PISCATAWAY, N.J. — “Who the hell is Imus?”
C. Vivian Stringer said that was her first thought after hearing that wildly popular and equally opinionated radio personality Don Imus had branded her Rutgers women’s basketball team with a racist, sexist epithet that soon would start a national firestorm.
It was 2007 and Rutgers had made it all the way to the NCAA championship game before losing to Pat Summitt’s Tennessee team. They returned home looking to celebrate their incredible Final Four run, but instead found themselves confused and in pain after learning that Imus, then with WFAN, used racially and morally disparaging remarks to describe her team.
Today it is almost impossible to imagine someone using that language on a mainstream radio station. Stringer — and the way her team reacted — may be one reason why.
The coach and her Rutgers players called out Imus and won. His show was canceled.
As Stringer closes in on her 1,000th win — she heads into Sunday’s game against Michigan needing six victories to become the first African-American Division I college basketball coach and sixth coach overall to reach that mark — there is no doubt she is one of the game’s greatest coaches. She holds the distinction of leading three different schools to the Final Four: Rutgers in 2000 and 2007, Iowa in 1993 and Cheyney State in 1982. She has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She has sent 23 players to the WNBA from Rutgers alone.
Now in her 47th season of coaching, Stringer has impacted the lives of hundreds and coached the United States to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Yet, for many, her greatest legacy remains the impact she had by refusing to allow her team to be defined by ugly rhetoric.
Stringer remembers the details and pain of what she calls “that Imus thing” as if it happened yesterday.
On April 3, a Tuesday night, Rutgers lost to Tennessee, 59-46, in the NCAA championship game.
Imus made his comments the next morning, Wednesday, but it wasn’t until Thursday that the team got hold of a transcript detailing the on-air slurs used by Imus and a producer.
“I kept reading those words and I was so upset,” Stringer, 69, recalled last week in an interview with Newsday. “I saw this in a lot of different ways. I saw it as racist. But I also saw it as demeaning to women and women’s basketball. What difference does someone’s hair matter? What major athletic event do you look at a guy and talk about hair or his legs?
“I kept thinking, why would he say that? He doesn’t know us. I remember busting my hand on the wall and I was crying because it was bleeding.”
On Friday’s show, Imus apologized for his remarks, saying, “It was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry.” His show was canceled the following Thursday.
Imus could not be reached for comment on this story.
MEETING CHALLENGES HEAD-ON
In the course of her life and coaching career, Stringer had suffered her fair share of challenges and indignities. When she began coaching at Cheyney State in 1972, the team owned only two leather balls and played in a gym with a roof so flimsy that they had to put bowls on the court to catch the water when it rained. She never had found herself in something like this, though.
On Friday, two days after the comments, she and the university issued statements condemning Imus’ words and the team was sent home to spend Easter weekend with their families. The story, however, continued to rage.
That weekend, Stringer said she received calls from everyone from Summitt to Larry King and David Letterman.
It was a phone call from former NBA great Moses Malone that convinced her that she might have to do something more than merely issue a news release.
“He said, ‘They hurt our girls. They hurt our girls,’ ” Stringer said.
“I really had had no understanding of what had happened. I can honestly say I felt the burden of the world.”
That is the weird thing about defining moments. You don’t get to pick them so much as they pick you.
That is something Stringer first learned in the small mining town of Edenborn, Pennsylvania, when she tried out for the high school cheerleading team.
Stringer loved basketball but her school did not offer the sport for girls. She figured cheerleading would at least get her close to the court, so she mastered the routines and back flips and learned how to yell in a low staccato voice. The tryouts were held in front of the entire school and Stringer thought she had nailed it. Yet a few days later, when the names of the cheerleaders were announced, Stringer wasn’t on the team. Nor was anyone else who wasn’t white.
That night, she said, the president of the local NAACP chapter stopped by her house and talked about how there had never been a black cheerleader in the history of the high school. He had seen Stringer’s tryout and wanted to take her in front of the school board to fight for a place on the team.
“I told him no. I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and have it all go away,” Stringer recalled. “But my dad came to me that night and said, ‘V.I., it’s not just about you. It’s about the generations who come after . . . I knew he was right.”
IMPORTANT TO FIGHT BACK
After they came back to campus from the weekend, Stringer met with her Rutgers team and told them the story of how she integrated the cheerleading team. The team decided to hold a news conference on Tuesday.
Matee Ajavon, who was a junior on that team, said they knew they had no choice but to stand up for themselves.
“Coach Stringer, she was furious!” recalled Ajavon, now a guard for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. “I can remember asking questions like “who is Don Imus? Why would he say something like this about us, especially when our hair was popping?” I often joked to lighten the mood, but it was very serious. It wasn’t just important for us but for the world. It was important to spark conversation of race and racism. It was important for the younger generation who looked up to us to see us fight back.”
Stringer may not have known who Imus was, but she was going to make sure the world knew her team and how hard they had worked to get where they were. In a packed news conference that was televised live on several stations, all 10 players wearing their red warm-ups in a sign of unity were lined up in chairs at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Stringer then put a face on what had happened by introducing her players as valedictorians, future doctors and former girl scouts.
Essence Carson, a junior who went on to play for the Liberty and the Sparks, drove home the pain of the slur when she told the news conference that Imus had “stolen a moment of pure grace from us.”
Carson said in an email this past week that the team couldn’t have had a better leader than Stringer during this time.
“Coach Stringer allowed each young woman to speak from her heart, express each and every feeling, and to remain confident that the world too would look at them with respect, compassion, and full of dignity,” she wrote. “You can’t ask of anything more from such a pure soul. Coach C. Vivian Stringer will forever be one of the greatest of all time.”
Two days after the Rutgers news conference, when advertiser after advertiser began to pull out of Imus’ show, parent company CBS canceled it. Eight months after his firing, however, Imus was back on the air on WABC. A week ago, the 77-year-old shock jock announced that his last show will be at the end of March.
Rutgers senior Tyler Scaiffe was only a seventh-grader at the time, but the whole incident made a huge impression on her.
“I remember watching the game with my dad and then we heard what he said,” she said. “I know everything that she’s been through. This is a person who handles everything with respect and class. I’m just proud to have a chance to be a part of her legacy.”
It’s far from a done deal that Stringer will get her 1,000th victory this season. Needing six wins, she has six regular-season games left plus the Big Ten Tournament and likely a postseason tournament.
There’s no doubt she eventually will get 1,000, though. She signed a four-year deal at the start of this season, meaning she will have coached 50 years by the time it expires. That’s a lot of basketball games, a lot of lives influenced.
“To me, it’s never been about just winning games,” Stringer said.
“Do I love basketball? I love it with a passion. I could sit here for five or six hours and just look at tape . . . I also think there’s a reason I do what I do. I think my purpose has been to influence and try to give stature to women.”
Even if it involves some pain along the way.
C. VIVIAN STRINGER
Born: March 16, 1948, in Edenborn, Pennsylvania
College: Slippery Rock
NCAA coaching career
Cheyney State (Pennsylvania) 1972–83
Overall record: 994–395 (.716)
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, 2001
Coached USA to Olympic gold, 2004
Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, 2009
First coach to take three different teams to NCAA Final Four