Ivan’s Response to a “Dream Team”
By Ivan Cole
I started to submit a comment to Rebecca’s piece, but it was lengthy and I believe this may add some texture to her thoughts, as well as those of Bob Labriola, on the subject.
The University of Delaware’s women’s basketball team had just completed their last home game for the regular season of my daughter’s freshman year. And as we waited for the team to complete a postgame autograph session with fans, I sat in the mostly empty arena with Karen, one of Christine’s teammates who didn’t dress that day because of an injury.
Karen was a fifth year senior who held a school record for most consecutive field goals, but played little this particular season due, in part, to injuries, but also because she had a much reduced role as she was passed by other players. The last opportunities to play for an elite college athlete can be somewhat traumatic. Something that they have devoted a good portion of their physical, emotional and spiritual energy to, something that they are very good at doing, and that they love is coming to a sudden end, often when the player is at the peak of their powers.
I hadn’t thought all of that through before I asked her how she was feeling about things, otherwise I might have refrained from doing so.
Her response surprised me. “This has been the best year of basketball in my life.”
The reason why was the element of chemistry that is also characteristic of the Steelers. Most of the players on the Blue Hens were assembled when the team was ranked as one of the worst in Division I. That season they would win 20 games, and during my daughter’s career would climb into a top 50 and occasionally a top 25 ranking, win regular season championships in two different conferences and make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
A key to their success was how tight and cohesive they were as a group, something that is very difficult to engineer without a lot of buy in by everyone involved. Elite athletes are being asked to not behave like the all-stars that they actually are and subordinate their talents, egos and ambitions for a larger purpose. This is not without significant reward if they can pull it off, but to place their faith in the process requires qualities of character that, unfortunately, may not be all that common.
Some of the players on the Blue Hens had been the first athlete, male or female, at their high schools to earn an athletic scholarship. Almost all of them were stars or superstars. They were then being asked to submerge all of that to take on humbler roles.
Christine, for example, averaged 20 points a game in high school. At Delaware she would average 7.5. Her energies were dedicated to support; defense, shot blocking, rebounds, steals, assists, picks, anything that helped to facilitate the efforts of her teammates. They called her the glue. She was fortunate in that she was a four-year starter and when she finished would have played in more games than anyone in history of the program-afar better fate than the more limited roles of the reserves.
It meant that hers would be work done in relative anonymity. Her name was rarely mentioned in media accounts. All conference consideration was out of the question. However, teams with players who have this quality of self-sacrifice are, arguably, those that can best make a legitimate claim to being a team, possess a capacity for success that goes far beyond the sum of their parts.
In her senior year, Christine was a captain of a young team that was predicted to finish no higher than fifth in the Colonial Athletic Conference. The favorites were an Old Dominion squad that had been stopped in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament the previous season by Sue Bird’s University of Connecticut championship team. The Blue Hens won the regular season championship, defeating the Monarchs in an epic game on Valentine’s Day.
Before they met again in the conference tournament final, an Old Dominion assistant coach was asked to describe the strengths that Delaware brought to the matchup. Normally what follows is a listing of the capabilities of individual players, instead, she merely said, “They have eight players that work very well together”.
I believe it is precisely this quality that allowed the Steelers to continue to compete at a high level after one talented player after another went down. Impossible to measure or quantify in the manner in which we have become accustomed, and most likely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t experienced it in some aspect of their lives, indeed, Labriola gets it just right when he says that if they stay healthy, Pittsburgh is the most dangerous team in football. And they would be so even if their talent were just a fraction of what it is today. They are the living definition of synergy, and they and those who crave to be on the team see it.
After I spoke to Karen that day, the entire team went to dinner together (not required). The game was played on a Saturday, and because they won, the coaching staff gave them Sunday off, cancelling their scheduled practice. Instead of going their own ways, the team piled into cars and drove to Pennsylvania and spent the day together at a popular mall. A month ago, a decade and a half after winning a conference championship, about a dozen members of the team gathered during alumni weekend. The program has gone on to other successes, most notably a team led by WNBA superstar Elena Delle Donne that finished in the Top Ten and made it the Sweet Sixteen. But their attendance, nor that of other Delaware teams, comes close to matching that of Christine’s group.
Karen, by the way, now plays quarterback for a women’s professional football team.