Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer Joins Basketball Heaven

(Guru's Note: The WNBA playoff race post is just below this one. Also, the entire speech will not appear at this point in time, but the beat writers at the Newark Star Ledger Site and the New Brunswick Home News Site may have been in better position to pick up some of coach Stringer's soft-voice end of sentences in a few places.)

By Mel Greenberg

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - In just under 15 minutes of time Friday night Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer delivered her best speech ever, achieving the difficult challenge of covering a lot of ground from family to athletics to tragedy and success in accepting her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Stringer even overcame a major distruption to her mind set late Friday afternoon when a phone call informed her that John Chaney's flight had been cancelled.

Her longtime mentor from their days at Cheyney when he coached the men was supposed to escort Stringer up the steps to the podium in Symphony Hall, a new venue this year because of the magnitude of the class.

Former NBA greats Michael Jordan, the man headliner, John Stockton and David Robinson along with Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan were also inducted, though the Stringer was no less received by the crowd of 2,100 than the others in her class.

Chaney is already a member of the Hall of Fame, where the enshrinement ceremonies had been held, for his body of work in college at Cheyney and Temple.

"I was concerned that something had happened to him," Stringer said afterwards.

"Then in the speech, I had to change a few things around since he wasn't there, so I could still pay tribute to him but also get to other parts a little quicker."

Ever the coach, the native of the coal-mining town of Edenborn, Pennsylvania, in the Western part of the state, had substitutes on the scene ready to do the honors. Former UCLA star Ann Meyers, now general manager of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, and former Kansas scoring sensation Lynette Woodard, who are also inductees, became Stringer's escorts.

The longtime coach of Cheyney, Iowa, and now Rutgers was given an accolade by Washington Post sportswriter Michael Wilbon, who was broadcasting the event on NBA-TV.

Referring to the group at the outset, Wilbon called the class "one-stop shopping," in terms of the skills of each of the individuals and concluded his summary by saying, "All of them as a team would love to be coached by Vivian Stringer."

Before she stepped to podium from her seat alongside her two sons, daughter, and mother, Stringer was saluted in an introductory video.

Chaney saluted her, saying, “Vivian was one of the people at the forefront fighting for the rights for women in athletics.
There was no Title IX at that time. She would take off on various ventures to speak on behalf of women.

“For keeping her team on top year after year, Vivian Stringer is the best,” he said.

Hall of Fame Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, a longtime friend whose teams have played against Stringer's in such national settings as the 2007 NCAA title game, spoke of Stringer's ability to cope with personal setbacks.

In 1982 when Cheyney was about to appear with Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Maryland in the first-ever NCAA Women;s Final Four, Stringer's then-infant daughter Janine was stricken with spinal meningitis, which she survived but was handicapped for life.

Stringer shuttled back and forth to the hospital from the event but was able to get a win over Maryland to meet Louisiana Tech in the title game.

In 1992 just before the season got under way when she was coaching Iowa, her husband Bill died suddenly at age 47. Stringer was talked out of leaving the profession and that season concluded with Iowa's  first-ever Final Four appearance.

Early in her Rutgers era she won a battle with breast cancer.

“She’s obviously a woman overcome so much in her life," Summitt said. "And she’s been challenged in so many ways. But I never hear her say, `Why me?’ I hear her saying, I’ll get through this. And she does.

“She’s given so much for this game," Summitt noted. "You’re talking about someone that affected, touch lives and been a difference maker – clearly, Vivian Stringer is that person.”

Cappie Pondexter, a former Rutgers all-American now with the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, spoke of being inspired by Stringer's health battle.

"I remember when had breast cancer," Pondexter said."She never showed it on or off the court. And that’s something I was inspired that in any situation wherever I might be in trouble, I know that if Coach Stringer (persevere) got through it, I could get through it as well.”

Stringer began her remarks in a speech she did not read by saying, “I have to tell you this is one of those most defining moments. This is the most humbling experience of my life."

She caused a roar of laughter from the crowd early on when she talked about growing up in Edenborn.

“I had dreams, big dreams," Stringer said in a soft, but firm voice telling people that Edenborn "didn't even exist on the map. I remembered watching soap operas on TV and wondering who are those people dressed in suits and gowns at 12 o’clock in the afternoon.

“I don’t know anybody like that. You see, because my parents and all the people in my community wore coal-mining clothes and carried a bucket. That’s what I saw."

She singled out her entire family, especially getting poignant in looking at Janine, saying, "I've never given up on you because you've never given up on me."

Stringer informed the crowd of Chaney's last-minute absence, telling the audience, “Somehow I was thinking coach Chaney is playing a joke on me. The reason I say that is because he’s been my mentor and been my colleague for many years.

“He’s the person who fought for equality for women before Title IX, financial aid and facilities," she explained.

“He’s the one who taught me everything. There wasn’t a decision I ever made … without consulting him.

“And so tonight I am here. – if it wasn’t for coach Chaney, I wouldn’t be here.”

She noted the limited resources at Cheyney but saluted her Wolves players who were able to become part of the first Final Four.

Stringer praised her Iowa contingent in the room, "I thank you for the resilence you taught me during the time I lost my husband. It was you who rose against all odds and somehow we ended up playing in a Final Four."

And then she spoke of the 2007 Rutgers team that had a dramatic turnaround to get to the NCAA title and then a few days later have to cope with the national attention caused by disparaging remarks by radio talk show host Don Imus.

"Rutgers was the worst team I ever had in 2007, it was that team that played its worst game and ultimately played for a national championship," Stringer said. "It was this team that received the indignaties spewed upon it (Imus) and was able to handle it with such class and dignity."

The crowd then interrupted with a long ovation.

Following the speech, Stringer was one of the more accessible inductees at the reception back at the Naismith Hall.

At one point she was praising the Iowa contingent for their past support. Among the group was women's athletic director Jane Meyer, who is the now chair of the NCAA basketball tournament committee.

The Guru then mentioned to Meyer to remember those kind words months from now when the NCAA tournament bracket is announcement. Stringer has expressed her displeasure with her team's placement in recent years on Selection Night.

"Don't worry. We've already joked about that," Meyer said.

The weekend's festivities will conclude Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun Casino-Entertainment complex where each inductee will receive their ring.

Ironically, the event will be held less than 24 hours after the WNBA Connecticut Sun were eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since moving from Orlando to the Nutmeg State.

More to come later this weekend.