Claire Smith | With Stringer, there’s a will, if not yet a way

Posted: April 04, 2007

CLEVELAND - Not one of her Final Four berths has been the same.

Not the eras, expectations, rewards or heartbreaks. The only common thread in the basketball career - and life - of Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer has been, quite simply, herself.

"I don't know anybody stronger," said John Chaney, a longtime friend and mentor and a Hall of Famer.

Though the former Temple coach was speaking yesterday from Philadelphia, you could sense the tears welling hours before Stringer and her Rutgers team took on mighty Tennessee in the NCAA women's Division I championship game.

"My tears are there," Chaney said. "It's all over my face, and my heart is coming out of my chest.

"My thoughts, they are simple. She'd better."

Better, as in win.

While the tri-state area swelled with pride over the possibility of Rutgers' first national championship of note since 1949, Chaney and the ranks of the Stringer brigade swelled with hope that Stringer might finally capture a similar first.

So it was that more than 25 of her former college players, and even the 59-year-old Stringer's Slippery Rock basketball coach, came to Quicken Loans Arena with hopes of willing her on.

This extended family signaled long ago that it would follow Stringer anywhere, and it has, not only through 777 victories and countless achievements at Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers, but through a litany of personal trials.

Stringer coached in her first Final Four, in 1982 with tiny Cheyney State, with a heavy heart because of the meningitis that had physically and mentally crippled her daughter that year. She lost her husband, Bill, to a heart attack the Thanksgiving before she took Iowa to the Final Four in '93.

"After all the trauma she's been through, for her to persevere, it's about her will," Chaney said. "You see it in this tournament. She's willed on this team, because they are playing way over their heads. But when your will overcomes your skill, that's how you become a winning team."

And a winner. Stringer, a 2001 inductee into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, has been that, growing in stature while helping grow the game.

Stringer and fellow Hall of Famer and friend Pat Summitt remember from where they came. Both Cheyney State and Tennessee, Stringer and Summitt, participated in the NCAA's first Final Four in '82.

Cheyney State wouldn't have gotten there, let alone reached the title game against Louisiana Tech, if not for bake sales, belt tightening, and the kindness of friends.

"She still owes me $70, because I dipped into my wallet, too," cackled Chaney, back then the coach of the Cheyney men's team.

Chaney did not attend last night's game. "I'd be a mess," he confessed. Still, in a sense, he was here.

"The '55' [defense] is hers, but that '11' is mine," Chaney said, referring to the stifling D that Rutgers used to shut down Louisiana State's towering all-American, Sylvia Fowles, in the Scarlet Knights' lopsided semifinal upset.

"I was in Atlanta" at the men's Final Four, he said. "We talked before and after the LSU game. I drew it up, and I had [former Temple star] Mark Macon fax it to her."

The "11" - in which defenders, sometimes two deep, collapse on the opposing threat from in front and behind - isn't new. "It's one of the many zones we've talked about hundreds of times going all the way back to Cheyney," Chaney said. "She just had to be reassured it would work."

Last night, two old friends were destined to find out whether it would work, again, against the even more formidable Tennessee talent, Candace Parker.

"All I know is that I'm going to have the Bible, the Koran, and every religious book I can get my hands on, a rabbit's foot in there, too," Chaney said with a laugh, "because she just better."


Contact staff writer Claire Smith

at 215-854-4577 or smithc@phillynews.com.

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