You can tell by my accent I'm not from California. I was brought up in a very large Catholic, Italian family. I was taught by my mom that if I ever wanted anything, I should write it down on a piece of paper, put it under my Blessed Mother statue and pray real hard. Then I'd always get what I wanted . . . . That is the start of Joan Bonvicini's favorite joke, about how badly she wants to beat USC.
Bonvicini is a funny basketball coach. Her Cal State Long Beach players crack up over her. She laughs at them, too. And at herself. The humor that flows through these days of winning coats them with a special rapport.
"Not too many head coaches joke with their players, because they always feel they have to have that authority," said Penny Toler, the 49ers' flashy sophomore guard. "It's not like that with Joan. That's why when we step on the floor, we feel at ease."
There is much more to Bonvicini's success, of course, than her sense of humor.
Her knowledge of the game and her knack for recruiting talented players have been large factors in turning the 49ers into a national power.
Whatever the reasons, the 49er followers treat Bonvicini as if she were a goddess, not a hard-working, Catholic Italian coach from the East who has a voice no Californian could claim.
Fresh from another victory, Bonvicini walked into a gathering of boosters on a recent night to the chant: "Joan! Joan! Joan!"
These people revered Bonvicini, probably as much because she invites them to her home as the fact that she has the best winning percentage (.828) among the country's women's basketball coaches.
Every sentence she spoke was greeted with cheers.
"Cindy played an awesome game," she said of Cindy Brown, her All-American forward who had just scored 33 points as the 49ers beat Louisiana Tech, 99-95.
"It's a great team and we're going all the way," she concluded, as all eyes followed her from the podium.
Now in her eighth season, Bonvicini has a 199-41 record. This year, the 49ers, who have won 14 straight, are 14-1 and ranked fifth in the nation following Saturday's 114-70 win over Cal State Fresno.
That was almost as much of a laugher as her favorite joke.
. . . A couple of years ago it came time to play USC in the NCAA Regionals. So I wrote down on a piece of paper, 'Dear Blessed Mother, ask your son Jesus to let us beat USC and I won't yell at my team for a month.' Well, I knew it was a lie, so I threw the note away . . . . At the 49ers' team meal before the Louisiana Tech game, Bonvicini giggled with her girls, who called her Joan. Although she is 33, she was one of them. She wore a sweat shirt and sipped Coke through a straw.
"Even though she's a coach, Joan is more like your friend," Toler said. "She's older, but she's like a big kid. It makes it easier when you play for a coach that's not intense all the time.
"I might dribble the ball and it will go off my foot out of bounds. The next day in practice, she'll go, 'I'm Penny Toler,' and she'll be dribbling off her foot and everybody starts laughing."
Bonvicini left for a nap, and in a few hours arrived at the 49er gym, not as a girl but as a woman who believes that a good image for the university and women's basketball is important.
She had on makeup, earrings, a blue sweater, black pants and black high heels. Her appearance never escapes scrutiny by the hip girls she coaches.
"She'll be looking real nice," Toler said. "So we might say, 'What's that you got on?' She'll go, 'What, you don't like it?' She'll get real self-conscious and she'll be asking everybody, 'Do you like what I've got on?' I think sometimes if she had enough time, she'd go home and change."
Bonvicini enjoys her players.
Job Keeps Her 'Young at Heart'
"I just feel very, very comfortable," she said. "Coaching at the college level should keep you young at heart. It keeps you in tune to what's going on."
But there are times, said senior guard Margaret Mohr, when Bonvicini is not one of the girls.
"We know when she gets serious," Mohr said. "She can turn on the coaching thing real well."
Bonvicini's style is not to rant, rave or kick chairs, but when she says, "Ladies, listen," they listen.
"As I've got older, I've got tougher on them," Bonvicini said. "I probably get more upset in a game I know we should win. In a big game, I just want to be very positive. I feel the way I act is going to reflect (on) the way the girls act, so I don't want to get myself all carried on. If I'm going to yell at them, I'll yell at them in the locker room."
But players aren't always happy, no matter how congenial the coach.
"Sometimes when you're not playing, you think she doesn't appreciate you," Mohr said. "But she really cares about you as a person. You are not just a basketball player to her."
Bonvicini sees herself as a role model for her players, someone other than, say, Magic Johnson.