Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Basketball Legend Stepping Down at UVa

Debbie Ryan and Kay Yow (right) had a lot in common, but the one item that will remain strongest with me is the triple overtime game their basketball teams--the University of Virginia and N.C. State--played about 25 years ago. It was the best basketball game of any kind I ever saw. The final score was something like 124-121 in triple overtime--I don't even remember who won and it doesn't matter--and the game marked a turning point in national interest in the women's game, I think.

Ryan, the University of Virginia's coach for the past 34 years (nearly as long as Pat Summitt's 36 years at Tennessee) will step down at the end of this season and basketball will lose not only one of its best coaches, but also one of its best sportswomen.

She's a class act with 736 wins (Yow had 657, Summitt, who beat Ryan's Cavaliers 70-67 in overtime for the 1991 national title, has over 1,000), seven ACC Coach of the Year awards, 1991 national Coach of the Year, 24 NCAA tournament appearances and on and on. She, Yow and Summitt are all in the women's basketball hall of fame.

Yow has become the face of breast cancer nationally (all that pink women wear in their games is a direct contribution from Yow), since dying from it a few years. Ryan, too, is a pancreatic cancer survivor, but we don't know much about it because it's never been much of a public issue for her. She just coached on.

Ryan has always been one of the more popular coaches in women's basketball and even Geno Auriemma, the cranky Connecticut coach who doesn't seem to like anybody, gushes over Ryan, under whom he started as a coach. He says Ryan is responsible for just about everything good that's ever happened to him. Pat Summitt calls Ryan one of her best friends. (Read Katrina Waugh's marvelous piece in the local daily this a.m. Has all the stats and she talked to the notables. Nice reporting job.)

Women's basketball has never gotten out of hand the way the men's game has. The sense of outsized self-importance that seems to afflict the men doesn't exist in the women's game. The women can read and they graduate at unusually high rates. Pro basketball beckons some of them, but the pay rate--about $50,000 a year--isn't enough to tempt players from skipping most of their college years in order to play a game for a few years.

The women's game seems to remain in proper proportion to its overall importance and Debbie Ryan is partly responsible for that. She seems to know what is valuable and to impart that to her athletes.

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