It was a steamy June day outside. Inside, the temperature in the field house in Piscataway, NJ, was rising just as high on a half dozen basketball courts. The teen girl basketball players from Amateur Athletic Union teams along the East Coast were oblivious to the steely-eyed woman watching the box outs, crossover dribbles, off-hand lay-ups and defensive positioning. That woman watching intently was legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer.
Stringer, the head women’s basketball coach the past 14 seasons at Rutgers University, received basketball’s highest honor Friday night in Springfield, MA -- induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Stringer is part of an induction class with Michael Jordan and fellow NBA greats David Robinson and John Stockton and Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan that is being touted as the greatest in the hall’s 50-year history.
But on that late June day in 2008, Stringer was doing what she has done many, many times over a distinguished career, and that is watch – and nurture – young female ballers.
One of the teams competing at Stringer’s Rutgers weekend team shootout was the Maryland Hurricanes 15-under girls’ team out of Baltimore. AAU coaches bring their teams to tournaments like the Stringer shootout as part of a college exposure tour, intent on having girls experience different levels of competition from neighboring states while solidifying the credentials on their basketball resumes.
Stringer attracts some of the top Division I recruits in the country for her Scarlet Knights teams. The Hall of Famer is the only coach – men or women’s – to take three different programs to the NCAA Tournament Final Four in Cheyney State in 1982, Iowa in 1993 and Rutgers in 2000 and 2007. She has put up 825 career victories, third in Division I women's basketball history, and was the first African-American coach to reach 800 career wins in February 2008.
In women’s college basketball, mostly the tallest, hardest working and highly skilled players reach the free-ride status of a major Division I recruit. When a Candace Parker, formerly of Tennessee and now in the WNBA, or a Maya Moore with Connecticut, are 6-4 and 6-0, respectively -- and can handle the ball like a point guard -- you understand what makes an elite player. Despite what their wide-eyed parents might believe, most girl players on the AAU circuit simply are not at that level.
But that did not seem to matter to Coach Stringer. Throughout her tournament, you could see her watching, listening and praising the girls and teams that made the trek to Rutgers. While tournaments aren’t free, Stringer genuinely was interested to listen to the Hurricanes’ volunteer president’s 10-minute spiel about the organization, its players and its goals. Stringer understands full well the opportunities that can come to girls on the hardwood, if not D-1, then D-2 or D-3 or other women’s basketball associations.
In her induction speech, a humbled Stringer appropriately said: "As I walk into the Hall of Fame, we all walk into the Hall of Fame."
Stringer also knows there is giveback from her 39 years as a coach. One of her former great players, Lisa Long, is an AAU and high school coach in Baltimore, including coaching the Hurricanes team of girls born in 1998.
You hear about C. Vivian Stringer’s life and what she has overcome to endure as a coach: Born a coal miner's daughter in tiny Edenborn, PA … her only daughter being stricken with spinal meningitis in 1982 just before her team’s appearance in the first women’s Final Four … the sudden death of her husband, Bill, on Thanksgiving Day 1992 … fighting breast cancer … the media scrutiny of 2007 stemming from the disparaging remarks of radio-man Don Imus about her Rutgers team.
John Chaney, the former head coach at Temple University and a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2001 who served as Stringer’s presenter, summed up her influence as transforming "hundreds of young women into confident leaders and role models, which will always remain an integral piece of her Hall of Fame legacy."
For the Maryland Hurricanes players and other girls lucky enough to compete at Stringer’s shootout, that is the point.
Editorial Note: Marvin Greene serves as volunteer president of the Maryland Hurricanes and attended the Stringer shootout in 2008. His daughter, now a 17-year-old freshman recruit at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, was the point guard for the Hurricanes team at the tournament.
Photo: C. Vivian Stringer, http://scarletknights.com/basketball-women/coaches/stringer.html