Commentary

Mulkey's Bears get best of alma mater

Past, present and future meet as Barmore, Mulkey and Weatherspoon cross paths again

Originally Published: December 5, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

WACO, Texas -- Teresa Weatherspoon is a big part of this game's history. She'd like to be a big part of its future. And as much as Saturday's reunion against Kim Mulkey and Leon Barmore was about the past, it might also have been about what's ahead.

[+] EnlargeKIm Mulkey and Teresa Weatherspoon
AP Photo/Duane A. LavertyFormer Louisiana Tech point guards Kim Mulkey, left, and Teresa Weatherspoon clashed Saturday in Waco.

Sometimes we aren't as far removed from history as we think.

Passing time over Thanksgiving while waiting for turkey and stuffing to settle enough to make room for pies of various composition, a family tradition I imagine is anything but unique to our gathering, my mom recalled a particular bit of family lore. Living in a dugout on the Oklahoma plains in 1886, my great, great (give or take a generation or two; I wasn't taking notes) grandmother watched Apache leader Geronimo and his followers ride by, followed not so very long thereafter by the U.S. Calvary that would eventually force his surrender in Arizona in September of that year.

More than the precise details, what fascinated me was the concept that someone barely more than one human lifetime (at least as measured by Willard Scott's birthday wishes) removed from me could have looked out a door on an otherwise unremarkable day and seen an image like that unfold in front of her.

It's the same sense that crept over me, albeit the product of a significantly shorter timeline, standing in a corner of the playing floor at the Ferrell Center long after Baylor beat Louisiana Tech 77-67 on Saturday evening. There sat Brittney Griner, the rising star already burdened with the label of the future of the sport, signing autographs for legions of kids, some of whom have taken every breath in the 21st century. And there, a few feet behind Griner, stood Mulkey and Weatherspoon, taking picture after picture with fans and friends of a distinctly older ilk, while Leon Barmore, the man who coached both of them two decades ago at Louisiana Tech, loitered nearby.

History isn't supposed to be something you look up and see passing in front of you. But in one space, 50 years of women's basketball -- past, present and future -- mingled together in real time.

"The talent has changed, more so than anything," Weatherspoon said of what has unfolded in a basketball lifetime that has already taken her from playing at Louisiana Tech to coaching against Griner. "It's a faster-paced game. It's not post people with their back to the basket anymore; they can step out and shoot midrange shots or 3-point shots and being able to put it on the floor like a guard would to get to the basket. It's more of the talent that has changed to make the game so much better.

"The game is going to remain the same; the talent makes the game look a little bit different. Because the game must be played hard, the ball must go in the basket, you must defend, you must rebound, you must do all those different things."

For the first 20 minutes, it seemed this particular contest had passed Weatherspoon's team by. But the Lady Techsters made a run, cutting a 24-point deficit to 19 by halftime and to 10 points by the final buzzer. Staring up at the 6-foot-8 Griner on both ends, 6-2 Shanavia Dowdell went for 17 points and nine rebounds (Griner finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and six blocks). Like their coach, who shed her jacket by the first timeout and earned a technical before the end of the first half, the team fought.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Duane A. LavertyFacing man-to-man defense for the first time this sesaon, Brittney Griner tallied 22 points, eight boards and six blocks.

"Give Teresa Weatherspoon credit; she's got guts," Mulkey said. "And that's why she is the head coach there and I hope that that administration will give her everything she needs and deserves to bring that program back. Because as you saw today, she knows what she's doing. And she played man-to-man when nobody would play man-to-man against us. And I loved every minute of it, and I respect the heck out of her for that."

Mulkey's voice rose as she emphasized the part about Weatherspoon getting the institutional support needed to make Louisiana Tech relevant again on the national stage. With more and more programs operating with bigger budgets competing for the top talent, the latter might be in an impossible position if people expect her to bring back the glory days of Final Fours and annual championship contention.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who recruited Weatherspoon as Barmore's assistant at Louisiana Tech, offered a more reasonable set of expectations for the world as it is.

"I think if I was her, I would try to have the aspirations to become the next Middle Tennessee or become the next Old Dominion, which has stayed at the forefront all through the years by playing a tremendous nonconference schedule and then just wearing out people in conference," Blair said. "If I'm her, I try to live in reality right now because she won't be able to get the Candace Parkers of the world to come in and even look at her. But within the state of Louisiana and Texas and Mississippi and Arkansas, there's a lot of very good players that you can coach up and become very, very good players."

But for now, Weatherspoon is working for the present, trying to hold the players she inherited in ascending from associate coach to head coach last February accountable. With games looming at Western Kentucky and at home against Mississippi State, she'll have every opportunity to take stock of where the Lady Techsters stand. Listen to her for even a couple of minutes and it's difficult to envision anyone in her company unwilling to follow wherever she leads.

And so even as the scene after Saturday's game offered a memorable snapshot of history's intertwined strands, one participant was moving on with her future.

"It's just a really emotional time for me, with this game, because of the two people I went to battle with [as a player at Louisiana Tech] I happened to be battling against," Weatherspoon said. "But it was definitely a tremendous measuring stick for us to know where we are and what we need to do to get to where we want to be."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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