Butterflies danced in my stomach the day I received the letter, awarding me a coaching spot in Geno Auriemma’s Summer Basketball Camp.
The selection to participate was an unanticipated honor for me as a 28-year-old coach, who just finished his first season as the head basketball coach at the high school where I taught.
In the weeks leading up to my flight, I found myself searching for excuses not to fly from Nebraska to Connecticut. Sure, it was a great opportunity for a young coach, but I had a fear of flying, and paired with self-doubt, I almost convinced myself not to go.
I was the first camp coach to arrive in Storrs that day. There was no welcome party. Instead, I walked around the beautiful campus by myself and waited for additional coaches to arrive.
By late afternoon the others had arrived. Suddenly, I found myself in a room full of college coaches brought in to help with camp. It was obvious that they were returning from the previous summer. They were confident and knew the drill.
Before long, we were all led to a fieldhouse where we were given camp rosters and were asked to watch our predetermined teams and others scrimmage. There would be a pizza party for the coaches afterwards where we could then swap players to help balance teams so that every group would be competitive during the week.
This is when I first met Diana Taurasi.
Diana immediately made an impression on me. She was bubbly, spirited, and her voice commanded the room. Her presence felt larger than life. Diana had just finished her sophomore season, winning the first of three straight national championships with her team.
I stood alone in a corner, chewing on a slice of pizza, reviewing my team roster.
Diana made her way over to me and introduced herself.
She asked me questions about who I was, where I coached, and she let me know that she was coaching at camp, too.
She said, “This is your first time doing this, huh?”
I said, “Yeah, can you tell?”
We shared a laugh and she said, “Listen, I want you to have a good time this week at camp. Were you able to watch your team?”
“Not really,” I said.
She said, “Well, let me help you out. I noticed you might have one of the least skilled kids in camp. My roster is loaded. Why don’t we make a trade – I don't want you to be stuck with a bad team this week. There’s nothing worse than having your team lose every game at camp.”
I said, “We don’t have to do that. I’d feel terrible making a trade like that.”
She insisted, “No, really, it’s fine. Let’s just do the trade.”
So, I agreed – and we swapped players.
The next day, I coached my team in our first game. Just before the half, Diana strolled up beside me, bouncing a basketball with her magnetic smile stretching from one ear to the next. She said with a laugh, “How’s it going?”
I responded with a side-eye glance. Diana’s laugh doubled her over and she staggered away guffawing and cackling.
The trade we made wasn’t quite as Diana had framed it. She had stolen my best player and gave me her worst.
However, her shenanigan proved to be a great icebreaker. It brought me out of my shell and made me feel like I belonged at camp. Moreover, it was a building block for our friendship during my two weeks in Storrs.
After a couple of days, Diana started chirping at me about taking me in a game of one-on-one. I laughed at her and told her, “You don’t want none of this.”
And I truly believed she didn’t. I grew up with a basketball in hand. When I was in 8th grade, a Division-1 coach made the trip to watch me play. Before reconstructive surgery on my knee during my junior season, I had my eyes set on playing for a big school. When that didn’t happen, I pursued professional baseball, and eventually found myself at a D2 school where I focused on earning a degree.
While at the D2, the Head Women’s Coach asked me to scrimmage against her team during practice to give them a challenging look. So, I did. And while they were very good, I had no problem scoring.
Before my last year at the D2, the Head Men’s Coach asked me to join the team. I spent the Spring with them before deciding to finish my studies instead of being with the team in the Fall.
I say all of this to provide some background. I could play. And at 28, I was in the best shape of my life.
None of this stopped Diana from pestering me. So, one day, I finally gave in.
Diana was owning the court, taking on all challengers. I watched her take down three different people, who offered no real challenge to her. She toyed with each with an array of dribble moves and fallaway jumpers.
I stood on the sidelines watching and when she tossed the ball at my feet and smiled, I picked it up and said, “Okay.”
We played to ten by ones – win by two.
At first, I tried to play cool, but the first time she bodychecked me, I knew she wasn’t messing around. My competitive juices started flowing and I decided to give it all I had.
I was quicker, thought I was stronger, and found out quickly, Diana was a better basketball player than me.
Ignorantly, throughout our game, I kept thinking, “No way am I going to lose to a girl – can’t happen – won’t happen.”
But, Diana taught me that day – females are just as capable of being equally athletic and skilled – and in the case of how I compared to her – she was beyond my equal.
When our game was over, and she had won, Diana continued to laugh and talk smack (in a fun, spirited way). Truth is, she never doubted the outcome. She knew her abilities and my gender or skill level didn’t matter to her.
Later that week, I watched Diana and four female high school athletes hold court against the members of the UCONN men’s basketball team – with Diana hitting a fadeaway three for the game-winner, 21 to 20.
After two weeks in Storrs, it was time for me to leave. On the last day, I looked for Diana in a crowd of campers and parents but didn’t see her. I wanted to say goodbye. As the crowd thinned, she was nowhere to be found. I had accepted that I wouldn’t see her again and headed toward the exit, where a car waited outside to shuffle me back to the Hartford airport.
As I approached the door, I heard a voice calling for me from behind. It was Diana, she jogged over and hugged me. She said, “I’m glad I caught you. I had to go get something for you from my room.”
I looked at her curiously as she reached into her backpack and pulled out a pair of uniform shorts.
She said, “I wore these in the national championship game last year, and I want you to have them.”
I refused by saying, “I can’t take these.”
She laughed and said, “After what I did to you with the trade, you deserve them. Besides, I want you to always be reminded of who’s the better basketball player.”
I thanked Diana and gave her one more hug and said goodbye.
All these years later, Diana Taurasi has proven to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever play – male or female. The impression she left on me taught me a firsthand valuable lesson to never underestimate anyone based on their gender.
Female athletes deserve respect. They deserve equal treatment. They’re not only smart, skilled, talented, and athletic – but they can flat out play – just ask me, I know.
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