The magic of team sports

2/19/2006 - Oklahoma Sooners

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.

Nov. 21, 2005

The pregame announcer said, "… A freshman from Piedmont, Calif., No. 5…" and Courtney Paris came bouncing into the spotlight -- only to realize once she was there that her number was 3. She hadn't been introduced. Ashley had. And by the time it dawned on her, all of her teammates were in stitches and she had debuted perfectly -- young and green and giggly and human.

Then, in the exhibition game, she went 10-for-12 from the field, pulled down 18 (yes, 18) rebounds and played 19 minutes. In our first real game, she scored 24 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in only 20 minutes. In game two, she had a double-double with 6 minutes to go in the first half and afterward told me her 26 minutes would probably yield her unable to practice the next day -- fatigue, you know. To know her is to love her. So much for the short-lived young and green debut!

We are two weeks into the season and more has already been written about the Paris twins than has been written about Erin Higgins in three years. Leah Rush returns as our leading scorer from a year ago, a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection and a preseason All-American candidate -- and the local news has yet to show a clip of her early season prowess. Dionnah Jackson's shoes are being filled by two junior point guards, Kendra Moore and Britney Brown, who are combining for her stat line and then some, but nobody is calling the sports hotline to talk about them.

Ironically, if I had to give an MVP award right now, I'd give it to Beky Preston. No one has been more instrumental in our very early success than her. The guys in our gym every day know why we're playing well. Their vantage point is different; their vision supersedes that of the normal eye.

The picture painted from the outside is quite different from the reality of the inside. Make no mistake about it, Court and Ash are difference-makers. They are fabulously talented athletes, they are skilled basketball players and they are competitors of extraordinary degree. They are also freshmen. And they will be all year. They don't always want to block out, ¾-front the post, or vise the ball. They don't talk very well in practice yet and intensity is a switch they still flip as the mood strikes them. That doesn't make them bad; that makes them freshmen. And that is very, very normal. They, however, are not (and I mean that in the kindest possible sense). If they were, this would probably never work.

Ours is a match made in heaven, you might say -- seasoned intelligent guards surrounding talented, strong post players. A lethal combination, hopefully. But the marriage goes much deeper than that. It has to if it is to be right. The old guys have to welcome the new ones. The new ones have to respect the veterans. The back-ups have to guard the headliners and the headliners have to encourage those who make them better. And all of them have to be more concerned about the name on the front of the jerseys than they are about the name on the back -- no matter what the newspapers say. That's a daily decision good kids make, though it is at once an alarmingly simple concept and an amazingly complex predicament.

That's where general "like-ability" comes into play, I think. Diana Taurasi had it. I coached her in USA basketball. Think what you wish about her from a distance. I've heard it all: she's cocky, she's full of herself, she's brash, she's cruel. Maybe. More so I'd say she's just happy -- almost all the time. And happy people are addictive. She's funny and tough and completely unafraid to risk or be embarrassed. She is tough. She is brave. She is alive … she bubbles (without being perky, if that is even possible) … she makes you want to know her. For those who lack confidence, being in her presence makes them feel a little more capable, And for those who don't, she makes you want to be a better version of yourself so that you can kick her tail. It's a strange dichotomy. But you don't spend any time around her and walk away feeling neutral. Ever. And you want her on your team, no matter what.

I get a sense of that with our twins. Our older guys laugh with them and at them. They push and pull -- and sometimes tug -- to get them where they know they want to be. They teach and direct and grow exasperated at times, I am certain. But they are daily thankful Courtney and Ashley are on their team. Their presence greatly increases our margin of error on the floor, obviously, but it's more than that. They provide a dimension; they emit an edge. And they are an absolute hoot to be around -- both of them. They carve out a place that stays empty when they aren't there.

I took my daughter with me to the Czech Republic when I helped coach Taurasi and Team USA in 2001. Chandy was five and really liked to hang on to my leg in a crowd. But in Burno, she rode in the bus with Dee. She played cards in the lobby with Dee. I have pictures of her in front of the White House in D.C. before we left -- her arm around Dee. Chandler and Courtney fight. Chan sits in Ashley's lap. And my now 9 year old said to me in the mall a few weeks ago, "How come Courtney and Ashley just got here but it seems like they've been here the longest?" Leave it to a kid to put things in a nutshell.

Some people draw you in, just naturally make you feel as if you've known them for forever. And for those kinds of people, their superstar status never follows them inside. They are real and that takes precedence over any shroud applied by outsiders. Their cape of headlines is shed at the door.

If we were an "in your face" man-to-man defense, Court and Ash would be the ball pressure -- the first thing you see, the thing you have to get through to have a chance at anything else. The rest of my guys? They're the help side -- the on-the-line-up the line, protect the basket, rotating and recovering presence that makes the ball pressure work. "Ballside makes us tough; helpside makes us successful" is the defensive mantra we've all taught for years. One without the other will get you a stop now and then, but it won't win you a game. And it certainly won't win you a championship.

That's the magic of team sports. It's not how good your pieces are, it's how well they fit together. So what happens when your pieces appear to be pretty good and they also lock into place ? I'm not certain, but I sure am looking forward to finding out.

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