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No Fear Of Failure

Boyle not only survived life-threatening situation, she has thrived and led Cal to unprecedented success

February 22, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Five and a half years ago, as she lay in a North Carolina hospital bed after the most harrowing experience of her life, Joanne Boyle dared not dream of a coaching future that would include leading the California women's basketball team to national prominence this season.

She thought not of the marathon she'd been training to run.

Her concerns were far more immediate and fundamental.

Was she going to die?

If she survived, would she ever again be fully functional?

She couldn't walk.

She couldn't talk.

She was suffering from vertigo, couldn't keep food down.

She was 38 years old.

On the plus side, she had not been wounded by an attacker, as she first had feared when she felt the searing pain in her head, "like a knife went through it." She had not electrocuted herself with a hair dryer, a thought that also had crossed her mind.

The source of her discomfort was internal, but no less infernal: a hemorrhage in her cerebellum, a part of the brain that controls coordination and motor skills. It was the result of a neurological arteriovenous malformation, a genetic defect of the circulatory system that affects about 300,000 Americans, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In Boyle's case, the AVM had produced an eruption of blood vessels, causing stroke-like symptoms.

She would need brain surgery, her doctors told her.

Actually, she was lucky, she would realize later.

"A lot of things had to line up right," said Boyle, whose Golden Bears play USC tonight at Berkeley. "If this would have happened so many other places, I wouldn't be here."

On Nov. 28, 2001, the day her head began to throb, Boyle was at Duke, where she had played in the 1980s and where she returned in the '90s as an assistant to Coach Gail Goestenkors, helping to build the Blue Devils into a national power.

She wasn't on the road recruiting, as was frequently the case in those days, when her nerve endings started flickering as if afire. She wasn't driving.

She was five minutes from Duke University Medical Center.

"The first two days, they didn't even know if I was going to make it just because I had so much blood in my head," Boyle said. "After the first 48 hours, it was more a concern of, 'Am I going to be a vegetable?' "

Through 10 days in the hospital, she made little progress. But when tests finally revealed the source of her problem, a delicate, hours-long procedure followed in which the abnormal cluster of blood vessels was removed.

With the aid of a walker, Boyle left the hospital with a metal plate in her head and a scar snaking up from the base of her neck to the left side of her scalp.

Though still experiencing "tremors" in her left arm, a condition that persists to this day, she was walking and talking normally within months, the result of countless hours of rehabilitation. By the middle of March 2002, with Duke on its way to the Final Four for the second time in her nine seasons working with Goestenkors, Boyle was back traveling with the team.

But something was amiss.

Her near-death experience had stirred a restlessness in her. Before, she had mostly feigned interest when asked about head coaching opportunities. She was content to be an assistant at her alma mater, she told herself.

Cheating death, she said, made her realize otherwise.

Less than four months removed from the hospital, Boyle shook loose from her cocoon and accepted an offer to lead the program at Richmond.

"At some point, some things really settled into my head," she said, no pun intended. "I didn't want to be complacent anymore. I didn't want to live fearing failure. I didn't want to live not challenging myself every day. The initial kind of result of that was me saying, 'You know what? I'm not staying at Duke.'

"People thought I was crazy because I was only out of the hospital a couple months and was still doing serious rehab, but it was what I needed at the time. I thought, 'If I can live through this, what is going to be so hard about being a head coach? Who cares if you fail?' "

Because she cannot dribble a ball with her left hand, or hold anything in her left hand for very long, Boyle no longer is able to play basketball.

"If I were to play," she said, "I'd look like a fifth-grader."

As a coach, however, Boyle seemed unhindered.

At Richmond, she guided the Spiders to three consecutive 20-win seasons, an overall record of 67-29 and their first NCAA tournament bid in 14 years.

While there, she also met her goal of running a marathon.

Hired away in April 2005 by Cal, where she inherited one of the nation's top-rated recruiting classes but a program mired in mediocrity, Boyle led the freshmen-dominant Bears to an 18-12 record and the NCAA tournament last season. It was the Bears' first winning season and first NCAA tournament bid in 13 years. They're 20-7 this season and virtually assured of a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

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