When trying to decide what to write for Throwback Thursday, I came across the most prominent article that I had published at the end of my senior year at Northwestern. This first-person narrative didn’t just make it into the Chicago Tribune. It made the entire back page of the sports section on Sunday, June 25, 1995.
The story of “Daring to Make Dream a Reality” is included at the end of this blog. The story behind the story is something I will never forget. It was a true litmus test of whether or not I could be a journalist. I’m not sure I passed.
The lead of the story is both what got me the full-page spread and into a tub of hot water all at the same time. The first quote was from a male basketball player who asked me what I was doing now that I’d graduated. I told him I wanted to play ball overseas. He laughed at me and said, “Sounds funny coming from a woman.”
After realizing I was going to write about the issue and how I was playing on a semi-pro team for $50 a week I went to men’s basketball quote Ricky Birdsong. I told Rick that I wanted to quote one of his players.
“Do I use the name of the player?” I asked Ricky.
Ricky nodded his head. “Yes. He’s an adult. He is accountable for his words and actions.”
“Throw him under the bus?”
Ricky nodded again.
I chose not to use the name of the 19 year-old. I think that was the right call as did my editors, probably because (a) the quote wasn’t that offensive, and (b) they knew his name was not the one that mattered the most in the story.
What got me into trouble was my second quote in the lead. Rick Taylor, our new athletic director, saw me after one of my torturous workouts in my journey to be a pro player. I knew that if I landed a job overseas, a guard in my position who was not a super athletic Kodak All-American or a scoring machine, would earn anywhere between $1,000-$3,000 a month.
To this day, I remember standing in the parking lot with all the football players working out in the weight room behind us. I remember Rick Taylor, our athletic director, pulling his cigar out of his mouth, and cutting me off.
“Why don’t you just hang it up?” he said. “Give it up and get on with your life.”
He told me people don’t want it. The money isn’t in it.
And I wrote his exact words in my submission to the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune said that they would have to call Rick and read him the quote to verify that he said it and to give him an opportunity to make a statement.
Within one day, I received a message on my answering machine from Rick Taylor. His voice was trembling as he said that he needed to see me in his office immediately.
As I pulled my Honda Civic into a parking spot right in front of his office, I remembered all the times Rick was supportive of me during a difficult fifth year when I was dealing with the first mediocre season of my career. He wrote me a note that included the speech, “The Man in the Arena.” He encouraged me to fight the good fight. And now I was going into his office to stand up to someone who was telling me to give up on that fight.
When I told his secretary my name, a look of horror came across her face.
When I walked into his office, Rick’s face was the reddest I’d ever seen it.
Rick said he was trying to encourage me to be a coach because that’s where my talent lies—that’s where I can get paid a decent salary. I told him I didn’t want to coach. I still wanted to play.
He slammed his fist, his voice shook, his eyes teared.
He told me to not run the story.
I looked above him and saw my photo on the wall.
I burst into tears. My chin dipped. There was a long pause.
“It’s running,” I said.
I stood up and ran out of the office. I went immediately to my academic advisor, Margaret Akerstrom. I cried tears of fear and doubt.
Could I actually do anything I wanted to do for a living? Play basketball? Be a good, tough journalist?
Should I have just kept my mouth shut and been grateful that I had been accepted into the boys’ club?
Maybe to an old-school football guy, his connection and support of me was a big stride in accepting women who loved sports and played with a passion that he was used to seeing only in men. The only comparable situation that comes to mind is when you’re around a white person who is openly supportive of one black person or a small group, and then when those select individuals are not around, their generalizations and stereotypes of black people as a whole become evident. Yet they hang on to the few as their “proof.”
The only regret I do have is that the Chicago Tribune made the call to him about the quote. The right thing to do was the muster the balls to tell him myself what I was doing. Telling someone they are on the record after the fact or when you don’t have your notebook out is not good form.
Rick didn’t let me forget it. Whenever he saw me on campus, he intentionally ignored me, even when I tried to make eye contact. Other people in the group would say hi, but not Rick. He had to introduce me at a women’s sports awards ceremony the following year. After introducing me, he didn’t look at me or shake my hand. He said my name and walked in the opposite direction as I took the podium.
I don’t know what was worse – my not telling him that I was upset and going to write about an athletic director telling me to give up my career – or for a public figure or any person to tell anyone else to give it up and get on with their lives.
I’d played a similar card in high school when I was the co-editor of the high school paper. Coach Bongo, the long-time football coach, let his team walk right through the back of our volleyball action at the end of a practice – and he was part of the parade. I wrote a hypothetical story that said on Saturday the girls’ basketball team would be walking right across the field in the middle of a football game and we don’t expect anyone to be inconvenienced by this or to feel disrespected at all.
The difference here is that every time I saw Coach Bongo after that story, he went out of his way to be nice to me. He was genuinely sorry. He treated the girls with more respect. He changed his view on how his players should have acted. He made sure they did not repeat what they had done. Coach Bongo and I never talked about the story. The truth set us both free of guilt. We did what we had to do and moved on.
But maybe Rick had a point. Maybe in my article I should have included the coaching salary or writing salary I was giving up to pursue my hoops dream. All I know is that when people come to me – former athletes or actors, male or female – and we chat about where they are now, what they want to be, and how they’re going to get there, I always say to them with great empathy, “I know how important this is to you. I do hope you get what you want, and if you don’t, you get it out of your system because you can only play for so long. You also need to know the risks associated with pursuing this dream – financial, personal, social, emotional. So go for it and give it your best effort, but make sure you have a Plan B in the works.”
If Rick had told me those words in that parking lot, I never would have landed a back-page story in the Tribune and he wouldn’t have lost one of his favorite student-athletes.
Here’s a link to the full piece (a long one) on my “Daring to Make Dream Realty” blog at momotion.com. As for the sentimental ending, I’d just like to add a footnote here that Mo’ Motion serves about 300 girls annually and I have three athletic nieces.