ROBERT SMITH, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Robert Smith in Washington, D.C., sitting in for Neal Conan.
Last year I was assigned to cover a press conference at Rutgers University. I'm normally a reporter here. The radio host Don Imus had made a terrible sexist and racist joke about the women's basketball team there. And I went to there gymnasium to hear their response. I have to say most of us reporters expected to see victims on the stage there - to hear pain and anger and demands for his firing. Instead with the Rutgers team showed the world that day was pure dignity. And for those of us that didn't follow basketball, we were introduced to a remarkable figure, the Rutgers coach, C. Vivian Stringer.
Ms. C. VIVIAN STRINGER (Head Coach, Rutgers University Women's Basketball Team; Author, "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph"): It's not about the Rutgers women's basketball team, it's about women. Are women hoes? Think about that. Would you have wanted your daughter to have been called that? It's not about they as black people or is nappy headed. It's about us as a people.
SMITH: There wasn't a better person to stand there at that point in history. C. Vivian Stringer had the confidence of one of the women's - greatest women's basketball coaches of all time. She has 800 wins under her belt and has taken three different schools including her current team Rutgers to the final four.
But Stringer had also led a life of challenges that made facing up to Imus seem easy by comparison. She grew up the daughter of a coalminer, integrated a cheerleading squad, coped with death and injury and sickness in her own family. C. Vivian Stringer has written a new book about her life and her struggles, it's called "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph." She'll be joining us in a second.
Later in the hour, more women that rock literally. We'll talk about a new documentary about a rock-and-roll camp for girls. But first, do you have a question for Coach Stringer? How have you been able to show strength in the face of adversity? Has the story of the Rutgers basketball team changed your life? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com, and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Joining us now from WCTC in New Brunswick, New Jersey is C. Vivian Stringer.
Coach Stringer, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you, Robert. Thanks for having me on your show.
SMITH: Now I have to say, for most people that media firestorms surrounding the Don Imus remarks would have been the defining moment or perhaps the harrowing moment of a life. In your new book, it only comes up at the very end in the last chapter. I mean, how do you place this incident in the whole context of your whole life?
Ms. STRINGER: You know, Robert, I think as you said, the Don Imus issue was a small issue as compared to so many other things that I had faced. And you know, in my preparation for my players, not only in their success on a basketball court but in their preparation for life. You know, this was what life coaching basketball and these young ladies for life was all about.
So I think that through the many tragedies and triumphs that I've had personally as my life has been paralleled with great success on the basketball court but to at a loss moment in my life, you know, in my personal life with my husband that I lost and as I took my team, Iowa to the final four. While that was a great moment in my life I had just lost my husband earlier that year to a heart attack. And the same thing happened when I had taken the Cheyney University team to their first ever NCAA championship. Our husband - Nina had been stricken with meningitis, a 14-month-old daughter that was very healthy and then all of a sudden because of a misdiagnosis, you know, was never able to walk or talk or move again.
And so, you know, through those trials and those great joys - moments, I've also understood and learned how to stand but more than learning is not me, it's people. It's all of us helping one another to overcome the difficult moments in our lives, and that's what I tried to explained in my book, "Standing tall," that this isn't a basketball book at all, so much as it is a transference of the issues that we deal with on a basketball court - winning and losing, finding another way to get it done. The failures and the successes that we have in life that are definition of who we are is extremely important, not what we are, that is, as a radio host or me as a basketball coach.
The comments made by Don Imus as opposed to what we are. Our attempt was to explain, now this is who we are. And I think that the young ladies with the dignity and poise that they garnered - stood there just made me extremely proud because at the end of the day while we do work to win games, we also work for these young ladies to be able to represent themselves and to be able to take a special place in a special stage in life. And I thought that the moment that when they had to step to the stage, so many people didn't realize that the two young ladies have represented our team, Essence Carson and Heather Zurich are two very quiet, shy, obviously bright, young ladies.
But these people would be in a room for 24 hours, you may get a couple of words from them. But at that moment, they stepped up; when they needed to step up and stand tall, they did, and that became, you know, a defining moment for our team.
SMITH: Well, and it showed people - a lot of people when they hear a lie, just tell somebody that it's a lie, what I saw that day was you showing the world that it was a lie. You didn't need to say it was a lie, you could just show them what you got.
Ms. STRINGER: Isn't that important at the end of the day because we can all say one thing but what's important is what we do. And I think that so many people that we heard from - this wasn't something that we asked for. It wasn't that we were asking for Don Imus' resignation. As you know, it was important that we defined ourselves and we tried to help the nation to understand that we as a people need to be concerned about how we treat one another in what say that it's not okay to demean human beings.
And what's most important because I speak of this in my book when I first had to do that as a cheerleader, I didn't want to because I didn't want friction; it's much easier to fade into the corner and to not worry about whether or not I was put on a cheerleading squad. I didn't want that but when asked, and knowing that, you know what, Vivian, you need to step up and to remember the words of my father because in growing in a small coalmining town, in Edenborn, Pennsylvania where people seldom travel outside of a 50-mile radius. And the coalmining life - it's extremely difficult because you risk your life every day. But my father always taught me and my siblings that it's important that you honor yourself, that you respect yourself, that you speak of what you believe to be important because what's important is that you think it.
And you know, when all of a sudden, these players were thrust into the spotlight. All I had to do was remember what my father had taught me, how to stand up because as he said to me, you know, if you don't stand up for something, you'll fall for anything. But the truth of the matter is maybe it's not about you and maybe it's not even for you because I didn't want to go before the school board to be presented, you know, as a cheerleader, that I should have been on that squad. He said, but it is for our future generations.
And I know that the way the young ladies stood up. And I needed to share that with them because always there's a transference of life - basketball to life's lessons. I needed to share that with them because by their nature, you know, they wouldn't have said anything but because they honestly, innocently ask the question why but I'm hoping that this book will inspire people whether they are 7 or 70 or live in Chicago or, you know, in the hinterlands or, you know, in Arizona that a person will when they read this book they'll realize this is not a basketball book - not at all. This is a life book.
SMITH: We're speaking with C. Vivian Stringer, head coach of the Rutgers University women's basketball team about her life and her new book, "Standing Tall." We're taking your phone calls at 800-989-8255, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's speak with Pat now. Pat is on the line from San Francisco.
PAT (Caller): Oh, hello, Mrs. Stringer. I just wanted to say…
Ms. STRINGER: Hi Pat.
PAT: …I raced home so I could use my home phone instead of my cell phone but I followed this story with utter shock and dismay and I admire your grace and your strength in just standing up for decency. I have three children that play sports at the high school and college level and I didn't know you'd written a book. I'd like to read it, and that my question for you is: Are you going to run for president?
Ms. STRINGER: Oh, please.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STRINGER: You know, (unintelligible). Thank you, you're so kind. I'm fortunate enough to have run just to the basketball court and back and trying to take care of my family, you know.
PAT: Well, the world's a better place for you. Thank you very much.
SMITH: Well, thanks for your phone call, Pat.
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you so much.
SMITH: Let's speak with Daniel. Daniel is on the line from Jacksonville, Florida.
DANIEL (Caller): I'd like to say I admire you very much, that you showed great strength. Your parents did a great job in raising you.
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you.
DANIEL: Also I'd like you to know that some of the comments that were made by this gentleman and his producer - people ignored what the producer said. That man used some words that he had to research and find those young ladies were called jigaboos and pickaninnies. And that's not everyday language, that's language from a hundred years ago. And my main question is, do you think Mr. Imus learned anything at all in his experience, because to the sadness of us all, he is back on the radio and just as loud and (unintelligible) as ever. Do you personally believe it impacted him positively or negatively in his beliefs as a man?
Ms. STRINGER: Well, you know, I believe that his wife was probably more positively impacted, I would see it like that. I have no way of measuring what he personally has experienced other than the fact that I haven't heard that he said that again. You know, and as you know, the team didn't call for his resignation because I do think that people have the right to have a job, but I sure hope so.
I am fully aware of the other the other words that were used and there was a reference to the Spike Lee movie, but I think that you have to go out of your way to try to hurt someone. But what was important for us to pick up and learn from that is that, you know what, no matter what, we can't let others make us feel inferior that my father taught me a long time ago that you hold your head high, that, you know, you have an honest day's work for an honest day's living. My father lost both of his legs by the time he was 45 years old and he died by the time he was 47. But I saw him, even after his legs were taken off, that he went to work each and every day.
So, I'm driven, I'm inspired, I try to drive the young ladies that I have, I lost my husband while coaching at the University of Iowa to, I mean, to a heart attack and here he was, 47 years old and, you know, we want to give up on life, you know? Do you really think that this Don Imus was enough to make me stop? You know, it only drove me more to know that I've got to give strength to young people, you know, that things aren't going to always be right. Sometimes you will have worked hard enough to have won the game but you don't. You know, sometimes, you are more than qualified for the job but you don't get it.
DANIEL: That's right.
SMITH: We need to take a break now. Thanks for your phone call, Daniel. And thank you C. Vivian Stringer. We'll be back with you in a moment.
We are talking with the head coach of Rutgers University women's basketball team, C. Vivian Stringer, about her new memoir, "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph." And we are taking your questions at 800-989-8255.
I'm Robert Smith. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Robert Smith in Washington, in for Neal Conan.
We're talking with C. Vivian Stringer this hour. She's the head coach of Rutgers University women's basketball team, and she's published a new memoir called "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph." You can find an excerpt from "Standing Tall" at our Web site npr.org/talk. There you can read about Vivian Stringer's unique honeymoon, which she spent playing in her softball league's world championships.
And of course, we're taking your questions for Coach Stringer this hour. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, our e-mail address is email@example.com, and check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Coach Stringer, you are a soft-spoken person but not when you're in a huddle. Let's listen to you rallying the girls for a game against Tennessee.
(Soundbite of documentary)
Ms. STRINGER: We are the greatest team that there ever is. Tennessee is done. Checkmate. Take it off. It's done. This orange is finished. And for (unintelligible). Great job!
SMITH: That's an old clip from a documentary which featured your team. Where does that energy come from? Are you a different person when you're there on the court?
Ms. STRINGER: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am driven. I am seriously driven. I mean, I'm just driven to excellence. I just want everyone to give everything that they can. I'm never going to cheat my players. I want to give them everything that I can and I expect the same thing from them. And you know, at the end of the day, as a coach, you have to be one that motivates, that drives, that inspires to help them to see beyond what it is that they can see at that time and, you know, of course, with the likes of a Tennessee being a perennial power, you're looking in the face of the players and the coach has got to be inspiring to them, and so that's what that was. I was surprised that you played that. That was incredible.
SMITH: Well, you've mentioned how you've faced these struggles in your personal life; when you get on the court, does that disappear from your head or do you use that and funnel that into what you are giving to your women?
Ms. STRINGER: No. You know what, Robert, it drives me. It motivates me. I'm not looking for an excuse, you know? As I was telling my players, I said, you know, all I have to do is to think about my dad and to know that he lost both of his legs and he never took a day off. As soon as he was out of the hospital, the rehab center, he was back at work.
You know, I feel grateful for the opportunities that I have and when things are tough, I want to get back up because, really, what I understood is that we all need to help. I needed an angel. It was my family that gave me the inspiration. It's not about how much money you have, it not about anything other than what's in your soul, what's in your heart, what's in your dreams; are you willing to pay the price? And so, I just want people that are driven to excellence, to think enough of themselves, that they stand up and that they're counted.
And so the examples, you know, when I lost my husband, I ended up, you know, then leaving the University of Iowa, coming to New Jersey, and within two years of being here, I find out that I have breast cancer, so it's like, well, how am I going to take care of my two sons who are still so young, they're in junior high school and high school? How am I going to take care of my daughter? You know, the love of my live, my husband is gone. But yet, we've got to live what we talk about. And with that, the challenge for me was to remember one that, just like I was left without a spouse, that there are hundreds and thousands of husbands and wives that are left in difficult situations and that somehow, some way, we pick ourselves up and we go forward, that we got to stand up and we've got to be counted, but that it was family that helped me. It was friends that helped me.
When I found out I had breast cancer, the woman who spoke to me late at night from California, I have never met, you know? And it reminded me that when I was in a hospital, going up and down the corridors at Children's Hospital wanting to speak to rabbis, priests, ministers anyone that would talk to me, to understand why my healthy daughter at 14 months was devastated like this. And as we prayed and lived every day in a hospital waiting and hoping that she would make it for those six months, I was told so often that, you know what, all of us have a cross to bear and that, you know, we are never given more than what we can handle and that through our experiences we can help others.
Well, at the time, I didn't understand that, but you know, it would be so many years later, 20-some years later, that here I am in New Jersey and when I found out I had breast cancer, didn't want to tell anyone, I didn't even tell my children until more than about three years ago. You know what, it was a person, that got on the phone that helped me. So I just believe that we all need each other and we all continue to support each other in order to make it in this life.
SMITH: And in fact you tell a story when this Imus controversy was going on, but before you spoke to the nation, you tell a story about a person who sent a short text message to you in another dark hour you had.
Ms. STRINGER: Yeah. Isn't that amazing? You know…
SMITH: And that was - do you want to tell us who that was?
Ms. STRINGER: Yeah. It was Howard White, and he is one of the executives at Nike, and our team was sponsored by Nike. As we sat there, because the real story - oh, my goodness - the real story was this fine group of young women who had inspired me and anyone who has ever coached or anyone who has ever seen the downtrodden, you know, come of age, because this group, you know, of five people who had a horrible start that were not mentally or physically equipped for all of this, somehow through perseverance and belief in one's self rose to the point where they were playing for the national championship. They saw the sign that said "…and then there were two." That was the real story.
And so, and actually, when you play for the national championship, you lose — you initially feel sorry and sad but, you know, within in a short amount of time, you'd be able to reflect and know that this was a great accomplishment, there were only two teams in the nation standing. Well, as I am sitting here, trying to explain or talk to them, I was telling the team how grateful I was to have continued to coach because after I lost my husband to a heart attack while I was at the University of Iowa, I was convinced that I would never coach again, you know. And somehow, you know, I continued on and I'm grateful because all those years was worth this one year just to see, you know, young people just so resilient. Obviously we didn't know about the Don Imus thing, but as I'm talking to this team, all of a sudden I see this text that says, Viv, you know, they said something like, realized that I know that you didn't win the national championship, put perhaps God has another plan for you, you know? I just said that little smile and I thought, you know, my spirit has been so lifted with the performance of this team. They taught me so much because I told them they were the worst team in the world. But less than 48 hours, you know, when these words were uttered by Don Imus and to see the hurt on their face, I mean, I can't tell you how much I cried, I was so angry and hurt that anyone would hurt these young people who had to be, you know, our gift to society to let us know that everything's okay, these young people, we're in good hands. Why would we destroy them?
SMITH: And Coach, we have a lot of people who want to ask you questions so we're going to go to some of our callers now. Ron(ph) is on the line from Iowa City, go ahead Ron.
RON (Caller): Hi Coach Stringer. It's a great pleasure to hear you.
Ms. STRINGER: Hi Ron. How are you?
RON: I'm well. When you lived here, I lived just a few blocks away from you. And, you know, we always felt that you were such an important part of the community here in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa.
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you.
RON: You are such a class act, and so I do have a question. Based on your fierce competitive spirit that they played from the documentary shows that, and those of us who saw you on the sidelines know that, how do you maintain that level of class and professionalism and the same time, that level of competitive spirit that you have that some of the head coaches - to be quite blunt - don't. You're a coach that this whole community was proud of and sad to see you go, and you're still loved here, by the way. And so how do you…
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you.
RON: How do you hope to inspire that in young people who want to be coaches or how would you like to see the face of coaching change in this country to reflect that?
Ms. STRINGER: You know, this is a passion. I don't know if you knew, but when we would win or lose, and it wasn't that often while I coached at the University of Iowa, I would really cry. And I cried because I loved the people. I wanted to give all of our fans there in Iowa everything. You know, I felt so fortunate to be able to coach, and I only want players that are driven, that have that same compassion. It's not about the money. It's not about anything other than the fact that for anything that we do in life, let's just do it to the best of our ability and when I can cause people to smile and feel good, I can't give you enough.
So I think to appeal to the human spirit but because we can still be friends. You know, it doesn't matter whether I'm playing against the people at Perdue or Connecticut or Tennessee, I think that what we need to display, because I've always felt this in my heart, is that I'm going to compete with the best of them and I'm going to play and prepare to win. But at the end of the game, you know what, lets just be decent human beings because a basketball coach is what I am, but what's more important is who I am and who are the people are.
SMITH: Thanks for your phone call, Ron. Let's go to April(ph). April is with us from Temecula, California.
APRIL (Caller): Hi Coach Stringer. I just wanted to say that as a woman I respect you and I admire you. You're courageous in the face of what you had to face and all those young women, you handled it with such class and ease. But now my concern is, and I do have young people, my son and daughter are in their early twenties, and I'm curious, how do you feel though about, you know, possible double standard in this country in regards to the things that are said, the comments that are made. A lot of times they say in these communities, well, you know, we talk about what we see. But, you know, talking about women using those - what does that have to do with about, you know, with, you know, things that they see in their community? I think it's an excuse and I think, you know, it's got to stop. That's what's going to bridge the gap is, you know, we have to respect one another and not use that kind of language and label one another. And I just want - I'd like to hear your comments off the line.
Ms. STRINGER: I think that what I was saying is that I think that the Imus situation spoke to a much bigger problem. That he said it was reason for people to reflect that, you know, through Imus. But the truth of the matter is that we all needed a correction in our society. And within our book, that's why I was so proud of our young ladies in the way that they stood up. But it was the way that my parents taught to not make excuses or apologies but it is about respect. You know, you give respect, you'd get respect. And how we were going to handle that situation was most important, and that is that we can't help that people may say things that are hurtful to us but we can help how we respond it.
And so I'm hopeful that everyone who reads the book will see and anyone who saw us in action would know that, you know what, yes, you can be classy even if people are less than that. You know…
SMITH: Well, you must have seen language not this bad but certainly sexist language throughout your career, at times at which your team was referred to by their looks as girls, as not being up to men's athletics. I mean, that must be a common thing to hear as you move through women's college athletics?
Ms. STRINGER: Yeah, but, you know, I think that all women sports people or participants I think have heard a little slight, a comment that isn't as endearing as a male participant. But it tends to be more broad. Well, the issue here was that it was very pointed specifically to this team because I may not have spoken for everyone but it was an attack on our team specifically. But as I would say to my sons, as I've said to rappers or anyone else, you know, that time is over. We don't have any excuse, you know, just as Imus doesn't have an excuse, I don't have an excuse. That is happening - why do accept that? We don't have to accept that and we don't need to accept that.
But I challenge my young ladies to respect themselves and cause everyone else around them to respect themselves because it first starts with you. It's the way you respect yourself. We just were in a situation as you know that we did not ask for but that we found ourselves all of a sudden propelled and we just needed to step up and speak up.
SMITH: We're speaking with C. Vivian Stringer, head coach of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Arlen(ph) now. Arlen's calling us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Go ahead.
ARLEN (Caller): Hello Coach Stringer.
Ms. STRINGER: Hi Arlen.
ARLEN: I saw your team play at an NCAA tournament last year in East Lansing, Michigan. My teammates' daughter actually asked if we could go and see that game so she's a big fan of yours as well.
Ms. STRINGER: Oh, great.
ARLEN: My question for you is this: My daughter is a gifted student, a talented athlete and I've seen a lot of other young female athletes fall to distractions and be unable to stay focused in the classroom and on the court; my question to you is - and I'll take the answer off the air - but my question to you is: how do you challenge your players to stay focused in the classroom and focused on the court? Thank you.
SMITH: Thanks, Arlen.
Ms. STRINGER: Well, keep in mind that just as we know, there are high standards that are required, so if a student is not performing in the classroom, they will not be on the basketball court or a football field anyway. So that and you want to have great competitors but you're going to have people that when you recruit them, know that you trust them and you believe that they are capable of all things, and you want to see winners. You want to see winners in the classroom and winners that are on the basketball court because those are the only people that end up ultimately winning at the highest level.
But my whole point is, yes, I want to win and obviously, you know, I work hard at that. But at the end of the day, I consider winning is that we're - I consider where each person has come from, what their talent levels are, where they may could have come from, and where they're going, and basically how they started and more importantly how they finish. And that's what - that we continue to emphasize and we've been fortunate because we've just gotten some outstanding players.
SMITH: Let's speak with Phil(ph) now. Phil is in South Bend, Illinois - I'm sorry - Indiana. Of course.
PHIL (Caller): Hi Coach Stringer. This is Phil Badger(ph) from - I was on the campus in Iowa City when you were there. I was over in Physics(ph) and just wanted to ask you how you're getting along from the standpoint of being closer to your family now as a (unintelligible) from the standpoint of being so isolated from Iowa City.
SMITH: Well, it's a good question, after all you've been through, in the book, are you in a good place now?
Ms. STRINGER: Well, I am. First of all, my two sisters still live in Iowa City, so the Hawkeye State has been and will always be, and I have a brother that has a business in Iowa City. So I have been, will always be, that will always be my love.
You know, and as you know, I lost my husband while coaching in at University of Iowa. And so that was the reason more than anything else that I needed to demonstrate what I continue to tell the young people that, you know, when things happen, we've got a way to get up and to go on; and so just in making that change, I've been challenged with a lot of things but I'm here and grateful that I'm still able to coach basketball.
PHIL: Yeah, I was there - a couple of Rutgers team when you guys came to the Joy Center and I was going to come up and say hello but I didn't have the guts to but…
Ms. STRINGER: Why didn't you? I don't even believe you said that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STRINGER: Oh, I feel bad. You really - that hurt my feelings.
PHIL: Well, next time in - at the Joy Center, I'll make it a point to say hello.
SMITH: There you go.
Ms. STRINGER: Next year, please come.
SMITH: Thanks for you phone call, Phil.
Just briefly, Coach Stringer, how's the team looking for next year?
Ms. STRINGER: You know, we're still in it. The NCAAs will be announced Monday. And prior to last week, we were the number four team in the country. But you know what? A perfect example, we had three anterior cruciates(ph), I've only had six players that have ever had an anterior cruciates in my lifetime and only - and three of them happened this year. So once again as demonstrated in this book, no, it's not a basketball book. It's a book about life; it's about life. And that's what I'm hoping that people will read because, you know what, it's enough that it's happened, and this book, "Standing Tall," it's enough to make you want to stop doing everything. But we're going to be fighting. You're going to see the fighting spirit because as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have hope and dreams in our heart…
SMITH: Coach Stringer…
Ms. STRINGER: …and somehow, we'll make it…
SMITH: Coach Stringer, thank you so much for joining TALK OF THE NATION.
C. Vivian Stringer is…
Ms. STRINGER: Thank you.
SMITH: …the head coach of Rutgers University women's basketball team. She's also the author of "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph." She joined us from WCTC in News Brunswick, New Jersey.
Coming up, girls rock, seriously, they do a rock-and-roll camp in Portland, Oregon.
I'm Robert Smith. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.