Driving to St. Louis on Christmas Eve, I heard Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas” on the radio three times. It’s a song that always reminds me of the 1998 Women’s Final Four. Before I get to why … here’s a little background. (Or a lot.)
The event was in Kansas City that year. I’d been working at the KC Star since October 1996 and had been looking toward the WFF the whole time.
I was the college sports editor for The Star then, and also the editor for the Olympics (the Winter Games were in Nagano in 1998, and the paper sent a reporter and columnist to Japan), plus I oversaw motorsports coverage. And wrote about women’s hoops for The Star, plus did my column for ESPN.com.
When I think I’m busy now, I try to remember how I used to get all that done back then. I know I didn’t take a day off from Dec. 26, 1997, through the beginning of April. I came down with chicken pox two weeks after the ’98 Final Four, and in retrospect think my body had covertly studied the various “available” diseases in my realm, figured out which one wouldn’t kill me but would force me to rest, and exposed me to it.
So I was in my house for about five weeks that spring, not allowed out until the last of the pox had disappeared. There were only about 4 million of them, and they took their time leaving. I watched a lot of the History Channel.
It’s been over a decade now since then. And while we expect things to change in that amount of time, I don’t think anyone in the newspaper industry thought things would change for the worse as much as they have. Thinking back on what we did in preparation for the WFF that season and how we covered it, I find myself amazed to remember the type of commitment The Kansas City Star gave then to that event.
We started a women’s basketball page in December ’97, which included a feature story, a look back at past Final Four moments and a player diary. These were from players all over the country. For February, I mapped out something called “A Dozen Days of Hoops,” where we sent reporters/columnists from coast to coast for 12 games representing 12 different conferences.
I was more in editor mode than writer mode then for The Star, but I did start the “Dozen Days,” going from Chapel Hill (ACC) to Baltimore (MEAC) to Washington D.C. (Atlantic-10).
We had a columnist go eat lunch with then Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore in Ruston, La. Another reporter spent time with Kristin Folkl out at Stanford. Someone else tooled around Summittland, aka, Knoxville. A photographer caught dinner with North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, her husband and son.
We sent reporters to all four NCAA regionals, bringing “home” Tennessee from Nashville; N.C. State from Dayton, Ohio; Louisiana Tech from Lubbock, Texas; and Arkansas from Oakland, Calif.
In comparison to today’s collapsing newspaper world where travel has become so much more limited, it’s astonishing to think back on how much we travelled then.
I also reflect on the talented reporters who were at The Star then and helped cover women’s hoops that season, including playing pivotal roles in our Final Four coverage: Mike Vaccaro, now with the New York Post; Jenni Carlson, now with the Daily Oklahoman; and Jayda Evans, now with the Seattle Times.
Jayda is very familiar to women’s hoops fans as she has chronicled the Seattle Storm since the team’s inception, wrote a book about the franchise and now also covers the University of Washington. Jayda’s women’s hoops blog can be found at this address: http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/storm/
Jayda was one of The Star’s high school beat writers in 1998. One of the things she was assigned to do for the Final Four was the “fun questions” segment, where I’d come up with a series of questions for a player on each of the four teams. They were supposed to elicit interesting and amusing responses. The key, I told the reporters doing them, was to find the most talkative, outgoing player on each team to answer them.
It won’t surprise any of you who’ve enjoyed Jayda’s work over the years to hear that she was able to find that type of player almost instantly. I remember laughing while editing the answers that Jayda filed and thinking, “Hooray! She really got into this.”
Mike Vaccaro was then and is now a brilliant writer, endlessly creative and enthusiastic. What a gift it was for The Star to have him that year. Jenni Carlson is keenly insightful and fearless; she can always see multiple sides to things and gives voice to viewpoints that really need to be heard.
The weekend of the Final Four, the newspaper went all-out with special sections, including turning the front page of the semifinals section into a fold-out poster that was actually a lot more work than it might have appeared.
Then, of course, there were the contributions of my pal Joe Posnanski, the best sports writer in America. Among all the things he’s written over the years, there is one that I’m sure he’d be horrified to know I have not only never forgotten but still sing all the time. Especially at Christmas.
In our Final Four sections, there was something called, “String Music.” It was a little song “composed” each day by either Joe or Mike. And one of Joe’s songs brings me back to Burl Ives.
(If you’re a UConn fan, this is probably where you’ll want to stop reading, because this will get entirely too pukey Orange for you.)
Sung to the tune of “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” here is Joe’s version of “Kellie Jolly Weekend:”
Have a Kellie Jolly Weekend,
It’s the Women’s Final Four,
Last year she fell, torn ACL,
Came back to run the floor.
Have a Kellie Jolly Weekend,
The band plays ‘Rocky Top.’
So much so, you’ll want to go
And find a music cop.
Ooom-pah, just watch Holdsclaw!
She scores and struts and sings.
Her ruse keeps freshmen loose,
like Tamika Catchings.
Have a Kellie Jolly Weekend,
You just can’t stop the band.
Oh, dat-gummit, this is
Coach Pat Summitt’s weekend, again!