Commentary

Stringer's resilience, love for game as notable as numbers

Updated: February 28, 2008, 10:43 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

For Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who hit the 800-victory milestone with the Scarlet Knights' 60-46 win over DePaul on Wednesday, the listing of the many hardships she has faced is a sad litany well known to women's hoops fans.

[+] EnlargeVivian Stringer
AP Photo/Mel EvansC. Vivian Stringer, who has coached at Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers, on Wednesday became the eighth Division I men's or women's basketball coach to win 800 games.

She's a remarkably resilient woman unbroken by more sadness than most of us ever encounter. No celebration of her coaching career can take place without us thinking about the tough times she has been through away from the basketball court: her daughter's life-altering illness, her husband's sudden death, her own fight against breast cancer.

And that's not even getting into the everyday struggles to gain respect that Stringer endured as a young African-American woman at a time when our country was still essentially "accepting" overt racism. Plus, she has had to deal with how such poisonous ideas and thoughts still rear their heads -- think back, unfortunately, to last April -- and hurt younger women who perhaps thought such evils had been killed and buried.

Yes, there is no separating Stringer from the almost larger-than-life drama her existence has been. But …

This is a happy celebration -- of teaching ability, of being able to relate to young women, of strategizing, of competing, of working hard and of longevity. And so rather than again reflect on the tragedies that have ripped Stringer's heart out, let's talk about how that heart has somehow kept healing and is still so much in love with this game after many, many years.

We'll freeze-frame on this rather mundane but hilarious moment during the Rutgers-Tennessee game two weeks ago. The Scarlet Knights were struggling mightily with their offense in the first half, and after one ragged possession that went nowhere, the television camera zoomed in on Stringer.

She let loose the word that virtually any of us would have said if standing in her shoes, that universal release valve for frustration, the word little Ralphie got into so much trouble for letting slip in "A Christmas Story."

It's an easy word to lip-read, and the combination of that and the look on Stringer's face was priceless. I was watching the game with one of my best friends, also a hoops junkie, and we both totally cracked up.

Then what happened? Stringer re-energized her team at halftime, and the Scarlet Knights turned the second half into the game we all wanted to watch.

Stringer is, at her very core, a coach. A person who motivates, visualizes, cajoles, inspires, infuriates, ignites, pushes and pulls. She always has seen the potential for so much more than just "basketball player" with every young woman who has gone through her programs at Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers.

The best coaches have vision that comes from their souls. And they have an unquenchable desire to help those in their charge achieve that which they have envisioned.

There's a magnificent line that always comes to my mind when I think of someone like Stringer, who knows pain at the most intimate, excruciating level and yet still feels such joy at the achievements of the kids who receive her tutelage.

The line is from one of my very favorite movies, "The Miracle Worker." Anne Bancroft as fiery teacher (coach) Annie Sullivan is explaining to Helen Keller's father that pity is not what will help his child. Annie Sullivan battled blindness herself, so she knows how much damage pity actually does.

Sullivan says Helen might be blind and deaf, but she still has an amazingly adept mind and she doesn't need people feeling sorry for her. She needs someone who will demand that she live up to her vast potential. Sullivan says she refuses to accept anything else from Helen.

"I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see! I EXPECT her to see!"

For decades now, Stringer has expected the very best from youngsters who, of course, have been blessed with great physical gifts. She treats them all like champions because she expects them to be champions.

Whether they actually hoist the ultimate trophy is not the point. She'll consider them to be champions if they are the kind of women who hold their heads high, respect their elders, cherish their education, conduct themselves with dignity and lend a hand to those who need it.

Next to all that, 800 wins is just … OK, well, it's pretty terrific, too. But it's a numerical measurement. When Stringer looks back on her career, it won't be the numbers that mean very much.

However, let's give her hearty congratulations just the same on No. 800.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.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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