Sports

Tara VanDerveer on her decades-long fight for basketball and equality

While the sports world fixated on conference championship football games back in December, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer quietly passed the late Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in Division I women’s basketball history. Maybe VanDerveer isn’t appreciated as much because she doesn’t have Geno Auriemma’s charm or Kim Mulkey’s wardrobe. But VanDerveer has 1,121 career coaching victories and has won more than 81% of her games. Her team is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament despite going half of the season without a home game because of Santa Clara County COVID-19 restrictions. On March 20, in light of the discrepancies between the men’s and women’s weight rooms at their respective tournament sites, VanDerveer issued a statement criticizing the NCAA for “blatant sexism.” She wrote, “I feel betrayed by the NCAA.” VanDerveer, 67, knows what it was like to grow up in a world without Title IX. Days before the start of the 2021 NCAA tournament, she talked with ESPN about history and how today’s women inspire her.

I’m the oldest of five children, and I grew up in a neighborhood in Schenectady, New York, that was extremely active. My parents’ idea of a great Friday night was going to the YMCA, and we could jump on a trampoline and go swimming. I did every sport you could imagine. I believe it was the fourth grade, in P.E. class, that we did the three-player weave, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever and I was hooked on that one drill. We still do it with our team today. I just got crazy about basketball. I played all the time in the neighborhood. When the boys didn’t want me to play, I brought the best basketball so then they’d have to let me play if they wanted to use my ball.

I read every basketball book in the library. In the ninth grade, the librarian called my parents and said, “I’m really worried. Tara has read every book about basketball.” I just loved watching it. It wasn’t on as much as it is now. I probably would’ve flunked out of junior high if I grew up now.

My parents moved to Niagara Falls, and I listened to Niagara basketball radio where Calvin Murphy was a great player. I would go watch games whenever I could. In my [junior high] school, they didn’t have basketball for girls, so I was the mascot so I could go to the games. But I got fired because I was watching the game instead of leading cheers.

When I was 15, my parents got me a basketball hoop in my driveway. I’d never had one in my own driveway, and I told them I was too old for basketball. There was no organized basketball for the girls, no JV teams, no varsity teams. We had, like, play days where we would go play another school maybe three or four times the whole year. We didn’t have practice; we didn’t have gym time. It was all for the boys.

Basketball, for me, was playing in the park, it was playing in the driveway. It was going to open gym and playing with old guys. It was totally being on the sidelines when they had an odd number and being able to play when they had an even number.

It was extremely painful not to be able to play, and kind of always be told to go play with your dolls. The boys were just not very inclusive. But I also think they were mad because I would beat them. In my ninth-grade yearbook, the gym teacher wrote, “To the best basketball player, boy or girl, in the school.” And it was really frustrating.

The best male basketball player on the varsity team wrote in my yearbook, “You will go to the Olympics someday.” They didn’t even have Olympics at that time for girls in basketball. I kind of had a love-hate relationship with it. I loved it so much, but it was painful.

This was before Title IX. So my timing for playing was bad. But my timing for coaching was good.

When I went to college, and there was a college team, I was like, “Oh great, I’ll try out for that.” There was no recruiting; no scholarships. I was a waitress during the summer to pay for college. I ended up playing at Indiana and loving it and having a great experience, but we had a limited schedule. It was nothing like it is now, and it was nothing like it was for the guys.

I had no intention [of continuing on with basketball]. I wanted to go to law school. But after college, I traveled around a little bit and ended up back at home for Christmas. My dad said, “They passed Title IX. What are you doing?” I’m like, “Nothing.” He said, “Well, you’re going to go down to help coach your sister’s team.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not,” and he said, “Yes, you are.” They had lost the night before 99-11.

My sister Marie is five years younger than I am. She didn’t really like basketball that much. She played it just for fun. I don’t think she was ever out in the driveway shooting. But it was a great experience. It really taught me that everyone on the team is someone’s sister. I’d come home and my parents would say, “Hey, how come you didn’t play Marie more?” I’m like, “Really? She can’t play defense; she doesn’t score.” They’re like, “But she’s so nice.” It’s varsity basketball. It’s not about being nice. You’ve gotta have results.

It was a great experience for me. It really helped me form my own basketball philosophies. I loved the coaching, but I realized I wanted to be at a college level, so I worked at basketball camps. I made a lot of contacts that way. I wrote to 20 different schools and got answers from two of them. I decided I would go to Ohio State. I was a graduate assistant, basically, at the time paying for school because there was no money. Honestly, I was on food stamps, and my car was a Volkswagen Bug, light blue and totally rusted out. The heat usually didn’t work. The brakes needed replacing, but I didn’t have the money. I think the car cost $300, and it wasn’t even worth that.

My second year at Ohio State, I was able to get an assistant position that paid for my school, and then after that I got my first job at Idaho, and it paid $13,000. It was a full-time job, and I was thrilled. My situation was great. I worked for a wonderful athletic director named Kathy Clark. She was fantastic. But I had to battle for things. The men’s coach was Don Monson, and he’s a very good friend of mine. But when I first got there, I was like 24 years old. He thought he was going to run the girls basketball camp, and I said, “No, you’re not. I’m running it.” I had to fight for all kinds of little things like practice gear and gym time. And no help, so I’m pulling out the bleachers.

There was one time when some radio guy said, “Your game’s before the men’s game, and if your game goes into overtime, we’ve got to start the men’s game at 7:30, so we’ll just have to have a sudden-death basket.” And I said, “If anyone comes on the court, there will be sudden death. But I will be killing them.”

But I absolutely loved being in Idaho. The people were fantastic. We had great players, we played in front of over 3,000 people, and it was hard for me to leave. I went back to Ohio State, and I worked for a great athletic director in Phyllis Bailey. But when I first went to Ohio State [in 1980], they weren’t used to supporting women’s basketball the way it needed to be supported. In recruiting, I probably put hundreds of thousands of miles on my car driving all over the state of Ohio. We recruited the whole state really well. Other coaches would tease me and say, “You had the fence up.” Nobody else could get in and get players out.

It was very hard for me to leave Ohio State, but I really felt that Stanford was a great fit for me. When I came to Stanford [in 1985], the team had been 5-23 and then 9-19 the year before I got here. So it was really about recruiting and getting great players. The players who were on the team were fantastic women. We just didn’t have enough big ones and really skilled-enough players. I love coaching at Stanford, I love the young women we’ve had at Stanford, and it’s been fun.

I do still tell stories about the early days. One time we had over 1,800 kids come to basketball camp in the summer. There’s so much enthusiasm for girls basketball. I would have maybe 80 or 100 8-year-olds in a room, and I would talk to them about how I never played, how I had the best ball with the boys. I told them that story. I never had JV, varsity, nothing. I never had a scholarship. We were never on television. All these things that have changed. And one girl, after I give this whole big litany, raises her hand and says, “Coach, why was it like that?” I don’t really know how to answer them. So I said, “Can anyone else answer this question?” And another little 8-year-old right away raises her hand. She goes, “Sexism!”

Some outstanding things have happened to women this year. With the determination and the perseverance women have, I just say, “You go, girl.” It’s awesome. And it doesn’t surprise me at all.

I would probably say Kamala Harris was the one I’m most excited about. Vice president, being in that situation, is just awesome for her and awesome for our country. I’m excited about the sports people because we need to break that glass ceiling any way we can. But this year I think Kamala Harris has been the biggest inspiration.

I do try to remind our team to really appreciate the opportunities they have. This year, with COVID, so much has been taken away. I think our team really does appreciate stuff, in a different way. In a good way. We had to play most of our games away. We couldn’t even play our home games here. So we were on the road for like 10 weeks. We’re really close. We just need to stay healthy. For us, thinking about going to Texas, if we can survive and advance, three weeks is nothing for us. We’ve been testing every day. We double-mask. We wear sensors. We’ve done everything they’re asking people to do.

I think this year has been about keeping your head down and trying to survive this.

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