Before leaving for Knoxville, Tennessee, where she will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this evening, Oklahoma women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale sat down with sports editor Clay Horning for a discussion about the game and her place in it. The first question given the Sooner coach was to recount the day she had a basketball in her hands for the first time. Effusive when talking about the game and almost anything else, the Sooner skipper did not disappoint.
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Starla Cosper was a standout on the Healdton High School basketball team. She picked me up at my Granny’s house and took me to basketball camp at Plainview (in Ardmore), which was 20 minutes away when I was, I think, in third grade. And I had zero experience with a basketball until that moment. And I had a great time at basketball camp and fell in love with it and that was that …
I went to the Lindsay All-Star Camp every summer. Charlie Healty’s camp every summer, and I fell in love with the game. I didn’t think there was anything that the orange ball couldn’t cure. If I was happy, what I wanted to do was go play basketball. If I was sad, the basketball got me to the next thing. If I was mad, the basketball got me through it, whatever it was. It was a great game, because it didn’t require another person to get better at.
I didn’t have to have membership anywhere, I didn’t have to have any equipment. I had a ball, and I had a goal at my Granny and Papa’s house that was on a slanted driveway and I remember the big conversation being, do you want it to be the right height at the point of which you shoot a layup, or do you want it to be the right height at the point of which you shoot a free throw, because the driveway goes like this and we have to make a concession somewhere, and that’s where I learned to play. And if you missed right, it went all the way down the street and across Texas Street and that’s a long way to chase your ball, so you didn’t miss right very often.
Early on, it’s like most things, when you have a natural aptitude for it, you want to do it. And, for whatever reason, I could do things really fast … I could do ball handling drills really, really fast, and I would time myself on the linoleum floor. It was a place to put my competitive nature and it worked great because I could see accelerated success.
As I got older, I was completely enamored with the intricacies of the game. Everything about basketball makes sense to me. The angles, the spacing, the momentum, the timing. It’s this very elaborate dance that has a lid only if the people who are playing it have lids. So, just exponentially, [it] can become more beautiful, more intricate, more involved based on the ability level, mentally and physically, of the players who are playing it.
This dance that players have on the floor together: my ability to read you and your ability to read me and the nuances that exist and all those pauses between the notes are all so important in basketball and I’m enamored by that. I can’t get enough of how that affects the end result of the thing, and I think it’s so transferable from what we’re actually doing to life itself. It was a vehicle that made perfect sense for me as a way to understand the world. I think that’s why I loved English, I think that’s why I loved literature, because it’s a vehicle to understand the world. And I think sport is that as well, and basketball was that for me …
It was a foundation for how you do everything, you have to play off other people no matter what you do. If you want to have a successful organization, you have to do what’s best for the people around you and that has a reverberating effect … But at the beginning, it was just such a magnetic thing for my mind. I could see on any given play, all the things that could happen, and I was completely enthralled with trying to get in the middle of that and see what the best thing to do would be.
Great point guards … their level of capability rests on what they see. Some people just won’t ever see any more than they see and some will see things that I can’t see … That gives me life. I love that, I get excited about that. I can watch it all night long, I can talk about it all night long … It just makes sense to me.
When I think about my future in the game, I don’t ever think beyond the lines of the court. I don’t think about where it happens. I don’t think about a location, a level or any of that. I think about the game, about how much I still have to learn about the game and from the game, so it’s all inside those lines. That’s where I look into the future … How much more clearly can I teach to my players and how much more completely can I get a group of kids to understand and appreciate and apply how much they can learn from the game.
The game is interesting in that it runs like most things of style and interest do in the world. It comes in and out, like what’s vogue for a while and then not vogue later, and if you coach long enough, you see it come around again like my mother’s shoes. You know, “hang onto these because they’ll be in style again in 15 years,” and sure enough, here they are.
That kind of thing happens in basketball, too, and I think it’s interesting that it is always evolving. So there’s plenty still to learn about the game and I think the crux of teaching is how can you get players to know. It’s not what you know, but how you can get them to know things. So that method of reaching kids is forever changing.
Kids don’t learn the same way they used to. The process, the means by which we relay that information, shifts and changes with the way culture changes, with the way society changes.
I can’t imagine not doing this, because this is what I love to do, even when i have time off … I’ll never forget having a conversation with (Norman High boys coach) Tony Robinson at Norman High School, and he was talking about he loved to fish, he loved to go fishing on the weekends, it’s what he loved to do. And I said, “Fishing’s so slow. He said, “I love to fish, because that’s when I think about ball.” And I connected with that, I heard exactly what he was saying because what I do for fun is watch ball and think about ball, and that’s what I do for my job. Are you kidding me? How good can it get.
It’s a very difficult thought for me to entertain because a hall of famer to me is Marsha Sharp, Jody Conradt, Geno Auriemma, Pat Summit, I can go on down the list. There are people who are iconic in our sport, who I have looked up to and been mentored by, followed, been inspired by, I could go on and on. They are these giants way up here. It’s like the presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore, that’s what it is.
For me to be in a room with them is what the Hall of Fame means to me. I’m not one of them and I don’t profess to be. But to be in a room with … I feel like the underdressed kid in the store. Who let me in? There’s some dissonance there. I don’t really know what to do with all that right now. And maybe I will when I’m older or when I’m done coaching. Maybe it will hit me (tonight).