A foxhole full of friends

Updated: February 19, 2006, 11:50 AM ET

Editor's note: Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale will share a diary with ESPN.com throughout the season for the fifth consecutive year. Coale has a master's degree in education and was a high school English teacher from 1989-96.

Oct. 6, 2005

Sherri Coale
AP Photo/David J. PhillipFormer OU player Jamie Talbert, who is fighting cancer, has good friends in her foxhole, notes coach Sherri Coale.

She is famous for the "sloop," in our camp anyway. That's the term I coined for her atypical delivery of the basketball. She never really shot it, and she was always leaning one way or the other when it left her hand, so it sort of just seemed to slide from her care to the rim.

Unorthodox. That's the word that always comes to mind when I think of Jamie Talbert shooting the basketball. Actually, that's the word that comes to mind when I think about her play in general. But you could never argue with what she got done.

In 2002 she anchored our offense as a 6-foot post player whose vertical jump barely allowed light to shine under her shoes. She was the perfect foil for a backcourt high in talent and in personality. Jamie was no excuses vanilla, Ms. Matter of Fact. And she was a competitor of extraordinary degree.

I never really recruited her, I'm ashamed to this day to say. We were recruiting the point guard on her junior college team as well as a young foreign kid, but the last thing we needed was another undersized post. I didn't even know who Jamie was in 2000. But I wasn't stupid.

On my third trip to Seward County Community College I told her coach, Jim Littell, that he had one heck of a team but No. 45 won his games for him. He said, "I know that. Why don't you sign her?"

I thought that was a splendid idea. So I did. And that was that. Two years later, she helped carry the tattered American Flag from the 9/11 site onto the playing surface at San Antonio's Alamodome. That night she guarded the ever rotating huge and talented post cadre for arguably the best women's basketball team ever assembled. No one had a higher order in that championship game than Tal. Though our team came up a bit short in the end, she swung and swung and swung, leaving the Alamodome valiantly -- just like she entered it. Consistency has always been her ace.

***** ***** *****

In the spring of 2002 I watched Jamie graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in microbiology. In the summer of 2004, I watched her walk down the aisle to trade in her maiden name for one that I still fail to use when referring to her (sorry, Patrick). And in the fall of 2005, I watched her sit in a pleather recliner while chemo was fed into her veins. She's a 25-year-old physical therapy student who in her spare time wrestles cancer. Guarding Tamika, Swin, and Asjha was nothing compared to this.

Sherri Coale
Jeffrey Haderthauer/Icon SMISherri Coale and the Sooners, including Jamie Talbert, reached the 2002 NCAA title game.

I sense an irritation from Tal, not necessarily any fear, though she is a medical student. She knows more than enough to be afraid. Her hair is gone, but the bandana she wears looks so natural I kept forgetting her hair was in a box somewhere. We talked about how much she missed the games and how much she didn't miss the conditioning. She said it's just the stuff you do together -- all the "times" -- that's what you really crave once basketball is gone. As she sat there covered in a slight blanket fighting that satanic disease, confidence seemed to ooze from her pores. And "grace" was the word that wouldn't leave my mind.

Tal would kill me if I wrote a story about her. That has so never been her way. So I want to write about what she's a part of. She always got that in the truest sense.

About a month ago, Jamie's teammates came by the office to ask if we were interested in pitching in. They were getting her a wig. A real one. One she could swim and shower in, one she could style and put up in a ponytail. One that she could get sweaty and messed up -- an athlete's crown as much like the one God gave her 20 something years ago as possible. And au naturale items like that don't come cheap. Her teammates from all over were sending money.

I could sense from the three who came calling that this was a necessary mission for them. They are fighters -- all of them. They needed to do it. So in the crevices of law school and medical school and within the pursuit of master's degrees and the teaching of America's youth, the group that put Oklahoma women's basketball on the national map got busy. And they got our girl a wig.

Their knowledge of it all was nothing short of amazing. They knew the problem with synthetic ones -- it seems to have a lot to do with the part -- and they knew the benefits of finding ones sewed by hand, using real hair -- it seemed to have a lot to do with the attention to detail. This group was always so good at that piece of the game.

Steph Simon, forever the team organizer, tells me that every one of our current players laid down their per diem for Jamie's cause. Several have never met her. Most only know her as a loyal alumnus who sits courtside for home games or as the subject of my sermonettes about effort and concentration and wringing your potential dry. Money came in checks, large and small, and prayers waft from everywhere still, I am certain. Family takes care of family. That's just the way it is.

It's almost as if the infantry has lined up to look this demon in the eye. When you picked on Jamie Talbert, you picked on all of us. And we do not go quietly, I want that disease to know. Tal always had Stacey Dales' back when Dales got too fired up and over ran a passing lane. And she always had the offside board when Roz's (Rosalind Ross) 3-pointer bounced a little long. You could count on her going to the dots every time (LaNeishea) Caufield drove baseline, and if Tal got fouled, the free throw was going in. Some things you just learn to know. Desiree (Taylor), and Caton (Hill), and Jen (Cunningham) and Kate (Simon), and Steph and Stace … their arms are locked -- weaved in and out with all of us who are bound and determined to protect the sloop.

One day you're jogging with your dog and the next day forever is tomorrow and nothing looks the same. Except for the people in your foxhole … they never go away.

For more on coach Coale and the Sooners, visit Oklahoma's official athletic site.

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