Since there’s been a lot of drive-by commentary about the UConn women’s basketball streak from sportswriters who admit they don’t follow, nor do they much care, about the sport, a few simple lessons in interpreting Geno Auriemma are necessarily in order.
But first, thank God for Bob Ryan. The legendary Boston Globe columnist and basketball maven with a deep appreciation for every level of the sport, regardless of gender, truly gets what the Huskies and their star player embody:
“Similarly, I saw a great basketball player two nights ago. Her name is Maya Moore, and she won’t be playing in the NBA. But I’d go watch her play her dunkless game any ol’ time, because she is a pure basketball player. She can shoot, pass, rebound, defend, and, finally, lead. It was an under-the-microscope performance before what will be the best audience for women’s basketball until the NCAA championship game several months hence, and she personally made sure UConn would get that record. The final scoring total was a career-high 41, but that didn’t matter. Twenty-one, 31, 41 . . . she put on a show. She’s not Kemba Walker physically, but she’s as good a basketball player, and I bet the standout UConn point guard would love to play with her.”
Yes, Ryan gets it, because he’s a basketball purist at heart, while far too many members of the sportswriting Tribe were too busy genuflecting about Auriemma, doing their 24/7 all-platform wiseguy best to respond to a wiseguy coach, or disparage his team’s accomplishments, all too literally.
They just don’t get it.
They don’t get what Auriemma was really doing after he dashed off this doozy in response to all the attention at Madison Square Garden as the Huskies won their 88th consecutive game over Ohio State on Sunday:
“There wouldn’t be this many people in the room if we were chasing a women’s record. The reason everybody’s having a heart attack the last four, five days is because a bunch of women are threatening to break a men’s record … All the miserable bastards who follow men’s basketball that don’t want us to break the record are all here because they’re pissed.
“If we were breaking a women’s record everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice?’ Give them two paragraphs in USA Today, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and let’s send them back where they belong — the kitchen.’ “
Auriemma wasn’t yelling, or even raising his voice, when he said those words. His voice was low, his demeanor calm. But to the untrained ear those remarks can seem harshly sharp and piercing, if not offensive. It didn’t take long for the overreaction to the reaction to spring forth like a geyser.
To the sports blogs who find room for women only in bimbo poses, this was just another example of Geno being an insufferable douche.
Yahoo’s Les Carpenter doesn’t get it. Geno wasn’t really angry.
Surprisingly, SI.com’s Ann Killion, whom I respect and has spent some time around the women’s game, doesn’t get it either.
Business Insider, a Silicon Valley blog, even piled on the UConn streak, but Dashiell Bennett clearly doesn’t get it.
And the knuckleheads who come up with such original observations as “women’s basketball sucks” and why don’t you play a men’s team? have truly revealed their level of intelligence. So do those who complain of having the sport shoved down their throats in an age of 500 channels.
Was Auriemma taking a serious swipe at detractors of the women’s game? You betcha, and it’s important to understand that he was making a very direct point about all of this.
But for those who know the deeper message behind nearly everything Auriemma says for public consumption, it’s this:
This is Geno, just being Geno. It sounds off the cuff and unscripted and rash, and his extemporaneous talents are as remarkable as how he prepares his team to play.
But this is also coldly calculating stuff, designed to absorb all the pressure that might otherwise be heaped on his players, who had little trouble mowing down Florida State for No. 89, with John Wooden’s grandson in the house.
Some opiners think this is Geno hogging the spotlight, egomaniacally, injecting himself in the middle of a debate he has ratcheted up. As Killion writes, there is some truth to all of that. He does like attention and being a lightning rod in a sport that rarely gets this kind of early season exposure. He’s a breath of hot air and fresh air at the same time.
But Auriemma’s tactics should be recognizable to some of these opiners, since the coaches he resembles the most are soccer’s self-dubbed “Special One,” Jose Mourinho, and the Ol’ Ball Coach himseelf, Steve Spurrier.
After his England club Chelsea lost to Barcelona in the first leg of their 2005 European Champions League series, Mourinho accused Frank Rijkaard, then the Barcelona manager, of entering a referees’ locker room beforehand.
Chelsea roared back to win the second leg 4-2 and the series 5-4, and Rijkaard lost his grip on the reins of Barcelona. (Mourinho, now at Real Madrid, did get some comeuppance recently when Barcelona throttled Les Meringues 5-0.)
It was Spurrier that Auriemma channeled at a Knoxville hotel sports bar the night before UConn’s game at Tennessee in 2002, when a photo of the Ol’ Ball Coach flashed on a television screen as he was to the Washington Redskins. To anyone within earshot Auriemma cried out:
“I want to be the Steve Spurrier of women’s basketball!”
The locals didn’t like hearing it — after all, it was Spurrier who said, during his Florida days, that “you can’t spell Citrus without ‘UT.’ ” Then again, Auriemma had spent the previous days referring to Tennessee as the “Evil Empire,” and expressing how much he loathed the color orange and “Rocky Top.”
Final score? UConn, 86-72. The run-up to that game proved to be a tipping point in the now-dormant UConn-Tennessee rivalry.
After losing a prized recruit, Brittany Hunter, to Duke, Auriemma’s words became bulletin board material in Durham for a Feb. 2003 matchup and what would become the first women’s sellout at Cameron Indoor Stadium:
“You know, there are just as many Duke graduates waiting on tables as there are from any other school in the country. They may just be working at a better restaurant.”
Relaxed, Auriemma even joked around with Duke students camped out at Krzyzewskiville, waiting for North Carolina tickets.
Final score: UConn 77-65, and it wasn’t even that close. The following season, Hunter transferred to UConn, but injuries shortened her career.
Even after UCLA’s mark had been eclipsed, the media grousing continued. ESPN.com’s Johnette Howard, who also has been around the women’s game for a number of years, snorted that perhaps Geno ought to go coach men already, reflecting a fairly healthy sentiment that still exists in the women’s coaching community. Then Howard descended to this:
“Auriemma is hardly the first coach or high achiever who can be ultracompetitive or self-referential, contradictory or complicated. But he has never been spanked as much as he should have for how he has treated Tennessee’s Summitt.”
Well, let’s open up those old wounds, shall we? Howard’s spanking — it’s hard to tell whether she enjoyed it, though — should put to rest the worries some in the Connecticut media have had the last couple years that America had taken the fun out of Geno.
Not any longer. While he’s back to his old self, and God continues to smile on the Huskies, far too many star media opiners are taking him far too seriously to get why he does what he does.