Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Guru Review: 2001 Big East Title Game Book Worth A Trophy

By Mel Greenberg
Women’s Hoops Guru


Earlier this month, after Notre Dame had edged DePaul to meet Connecticut for the Big East championship in Hartford, Irish sophomore star guard Skylar Diggins was asked about the time the two schools last met for the conference title in 2001, which was then played on the Huskies’ campus in nearby Storrs.

She was 10 years old growing up in Indiana back then and unlike this time around when Connecticut won a little, but not much, easier, the 2001 championship was decided by Huskies all-time great Sue Bird going coast to coast and hitting a pull-up jumper as time expired.

“I remember I was a fan watching it,” Diggins said. “I believe Sue Bird hit the shot and they wrote a book about it. I don’t like that book.”

Memo to Skylar from the Guru: Read the book.

Why?

Because Bird at the Buzzer, written by former Hartford Courant women’s beat writer Jeff Goldberg, who covered the Huskies from 2001 to 2006 and was freelancing for the Chicago Tribune that night, is not exactly what the title might imply.

Last month when Notre Dame visited Villanova for a Big East matchup, the Guru made it clear to the Irish contingent, with whom he has a history drawn from coach Muffet McGraw’s local roots as a star at St. Joseph’s, that Goldberg’s work is simply not just another UConn women’s book.

Yes the focus and centerpiece is the title contest, which Goldberg suggests is the greatest game ever played in the sport in terms of who were on the rosters and what the long-range effects afterwards were on the sport.

But it is also a history of not one, but two outstanding women’s basketball programs.

Goldberg doesn’t forget for one moment, and it is all there at the end, on how Notre Dame bounced back from the loss and went on to beat UConn in the NCAA semifinals and then outlast Purdue in St. Louis to win its first national title.

Before going on in this pseudo book review – for more extensive reviews, just hit the google button on your technological devices for all the critiques out there to date – here are the particulars in terms of publication.

The University of Nebraska Press publishes Bird at the Buzzer, listed in hardcover at $29.95.

Goldberg, a friend and colleague – he also is now the Red Sox beat writer for Metro Boston – first told the Guru about his plans for the book and premise over a year ago.

At first listen, the Guru thought the Notre Dame-UConn game was certainly a classic – the Guru was not on the scene having been barred by weather further north after covering the Atlantic 10 women in Washington.

But whether calling it the definitive game might be a stretch.

However, after being held indoors following this past Christmas due to another snow last December, the Guru killed the day going cover-to-cover courtesy of an advance copy of Bird at the Buzzer.

And before even getting to the halfway point the Guru decided that Goldberg’s point is well taken.

That same snow in 2001 that put the Guru out of commission also put Goldberg on the scene because the Chicago Tribune regular writer was unable to fly into Hartford.

Goldberg has told many on his tour already in interviews that his first thought upon leaving Gampel Pavilion that night was that someone would eventually write a book about what transpired never realizing a decade later he would be the one.

Incidentally, he noted that remark to his Courant colleague Matt Eagan, the women’s beat writer that season, who provides extra tidbits with recollections in the book.

Goldberg did one other things beforehand that night, he told the Guru.

“For some reason, I taped the game back home that night and never have I been so happy in my life as I’ve been over the fact that I did,” Goldberg laughed when the Guru phoned in the Guru’s compliments on the book.

The reason for his joy is in writing the book, he was able to have viewing sessions with many of the individuals – McGraw, Ruth Riley and others from the Notre Dame side; Geno Auriemma, Diana Taurasi, Bird, and Shea Ralph on the UConn side, to name a few.

For most of them, it was their first glimpse of a recording since playing the game that night and in certain situations Goldberg went to a slow down frame-by-frame view to draw their recollections.

Which is the next point in what makes this a must-read for fans of the sport well beyond those who particularly follow either Notre Dame or UConn.

For the newer fan, all the elements of a good read are there – the joy of Notre Dame finally beating Connecticut in South Bend during the season to the pathos when Huskies all-American Shea Ralph goes down with another knee injury ending her collegiate career during the game.

Goldberg takes the reader behind the scenes to inside the trainer’s room where Ralph lies in agony, in one of many vignettes and confidences.

However, what Goldberg has done for someone like the Guru who has been alongside both Notre Dame and UConn from their early growth into national powers is present a written movie.

The Guru recalls all the moments of elation for McGraw and her head coaching start at Lehigh at the collegiate level after coaching Archbishop Carroll in the prestigious Catholic League in Philadelphia and the suburbs.

There are the Auriemma postgame press conferences, which may have been more entertaining back then, though who knows what’s ahead the next few weeks if Auriemma and his group make it to the Philadelphia Regional final at Temple’s 10,200-seat Liacouras Center.

In 2000, he was back near his boyhood home in suburban Norristown when UConn beat Tennessee for the NCAA title at the then-named Wachovia Center.

While the writers who have been on the beat remember many events through their own eyes, Goldberg adds to those recollections in the skillful way he paints the picture of the thoughts of everyone else involved with both teams at the same moments.

Rutgers fans will particularly find interesting the way Goldberg goes back to the night of the semifinals when the weather elements delayed play because of a leak in the Gampel roof.

Goldberg gives an account of a little tet-a-tet with the media at the postgame press conference that Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer offered to rebut a characterization of her team by a UConn columnist after the two schools had met several weeks earlier.

WNBA fans who were not around at the time can be given a look at many of today’s pro stars as they were at the collegiate level, especially considering the names in the lineups that night as noted at the beginning of this effort by the Guru.

In conclusion, no matter what UConn does the next several weeks – or Notre Dame -- Goldberg has himself a champion product.

-- Mel

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