Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Stanford’s VanDerveer hopes to end NCAA title drought

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

S If there is any benevolence in women’s basketball, it will happen again. This year, next year, some year. Tara VanDerveer will take that two-step up the ladder, cut off a piece of the net, place it around her neck, then step back down and celebrate as she did in 1990 and 1992.

The dance steps change, but the routine remains the same. Winning an NCAA championship is the champagne that tastes better with each sip.

And don’t think VanDerveer can’t count. Two decades without a title practically knocks her out of bed in the morning. It summons her to the video room, to the gym, to the weight room, sends her on so many recruiting trips she can sketch a detailed map of the world on a slip of a napkin.

But this 21-year drought is at least partly her fault. She took the women’s game global, opting to sacrifice and to share, succumbing to a higher calling. The game was bigger than VanDerveer. The WNBA exists largely because of VanDerveer.

While the Dream Team rocked Barcelona in 1992, the women’s team coached by Theresa Grentz flopped, winning only bronze and making few friends along the way. The NBA’s plans for starting a women’s professional league were tabled for the next four years, or until the 1996 Olympic Team – the one coached by VanDerveer – went 60-0 during a year-long tour that culminated with a gold medal at the Atlanta Games. Within weeks, VanDerveer was back at Stanford; David Stern, Val Ackerman, Russ Granik and Rick Welts were completing the legal paperwork; and the WNBA was off and running, if occasionally sputtering, with its years of preparation giving the now-defunct American Basketball League (ABL) no chance for survival.

“What Tara did that year can’t be overstated,” Ackerman said recently. “We had been talking about a women’s league for years, as you know. But we needed the momentum from that summer to make it happen.”

Staring too closely at VanDerveer’s list of accomplishments can cause vertigo. She is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and has taken Stanford to 10 Final Fours , including five consecutive trips from 2008 to 2012. She has won 21 regular-season Pacific-12 Conference titles and, earlier this season, became one of only five NCAA women’s coaches to win 900 games.

Significantly, her neighborhood of legends is shrinking. Revered Tennessee coach Pat Summitt retired in 2012because of early-onset dementia. Jody Conradt left Texas in 2007. Sylvia Hatchell is on a leave of absence from North Carolina – Stanford’s opponent in Tuesday night’s regional final in Maples Pavilion – while undergoing treatment for leukemia. C. Vivian Stringer is still compiling victories at Rutgers, and, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma will crash the party soon and probably spend the remainder of his career tormenting his celebrated peers who look at the Huskies – all that talent and all those titles – and remember the days when the Lady Vols, Longhorns and the Cardinal were all the rage.

And about Stanford? And its chance at a championship comeback? Maybe it never happens. Maybe the Cardinal morphs into one of those elite teams that keep it close but can’t shut the door on the deal because Stanford’s academic standards restrict recruiting, because the best athletes enroll elsewhere, because basketball players without athleticism only take a team so far and because there is only so much magic remaining in VanDerveer’s wand.

Maybe. But don’t broach the possibility at the Farm. Though VanDerveer is remarkably meticulous and consistent, almost to the point of being predictable, her search for answers and information takes her down the path less traveled. Therein lies her brilliance; trim and healthy at age 60, she seemingly was born with a sponge in her hands, and she still squeezes hard.

“There isn’t a whole lot of fat to Tara,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, the feisty point guard on the ’96 Olympic team. “Meaning that everything she does is lean. Very disciplined. She taught me that.”

Before Pete Newell died, VanDerveer was the student, constantly picking his brain. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she often studied fellow upstate New Yorker Pat Riley, applauding his early theories on the fast break and conditioning, as well as his competitiveness. Later, she became a convert of Tex Winter’s triangle offense and routinely sought specifics from former Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, whom she has known since their time at Ohio State.

“Our team had so much fun in practice, and we knew who was coming – Brooke Smith and Jayne Appel,” VanDerveer said. “Why don’t we try it? When you have a really big dominant post player, it looks really good. We run variations of it now, but our team is really comfortable getting into that alignment. It helps them with the shot clock. It’s not a motion offense, but it’s a read-the-defense offense. It helps our team get organized. Our guys’ team ran some triangle, and I think it was really helpful for them, too.”

Tuesday’s game against the Tar Heels is the latest in an ongoing series of tough tests. Stanford didn’t win the Pacific-12 Conference tournament this season; USC did. Stanford didn’t advance beyond the NCAA round of 16 a year ago, either. None of the players need be reminded this is a senior-laden team led by national Player of the Year candidate Chiney Ogwumike.

“It’s about having expectations,” said VanDerveer’s younger sister, Heidi, the coach at UC San Diego. “Tara tweaks things once in a while, especially on offense. But you have to box out. That hasn’t changed. You have to rebound. That hasn’t changed. So while you evolve, the important things remain the same, and she is as competitive as ever.”

And with Cal’s Mike Montgomery announcing his retirement Monday, VanDerveer is the state’s undisputed dean of elite college coaches. Montgomery’s departure sort of came out of nowhere. Maybe that’s how Stanford wins another NCAA title. Maybe the Cardinal somehow sneaks in there.