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.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Guru's Musings: Reflecting With Debbie Black -- A New Philly Hall of Famer

(Guru's note: There will be much more when we get closer to Debbie Black's Philly Hall induction but here's a Guru story for now off a phone call and other things to hold you over. And down in this post are some notes from last weekend in Washington talking about some of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductees and other items.

Directly below this overall post is the definitive Doug (DD) as in Feinberg writethru on AP of the USA women's game. If you are in melgreenberg.com just click mel's blog on left to get to full blogspot archive.)


By Mel Greenberg

It was a big week for Ohio State and Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia in terms of hall of famers in women's basketball, which also showed there's not many degrees of separation from the individuals and one Geno Auriemma -- the Hall of Fame UConn coach who is now a step higher, if that is possible, guiding the USABasketball Women's Squad in the forthcoming Olympics in London.

First, Buckeyes coach Jim Foster, who also guided the Hawks and Vanderbilt, previously, was named on Monday to the 2o13 six-member class of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

Foster gave Auriemma his first women's coaching job as an assistant when Foster was hired at Saint Joseph's.

Then Tamika Williams Raymond was named to the Ohio basketball hall of fame. She played for Auriemma at UConn and was an assistant to Foster with the Buckeyes.

Those honors were quickly followed Thursday with the announcement that former Hawks star Debbie Black, the Archbishop Wood graduate who played for Foster at St. Joe's and is now an assistant to him at Ohio State, was named to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

You should know that Auriemma was on the ballot but did not get picked, though maybe the Philly officials will use their allowed powers and add him if his WNBA All-Star team disguised as Olympians win the gold when the competition concludes in London early next month.

Black also beat out former Phillies and Cincinnati great Pete Rose.

"I know people might have their reasons but that's too bad in a way," Black said in a discussion this week. "I always wanted to meet him. Growing up I styled myself after him -- you know Charlie Hustle and all that."

She was Debbie Hustle and Bustle for people who always watched the fireplug Black scamper all over the place for the Hawks and later as an All-Star for the Colorado Xplosion in the former American Basketball League and Miami Sol and Connecticut Sun in the WNBA.

"I couldn't get to the press conference for the announcement," Black said. "But my dad was there and, you know, I'm in a couple of Halls of Fame already but this one really looks like a big deal and special.

"I'm looking forward to it (Sept. 8 at the Sheraton Society Hill). I heard they really make the event special."

Black is also in the the Big Five, Saint Joseph's Women's Basketball and Saint Joseph's (all inclusive) and Bucks County chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Halls of Fame.

Following her Saint Joseph's career, which was highlighted by the Atlantic 10 wars of the time when she would go womano-to-womano against (now Duquesne coach) Suzie McConnell-Serio when Penn State was in the conference, Black spent eight years in Australia playing for the Tasmanian Islanders.

Of course when she returned to stateside and persons across the nation got to see her play, the comment was she may have been a Tasmanian Islander but on the court she's the Tasmanian Devil.

Opponents used to compare her to a gnat with her defensive getting up in people's faces, some much taller than her.

Being away in Australia and pre-dating Dawn Staley and Jen Rizzotti, Black did not go against those two point guard legends who were household names in the sport, until she returned, playing in the ABL.

Besides playing for Foster, she played for coaching notables Ron Rothstein in Miami with the former Sol and Mike Thibault in Connecticut, where Black is a strong candidate to land perhaps on the second five of the Sun teams of the decade soon to be announced to celebrate the 10th year of the franchise after moving from Orlando.

Black recently told the Connecticut Sun broadcast she feels like she owes Foster one more year before looking to guide her own program.

She also played in the then-named Philadelphia Dept. of Recreation NCAA Women's Basketball Summer League.

"I hear it is all indoors now," said Black of Warminister, near where the two-nights-a-week Philadelphia/Suburban NCAA Women's Basketball Summer League competes in Hatboro in lower Bucks County.

"It's so different now. When I played it was all outdoors. Great atmosphere. Who cared how hot it was. Just suck it up, grab your bottles off water and play," Black laughed.

Black's sister Barbara also played for the Hawks.

The Guru has a million tales of the Debbie Black experience, but these are a few to entertain for now.

Back when La Salle's gym was really tiny, the Hawks were part of the Explorers' holiday tournament field when Black was a freshman.

In the opener they played then-rising power Western Kentucky, coached by Paul Sanderford and featuring Clemette Haskins, notable in her own right and the daughter of men's coach Clem Haskins.

The Hilltoppers were nationally ranked but Black was in Haskins face the whole night, though Saint Joseph's trailed by 11 points late in the game.

Foster's strategy was to keep fouling and it was successful because WK kept missing from the line and then the Hawks would score, rallying to force overtime.

Early in the extra period, Haskins had enough of Black and nailed her with a haymaker getting Haskins tossed out of the game and the Hawks prevailed.

Sanderford, initially thought Black was getting away with stuff and not being called for fouls, but a year or so later he decided she was, indeed, a great defensive star. Anyhow, the next night the Hawks came back from a deep deficit at halftime to beat now-Rutgers' coach C. Vivian Stringer's first Iowa team.

(That's a story for another day from the Hawkeyes' version of what occurred).

The next week Saint Joseph's earned its first AP ranking under Foster.

That brings us to 1996 when the ABL held a major combine in Atlanta to slice a ton of candidates from early in the week to about 100 or so to become part of the league's first draft.

The Guru to save a few pennies and see things more focused didn't head South until the back end of the week when nitty gritty time was approaching.

As he got to the gym, a colleague no longer on the planet but who had become the women's basketball beat writer for the Los Angeles Times greeted the Guru upon his arrival with the following:

"I've been here all week and there's this kid from Australia who's made every cut and she's sensational," the Guru was told.

"What's her name?" the Guru asked.

"Debbie Black."

"Debbie Black," the Guru exclaimed. "I covered Debbie Black before you were born (he was actually much older). Jim Foster owes his career to Debbie Black."

But Black had no major ambitions other than to get home and catch on with a team in some way," Black said then and repeated those past thoughts this week. "I don't mind sitting on the bench."

Well, Black was drafted but played behind a former Colorado star in Denver when the season started. But within a matter of games, Black was in the lineup and in one famous game she had a triple double in a game that had several overtimes, even though she hurt her back.

When the ABL folded Black landed in the WNBA and by now had actually gained some long overdue national notoriety.

One of the great individual rivalries was against Teresa Weatherspoon, now coaching her alma mater Louisiana Tech but who played for the New York Liberty.

Black would get booed unmercifully by the Garden crowd in appreciation, actually, when her name would be announced in the lineup.

One season the Guru's sports editor of the time at The Inquirer wanted to attend a game to take his daughter, who attended St. Joe camps, to the Garden for her birthday.

The Guru hooked him up with someone to buy seats and they ended up on row one right where the teams come out of the court.

Before the game the Guru took the two into the Miami locker room -- New York, with Rebecca Lobo, had already closed -- and they were introduced to Black and all that.

Ever the ambassador of the game, Black started a conversation with the birthday girl.

The Guru, incidentally, had thought New York was going to win so he originally was focused on the Liberty to make his brownie points with the boss.

Anyhow, near the end of the half Black and Weatherspoon got into it all the way past the buzzer and spilling into the laps of the birthday guests.

"Does this always happen like this up here," the boss asked the Guru, who responded: "Only when you are here."

Well, as it turned out, the game was close the rest of the way, Miami won at the end and as they came off the court, Black yelled to the birthday girl," Hey, come back. We'll talk more about being a point guard."

Black, who was a teammate at Wood for several seasons with former La Salle star and now Boston U. coach Kelly Greenberg, had her own traveling fan club because of her large and vocal family.

If the other side was doing well, one could say, "Wow. the team just took the Black delegation in the stands right out of the game."

In 1997 at the Women's Final Four in Cincinnati, UConn, after its previous two seasons of success with a title and a semifinals appearance, did not make the national semifinals, freeing up Auriemma to his formative years on the social circuit at all the parties.

The ABL was in force in meet-and-greet mode then in competition for talent with the soon-to-be-launched WNBA.

And so it was that Black got into a discussion at one event with Auriemma, as far back as those two went from their Philly past in the Catholic League.

Geno was Geno, and when talking about Black's alma mater and his days playing for Kenrick, in the Catholic League, he referred to traveling to play Wood: "I used to tell my mother, Hey mom. I'll be back in a couple of days. We're taking the wagon train to go play Wood."

Black was starting to get incensed a little about all this and then the subject of Foster came up. Geno again being Geno, and it wasn't always Pat Summitt at the receiving end of his jibes, said something that really got Black going.

Fearing the worst, Black's delegation hustled her away.

The next day, Black cornered the Guru, saying, "Hey, I didn't know they were good friends. I've been in Australia for eight years. You have to help me catch up and let me know whos is who."

Anyhow, that's for starters.

In Praise of Jim Foster

Meanwhile, in doing the story on Foster's induction announcement for The Inquirer earlier this week, several quotes hit the cutting room floor because of space limitations.

No such problem on this blog, eh?

Anyhow, while in Washington for the USA training sessions and exhibition with Brazil, the Guru talked about Foster with Carol Callan, head of the USA's women's programs but also the current president of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame board of directors.

Callan and Foster go way back because of his USA involvement and the Guru, surmising because of their long relationship, that she made the call to inform him of his honor. So he asked her to talk about Foster a bit and this is what she had to say:

"Jim has impacted the game in more ways than most. He, himself, is such a humble guy that he doesn't like attention brought to himself, but he understands the greater recognition, not just for him, but for the universities he's been, the players that he's coached, the coaches that he's coached with and he's very honored," Callan began.

"What's interesting about Jim is his work with USABasketball. He's coached every competition, even as a head coach except at this most senior level and then he was an assistant there and he's been a coach at every level, therefore, as a head coach or assistant.

"He's been on committees several times that's selected players and coaches. He's so well respected in his way of approaching at things and looking at things. He understands that it's not the traditional look at something. He comes at it from all angles and he provokes thought. And in our setting that is the biggest key."

USA UConn-Polooza

Auriemma has been asked non-stop about the 12-member squad containing six of his former Huskies players.

Last week, here was the way he gave his take on it in Washington to the Guru: "Rebecca (Lobo) made the Olympic team. Kara (Wolters) was on the Olympic team.

"Svetlana (Abrosimova) was on the Russian team. So now to have this group of players here it makes you feel so proud of them, personally, and they had a vehicle at UConn that allowed them to get to this point.

"That means a lot to us up at school. That's where they grew up. And when they first started, this certainly wasn't the goal. Come to my school and I'll make you an Olympian. That's too far fetched. But for all them at this time, you would have been hard pressed to predict that at any time.

"I said this before when I was named the national team coach: 'Don't pick one of my players because they played for me. And don't not pick them because they played for me. They all deserve this on their own merits. What they've done since they left UConn is what got them on this team, not their career at Connecicut."

Sue Wicks and Jen Rizzotti Honored

Another of the six inductees is former Rutgers star Sue Wicks, who also was a WNBA All-Star for the New York Liberty and selected as one of the first five players last season on the team's Ring of Honor.

UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey, who is helping conduct practices for Auriemma and is with the contingent in London along with his other Huskies assistants as scouts viewing USA opponents, is a former Rutgers star who was involved in recruiting Wicks.

She and Auriemma both recollected Wicks' career.

"I saw all her games out in the middle of nowhere," Dailey said of traveling to Wicks' town of Center Moriches on Long Island.

"She ran on the balls of her feet, she had unbelievable footwork. And at the time she was a 6-2 post player with guard skills and at the time you didn't see a lot of that back then. Just a tremendous player."

Former UConn star Jen Rizzotti, now a coach of Hartford, is also an inductee.

Reflecting on seeing her for the first time when recruiting Rizzotti, Dailey recalled,"She was playing AAU. The ball went out of bounds. There was sweat on the floor or water on the floor and instead of waiting for the towel person to come out, she sat down and swished it with her butt and got up and played.

"She wanted to keep playing. She was always one of those kids at her size, she would always get the ball on the rim -- some kids can't do that. Jen could always get the ball in traffic and get the ball on the rim. Just one of the toughest most competitive players we've ever had."

As for Auriemma on Wicks, whom he dealt with as a broadcaster on WNBA games, he compared her to Wicks' Rutgers coach Theresa Grentz, a Women's Basketball Hall of Famer who played at Immaculata.

"I remember her at Rutgers;. Chris talks very highly of Sue and I got a chance to know her a little bit with her career in the WNBA and always thought she was a precursor of what was going to happen.

"She was the kind of player that didn't exist at that time. When I watched her play, I thought, `Man, She's Theresa Grentz to the next level. Theresa was a great player and now Theresa gets to coach Sue who was the modern version of Theresa.' And now you get Maya Moore or Candace Parker who are the next level of Sue Wicks.

"Great person. Enjoyed getting to know her."

Sister Act

Another inductee is Peggie Gillom, whose sister Jen is already an inductee and is currently an assistant coach with the USA squad as well as the WNBA Washington Mystics.

Both played at Mississippi for Hall of Famer Van Chancellor, the 2004 Olympic coach.

Jen spoke of her sister's honor and what it meant to the Gillom family: "I'm so proud of what we have accomplishment in our coaching careers and playing careers.

"It's not often you get two siblings that have coached the Olympic team. I've always been Peggie's little sister and followed in her footsteps and told her sometimes we joke, "Hey Peggie, I got a gold medal as a player and you don't.

"But you know I'm so happy for both of us. My mom is extremely ecstatic she's had two daughters accomplish such a great honor. The family back home look at it -- it's just amazing, two women come from a small town we come from that has accomplished so much.

"I just told her, I hope I can come back with a gold medal like she did."

Growing Up in USA

Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee star who was last season's MVP with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, has gone from a youngster on her first Olympic team to a senior leader on her third and talked about the transition .

Her father, incidentally, is Harvey Catchings who played for the Philadelphia 76ers.

"It is amazing as we've gotten older and wiser, I'm looking at these younger players and these are the ones who are going to carry the torch from here on out.

"The fun part of being part of the USA family is just watching players develop over the years. The way the system is now, you have 21 players you are training and from that 21 you pick 12 but you always have players you can lean back on -- worst case scenario in case someone gets injured -- but I think when you look at the players we have here, I'm excited about the talent we have. And if everybody brings what they have to the table, this can be one of the best teams of all time."

Since Catchings is one of the few who can now say they have played for both Tennessee's Summitt and Connecticut's Auriemma -- the top two of the all-time coaches in the women's game -- shes spoke of the experience.

"The style is a little different. But when you look at the success both of them have had -- Geno's had a lot of success, Pat's had a lot of success, so being able to get the best out of your players is the number one thing both of them have had.

"The styles are a little different but at the end of the day you want a coach that wants the best for you and out of you. And both of them have that.

"The intensity is a little different at practice but that's because you have different players. The focus is there. The determination for what we want to do and what we're trying to accomplish -- we all have that. We all have the passion and love for the game. Every player who's played for USA has always had that."

And that's it for now.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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