Programming note: The "Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards" -- featuring Bay Area stars Stephen Vogt, Stephen Curry, Hunter Pence, Derek Carr, Torrey Smith and Tara VanDerveer -- will air on Jan. 31 at 7:30pm on CSN Bay Area and at 11pm on CSN California.
In 1996, a few months after the USA women’s basketball team won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, I sat down for my first interviewing session with the coach of that extraordinary team, Tara VanDerveer. We were at the dining room table at her house in Palo Alto, not far from the Stanford campus where, by then, her teams had reached four Final Fours and won two national championships.
We were writing a book together.
Well, it was her book. She was the one with the story. I was the one with the tape recorder.
By the time the book was finished early in 1997, I had been VanDerveered. Or at least the civilian version. It’s phenomenon familiar to every girl and woman who ever succeeded under her coaching. She has a sneaky, almost Columbo-ish way of turning around your way of thinking. She gets you to believe you’re better than you are, and then somehow you are. It took me awhile to figure out how she does this.
I know. Kind of cornball and squishy for a hard-nosed coach known for her exhaustive preparation and demanding standards. She’s a brilliant tactician and strategist. No team plays smarter than a Tara VanDerveer team. But those attributes explain only why she wins, not why her players are able to summon the best in themselves. Or why they say they’re better human beings when they leave Tara’s teams than when they arrived.
It’s about joy.
From the time Tara began shooting hoops in the driveway as a little girl in Albany, New York, she loved the game. Few girls in her neighborhood played. To get the boys to let her join in, she saved her allowance and bought the best basketball she could find. If the boys wanted to use the basketball, they had to take her, too. She charted Boston Celtics games with her dad on the living room couch.
Even then, like a music prodigy hearing Mozart, she recognized in basketball the exquisite design beneath the surface.
"There should be balance and logic," she told me one day during an interviewing session, "a little bit of raw genius, some surprise and beauty, and a seamless energy infusing it from beginning to end."
There were no girls teams at her middle school or her first high school. To get on the court, Tara donned a bear’s head and costume as the team mascot. In high school, she tried out for cheerleading, a story that never fails to get a laugh from her Stanford players. The day of the tryouts, she forgot her gym suit, which was the kind with a dozen snaps down the front. She was new to the school and her one friend loaned her a suit several sizes too small. In front of the judges and other contestants, Tara went through her cheer and, in a final burst of energy and spirit, thrust her arms out wide, popping open all the snaps on the gym suit. (She didn’t make the squad.)
She transferred to a high school with basketball then after a year of college in Albany transferred to play at Indiana. Every afternoon, she parked herself high in the stands and watched Bobby Knight’s practices with a notebook in her lap. She wasn’t preparing herself to coach; it wasn’t a realistic goal in the early 1970s. Tara was taking notes because the game was endlessly fascinating.
When she graduated in 1975, women’s basketball was still not an event in the Olympics.
Twenty years later, she was hired to coach what would become the most successful women’s basketball team in history. She was asked to take a year off from her job at Stanford to win back the gold medal the U.S. had lost in 1992. To do that, she would have to meld 11 star players, each with her own egos and personality, into a selfless unit that would follow her program for an entire year. It was unprecedented in U.S. Olympic history. The stakes were high for Tara. It wasn’t just the gold medal on the line. The NBA was preparing to launch the WNBA. The success of the Tara’s Olympic team would go a long way in generating growing the fan base for women’s hoops.
Tara’s team won 60 straight games during that one tough, amazing year. The last victory came in the Georgia Dome, an 111-84 whipping of World Champion Brazil.
As we were finishing up the book, Tara showed me a letter she received from one of her players, Ruthie Bolton. It had arrived from Istanbul, where Bolton was playing in a pro league.
"...You’ll never now the impact you’ve made on my life," Bolton wrote. "You were the first coach to truly believe in me, and for that I owe you so much. As long as I live you will always remain a very special part of my life."
Tuesday night, Tara will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Coaching Corps at the Game Changers Gala. Jennifer Azzi, who played for Tara at Stanford and on the Olympic team, and is now a coach herself at University of San Francisco, will present Tara with the award. Jennifer has told me how profoundly Tara shaped her outlook on basketball and on life. There have been so many Jennifers and Ruthies and each season there are more. Tara is still like a mathematician at a white board, scribbling equations that take her closer and closer to solving the mystery of basketball, the elegant solution. She knows there isn’t one. That’s not what it’s about.
"What I’ve discovered over the years," Tara told me, "is that success is rooted not only in confidence and hard work but in joy. Passion produces its own energy."