Coaching Through Crisis: How Teams Get Through Rough Spots
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And we'd like to thank all of you who've send messages since last Friday's announcement that after 21 years, this program will sign off at the end of June. But we have three months of radio left to produce, lots left to talk about.
Today many are still talking about the gruesome injury Louisville Cardinal Ken Ware suffered last night as many millions watched the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Ware fell awkwardly right in front of the Louisville Bench. His teammates and coach Rick Pitino watched in horror as his leg snapped in two places. Then they pulled together to beat Duke and advance to the final four.
We want to talk with coaches today about adversity, what you and your team did to get through it on the court or on the field or more especially off it, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, guest workers as Congress prepares to debate a new immigration bill. But first coaching through crisis. Mike Pesca is NPR's sports correspondent, joins us from our bureau in New York. Mike, always good to have you on the program.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And last night, well, that's just a terrible thing in Louisville.
PESCA: Oh my gosh, and when Kevin Ware went down, the announcer doing the game didn't immediately note it, that was Jim Nance. But then there was an odd camera angle, and the viewer might have been saying why are they showing all these Louisville players just standing around. And that's when Jim Nance's announcing partner said a horrible injury has been suffered.
But the good news is that Kevin Ware has successfully come out of surgery. He - this is a time, since as you said it was a compound fracture, and the bone went through the skin, this is a time when infection could set in. But if he gets through the next 48 hours - and all of this information is coming from a press conference Rick Pitino, the coach of Louisville, did today - if he gets through the next 48 hours he should be fine.
And the other interesting thing that Rick Pitino said in terms of basketball is that if Kevin weren't saying just go out and win it for us, just go out and win it for us, I don't know if we could have been as focused. Right after the injury, Louisville is a great team, and they were doing well, but they definitely seemed affected. They played sloppy for the next few minutes, and they were outscored by Duke six to three.
But soon something clicked, and, you know, maybe this is us retroactively saying - you know, there are swings in the game. So maybe it would've happened had there been no injury. But it did seem like they got together, they went into halftime with the lead, and while Duke came out and tied the game in the second half, Louisville just blew them away.
And I've got to believe that a lot of the things that Rick Pitino instills in his team and the qualities that make him a good coach, showed up in how Louisville played. They're great. They're great at defense, but also they're really tenacious, and they were really tenacious in the face of this horrible injury that had to affect them on an athletic level and on a personal level.
CONAN: Certainly, well, a life-threatening and maybe a life-changing injury.
PESCA: Yeah, it was - you know, there's the natural revulsion, actually, that we don't even have a conscious control over, and it affected everyone. It definitely seemed to affect the Louisville players more. But even the Duke players, you know, fans, cheerleaders, everyone, was just turning away.
Interesting, I was having a conversation with a psychologist, a sports psychologist friend of mine, the day that the game was played. And he was pointing to - he does work in sports and also with the military. There are interesting studies being done by the Navy and the University of San Diego that look into a key part of success in sports and also success under fire, and that is ability to effect - shift your effect, to quickly go from a situation that is going against you and to quickly put that aside and to get on with it.
And they say top-level performers, top-level athletes, the Olympic gold medal winner as opposed to the Olympic 12th-place winner, seem to have this ability. We don't know if it's innate. We don't know if it can be coached, though there is some indication that it can. But the ability to deal with adversity and that you put it behind and you go on and achieve a top level of performance does correlate with winning.
CONAN: We'll get back to you, Mike, in just a minute, but we want to get to somebody who knows better than you or me. Leon Barmore coached the Louisiana Tech University's women's basketball team from 1982 to 2002, led them to an NCAA championship in 1988. He's the member - he's a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Woman's Basketball Hall of Fame and joins us now by phone from his home in Rustin, Louisiana. Thanks very much for being with us today.
LEON BARMORE: You're very welcome.
CONAN: And I understand you had a not dissimilar situation with an injured player in a crucial game, as well.
BARMORE: Yes, I was watching the game yesterday, and that was horrible, and I compliment Rick Pitino and the way he handled that and those players. And it was a remarkable thing they did on recover from that because man, that was so sad to see. But in 1996, we were playing Georgia, Andy Landers, who is, in fact, playing tonight to reach the final four. Andy had a good team, an we were 31 and one, ourselves, at Louisiana Tech. And we were playing in Stephen F. Austin - Nacogdoches - in the regional championship game, just like he's playing tonight.
And I can remember pretty well. We had about a 10- or 12-point lead with 14 minutes to go in the second half. And our center, and Maquisha Walker was her name, she's about a 6'1" outstanding player, caught a pass and was going in for the lay up. And he knee buckled, and she just tore it up. And it was not quite as visibly as ugly as yesterday and where, but she fell behind the backboard.
And this was a nationally televised game, and I was the first one to her. And it was horrible. It was a leg, that it went limp, and the knee itself had pretty much distorted itself. And the main thing that I was trying to do, and it was, like I said, a national televised game, was when I got over to her, I tried to make sure she didn't see it because it was making me sick just like Coach Pitino and everybody watching yesterday.
And when we finally got her off the court on a stretcher and out of the arena, we didn't handle it as well as a team. And I don't know if it was girls, or I don't know what, because it was as traumatic for us as it was yesterday, but we proceeded to lose that game and never played very well. The next 14 minutes, Coach Landers' team, and like I said they were good - Saudia Roundtree was one of the best guards in America.
We not only lost that 10- or 12-point lead, they beat us by double figures. So those next 14 minutes, Louisiana Tech at that time and my team at that time, it was something that we just were not able to do what Louisville did yesterday.
CONAN: And as you think back to it, there had to have been your thoughts - or the other players' thoughts have to have been with your player in the locker room, what's wrong.
BARMORE: Well without question, and they knew it was severe. And in fact, yesterday, I didn't hear Ware holler out that much. This girl that I'm talking about with us in '96, she was screaming. I mean, you could hear - that's why I thought if she ever had looked down at it, I'm not sure what would have happened to her mentally. But we kept that away from her. But I mean, it was bad.
And trying to get the team - and I can't remember all the things that happened in the game after that far as the X and O part, but I just know that for whatever reason, I was not able to do what Pitino did. I've even thought about, since I knew I was going to talk to you guys. I know Coach Pitino presses, and, you know, the kind of style of play, once they got back out on the floor yesterday with the Louisville team, they were doing so many things defensively and changing and here and press and - you know, that might have helped because their minds are racing into the game.
And but anyway, I marvel at how well they adjusted yesterday because that could have been just a hundred degree - 180-degree turnaround where they could have lost the entire game.
CONAN: Was that the greatest challenge, the greatest adversity you faced in your long career?
BARMORE: Oh, well I don't know. I know as far as an injury, yes, that that moment - now I've had other kids. I had Nora Lewis one year at Old Dominion, she tore up her knee in Norfolk, Virginia, same type deal, a long pass. It was kind of freaky because here's two players in my career that caught a pass over their shoulder, came to a jump stop, and their knee just buckled.
And so as far as the loss of the game with Laquisha Walker to Andy Landers and Georgia, that was not only defeat but also the loss of a child there. That was probably about as bad as it ever got for me.
CONAN: And did she - was she able to come back from that injury?
BARMORE: You know, we all went to the hospital that night in Nacogdoches, and we brought her back to Rustin, which is about a three-hour drive, and she had surgery the next day. And, you know, she tried to play, in fact never really - she played again but not ever to the point she was. It didn't - and I understand that - I know Coach Pitino was talking about yesterday that this young man will be about a year, and they've got good doctors. I understand all that.
And I hope he does, and plays again. But this particular girl I'm talking about did play again but with a knee brace and never really recovered totally.
CONAN: And did she go on to enjoy success in her life?
BARMORE: Oh yes absolutely. She got her degree. She is very successful now in the business world and just a wonderful girl. But athletic-wise, that - and I'm wanting to think she may have been a junior that year with one year left. I'm pretty sure that's kind of the way it was.
CONAN: Well, and we're glad that at least she's walking and having a normal life, not an athlete's life but a normal life.
BARMORE: Yes, sir, she got over that injury as far as being a normal person walking and all that, but playing the game again. She did play, now, but it was not the same player.
CONAN: Well, Coach Barmore, thank you for sharing your story. We appreciate your time. We know you've got some other things to do.
BARMORE: Well, thank you for asking me, and I certainly wish Louisville - they are a very great team, and I know that was a young man on their team that they all love dearly, and I hope he recovers and plays to his fullest again.
CONAN: Leon Barmore coached the Louisiana Tech women's team from 1982 to 2002. he's a basketball hall-of-famer. He spoke with us from his home in Rustin, Louisiana. And Mike Pesca, yes both Louisville teams are going on. The women's team won a pretty important game last night, too.
PESCA: Against a team that Lynn Nair(ph) was the assistant coach for up until a couple years ago. Louisville women beat Baylor. Baylor was on a 32-game win streak. They have Brittney Griner, the greatest woman in college basketball history, perhaps. And it was a stunning, stunning upset, I would think the biggest upset not in terms of seed, a 16 Harvard actually beat Stanford once, who was a one seed, but just in terms of a team that seemed unstoppable. This was as big an upset as you get.
CONAN: If you coached your team through a crisis, call, tell us how you did it, 800-989-8255. Send us an email, email@example.com. We'll be back after a short break with more from NPR's Mike Pesca. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Coaches lead their team through victories and defeats on the court and on the field. Sometimes the usual ups and downs are interrupted by more dramatic lows, like yesterday when Kevin Ware left the NCAA tournament on a stretcher, his leg broken in two places. His Louisville Cardinals went on to win.
Today, Ware was up and getting around on crutches after successful surgery, though Louisville sports medicine director says after a lengthy recovery Ware should be able to return to basketball. He hopes to be able to support his team from the bench this weekend at the Final Four in Atlanta.
Coaches, today we want to hear from you. How did you and your team endure a tremendous challenge? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter. That's @totn. And Mike Pesca, NPR sports correspondent, is our guest from New York. And Mike, you think of so many challenges, and yes, basketball, football, hockey, all of these are games and yet life intervenes, and something terrible happens on the court.
You think of Hank Gathers, who died, and there are terrible moments that happen that programs can't recover from, and University of Maryland, Len Bias, that program destroyed actually when he died after a cocaine overdose.
PESCA: Right, and, you know, there was of course criminality involved in that, and there were investigations. So, I mean, this situation is obviously a lot different from a death and a lot different from anything that anyone did wrong other than, you know, a horrible act of happenstance.
But you're right to talk about life and death and teams. And I think that, you know, I have a little theory about Rick Pitino. First of all, I talked to Kevin Ware at length during the games they played in Lexington, those were their first two games. He was suspended for a game, and his main point in explaining it was that he was being denied his family.
When he was away from the team, he's like this is the family to me, it's exactly like I wasn't with my family. And I think that sense - and it's not unique to Pitino. Most of the coaches at this level and the players believe in that idea of family and that they've all bonded towards each other. But that's the sort of thing that maybe helped his team get through that.
Now it's a weird and perverse thing because it's not always - there's almost a sociopathic element to being able to put aside this horrific, horrific thing. And maybe those women basketball players from Louisiana Tech who we were hearing about, or LSU, maybe they were just human in the moment, and how could you blame anyone for that.
But, you know, Pitino earlier this year, their great guard, Peyton Siva, was having some trouble, actually it was last year. His girlfriend, Peyton Siva's girlfriend's grandfather had died. And Peyton was trying to comfort his girlfriend. And here's Pitino talking: Peyton's problem was that he was too much of a people pleaser. His girlfriend's grandfather died, and she was very close to her grandfather. He was trying to devote more time to her because she needed him at that time.
So that's good, right? That's something that we want from our players, to be empathetic like that. But Pitino said: I finally said to him, look Peyton, you're trying to please the world, man. It doesn't work like that. You're in basketball season. You got to start paying a little attention to the person in the mirror and just take care of yourself emotionally so that we can get through this season.
And I think that idea, that kind of bunker mentality, us against the world, we're a family, we have to do it for each other, possibly helped the team regroup in that situation.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Jared(ph), Jared on the line with us from Santa Barbara.
JARED: Yes, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I had a similar experience, although it wasn't in a national televised game. It actually wasn't even a game; it was in practice. But I had a player landed, tib-fib compound fracture, and I was probably five feet from him, just really traumatic. And he had the surgery that Ware had and had a rod put in and tried to come back the next season and really couldn't play with it.
The pain was too great. The rod wouldn't flex, and the bone would, and he'd feel it anytime he landed and cut. The next year he had the rod removed and came back and played. And the difference in our team, we obviously lost a 6'5" really great shooter and a great kid, we didn't play very well the year he went down.
We were less deep and emotionally I think, you know, everybody's looking around, who's going to fill his shoes. When he came back, the difference was basketball was a gift to him, and he had lost - you know, he hadn't lost hope. He's a fighter. But when he came back he played basketball with so much passion. It was very invigorating to the team.
And to see what happened yesterday, there's no question, I think had Ware not said what he said, there's no way those guys could've refocused. But Pitino coaches emotionally. He really values that team dynamic that your person was talking about. And they are a family. And when he said just win the game, he was able to switch that filter, that affect that you were talking about.
And it was amazing. It was hard to watch because I heard the sound of the bones breaking when my player landed, and I still to this day heard it. Last night I couldn't sleep because I was just thinking about that whole thing. But it was amazing what they did.
CONAN: It is amazing, and Jared, was there a moment where you were tempted to give the win-one-for-the-Gipper speech in that season?
JARED: Not really. I think what I did do when he came back the following season was talk about, you know, the toughness. And I remember there was one game, we had a pretty big lead against our rival, and they cut it to four, and they were just driving to the hole and getting easy layups. And I asked the team, you know, we just need somebody to step up and draw a charge. Who's it going to be? Any of you can do it.
And no surprise who it was, the kid who had broken his leg. And he came up with a big charge and very emotionally. And I think everybody stood up after that game and realized it. And we had a very successful season. We ended up being ranked second in our division. And he was a big reason for it. Of course, he's 6'5", lefty and can shoot.
CONAN: Those are three good reasons, too, yeah.
JARED: I didn't give the speech, you know, win one for him. It was kind of obvious. But what - and I don't think Pitino necessarily, you know, pulled on that. I think the player did it. And Pitino was visibly shaken. I mean, it took me a long time. I was in the hospital with him. I would go over and visit him at his house. And it was hard for me to accept that, you know, he might not be able to come back and play.
And I would be shocked if Ware was the same player with a rod in his leg. I don't - just having that experience with my player. But I certainly wish him the best, and that was really hard to watch.
CONAN: Jared, thanks very much for the call.
JARED: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Coach David(ph): I've coached youth sports for over a decade. The reason we're so impressed when adversity is overcome is because usually it's not. We see so many stories of heroes, we come to expect them. But after losing a key player or facing a difficult situation, the reality is the team usually, nearly always, does lose. Congrats to Louisville for an amazing win.
And I wonder, Mike, and I know you did a piece last week on coaches and the different ways they motivate their teams and the, yeah, the rah-rah style of a Coach Pitino, very emotional, the much more - well, a doer approach of a Jim Boeheim from Syracuse University. They would have approached it differently. I'm not sure the result would have been any different.
PESCA: Right, and teams definitely feed off their coaches. The very important thing that the coach we just heard from said is he just kind of offhandedly said of course the guy's 6'5" and a good shooter. It's very important to the story that Louisville is an excellent team. They are a superior team to Duke. So what didn't happen was that a team that was actually overmatched drew such inspiration that they won the game, like, you know, what we think about the 1980 men's hockey team, the miracle on ice.
So I think a lot of people who maybe look at this a little cynically will say come on, is it really the case that, you know, one team wanted it more, or one team believed more. And it's not. It's not that they believed more, but there's such motivation from many different ways going on at these tops levels, top level of NCAA basketball.
Last week I talked to Thurl Bailey, who was a member of Jim Valvano's 1983 team that shockingly beat Houston in a big upset. And, you know, he talked about the motivational abilities of Jim Valvano. But the thing is that it's not as if only his team was motivated, or his team was more motivated. It's just that at the high level, they all have such motivation.
It's very easy for us to say wow, all those guys are fantastic athletes. We could perceive that just by looking at the TV. I'm constantly impressed by what great motivators all the very good coaches are, the coaches that have gotten to the Final Four or the Elite Eight.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mike(ph), and Mike's on the line with us from Denver.
MIKE: Hey, how's it going? Thanks for having me, guys.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.
MIKE: Hey, I was just - I used to be the ski-jumping coach, the Nordic ski-jumping coach for the U.S. Ski Team, and obviously being an extreme sport, there were some times when there were some pretty serious injuries. And I just think about, you know, my recollection of it, and there were two separate instances where it was a massive head injury, and the people had to get helicoptered out of there.
And my - when I reacted emotionally, I couldn't get out of that place. And I was coaching six other athletes in an extreme sport. It really, really brought them down. And I was really surprised to see Coach Pitino crying yesterday on the sidelines because, you know, I just - as a coach you can't - I feel like you can't, and you're trained not to put yourself in that emotional place because your team is looking to you for guidance, and if you're an emotional wreck, they're going to be an emotional wreck. And if you can't find yourself out of that, then how do you go on playing a game or a sport? You know what I mean?
CONAN: With that training, after those terrible injuries you described, were you able to focus and continue?
MIKE: Well, one time I was, and one time I wasn't. And obviously the one time I wasn't, I was not there for the rest of the team. I was there - I was not there in the role and the training that - the hours and hours and hours and - that these kids had put towards this was taken away because of my emotional distraction because of what had happened.
And then the other time, because I had gone through that situation, I knew that I could deal with the situation of the injured athlete, and then I could then put it aside and then go back to my focus and my training and all the time that had been put on there.
And, you know, like you guys were saying, it's all about the training that these guys have, the talent they have. It's not always about the motivation. It's about what have they done before they're there to prepare for that particular thing and not letting something emotional get in the way.
CONAN: Easier said than done, as you suggest, Mike. But thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Yeah. Thank you, guys.
CONAN: And it's interesting, Mike Pesca. As you think back to some of the situations, there's the terrible moment that I think a lot of us saw on TV where Joe Theismann, the quarterback for the Washington Redskins, his leg was broken in a tackle by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. And what a lot of people don't remember is the Washington Redskins came back to win that game.
PESCA: Yeah. And Joe Theismann, actually, has been in touch with Kevin Ware. He tweeted immediately, and he's actually, according to Pitino, spoken to him in the hospital. And that ended Theismann's career, and it's an iconic sports injury.
But I always struggle to try to separate the success on the field and the winning - you know, the - football is a sport of offense and defense. So even if the Redskins' defense came up and, you know, shut the Giants out from that point, is it because they were so inspired or because they were a good defense, you know? Sometimes the outcome doesn't match the Disney movie, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't valiant behavior displayed on the field.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca about coaching and what happens in the crisis of, well, Kevin Ware last night at Louisville - the player for Louisville, rather, who broke - had a compound fracture in his leg in an awful accident. Nobody's fault, just landed awkwardly, right in front of the bench, in front of his teammates and his coach, who then went on to win the game. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And another question, Mike, that people will have is, boy, yeah, they came back - well, they wouldn't have to come back, but they held on to win that game and go on to the Final Four. Next time around, maybe that emotion is not going to be there.
PESCA: And maybe Kevin Ware is not going to be there. You know, he's an important part of their guard rotation. Their fourth guard in that rotation now has to step up is a walk-on. So that will affect things. I mean, if you look at their match-up to be - oh, I don't think it's crass. I mean, this is what people are doing. They're looking at Wichita...
PESCA: ...and they're saying Louisville has just been so dominant this tournament.
CONAN: Wichita, the Cinderella of this...
PESCA: Wichita is a Cinderella, and Wichita - there's not one starter on Wichita who would have been - well, maybe there's one, Malcolm Armstead. But most of their starters wouldn't have been recruited to a school like Louisville. So let's say that Louisville wins. They now have a very tough opponent in the finals, Syracuse and Michigan.
And, hey, you know what, Michigan - Syracuse has a player, Michael Carter-Williams, whose family's house burned down during the first week of play. So there's some motivation there, although because of the personality of Jim Boeheim, when asked about it, Boeheim just said, yeah, you know, they have insurance, and our hearts go out for them. But, really, I don't think it bothers him that much. Is that the case, or is that Rick Pitino is an emoter and an emotional guy and Jim Boeheim is the son of a mortician and a dour guy?
CONAN: And both of them, of course, extremely successful at what they do. It's going to be interesting to see what...
PESCA: There are different ways to make the Basketball Hall of Fame, and they've done it.
CONAN: And they've both done it. We can't let you go, Mike, without looking at the women's tournament as well, as you mentioned earlier, that enormous upset. Baylor had been projected by everybody to be the prohibitive favorite to win. All of a sudden, it's wide open.
PESCA: It is. And I think UConn is seeing a bigger path to the final. I think Notre Dame is too. Stanford, another number one seed, they lost to Georgia. So the men's, I think we've all been saying - and this is true - that the men's field is really wide open, and let's not continue to be shocked that teams like Butler, VCU or this year Wichita make it.
I don't know if we're seeing that phenomenon with the women's field. I think that we're seeing, you know, good game plans and maybe some lax officiating in the Baylor game, all credit to Louisville, all credit to what they did. But, yeah. I mean, it does make it more exciting, right? When there's a juggernaut who can't be beat and they're not beat, we don't think it's exciting. But when anyone can win, let's tune in and see, you know, if a Cinderella can pull it off.
CONAN: And the women's field traditionally has been limited to just a few really, really good programs and a bunch of also-rans. As you suggest, maybe that's beginning to change.
PESCA: Maybe it is. You know, I still think UConn is a really top team. I think Notre Dame is a top team. I think maybe what happened was that we got that one-in-a-hundred result against Baylor. I think Brittney Griner, you put her on any team and they're immediately going to be a number one seed. She's that good.
CONAN: And maybe, as you suggest, the best player in women's basketball collegiate history and ending her career in tremendous disappointment after, well, a tremendous year last year.
PESCA: Mm-hmm. And the number two player, Elena Delle Donne, who played for Delaware, and hers was an interesting story because she was recruited to UConn, only spent a day on campus. She had a sister who needed her at home, a sister with special needs. And she got emotional satisfaction out of being with and helping her sister, played for Delaware. She was a one-man band against the University of Kentucky over the weekend. She scored, I think, 33 points, but the Fightin' Blue Hens could not pull it off.
CONAN: Well, maybe next year. Maybe next year. Mike Pesca, thanks very much, and we look forward to your reporting as the basketball tournaments continue along their way.
PESCA: You're welcome. Take care.
CONAN: NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joined us from our bureau in New York. After a short break, NPR's Ron Elving will join us. Will this be the year that reforms to the U.S. guest-worker program get inaugurated? Well, that's a big part of the immigration reform bill that's being discussed in the United States Senate - the Gang of 8. Some say they are closer than others.
Nevertheless, we're expecting to see a bill maybe as soon as next week be talked about in the United States Senate. A big part of that, an agreement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a guest-worker program. That's an idea to bring in low-paid workers for - about 20,000 of them for U.S. industry. It's an idea where previous immigration bills have foundered. Maybe this one will prosper. We'll found out what's different about this bill and about what the motivations were for that agreement between two natural rivals. Stay with us.
And we'd also like to hear from those of you who worked as guest-workers and from those of you who hire guest-workers. What's going to be different this time around? What's your experience been in the past? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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