It was almost a year ago when Vivian Stringer and her Rutgers women's basketball team were playing against powerhouse Tennessee in the women's NCAA finals — a game that would later grab headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The team's incredible story was overshadowed by racially charged comments by shock jock Don Imus, who used what many would consider a racist and sexist slur while discussing the team.
Those racially charged comments forever changed the lives of a group of young players and of Stringer, one of the game's finest coaches.
Stringer heard about Imus' comments on the way back from a ceremony where her team was being honored.
"I really didn't, even then, fully appreciate the magnitude of what was being said, until I could say it over in my mind," Stringer remembered.
'If Not You, Then Who?'
Stringer, who is famous for both her calm reserve and her ability to be a no-nonsense disciplinarian, didn't feel ready until now to discuss in detail what really happened between her team and Imus after last year's playoff game. Stringer said that after she grasped the magnitude of what Imus had said, she immediately thought, "How do I protect these young women who will hear this?"
The team was young — five of them freshman — and overwhelmed and hurt by what had happened. In a way, Stringer had been preparing for this all her life. She was the first black student to try out for the cheerleading squad in her high school in a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania.
"I really was gifted when it came to flips and all these other things with gymnastics, I was really gifted," Stringer said. "So I did my back flips and my round offs. And so, when they called later that day to say who the players was or the young people were that made the squad, my name wasn't called."
Stringer said she was not the type of person that ever "wanted to cause any kind of friction," and so she thought maybe she just needed to fine-tune her techniques.
"I kept thinking, well, maybe my hands weren't straight; maybe I didn't drop my voice; maybe when I did my round-off backstep that I just moved a little bit, I didn't stick to kick, you know, bad enough or hard enough."
But a NAACP representative who had watched the tryout visited her and her parents and told Stringer that she should protest her exclusion from the squad as being racially based.
"I thought, I can't do this. I don't want to cause any problems," Stringer remembered. "And so, when my father came up to talk to me about it, I didn't want to hear it. But they [said], 'If not you, then who? You must stand up, because if you don't stand up, you know, for some things, you'll fall for everything.' I will never forget that. I just sat there, and I kept looking at him [saying] 'For future generations of young people. It's not about you. It's not about you. But you have to stand up. You have to stand up.'"
Stringer went before the school board to present the case, and was given a place on the team.
Life's Lessons Strengthen Stringer
Life would teach Stringer many other tough lessons. Her daughter was disabled after severe meningitis, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, and on Thanksgiving Day in 1992, her husband died after a sudden heart attack. She led her first team to the Final Four just five months later. She poured all those life lessons into her coaching.
"It doesn't matter what you don't have," she said. " If you've got love in your heart and you've got hopes and you've got dreams, doesn't matter that you get knocked down. Just keep getting back up."
"She demands perfection and greatness from each and every player that she coaches," said Essence Carson, who met Stringer last year as a freshman player at Rutgers.
"She doesn't have to say one word," said Carson. "There's been times when she's called a time out just to look at us. And we all know what the look means … She squints her eyes and looks at you out of the corner of her eye and then she turns her head and she just sits there and stares."
Stringer all but willed her Rutgers team to pull themselves together and start winning. They made it to the Final Four and then found themselves playing Tennessee in that championship game. The Imus broadcast occurred the next day.
Young Basketball Players 'Represent All of Us'
Six days later, String felt the need to speak up. "This group of classy young women represents all of us," Stringer said at a press conference. "I have pride and respect for them … These girls understand that no one can make you feel inferior unless you allow them to…"
Essence Carson also spoke at the press conference.
"I would like to express our team's great hurt, anger and disgust towards the words of Mr. Don Imus," she said.
"I saw Essence speak and handle the questions," recalled Stringer. "And I thought, you don't know who they are. This is what you said we are. This is who we are."
Earlier this year, the Rutgers women's team help to secure Stringer's place in history by defeating DePaul University for her 800th career victory.
"I thank you," said Stringer after the game. "I thank you for supporting our team. I thank you for making life worthwhile."
Stringer's team goes into this year's Big East Tournament on Saturday as the second-seeded team.