It’s no surprise that Paula Ray, who sounds like a New Age guru, is based in Del Mar, California.

Here is a list of some of the transition coach specialties.

    • Transition from one extreme socio-economic level to anotherCoach Mac in action_copy
    • Transition from a stress-filled negative life into a life you love
    • Transition from one extreme socio-economic level to another in a short period of time
    • Transition out of a corporate career
    • Transition into your most enjoyable, rewarding and healthy retirement
    • Transition in marital status
    • Transition from an energy draining career to an exhilarating one
    • Transition through unexpected health care challenges

But hey, I am not knocking the career.  No way. After my parents, coaches had the single greatest influence in my life.

Now everyone from CEOs to writers to retirees discuss their favorite buzzword, my coach. Once upon a time, coaching was learned almost by osmosis from playing a sport, now college degrees in coaching abound. Ohio University offers a Coaching Education master’s program to prepare coaches with the knowledge they need to become elite coaches.

Hopefully more female athletic coaches will join the ranks because they serve as excellent role models for girls. Like men have known for years, sports teaches life lessons and teams provide the best training grounds for the work place.

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Legendary ISU Coach Jill Hutchison

Yep, everything I needed to know I learned in basketball.

      • Life is not fair. Get over it.
      • Leave your ego in the locker room
      • Pass to the open player
      • Rebound, rebound, rebound
      • Learn from each mistake
      • Hustle at all times
      • Lose graciously
      • Win humbly
      • Always credit teammates
      • Never give up

With all the emphasis on coaching nowadays, I propose we add a new celebration to the calendar.

 

In loving memory of my grandfather Ralph « Mac » McKinzie, a coach extraordinaire, I hereby declare December 7th as the official Thank Your Mentor Day!

Coach Mac October 1, 1894 December 7,1990

Coach Mac
October 1, 1894 December 7,1990

Have you hugged your coach today?

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Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

BookCoverImageIn appreciation of the teachers and coaches that shaped my life, I am offering a Black Friday special price for Home Sweet Hardwood. As a gesture of gratitude to the people that mentored you, offer a gift copy of the memoir of A Title IX Trailerblazer Breaking Barriers Through Basketball!

An All American tale with a European twist about a pre Title IX tomboy who fought for right to be allowed on the court and never gave up. Even when she could no longer play the game she loved. Home Sweet Hardwood makes a great holiday gift to offer a sporty daughter or granddaughter or an aspiring athlete.

“Observing the courage and determination with which Pat pursued her dream goes beyond gender and racial lines to reach a much deeper place within us all. This is a profound story of the strength of the human spirit in the face of extreme challenges. Inspiring, illuminating and awesome; Home Sweet Hardwood is certain to have an impact, not only on women of all ages, but upon anyone who has ever aspired to overcome all odds for something or someone that they love.”

Bil Howard, Readers’ Favorite 5 star review

Give a voice of to silent pioneers who helped pave the way for our high flying daughters of today. In the true spirit of the game- pay it forward pass it on.

Four decades, three generations, two continents, one game.

Order online now at https://www.createspace.com/3877698!

Use this special code YEYGSSZD and get a 25% discount! (valid through Friday midnight)

 

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The President’s Coach – From Eureka College to Capitol Hill

A great coach is worth his/her weight in gold. But coaches rarely make a mint or garner front page news unless they coach on campuses making major marketing bucks or if they are involved in some scandal. That is why the story of my grandpa, Coach Mac, a small college coach and the small town boy, Ronald Reagan, who he mentored at Eureka (1928-1932) is so inspiring to coaches everywhere.Coach Mac's plaque

Consider the odds that the son of a tenet farmer in Oklahoma would find his way to Eureka College, a  private Christian school tucked in the Central Illinois’ cornfields between Peoria and Bloomington. There, Ralph « Mac » McKinzie became a legendary athlete and coach.

No one recorded statistics on the hundreds of lives Coach Mac guided during a coaching career at Eureka, Northern Illinois University and Wartburg College, Iowa, that spanned seven decades. How incredibly unlikely that one of his prodigies would go on to become our 40th President.

Coincidence? Maybe, but not to those who knew my grandpa. Coach Mac, a simple, hardworking man demanded high standards and in his gruff, awe-inspiring voice could resurrect the dead in fiery, halftime talks. He set such a fine example that those who played for him wanted to do right by him.

In later years, my grandpa kidded that Reagan had more talent as a sports commentator talking with broomstick at halftime, than throwing blocks during a game. And Reagan, in his self-deprecating humor, often said that though he never became the football star he dreamed of, he learned more lessons on McKinzie Football Field at Eureka College than anywhere else in his life.

« Whatever I am today, » President Reagan announced during a halftime interview of a Big Ten game on national TV in 1981, « I feel Coach Mac had an awful lot to do with it. »

Coach Mac recognized when a boy needed the team more than the team needed the boy. After his freshman year, Reagan wanted to quit football and college, but Coach Mac, known for backing words with actions, walked Reagan to the president’s office to secure a work/study scholarship. Reagan returned to campus to play football, at starting right guard, and to graduate.

From broadcasting to Hollywood to the White House, Reagan never missed an opportunity to publicly thank my grandpa for the role he played in shaping his life. Coach Mac instilled a strong work ethic and a fighting spirit. Reagan never gave up. After he lost the first election, he ran again, and won.

Another not so famous former athlete, who my grandpa guided, was my dad, Jim McKinzie, who went onto influence the lives of countless other athletes (including me and my sister) in his 33 years of coaching at Sterling High School.

As an athlete, I was blessed with exemplary coaches. In addition to my dad and grandpa, I was shaped by Phil Smith at SHS and Jill Hutchison at Illinois State University. In a continuation of the family legacy, I went on to coach my son and daughter at the American School of Paris and International School of Geneva. My daughter had the good fortune to play for Shirley Egner at University of Wisconsin-SP where she was adopted into the Stevens Point community before going on to become the first doctor (pediatrician) in our family.

A coach’s imprint is everlasting, like a stone thrown in a lake, setting off a ripple effect. One life influences another one that goes on to impact a hundred more. Great coaching can’t be measured and not every good coach will have the opportunity to glow in the limelight of a national championship; however, a coach’s worth shines far beyond the record books. Like Coach Mac and Reagan, relationships between coaches and athletes can last a lifetime.

In 1962 at my grandpa’s Northern Illinois University retirement testimonial banquet, the keynote speaker, Ronald Reagan said, « We should wait until after the season, then look at the coach’s record in the hearts and minds and characters of the young men associated with him to see what their contribution has been in later life. The noblest work of man is to build character of other men. By this standard, no one is more deserving of retiring an undefeated champion, than Ralph McKinzie. »

Yet grandpa never really retired. True to character, Coach Mac returned to Eureka as assistant coach, where he donated his salary back to the college, until his final days.

In the real game of life, the only record that really matters has little to do with the final score. Small town coaches at small time schools make major differences in a noble way.

The story of Coach Mac and President Reagan is an endearing reminder to coaches at each level of every sport that even during a losing season, a coach’s influence goes beyond the game. Win or lose, ripple after ripple, great coaches make for a better world, one athlete at a time.

Jim and Lenore McKinzie celebrate Eureka’s 8-2 season and the commemoration of The Coach and The President plaque on McKinzie Football Field

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