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 29, 2018

Guru’s Musings: Reflecting on the Weekend Memorials for Rene Portland and Anne Donovan

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA — It was the end of April, 2010, a Friday night in the Sports Department section of The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom that the final hours of a more than 40 years of an active career of employment of your Guru were ticking to a close.

Of course, with economics dictating the move as much on this end, the Guru made it known to his followers the retirement was just from the paper and not to mow lawns, so to speak.

Though it was a work night on the desk on the schedule, nothing was being passed in this direction as opposed to the other times that tasks would come non-stop.

The paper had held its farewell in-house party the previous afternoon.

So with not much to do, a quick stroll was taken to chat with another colleague a bit.

Upon returning to the workstation, in that brief period a light on the phone became lit, indicating there was a voicemail recording.

So upon lifting the phone and pushing the retrieval button, came a vaguely familiar voice from a distant past.

“Hi Mel. This is a voice from your past. Rene Portland. I heard you are retiring and I just wanted to wish you well and remember all those late night calls we had with the poll and talking about the game in general and all you have done.

“I’m sure we will cross paths somewhere.”

Now this was a stunner because in the wake of her departure in 2007 from coaching  Penn State and soon thereafter move to the state of Indiana where her daughter Christine and son-in-law resided (he was an assistant WBB coach), very few people had heard from her — even some of the closest of the Immaculata family had gaps in communication and certainly no media member, no matter how close, either here or at Penn State was in the loop.

So it was amazing to receive that call, though your Guru eventually in a short time deduced how she got word.

Another few years went by and we finally did cross paths in Springfield, Mass., the year the Mighty Macs championship era squads were inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

We chatted a bit and I explained the circumstances of my decision to depart.

Soon thereafter we met again at her alma mater when those teams were inducted to the first Immaculata Athletics Hall of Fame and when I mentioned I had tried to get hold of her to comment on an area person here leaving the game, she then offered an updated cell number.

By then she had moved back from the Midwest to a home up in the Poconos.

A year went by, however, but when Immaculata notified me that I. was to be part of their next class, I phoned her with the news and we had a nice chat during which it became obvious that she really had disconnected from the current state of women’s basketball affairs for the most part.

Not long after that came news of her first cancer diagnosis but battler that she was, Portland fought her way to remission and a year ago your Guru wrote her program bio for her induction in November to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

The Guru made it to the event and she looked relatively fine, made a nice acceptance speech, and we had a good time with everyone reconnecting.

A few weeks later, however, came word of the return of the disease, which ultimately claimed her last weekend leading to today’s (Sunday) viewing in suburban Broomall, her hometown, and tomorrow morning’s service.

Many Guru stories of being around her through her entire coaching career were woven into the obituary written last weekend for The Inquirer and the longer version at this site.

But there are other moments.

Everytime the Guru made the trip to Happy Valley or at Lady Lions road games — especially in the era competing in the Atlantic 10 against Rutgers and her teammate Theresa Grentz on the other sideline, as well as Saint Joseph’s and Temple, upon first sighting, whether it was pre-game or at the postgame presser, upon her sighting to me, she would call out “It’s Official.”

Many PSU players will come to town today and gather later at a nearby establishment in the same manner the Old Dominion group of yesteryear gathered in Norfolk, Va., Saturday night, to also re-connect and attend Sunday’s second memorial to honor the sudden passing last month of all-timer Anne Donovan.

It wasn’t always roses in the Guru-Portland relationship.

One year in the AIAW era, there was the famous “Drum” incident late in the season when the Lady Lions in Rec Hall were beating Maryland like one and Women’s Hall of Fame coach Chris Weller pulled the Terrapins, claiming the incessant musical drum of the Blue and White was being played in violation of the rules.

So, such as AIAW was in an on-the-fly operations in the home office due to a sparse staff, because the game was critical to the coming regional pairings at the top also involving Rutgers and Cheyney (then coached by Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer), does the Maryland count as a forfeit or no game?

No Game was the decision given to the Guru, who in those days was essentially the AP of women’s coverage.

However, when the pairings for the EAIAW-IB bracket for the games at Penn’s Palestra were announced, the elders flipped the prior decision, declaring the game a forfeit meaning PSU would see Cheyney sooner potentially then Rutgers.

When the Guru put the word out, his phone rang soon thereafter and Portland non-stop decided to complain to the messenger. You guessed it.

Well, at some point your Guru had enough, and when she uttered the phrase, “Look, this isn’t about us playing Cheyney, we’re not afraid to play Cheyney, we’re just as happy to play Cheyney.”

Well, since journalistically, the Guru needed a reaction anyhow to the change, and because no stipulation was made at the other end early in the call, the Guru decided this was no longer a personal call, this was the Penn State coach complaining to The Inquirer.

No, Stringer never took me to dinner on that occasion for providing locker room material.

Cheyney won but both teams advanced to national round and soon thereafter it was back to normalcy.

The Rutgers/Penn State battles were famous and competitors that they were it was hard to believe that the two coaches were once beloved teammates.

Then suddenly, after several years of these battles, Portland, suddenly, had nice things to say about the opposition, especially, her lifelong relationship with Grentz, “If she ever needed me for anything, I would be there in an instant, and I’m sure she would be there for me.”

That certain has been true of Grentz since Portland was first diagnosed.

It is ironic that observances for Portland and Donovan, who was coached by Portland’s Mighty Macs teammate Marianne Stanley and whose sister Mary played at Penn State, come this particular weekend that also saw a successful WNBA All-Star game held in Minneapolis.

Surely, the roots for Saturday’s celebration in the Midwest can be found among builders such as the two pioneer icons being remembered this weekend.

The confluence of all these happenings certainly live up to the theme at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.: Honor the Past, Celebrate the Presence, and Promote the Future.



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