What a unique day –I spent my morning contemplating presentable “jewel tone” wardrobe options for my 11am photo shoot. Yes, you read that correctly photo shoot.
Next week, the USD College of Arts and Science (click here –>) website will go live with a feature article and video about my support of the USD Women’s Basketball team, and the relationships and friendships I’ve developed with the student athletes and their families over the past 4 years. Although I’ve yet to read the article, I know that the word “super fan” will probably come up. The interviewer did ask if I painted my face for games, after all. (The answer is no, in case you were wondering). Given the popularity of basketball in the Sociology Department and my colleague, Dr. Judy Liu’s 25 year love affair with Torero Basketball –I think it’s important to note, I have a hard time owning the “super fan” identity –but I digress.
My glamour shot photo shoot involved taking pictures with Sam Child, Dominque Conners, Emily Hatch, and Morgan Woodrow –four phenomenal basketball players with majors housed in the College of Arts and Sciences. During the session, I learned a bit about their personalities through the glitter laden eye-shadow, the “blinged out earrings” (as Chris called it), the meticulously done blue nail polish (that managed to get chipped during weight lifting) –and their ability to be relaxed in front of the camera (something I struggled with). As a sociologist (aka professional people watcher) I’m compelled to look beyond the aesthetic. In the half hour I spent with them before practice started (and they became the ‘blurry blue background’ the photographer wanted to capture) I witnessed the depth and breadth of sisterhood that you can’t see when you’re watching from the stands. The teasing, the laughter, finishing each others sentences, the way they seamlessly interweave discussions about life, school, graduation, Justin Bieber fever (a team affliction/addiction I’m still baffled by) with guesses about the drills Coach Fisher will call for, is simply amazing to watch unfold. In fact, I’m not quite sure they realize how in sync they all are with each other. Equally amazing was how quickly they snapped into work mode —hips wrapped, ankle braces tightened, practice jerseys and game faces on –and away they went. Coach’s whistle blew and bodies were immediately thrown into motion with 120% of their energy focused on the drill at hand. I found myself fascinated not only by the speed and intensity, but the ways that the players were simultaneously students and teachers. For example, when one of the coaches explained to freshman center, Kam Knutson the appropriate way to play “Torero defense,” I watched senior, Nya Mason correct Kam’s posture and hand position so that it complied with coach’s instructions. I think the artistic director in charge of the photo shoot said it best, “It’s so easy to be distracted by the amount of energy these young women show –and this is only practice.”
During both interviews for the piece, I was asked, “Why do you love watching the women’s basketball team? What do you think we can learn from them?” I know I was clear about my admiration for their work ethic, on and off the court. In fact, I talked about Coach Fisher’s “Blue Blood” philosophy of working hard and putting the time and effort in to succeed (take a look at the shirts they wear in the photographs), but what I forgot to say is this. While some watch sports for the action, the scoring, and the “show time” moments, the true art of the game is in understanding the life lessons the students and their families live out in relationship to the game. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
1) Loyalty. This is not simply about allegiances –but a true commitment to improving those around you through respect, tough love, and mutuality. At their best, I’ve watched these women push each other to excel. Sliding by, giving less than their all –even if unmotivated is not allowed. Doing this during a game, gets you benched. Doing this in school gets you academically disqualified. I’ve watched the best of these students push each other and remind one another to put in the time, and do the work.
2) Vision. Freshman students (all students, not just athletes) often arrive at college thinking they know everything. They assume if they simply do the assignments they get their degree. I tell students and student athletes that the University and the coach didn’t recruit you to come here because of who you were in high school –that’s only 10% of it. We (faculty, staff, coaches, etc) recruit them because of who they can become if they work hard while here. For athletes, this can be difficult. They were probably the best in their sport at their high school –but they forget that they join a team where every individual was the best too. The real question is do they have the vision to put in the work to become better than who they were yesterday. Without fail, I’ve watched Coach Fisher’s players at the end of four years profess what so many of us want to hear, “that the worst thing to witness is unrealized potential.”
3) Faith. I don’t mean this in the religious sense. I define faith as hope in the unseen. Put simply, I admire the fact that these women have faith in the idea that hard work pays off. You may not know the results, and may hate the process, but at the end of it all there are always lessons learned.
4) Love. Love of the game, love of family, love of each other. Good or bad, happy or sad, I witness a connection that’s hard to describe. The love and community we see among the players extends beyond them to their families. Circumstances (aka holiday basketball schedules) usually mean that the women are away from their families during Thanksgiving and have an abbreviated Christmas break. Holidays that traditionally translate into extended time with family for the rest of us add up to sacrifice for the team and families. Instead, parents of the players become an extended family in their own right. The families, often spend Thanksgiving or part of the New Year together with the team and coaches. As a whole, I know that these families, along with their daughters, have been there through it all for each other –births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, retirements, accomplishments, promotions, and accolades. If all communities were as invested in each other as these families are, the world would be a better place.
In the end, I guess my only answer to why I love Torero women’s basketball is this,
“What’s not to love?”