COACH MOM

Sandra Meadows has taken the Duncanviile Pantherettes to three state championships. Along the way, she fought a life-threatening disease-and won new respect for women in sports.

THE PANTHERETTES OF DUNCANVILLE High School always begin basketball practice on their knees, in a circle, in prayer. Nobody makes them. It’s just a tradition. A superstition, if you like. But not without its juice. As the undisputed powerhouse of Texas girls’ basketball, the Pantherettes are on a roll that includes an unprecedented three consecutive state Class 5A championships, two undefeated seasons (97-0), and so many district titles (25) that their opponents attempt not so much to beat them as just to play them close.

Prayer might be responsible, but the team’s success also has a secular source. Most afternoons she can be found in the dizzyingly blue practice court next to the main gym at suburban Duncanville’s huge (2,100-plus) high school, which boasts an athletic complex that would make a midsized college jealous.

Her name is Sandra Meadows: born 55 years ago in Dallas, reared in Irving, educated at TCU, owner of a Norwegian elkhound, a modest home, and an ’81 Dat-sun pickup. You’d never mistake her for a deity, although she sometimes gets mentioned in prayers (“Please help Coach Meadows be patient”). In fact, she’s just an ordinary woman: grandmotherly, given to Ultra Slim-Fast diets, short white curls, thick glasses, and red-and-blue warm-ups-the colors of the school to which she came 33 years ago. Plain-spoken, reserved, self-effacing, her celebrity is intimated only by the three championship rings on the fingers of her left hand. All she’s done, besides amass an astonishing number of victories, is reshape the boundaries of equality and competitiveness for a new generation of female athletes.

The circle breaks, and the girls reassemble on the sideline. Meadows quickly divides the players into half-court squads and issues the order of practice for the afternoon. The Pantherettes, mostly a fast-break team running from a 1-4 offense led by a point guard, will concentrate today on the 1-2-2 modification, with the wings and posts switching on the pass in from the point. Meadows’s instructions are intricate and complicated, but the girls take to them as if to Nintendo.

The patterns aren’t just memorized; the girls have them in their bones. Duncanville didn’t get its No. 1 state ranking by fluke. After-school drills, perhaps 100 during the season, run two-and-a-half hours every day. Then there are summer basketball camps and the interschool leagues. Besides that, most of the varsity players have been in the basketball program since the seventh grade. Meadows, also Girls’ Athletic Coordinator for Duncanville schools, has set up what amounts to a farm system-one of the most comprehensive development programs for girls anywhere in the state, and probably in the country.

“Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy,” Meadows snaps. “Y’all need to get tough!” She marches cross-court to a player who held the ball too long, stalling a drive. “You fouled up everything because you couldn’t decide where to go,” she says. “We’ve got to learn to play pass basketball.”

Although Meadows scolds, she doesn’t yell or browbeat. Just like in games. Usually Meadows remains seated on the bench-she’s drawn fewer than 10 technicals in her career. When she gets up, every player on the floor knows it, and Lord help you if she calls a time out. The only reason she calls a time out is to fix something, and her theory is that by the time a game rolls around, not much ought to be in need of repair.

“If we’re gonna do something, let’s do it. Don’t tell me after the fact. Just do it.”

A new 1-4 pattern makes a perfect break leading to a classic layup. “Yeah-all right!” Meadows exclaims. That’s when you see it in her face. Something like radiance. Something that has kept her in Duncanville, an integrated, middle-class suburb tucked into the southernmost edge of Oak Cliff, despite numerous offers to coach elsewhere. Something that ties her to her job from the time she awakens at 5 a.m. for her morning walk to 11 p.m. on the cold winter nights during the season when she’s out scouting the opposition or coming home on the team bus after a weeknight game.

It’s something the girls understand and view with undisguised reverence. And not just the girls. To longtime colleague Jody Conradt, head coach of The University of Texas’s Lady Longhorns, Meadows is “the best of the best.” For Phil McNeely, head coach of the Duncanville boys’ team, which made the playoffs last year but was defeated in the first round, his opposite number is “a remarkable person.” For generations of Pantherettes- sisters following in the steps of sisters, nieces taking up the legacy of aunts-Meadows, who never married, is like a mother. Heck, the whole town loves her; last year it hosted “Sandra Meadows Day.” That was the year she almost died.

SHE GOT THE NEWS IN THE SPRING of 1989. The Big C. Third in her family to have it. Her mother had died of brain cancer just a year earlier, and a sister was battling it. The doctors gave Sandra Meadows about the worst news possible, short of a death sentence: double mastectomy. But the trauma didn’t end with surgery. The disease had gotten to her lymph nodes, too. That meant chemo, and it meant there was a chance she might not make it. No shelves of trophies could save her, no record of winning seasons.

“When the doctor first told me I was very distraught,’1 Meadows says, her accent broadened by a life in North Texas. “I only told my best friend for the first few days.. .I guess my reaction was like everybody else’s, especially after they found the lymph nodes after surgery-I’m gonna die. Then I denied everything. I thought, ’It’s just not gonna happen to me.’

“It still sometimes seems unreal. The whole thing was disgusting and discouraging. But the thing that made the most difference was that I was bound and determined I’d be back and coaching this team. The kids felt I’d be here. They’d call, send cards, and come by and see if I was okay.” So did others-legions of friends and professional colleagues. People she had no idea would be thinking of her.

She wasn’t okay. During the summer she underwent surgery not once but four times-various complications, then an infection. She reported back to school in September, never missing a lick as coach, still undergoing chemotherapy. The pills made her sick and bald. All the ’89’90 season she wore a wig while her hair slowly returned. She went off chemo in October but still felt the wear and tear. “You have good days, and you have bad days,” she recalls. Around Christmas, she was talking to a friend who was also a coach. “I said I felt okay, but I got tired more easily.” The friend told her, “Sandra, we all do.”

Running on adrenalin, she pushed her squad through the holidays and on to the postseason playoffs in Austin. On the long bus trip down 1-35. the girls horsed around a little, sang a few pop songs, listened to their Walkmans. You wouldn’t have known they were about to make history by beating Houston Yates 74-51 in the finals (to become the first team ever to take three titles in a row. Nor would you have known that Sandra Meadows had brought them to that point during the darkest year of her life. Certainly the driver of the team bus didn’t have a clue. When they stopped for pizza, he joined the coach at one of the quieter tables. “I hear you got a good team,” he said over coffee. “So, is coaching, like, a hobby for you?”

CRIMMAGE IN THE MAIN DUNCAN-ville gym, where the Panthers-the boys-practice, is markedly different from that on the smaller court down the hall, the lair of the Pan-therettes. The boys are bigger, quicker-their passes thrown harder, their collisions more forceful, Sandra Meadows understands that. Biology is biology. Strength produces quickness, just as height produces the slam dunk. Which, as Meadows knows, is what the fans pay to see. That’s why there are Dallas Mavericks but not Dallas Diamonds. Or is it?

Thirty-two years ago, when Sandra Meadows began her career, fresh out of TCU at age 23 and coaching at Fort Worth’s Castleberry High School. Texas schoolgirls, like those in many other states, played on six-member teams, on the theory that five girls just couldn’t take the pace. Salaries for female and male coaches were laughably unequal, and as often as not, the girls’ teams were passed along as second duty to coaches of the boys’ squads. Girls’ athletics in the Fifties were considered eccentric pursuits. at best the province of lunkheads and freaks: at worst, a pastime for lesbians.

“I’ve been around a lot of Bubbas,” Meadows laughs, remembering the bad old days. “I’ve had to say, ’No, you can’t have the money from the girls’ team.’ I’ve had to deal with the kind you have to tell not to spit tobacco on the gym floor.”

Truly, things have changed. Title IX legislation of the Seventies, which forced college athletic programs to equalize male-female sports funding and initiated the so-called New Age of Women’s Basketball, has had an enormous influence in upgrading women’s sports. And the Bubbas-like the one in the television show “Coach’-are slowly being brought into the 20th century of gender attitudes. At Duncanville, the head football coach, Doug McCutchen, is a virtual Alan Alda of support; likewise basketball coach McNeely. Intergender respect even filters down to the players. The Panthers are probably the most rabid fan club of the Pantherettes.

Yet there’s a lingering sense that the natural order has been inverted. “We go to all their games,” says Greg Ostertag, the Panthers’ 7-foot-2 post, “but they do tease us about how they won state, and we didn’t do doodly squat.”

“That’s true,” acknowledges Greg’s friend Martha McClelland, 6-foot-4 post for the Pantherettes, “but we don’t mean anything by it.” But of course they do. Everybody likes payback.

It may be that the male players are bigger, and it may be that their game moves faster, and that the best boys* team could almost certainly out-muscle the best girls’ team, just as an NBA squad could take an NCAA team. But for Sandra Meadows, the question has never been one of direct comparison. Functional equality would be more like it.

One of the most frustrating rejoinders a Pantherette hears from a Panther goes like this: “But the girls’ team doesn’t have as much competition as we do.” It’s true. In that truth lies the unbalanced history of women and sport. When a juggernaut like the Pantherettes rolls, the odds of its meeting a serious rival, i.e., a girls1 program that enjoys the same quality of coaching, funding, and development, are far lower than those a boys’ team would face. One season, Duncanville beat Kimball 110-12. It wasn’t because Sandra Meadows wanted to score every time her team got the ball; it was because she couldn’t help it.

For all the progress of the last decade at the college and professional levels, Jane Crow-separate but unequal gender treatment in facilities, funding, and training-is still the rule from secondary down to elementary levels, where, have no doubts, the most basic stereotypes about sports persist. Charlie don’t surf, and Kimmie don’t play football.

And football is the important sport, right? Qualitatively superior, as are all male-oriented sports (i.e., those that are inherently biased toward size and bulk), and therefore naturally entitled to first position at the budgetary hog trough, from which ail power and, if you think about it, all values and esthetics of sport flow. Altering that world view is of course the point of the true feminization of sport. And the feminization of sport is the point of Sandra Meadows.

“Some women may be conditioned to feel we deserve not to be treated equally,” observes Sara Hackerott, the former University of Missouri point guard Meadows brought in as assistant coach three years ago. “As a woman athlete you have to figure out ways to make people accept you. Coach Meadows has done that all her life.

“You’re put in a category of always having to fight for something,” Hackerott says. “But you’re really only fighting to be fair. I think that’s one reason I’m so happy here. Because of Coach Meadows’s influence and reputation, this is one of the first places I’ve been where things are fair and fairly done. It’s like a breath of fresh air being here.

“On a day-to-day basis, we just want to be equal,” says Hackerott, 31, who learned about Jane Crow at her high school back in Kansas, where the girls had to stay past dark to practice because the boys had the court first. “We just want to have kids feel important and feel good about themselves, to say, ’Hey, I’m a worthwhile person, and I’m worthy of being treated in an equal way.’”

T’S 1-4 REGULAR WITH ENTRY TO THE high post,” Coach Meadows is saying. She expands the explanation, then puts the phone down and grins. The call was from an assistant coach at Long Beach State who, while on a scouting trip to observe Pantherette Gobi Kennedy, a 6-foot-l post, had noticed an unusual and effective Duncanville offensive pattern. Meadows can’t help beaming. She watches a lot of basketball, and she is always trying to develop new strategies, new variations. She knows every other coach does the same. But for a college team to pick up a Pantherette play-“Not bad, huh?”

Not unusual, either. Coaches across the country don’t just look to Duncanville for plays, but for players. This year alone, at least four former Pantherettes, including 6-foot-4 Cinietra Henderson, who starts for UT, and 6-footer Alison Muldrew at archrival Arkansas, are playing for teams in the Southwest Conference, the most popular Pantherette destination. Others, like Cathy Nixon at Brigham Young, have become coaches.

What makes the legions of ex-Pantherettes valuable as players and coaches is what they learned from Sandra Meadows. Nothing so marks the dynasty of Meadows, whose “all-time coaching hero” is UCLA’s John Wooden, as the development of organized, disciplined play. If you sign a Pantherette you get a young woman who can dribble, pass, swish free throws, run the fast break, cordon an inbound pass to the sideline-every conceivable fundamental of the game.

That player will understand offensive and defensive strategies-the kind, for example, that colleges borrow-and she’ll know how to deal with pressure, fatigue, and competition. She’ll be physical, a Duncanville trademark, And she’ll be smart. Never has Sandra Meadows lost a varsity player to grades. Not even indirectly. Once, a Duncanville teacher tried a bit of her own recruiting: “If Bridget [McNamara, a starting senior] is as intelligent on the basketball court as she is in Latin, she’s a great player,” she said in a note to Meadows. “But I wish she didn’t play so she could spend more time in Latin Club.”

There’s only one thing about basketball that Bridget, Martha, Cobi. and the other Pantherettes on Duncanville’s current squad haven’t been able to learn. To date, they don’t know how to lose. (In late November, the team won its l00th consecutive game.) These girls have never ridden home from a game in the silence of defeat. They’ve never slumped on the bench watching the Scoreboard pass judgment on them. They’ve never had to cry. But they always think about it.

“I’ve said I don’t know how I’ll handle it when the time comes,” Meadows says, hating to even talk about it, knowing it’s inevitable. “I know it’ll be hard. I just hope it comes against a good team. I can still see the picture in the paper of Jody’s face when she knew it was all over [the end of the Lady Longhorns’ 183-game win streak in a February 1990 game against Arkansas.

“I’ve had winning streaks before-107 district wins [in 1970-1982]. I remember the district game we lost-one point, the last shot of the game. That was a tough way to lose. Later on in the locker room, three of the varsity players were still carrying on. I said, ’Hey, we lost a game. The sun’s gonna come up tomorrow, and we’re gonna be back in the gym. That’s all. We just lost a game. Nobody died.’

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Meadows says. “The more you win, the more difficult things become. If you reach the playoffs, as winners, you still face three weeks of practice, looking at tapes, overnight trips. It’s harder. If you lose, you can sit at home watching TV and eating chips and dip. The easy way out is to lose.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice kind of pressure. But I don’t want them to feel some great loss in their souls because they lost a basketball game.”

LIKE LONG-RUNNING SOAP OPERAS, THE drills go on in the bright blue practice gym. The plot is the same, though different actors strut and fret their hours on the free-throw line. Today, the new Air Nikes ($48 per pair, plus $100 per game suits, $113 for sweats, $14 for practice shirts and shorts) have come in. Forty minutes later, the Nikes start coming off in favor of the old shoes. It takes a while to break them in.

Each October, as the returning veterans mix with the newcomers, the Pantherettes are teenage girls with perms, braces, boyfriends, and arms full of homework. The only things they have in common are a talent for basketball and the eye of Coach Meadows. By Christmas, they’re calling each other sisters.

“Basketball is a minimum part of it,” Meadows says of the transformation. “Most of the time you’ll see 14 players, four or five managers, and two coaches all come together in a close, close relationship. It’ll last a lifetime.”

Few players know that better than UT sophomore Cinietra Henderson. Transferring to Duncanville as a junior from Dallas’s Carter High, Henderson brought a formidable presence to the team and initiated the first of the triple run of state titles. But the transition was rough. “It was a total change” Henderson recalls. “She [Meadows| was so hipped on discipline. You respected her so much… At first it was hectic, not knowing if I could play or what. .. Everybody was looking to see if I could do anything. I was really nervous. I had to gain respect.”

Meadows drew the hulking, uncertain, and sometimes insecure (the answer to whether tall girls get made fun of is yes) transferee into the fold the same way she does everyone else, by making her earn her spot. “No matter how hard I worked, she made me push.” Henderson recalls. “She pulls everything out of you. . .She didn’t demand. You just did it out of respect. She would always tell us, ’You can only be as good as you want to be.’”

Henderson became very, very good. Now she plays regularly under the bright lights of UT’s Erwin Center, where she once competed in playoffs. But as she sits alongside the court of the fabled Lady Longhorns, her hair pulled back, her body thick and solid as a heavyweight’s, she looks off into the tiers of seats and smiles. She’s 19, still wearing braces. She’s thinking of home. The one in the blue gym. “I love her like my mother.” she says. “She’s like a mother to all of us.”

THREE-ON-THREE ATTACK DRILLS. FULL-court press against the 1-2-2 offense. Inbound pass defense. Meadows takes time to demonstrate, in step-by-step drill, the responsibilities of each position in the various patterns. The gym is hot, the girls red-faced and sweating, hanging on the coach’s every word.

“What do we want ’em to do with the ball?” she barks. “We want ’em to pass it where we want it to go. We want them to dribble the ball,” she says, “and then we want to cut that dribble off and trap them.” They run an exercise. Coach abruptly stops the play. “Don’t let her see that pass,” she corrects. “You’re letting her see everything!” She looks downcourt to a player whose attention has wandered. “Don’t stand there and watch the game-that’s for people who buy tickets.” She walks from key to sideline, moving players around like tokens on a chess board, which, in fact, a basketball court is.

There’s an interruption. A trainer comes in carrying a pile of insurance papers. The girls gather around in a half-circle as the trainer drones on about athletic coverage, mostly provided by the school, and passes out forms to take home to parents. The girls listen with vacant politeness. Like most insurance explanations, it’s utterly obtuse. Coach Meadows leans against the wall to rest her back, which has been bothering her again.

“I try to talk to them about this mother thing.” she says. “I tell them, ’When I come out on the court I’m coach, I’m authority. I’m in charge. It’s coach and player-nothing personal. When I leave the court I’m still the same person, but I’m in a different role. I am here to help with any problem-home, boyfriends, school-or we can just sit and chitchat.’”

Sometimes Sandra Meadows is even a mom for the moms. One morning last year the telephone at Meadows’s house rang at 6:30 a.m. The caller had been up since 5 o’clock worrying about which college offer her daughter should accept. The coach told her to choose the school where the girl would be happiest and get the best education. In four years basketball would be over. Life wouldn’t.

She pauses, her voice hitched with emotion. “It’s difficult to talk in terms of feelings. Difficult to express in words what you’re trying to express in feelings. But there is a feeling here. It develops among kids and coaches and kids and kids. Not every program has it.” She looks away for a moment. “I don’t even like to go to graduation anymore. . .But I do.”

The gym is strangely quiet. There hadbeen another silence like that, back at thestart of the season. Practice was delayedwhile the Pantherettes lingered in the dressing room to try on their new varsity jerseys.The gym was briefly vacant, the only soundthe steady series of whumps from a backboard at the far end of the court. Julie Lake,13-year-old sister of point guard ChristyLake, was practicing layups.

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