Stanford-Tennessee sealed with a handshake
It was Tara VanDerveer's promise to get Jennifer Azzi home to Tennessee that prompted the start of a series that has endured the past 24 years, a veritable lifetime in women's basketball.
"We only play because of Jennifer," VanDerveer said wryly, referring to the All-American guard who put her Stanford program on the map when she arrived in 1986. "A lot of times I'm thankful for that. And a lot of times I'm not."
A day after both Baylor and Connecticut ended their two-game home-and-home series and discussed the "possibility" of whether they might play again, Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer on Monday prepared to put their teams up against each other.
Again. As they have done every since season 1988. Without a contract.
"We just know we are going to play," VanDerveer said Monday morning, on the eve of the annual matchup between the Cardinal, currently ranked fourth in the country, and the Lady Volunteers, ranked No. 6. "We always make it work and they make it work. We call them early every year, make sure we get a date."
Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood has been on Summitt's staff for the past nine matchups against Stanford.
"I think it speaks to the bonds of respect and friendship that exists between Coach VanDerveer and Pat," Lockwood said. "I think it's a matter of them saying, 'This is what we are going to do. These two programs should play each other.' It's a natural fit."
VanDerveer was hoping to get a chance to visit with Summitt at the practice court at Stanford on Monday, but Summitt did not come to Tennessee's practice session. She had a "consultation," according to associate head coach Holly Warlick.
Summitt and VanDerveer have talked since Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia, which has prompted an outpouring of tributes and affection over the past few months.
But in a style typical of two cut-to-the-chase coaches, VanDerveer said Summitt told her, "It is what it is."
"I give her a lot of credit for putting it right out there and saying, 'This is what I have and here's how I'm dealing it with,'" VanDerveer said. "I can't say that I would know what I would do in the same situation. But Pat is being herself. She is a fighter. That's how she lives her life."
VanDerveer said the awareness that Summitt has brought to Alzheimer's and dementia following her diagnosis is being felt beyond the sports world.
"People at the grocery store, in the checkout lines, are asking me when we are playing 'the coach who has Alzheimer's.' They don't know anything about basketball," VanDerveer said. "People are so intrigued by how open she's been."
VanDerveer remembers the first game of the series, back in 1988. She thought her team was prepared. Summitt's Lady Vols beat them 83-60.
"They schooled us," VanDerveer said. "It was really disheartening to me. I remember going back to my hotel room and just being totally depressed. Here I thought we are that good and we are ready to compete with Tennessee. I laid down on the bed and just started crying, thinking that we were never going to be that good."
She didn't know that her sister Heidi, who would go to work for Summitt as a graduation assistant the following season, was in the room.
This is a barometer game for us. Every year they are one of the toughest games on our schedule. Every year we know we will get better from playing them.Tara VanDerveer
"Heidi came in and said, 'Are you going to have a pity party or are you going to get to work?'" VanDerveer said. "So we got out the video and we broke it down frame by frame and the next year we beat them. And we won the national championship that year."
Stanford is putting its 67-game home winning streak in serious jeopardy against a team that has won 22 of their 28 matchups since 1988 (including the NCAA tournament). That's just the way that VanDerveer wants it.
"This is a barometer game for us," VanDerveer said. "Every year they are one of the toughest games on our schedule. Every year we know we will get better from playing them."
The Tennessee staff feels the same way, even at the end of a 10-day road trip that started in New York against DePaul on Dec. 11.
"We always know that Stanford is going to be one of the most well-coached teams, they play hard and there's nothing a given," Warlick said. "It's the environment we want to put our players in to get ready for the tournament. We come out here by choice to get ready for the big games."
Coaching against Summitt has always been a barometer for VanDerveer. Like many of the coaches whom Summitt chooses to schedule her team against, these two pioneers have known each other for more than 30 years. VanDerveer calls Summitt a "friend and a mentor."
And both of them are now Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers after VanDerveer's induction over the summer.
"She's the gold standard," VanDerveer said. "It's awesome, there's a lot of pressure coaching against her because you know your team has to be at its best to have any chance to beat them."
Summitt has publicly expressed her desire to coach three more years, which might put her back at Maples Pavilion in 2013 for what could be her farewell season.
But there's no way at this point of knowing whether that will happen, which leaves open the possibility that Summitt will be striding across the court at Stanford for the last time.
"I can't wait for that moment when she walks on to the court," Stanford sophomore Chiney Ogwumike said. "I know that the whole crowd is going to be so respectful and reverential for everything she's done."
VanDerveer will relish the moment and then shift quickly to the opportunity to find out where her young team stands on the cusp of conference play.
She is hoping they are better than they were a month ago when they went to Hartford and fell to UConn 68-58, the Cardinal's only loss of the season.
"I say that was a D- or a F game for us," VanDerveer said. "I'm hoping that Connecticut game will help us against Tennessee. Our team knows this is a really great opportunity."
It always has been.