FIRE UP FRIDAY – The NCAA women’s game to watch tonight right now it Stanford vs. Notre Dame. In the first round, Stanford opened against San Francisco, which was notable mostly because it meant Tara Vanderveer would be coaching against her former player, Jennifer Azzi, the best player and hardest worker in the history of Tara’s program.
Tara and her staff recruited me in 1989, months before they won their first title. Jennifer Azzi gave me a ride on her scooter, and then showed me what it meant to not just talk about winning a national title, but to act like you wanted it more than anything in your life.
On that visit, I watched Sonja Henning and Jennifer lead the hardest practice I’d ever seen. Almost every player fell into one or more of the following categories: exceptionally big, fast, strong, skilled. What was so shocking to me was the warm-up full-court taps drill where the ball couldn’t hit the ground, and every player on the team had to stay on pace for it to work. I’d traveled across the country to consider Stanford, and even though others had faith I would be able to hang, I wasn’t so sure of my job security given that the staff goes after the best recruits every year. One of those recruits was my good friend, Anita Kaplan, a 6’5” center, one year my junior. I was convinced that Stanford went after me to get Anita. My dad was so upset when I told him this. I was preoccupied with the thought of living 3,000 miles away from home, and what it would mean if I wanted to visit home or my family wanted to see me play. I attached to the place I felt more comfortable – on the ivy-decorated campus of Northwestern. Yet I’ll never forget my connection to Stanford, and how hard those women worked. I ended up playing against Azzi in various match-ups and try-outs over the years. When she played for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes post-college, the baseball players watched her from the stands and said they wanted a body like hers. Azzi worked like no other to earn her chiseled frame. And she didn’t work that hard to get a body that drew attention. Her will to be the best she could was the driving force in every practice, every game no matter if it was a scrimmage or her bringing the ball up in the gold medal game in the Olympics.
Tara Vanderveer found everything she wanted in Azzi, and it’s safe to say that Azzi found the leader and teacher she needed to reach her full potential. Tara is not only a masterful coach who will not stand for anything less than your best effort, she is also a classical pianist. My good friend, Shimmy Gray-Miller, said that when she was at Arizona and the team exited the hotel before the game, they all stopped in awe as they saw Tara sitting at the piano in the bar area. She took over the piano, the room, the attention of everyone watching, then she stood up and headed toward the team bus.
“By the look on our kids’ faces,” Shimmy said, “That’s when I knew: game over.”
I have other stories about Tara, but for now, I’ll jump over to Notre Dame. I will never forget how badly my dad wanted me to be recruited by the Fighting Irish because my cousin Pete went there. Yet my AAU coach and the scouts said that they thought I was too slow and not athletic enough. Later in the game, as more and more coaches called and visited, they decided to go after me. When they called the house, I was calm and collected for the first conversation. When they called back, I could not hold back. I said, “Why are you recruiting me so late?” The coach, a male, his name escapes me, gave me some excuse. I said that someone had told me that they thought I was too slow, not athletic and not good enough.
He said, “Well, that’s true, but we still think it may work.”
This was the same as saying, “You’re our back-up or the back-up to our back-up.”
His job was to get me to say okay to a home visit. I said, “I’m not sure if this is going to work. It’s better to visit with a program that really wants me.”
And that was that. I told my dad and he didn’t have much room to get too upset. Whether I ended up going to Stanford or not didn’t matter at the time as much as knowing that the best in the game would be sitting in my living room, eating my mother’s apple pie, and asking if I would play for her, and attend one of the best schools in the country.
Here’s a great story about Tara and Jennifer, and I’m sure it only scratches the surface when it comes to these two forces of the game. It speaks about Azzi’s extraordinary work ethic and passion. I do think either Jennifer Azzi and/or Kate Paye (Tara’s potential successor) will be the next Taras, or Tara, or as close as one can get.