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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Focus: A look at California athletes making their mark at the Summer Games : Motivating Force

Tara VanDerveer Radiates Intensity in Her Quest to Lead U.S. Women's Basketball Team to Gold

July 30, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Tara comes to Georgia?

Perfect! It's the Olympiad of the Woman, isn't it? She has put together one of the tightest, most cohesive units ever to represent the United States in basketball, hasn't she?

Well, it's almost perfect. Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford coach who was named after the plantation in "Gone With the Wind," has, indeed, come to Atlanta to restore the preeminence of American women and, it is hoped, help them earn a place in the hearts of their countrymen that lasts longer than two weeks every four years. The team is, indeed, a media darling, watched by the biggest crowds ever to see women's basketball, the favorite to win the gold.

But that year of the woman stuff? Let's say it's more like a good year for women.

Take basketball. This is the first year the competition has had as many entrants as the men--12--and yet there is only one female head coach here, VanDerveer. How perfect is that?

"You know," VanDerveer says, "I don't get caught up with it. . . .

"Internationally, I've been in situations--like, we went over to Russia and we had basically our team and our entourage that traveled and they said, 'Where are the men?'

"I said, 'Would you say that to a men's team that didn't have a woman?' "

In this case, "I don't get caught up in it" means "It makes me mad, but I don't have time to get on a soapbox." It would take too long. How about that one pool of basketball referees, she notes, with men officiating women's games but no women working men's games? How about that foreign coach who told one of his players, in front of VanDerveer, that a man coaching women has an advantage?

Even in the land of the free and home of the brave, an estimated 50% of NCAA women's coaches are men. However, the women have been around long enough--VanDerveer has 17 years in the business--that in manner and style, they're indistinguishable from their male counterparts.

VanDerveer, for example, is obsessed and, though gracious, so intense, she seems to radiate her own force field. In sport, that counts as progress; women are now as strung-out on games as men.

Much has happened in VanDerveer's 43 years, since she fell in love with basketball as a tyke in Schenectady, N.Y., where the closest she could get to being on a team in junior high was to dress up as the bear mascot for boys' games.

Her parents were teachers. Of the six children, five would earn graduate degrees. It was the '60s. Girls didn't play sports.

"When I was about in the fourth or fifth grade, I was very frustrated because they had basketball for boys but not for girls," VanDerveer says. "Like, my dad would always say, 'Come in and do your math homework, basketball's not going to take you anywhere.'

"I was like, 'Dad, math's not going to take me anywhere.' "

In a revelation, she learned some colleges had women's teams. She played at the State University of New York at Albany, as a 5-foot-5 center. She transferred to Indiana as a sophomore in 1973 because it had a better program, even if the Hoosiers didn't give scholarships and played nine games a year.

She took Bob Knight's basketball class and attended his practices daily. When he went into one of his tirades, she slunk down in her seat before he started bawling out spectators.

She made the dean's list, graduated and got ready to do what one does with a degree in sociology, go to law school. She took a year off, never giving basketball a thought.

"I ran out of money," she says, "and came home for Christmas. In the middle of January, my dad's like 'What are you doing?'

"I said, 'Nothing. I don't have any money.' "

"He said, 'Well, you're going to do down and help coach your sister's high school team.' They had just lost, 99-11, the night before.

"I was like, 'No dad, please, anything but that.' "

She liked it. While at Ohio State, she became a graduate assistant and led the junior varsity to an undefeated season. Suddenly she knew what she wanted to do.

The road opened up before her: two years at the University of Idaho; five at Ohio State, where she won four conference titles; 10 at Stanford, where she took over a 9-19 team and within five years won the first of two NCAA titles.

In the '90s, she's 169-25 with the Cardinal, one reason she called the decision to take a year off to coach the national-to-become-Olympic team "agonizing." However, having watched the U.S. women in the semifinals at Barcelona and having coached the team that lost to Brazil in the semifinals at the 1994 World Championship, she could tell something was needed.

It turned out to be a yearlong, 52-game world tour that made this team what it is today, even if the players almost went batty, waiting to play a real game, with VanDerveer, typically relentless, driving them every frequent-flier mile.

"She's very blunt," Amy Tucker, Stanford's interim coach who played for her at Ohio State, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "In fact, we used to tease her for not having any tact."

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