Sorry to have taken a little break from the blog … but now I want to tell you one of those heart-warming, feel-good, why-sports-matters, you-go-girl, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar, do-I-have-an-amen-from-the-sisterhood, and-brother-you’re-invited-too, long-and-rambling kind of stories.
At the NCAA bat cave in Indianapolis last week, they had the mock-bracket exercise. I went last year, and quickly suspected they might be slipping me nice pills in an attempt to thwart my annual stick-it-to-the-committee column. And it worked!
I didn’t rip the committee last season, and I know it was because of something nefarious that the NCAA pulled off … like, um … putting together a good bracket I had little argument with.
Oh. Yeah, that was probably why I didn’t write anything critical. They did a good job.
But I just can’t get too chummy with these NCAA folks, or next thing you know I’ll even stop complaining about how much the Internet fees cost at tournament sites. I refuse to lose my fangs entirely.
So that’s why I decided not to go to the mock bracket exercise this year. I needed to take a stand against getting tricked into thinking that the NCAA types are really humans, rather than what I know, deep down, they are: Cyborgs who live in dread of occasionally malfunctioning and saying “player” instead of “student-athlete.”
OK, of course, I’m just kidding here. The NCAA actually doesn’t have a bat cave.
(Mel Greenberg swears the AIAW had one, but I only believe about half of the “in the old days” stuff he tells me.)
No, no, no. Now really seriously, thanks to the efforts of Sue Donohoe and Michelle Perry in particular, the NCAA has made great strides in reaching out to coaches and media to better understand what goes into putting together the bracket.
The NCAA figured out that, as is usually the case, sunshine lightens up the whole process. Instead of keeping it like some top-secret, Cold War spy mission, letting media/coaches see into the committee room (on the men’s and women’s sides) and going through a test run themselves made everybody more empathic and supportive of the people who have to do it for real.
It was a brilliant move on the NCAA’s part. But the reason I didn’t go this year really wasn’t because I feared further “softening up” toward the committee.
Rather, it was because Billie Jean King was coming to Kansas City , which conflicted with the mock-bracket meeting. (I told you this was a long, rambling story).
I had talked to BJK one previous time in my life, and it was the most nervous I’ve ever been before any interview. By coincidence, a fellow media colleague mentioned in her Facebook “25 random things about me” posting recently that BJK was the only person she had ever been really nervous interviewing, too.
Now, this is not because BJK is hard to interview or anything like that. It’s because even after being in this business a couple of decades and getting used to talking to famous athletes/coaches, we admit there is still something daunting about talking to a much-admired legend.
I was 8 years old when BJK played Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” and was so proud and happy after that match – and the next day at school – that there is no way I could adequately thank her. I did try – back in 1999 when she visited KC for a tennis fund-raiser and I did a story on her – and to her credit, BJK listens to every “I was in third grade when you played Bobby Riggs…” story like she hasn’t heard 5 million versions.
So BJK was coming to Kansas City again, this time for our town’s annual Women’s Sports Awards luncheon. That is a fund-raiser put on by the Women’s Intersport Network for Kansas City, aka, WIN for KC. It’s a non-profit organization that works to help girls and women get more active and fit, plus works to publicize and endorse girls’ and women’s sports.
The luncheon – which this year had a sellout-crowd of 1,440 – honors all the area girls who’ve won team or individual state championships in the past year, plus also has a presentation for special awards. Those honor girls or women in categories such as senior sportswoman, mentor, courage, etc.
WIN shows a wonderful, professionally filmed-and-edited video about each award winner. This year, one of the awards went to a little girl with cerebral palsy who still competes in softball. And in this girl’s video, she told about how she got hit by a pitch in a recent game, and the umpire was really worried for a second. But, she said with a smile, “It really didn’t hurt that bad. I took one for the team.”
And, yes, that had everyone in the banquet hall reaching for a tissue while laughing at the same time.
It’s like this every year – a huge room full of people – female and male – celebrating the fact that everyone is an athlete. You just need to embrace it.
The luncheon is the antithesis of phony machismo talk-radio shouting contests. It’s the opposite of steroid-a-palooza. It’s a tonic against message-board misogyny. It’s a place where everybody’s cheering for everybody.
Each year, the keynote speaker comes in thinking she knows just what it’s going to be like – and yet she’s always blown away by the feeling of seeing so many people there, so much positive energy in the room, such inspiring and cool stories from the award-winners. Picabo Street came last year and said it was an amazing adrenaline rush – and this is from a woman used to going down mountains at 80 mph with no brakes.
At such a celebration of girls and women in sports, there could be no greater icon than BJK. So this was the crowning triumph for WIN for KC and its executive director, Patti Phillips. At last, BJK would see it. No one would appreciate this scene more than she would.
Just a few days before the luncheon, her mother took seriously ill, and BJK had to cancel her trip to Kansas City. Months of work and preparation had been put into this luncheon … and now the keynote speaker couldn’t come.
Obviously, it was understood that it couldn’t be helped. But who would be the guest of honor? Who could get to KC for such an event on two days’ notice and … pinch hit for Billie Jean King?
Well, BJK had an idea. She called a friend, a player whom she had coached on the United States Federation Cup team and whom she knew would do it if she possibly could. That player was Chanda Rubin, a native of Louisiana who had a successful pro career even if she didn’t become a household name.
When I got the call that BJK wasn’t coming and Rubin was filling in for her, I immediately thought, “Hmmm …. Chanda Rubin … didn’t she come back from down love-5, love-40 in the third set of a Grand Slam match once?”
Indeed she did, against Jana Novotna in the 1995 French Open third round.
Then I thought, “Well, this is going to be a little tough for everybody. All the folks who were counting on seeing BJK can’t help but be disappointed. And poor Chanda Rubin – who would want to fill in for BJK?”
The day of the luncheon came, and I sat down with Rubin for a little while beforehand to chat. I knew she was very bright and well-spoken from seeing her on TV, but had never had the chance to talk to her in person before. We discussed a lot of topics, including her thoughts on why there still aren’t many African-American youngsters in pro tennis, despite the success of players such as herself and, of course, the Williams sisters.
“It is surprising, for lack of a better word,” Rubin said. “Dismay might be strong. It is kind of disheartening, that’s a better way to put it. We should see more African-American players. Some of it is cyclical; I think there are some 10-12 year-olds who are coming up. But I think more needs to be done.
“Here in the States, though, you have to understand that we have more opportunities for young people than other countries where we see more tennis players coming up. Tennis in some places in the world is seen as a rare chance to escape and make a good living. They really work so hard at it. Here, tennis tends to be more upper and middle class, and maybe in those environments people are not as hungry.”
“We do still need to make the sport more inclusive here.”
Rubin said she took up the game because both her parents played – although education was, by far, the thing they stressed the most to her. And while she freely acknowledged it was intimidating to have to sub in for BJK, she never considered turning down the request from her former Fed Cup captain.
“I would never say no to Billie,” Rubin said.
So you know what happened? It all turned out great. The local girls champions marched into the room to applause. The award winners’ videos played, they were presented their awards, and everybody felt genuinely uplifted. Then Rubin, who of course had no time to prepare a keynote speech, instead had a Q & A with Phillips, who also does sports broadcasting work.
It was charming, funny, insightful … and I’d bet when people left the luncheon, they weren’t thinking about the fact that BJK had not been there. They were thinking, “Wow, I want to get out and run … and play … and I don’t want to forget how good I feel now.”
BJK has promised she’ll come next year, and that will be awesome. But this year, with a “last-second” guest who showed grace under pressure and achieved the equivalent of a straight-set victory, we got something we didn’t quite expect.
Proof that even when legends can’t be some place, their spirit can. It can be there through all of us.