Class, caring ways define Sharp legacy
Alicia Thompson wasn't looking where she was going. Neither was my son, who was just around 3 years old at the time.
While Thompson and her Texas Tech teammates were playing knockout at the end of a shootaround back in 1998, my tag-along son, T.J., who was always welcomed by Lady Raiders coach Marsha Sharp, was playing at the other end of the court while mommy finished up some interviews.
Then all of a sudden, my junior hoopster-in-the-making ran smack into Thompson, a 180-pound, 6-foot-1 All-American junior.
My toddler tumbled and -- as we would learn later -- suffered a minor concussion. Sharp beat us all to his side, scooped up T.J. even as he vomited all over her red, black and white sweat suit. She cradled him in her arms, talked to him softly and treated T.J. like he was her baby.
Eight years later, that moment still ranks as my favorite memory of Sharp. And while I watched just as fondly as everyone else when Sharp and Sheryl Swoopes transcended the game in 1993, my personal recollection is as good an indicator of Sharp's legacy: In 24 years, she has treated her players with nothing but respect and love, and over the course of those two-plus decades, that relationship with her players helped build Texas Tech into one of the most revered program's in women's basketball.
From the time Sharp was a college basketball player at Wayland Baptist, she has always been one of the classiest women associated with the game. That was never more evident than just this past year, when Sharp opened her locker room and facilities -- and home, in some cases -- to the Tulane women, who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Just like with my son, she treated coach Lisa Stockton and the Green Wave as if they wore red, black and white.
With an NCAA title, four berths in the Elite Eight, 11 trips to the Sweet 16 and eight conference championships on her résumé, Sharp no doubt knows her X's and O's. But her demeanor has always been her biggest strength as a coach. She remains calm in even the most dire situations. She delivers her message with force, but never in a demeaning way that would beat down her players.
Sharp has influenced hundreds of young women. And regardless whether people realize it, Sharp's persona played a huge part in Swoopes' success during the Lady Raiders' 1993 championship run. The two believed in each other every step of the way and will forever be linked.
It seems, too, that Tech fans have forever been flocking to watch Sharp's teams. The loyalty in Lubbock has ranked as high as third nationally in the most recent attendance figures. In 2003-04, for example, Tech ranked third, with an average of 12,577 fans, but actually drew more fans -- 213,802 to its 17 home games -- than anyone else in the country.
So how will Sharp -- who still asks how T.J.'s doing whenever we talk -- spend her time? Tech officials were careful Friday to say she was "resigning," not "retiring.
Some coaches get a street or even a court named after them when they leave a program after a successful tenure. But right now, they're working on a highway in Sharp's name that will run right through Lubbock.
Like Tech's program more than 24 years ago, the project is just beginning. But when it's finished, the foundation will last for years and pave the way for future generations.Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
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