No title, but Gunter's legacy intact

Updated: September 7, 2005, 10:54 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Sue Gunter was born in 1939, the greatest year ever for movies. A year when they should have retired the best actress Oscar after Vivien Leigh's peerless Scarlett O'Hara. A year when Garbo laughed in "Ninotchka." Mr. Chips said goodbye and Mr. Smith went to Washington. Bette Davis defied her brain tumor to plant flowers in "Dark Victory." Olivier's Heathcliff told Merle Oberon, as they stood atop Peniston Crag above Wuthering Heights, "The moors and I will never change. Don't you, Cathy."

Sue Gunter
Darrell Walker/Icon SMIThe life of Sue Gunter, born in 1939, could have been a movie, one with a triumphant but thoroughly bittersweet tone.

And, of course, it was the year when Judy Garland said, "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!"

It's pretty funny, though … Gunter's birth date wasn't listed correctly in the LSU and SEC media guides. Somewhere along the line, she might have shaved a couple of years off, or somehow it was written down incorrectly, as the guides all say 1941.

However, 1939 was exactly the right year for Gunter, because her life could have been a movie, one with a triumphant but thoroughly bittersweet tone. It would start with a girl born near virtually the exact geographic middle of Mississippi at a time when gender roles and racial separation seemed inflexible.

She grew up in Walnut Grove in Leake County. To the southwest was Jackson, the state capital. To the northeast was Philadelphia. In the 1960s, protests and murder and marches would forever mark this region of Mississippi as the civil rights struggle came to full boil.

By then, Gunter had moved to attend college in Tennessee, and played for the most famous women's basketball school in that era, Nashville Business College. Women were playing hoops then, just like they always had through the 20th Century. But not many people other than those involved knew it.

Those who competed had a kind of invisible life, really. Many of the women who played basketball in Sue Gunter's era at times (and for some, always) lived in quiet desperation, even if they didn't realize it. They felt the staggering weight of expectation of what women were "supposed" to be then: as daughters and sisters, and for some, as wives and mothers. For others, it was knowing that they would not be wives or mothers, but never talking about the real reasons why.

I went to LSU as a girl. When I left there, I was a very responsible woman. All of that is due to [Sue Gunter]. I'm happy I had a chance to play for her. But I'm sad for all the young ones who won't be fortunate to have her around to show them the way.
LSU grad and WNBA star Marie Ferdinand

Nothing in mainstream society would have given a girl back then the idea that she could have a life that revolved around sports. It probably seemed as absurd to most people as the concept of living in outer space.

And yet, that's one of the most intriguing things about humanity. There always will be people who spend their lives cutting through the underbrush because so few tread where they want to go. They carve out their own paths and their sanctuaries, they find others like them and join forces. They don't fully realize how brave they are, how much energy they use fighting the current every day.

It's only after a long time, when they've hiked and swam and crawled and climbed and agonized through territory previously uncharted that they can look behind them and marvel at the fact that they never gave up, no matter how tough it got.

Imagine Gunter coaching at Middle Tennessee State in 1964, or Stephen F. Austin in 1968. During her time at SFA, she coached not just basketball, but softball, tennis and track, too. And she taught classes. It might well have seemed wonderful to her, and in the context of those times, it was.

The frustrations she and other coaches of women's sports often dealt with -- low pay, inferior facilities, logistical and financial struggles with staging competitions, crushing indifference from administration and the surrounding community -- were counterbalanced by the fact that every day, they got to teach what they loved. They got to watch kids develop as athletes and people. They got to be in gyms and smell the stale popcorn, the sweat, the hardwood. They never had to let go of sports.

Some of them worked themselves nearly to exhaustion, and Gunter was one of those people. She also smoked for many years, and didn't look after her own health. She was too busy looking after everyone else. Gunter cared for her mother, who was seriously ill with Alzheimer's disease, for many years. Gunter's friends knew it nearly destroyed Gunter emotionally and financially, yet she never wavered from her responsibilities.

Gunter had success at SFA and then LSU, yet somehow -- and this would be a theme in a movie about Gunter -- "ultimate" success always seemed to elude her. Something would go wrong.

During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when she was an assistant coach for the U.S. team, her father died and she had to miss a couple of games for the funeral. The team went on to win the silver medal. She was named head coach of the U.S. Olympic women's hoops team for the 1980 Moscow Games, but the U.S. boycotted them.

Gunter took the job at LSU in 1983. In 1991, she had one of her best teams, led by Pokey Chatman, now the school's head coach. But that year, a scheduling conflict during the NCAA Tournament forced the Tigers to play on the road, where they lost. The loss stuck with Gunter, because she knew her school could have stepped forward financially and found a solution to keep her team at home, where it deserved to be. But LSU didn't.

As time progressed, LSU had some rough years and Gunter was close to losing her job. But she asked for another chance, got it, and ended up building the team that would go to the Final Four the last two years.

But, see, that's where it's not at all fair, is it? Gunter never got to be on the sidelines at the Women's Final Four. Her damaged lungs were giving out on her. Gunter's life turned into a battle to get her next breath.

That battle's over now.

Wait a minute -- someone works her whole life toward a goal, finally gets so close to the pinnacle and then is betrayed by her failing body, hooked to an oxygen tank, waiting to die?

That's not the way it was supposed to be at all. It's a crappy, awful ending to the movie. I want my money back.

But … think again. At the WNBA All-Star Game a few weeks ago, former LSU star Marie Ferdinand was sitting at her locker, talking about Sue Gunter. Ferdinand is a charming, beautiful, happy, healthy, optimistic person. And she is making her living playing basketball. She knows who deserves much of the thanks.

"So many women, just like myself, she's had a big impact on," Ferdinand said of Gunter. "I went to LSU as a girl. When I left there, I was a very responsible woman. All of that is due to her.

"I'm happy I had a chance to play for her. But I'm sad for all the young ones who won't be fortunate to have her around to show them the way."

So, what do you know? This is a happy ending, after all. The heck with national championship trophies. They're just pieces of wood that can have a lot of meaning or none at all, depending on what else you learned or taught along the way to winning them.

Gunter did reach her goals, she did get to the pinnacle and she didn't miss anything important. She's going back home to Walnut Grove now, where mom and dad are. I think she's smiling, laughing, running and breathing very, very easily.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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