Cal's Rogers inspires from sideline
Parts of Tierra Rogers' story will break your heart. There are moments of despair and grief that seem at the least unfair and mostly unfathomable.
But there are other parts to Rogers' story, bright days like the second-to-last Saturday in May, as Rogers and her family waited on the steps in front of Zellerbach Hall on the Cal campus.
Rogers looked radiant in her black cap and gown, highlighted hair perfectly placed, high heels and a wide smile, greeting friends and family with hugs and posing for pictures.
She was surrounded on her graduation day by the people who have held her up these past five years: her mother, Dalonna Ingram; her brother, Terrell Jr.; teammates like Eliza Pierre and Talia Caldwell, who would be walking across the stage with her; and others like former Cal standout Alexis Gray-Lawson and DeNesha Stallworth, who played two years at Cal before transferring to Kentucky but was here with her best friend on this day.
Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb walked up, assistant Charmin Smith was on the way. Ingram stood back and looked at her only daughter, now 22 and the first person in their family to graduate from college.
"Right now, I'm just trying to take it in," Ingram said. "I've been thinking about it a lot and it just hasn't hit me yet. I can't believe it went by so quickly."
Loss of love
Yet for Rogers, the last five years may have seemed endlessly long. At the same time, it might feel like only yesterday when she heard her father, Terray, remind her to get out and shoot her free throws, and just minutes ago she was last on the basketball court, dribbling a ball, passing to a teammate.
But Terrell "Terray" Rogers has been gone since January 2008, gunned down in a parking lot during halftime of one of Tierra's high school games at Sacred Heart Prep in San Francisco.
And her basketball career has been over since September 2009, when she left the court after a conditioning workout at Cal feeling short of breath, then collapsed in the hallway in the arms of the team trainer, resuscitated outside of the training room in Haas Pavilion.
Little more than a week later, with her mother and then-Cal coach Joanne Boyle at her bedside much of the time, she was told she had a rare condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD). She had a defibrillator implanted in her chest and could never play again.
Rogers' losses, 20 excruciating months apart, have been well-documented. She was perhaps the greatest girls prep basketball player ever in San Francisco. She was playing for the two-time defending state champion when her father was killed.
Following the diagnosis of her heart ailment, she sat at a news conference in front of the Bay Area media and tried to answer questions about her future.
But how could she know then what was in front of her?
How could she understand how ambivalent she would feel about basketball, finding it unbearable to be in the gym with the team, yet just as unbearable to be away?
How could she reconcile the ache of wanting to talk to her father or to be close to her mother, who had taken her younger brother and moved to Texas?
How could she find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and show up to class when she felt as though Berkeley was the last place she wanted to be?
How could she fight through her darkest moments, when she felt as if she didn't want to live anymore because it all hurt too much?
"Time heals," Rogers said. "Those first couple years were just difficult. I was trying to find myself and who I was without basketball. It's gotten easier."
Too much to bear
Boyle persuaded Rogers to come to Cal after her father's death, assuring Rogers and her mother that she would watch over the player. Rogers, the best player in a nationally ranked recruiting class, was struggling with her decision to play at all. In the days after Terray's murder, she tried to play. Her first game back, she didn't suit up. The next game, she played just the first half before her emotions took over. By the third game, she was sensing her father's presence and it kept her on the floor.
College basketball, however, was something different.
"He was her rock and when she lost him, I think she lost her love of the game," Boyle said. "When she came to Cal, we didn't really know how it was going to be. But it was a new environment, a new floor, a new gym and she saw some success early. I remember the kids were playing pickup in the summer and all the kids would come up to me and say, 'God, she's so good.' She was so talented and it brought her a lot of joy. I think it renewed her sense of spirit."
Then September came. And it all came crashing down.
Rogers remembers the moments before she collapsed and briefly remembers being in the ambulance. And she will never forget how she felt, after more than a week of testing, when the doctor told her she would never play basketball again.
"The first thing I thought was How can you take that away from me? Rogers said.
Boyle remembers the same thing.
"How much is one person supposed to handle?" Boyle asked.
Boyle had her own near-death experience, suffering an aneurysm in 2001. She understood Rogers' turmoil in the months after her diagnosis.
"It was a day-to-day walk with her, from the time she got up to the time she went to bed," Boyle said. "Every day, the first question I asked myself was 'What does this child need?' And every day it was different."
Some days it was to be left alone, others it was to cry herself to sleep. Some days it was to leave campus, others it was to be surrounded by her friends and teammates. They had become her family.
Struggling to get through
Rogers' mother and brother had moved to Houston after her father's murder, a plan that had been in the works before he died. Ingram sat on the phone many times and listened to Tierra sob 2,000 miles away.
"She did not want to be here," Ingram said. "She kept telling me, 'Mom, I'm done, I want to come home."
And Ingram told her no. There was nothing for her in Texas that was better than the full scholarship she had in Berkeley. She would end up at a community college with no car to drive and no job experience.
"I knew it would be rough," Ingram said. "I told her we would get through it."
So Rogers got through it. Rough, however, probably doesn't begin to describe it.
Rogers was depressed, angry, sad and moody. Basketball had allowed her to swallow the grief of her father's murder and now she didn't even have that. She wasn't going to class and didn't want to see the basketball court.
"I didn't want to be around it and always be thinking what-if," Rogers said.
"Basketball was always on my mind, but it was also with all the people that I loved being around. So it was definitely a struggle."
Pierre was Rogers' roommate at the time. She saw that struggle up close and did her best to keep Rogers up and moving. And if it was a really bad day, she knew to leave her alone.
"She didn't know where she wanted to be," said Pierre, who would lose her brother to gang violence two years later. "But she stuck around and she didn't have to. I don't think she knew the impact that had on us."
On the edge
But no one knew the depths of the despair Rogers was feeling. That she was cutting herself to relieve the pain and considering more.
"You feel like you don't want to live anymore; you don't care about anything in your life, you don't care about yourself," Rogers said. "You feel like less of yourself because of the things that have been taken away. I was doing things to myself. I was not in my right state of mind.
"I couldn't think that things would get better or that the pain would go away. And when I got like that, I thought there was no point in me living."
Rogers said she didn't tell anyone she had considered suicide. She was afraid of what she would do, but said she kept thinking about her family.
"I was being selfish," she said. "I would think about my mom losing her daughter and my brother losing me and that's what really kept me going."
Ingram said she found out later that Rogers had pondered suicide.
"She wasn't telling me," Ingram said. "Later, after finding that out, I wanted to talk to her about it and she didn't want to go back there."
Rogers sought therapy and found comfort in a local church. And time did indeed begin the healing process. But it was slow and halting. It took two years before she felt as though she had turned a corner.
When Boyle decided to leave Cal to coach at Virginia after the 2010-11 season -- a decision rooted in the desire to be closer to her family on the East Coast -- she thought about Rogers first.
"I knew she was in a better place, if not a great place," Boyle said. "But I told her that our relationship, whether we saw each other every day or not, wasn't going to change. To this day we are close, and that hasn't changed."
Cal hired former Boyle assistant Lindsay Gottlieb as coach. Gottlieb had been on the staff when Rogers was being recruited.
"I knew it was important to make a connection with her immediately," Gottlieb said. "I told her the level of care and support she had been getting would be the same."
Rogers, in turn, told her: "I want you to hold me accountable like everybody else. If the team has to be there, I have to be there."
Rogers was already getting stronger when Gottlieb arrived, finding it easier to be around the team. She sat on the bench during games, served as the greeter at the end of the line when starters were being introduced. She was talking to her teammates and serving as a constant example of perspective when the days on the floor didn't go well.
Gottlieb has said no player had a greater impact on her program in the last two years without playing a minute than Rogers.
"I think Tierra is proof that you can move through the hard things and still fight your way through it," Gottlieb said. "She's a source of strength and inspiration for a lot of people, not just on our team, but in our community."
Cal reached the Final Four for the first time in the history of the program just two months ago. Rogers was on the court in Spokane when the team jumped and cried and celebrated the Elite Eight win over Georgia that sent them to New Orleans.
"It wasn't hard for me," Rogers said. "I just took in the experience. I didn't have a chance to think about myself or what if I was playing. I was just excited with my teammates."
At the Final Four, Rogers sat in the locker room at New Orleans Arena and again answered questions from reporters about how she felt, even humored those who asked how good the Bears might have been if she could have played in the national semifinal game. Those questions made Gottlieb wince a little. Rogers never did.
"I know it was hard when we were playing in big games, against kids she played against in high school -- she wanted to compete," Gottlieb said. "But she had no bitterness. And she handled everything with such grace."
There are many graduation ceremonies at Cal every spring, and "Black Grad" has its special place.
The ceremony, sponsored by the African-American Studies Department welcomes African-American students in every department to participate. Black students make up just 3 percent of the population at Berkeley.
And it is a raucous, joyous affair, with students dancing in the aisles to their seats, speeches that sound as if they should be coming from the pulpit at church, loud cheering and shouting from the audience.
Rogers headed to the stage with Pierre for their commencement walk and when Rogers' name was called, many students stood and cheered.
Gottlieb and associate head coach Charmin Smith were on their feet, clapping and hollering from the back of Zellerbach Hall.
"I think her life can take her anywhere," Pierre said. "She's really opened herself up."
Still the occasion, Rogers thought, felt a little bittersweet. She is already thinking about what's next. She's been offered a coaching position at Mission High School in San Francisco, as well as a job at the school working as a student mentor. She wants to work with underprivileged kids, maybe move to the East Coast at some point.
The bright days finally outnumber the dark ones, the future holding more answers than questions.
"I think I'm ready for the next chapter," Rogers said. "I'm ready to move on and find out about myself."