This year, Wendy Palmer enters her first season as Spartan women's basketball coach. A two-time All-American at Virginia, she spent 11 years in the WNBA and the last six as an assistant. Most recently, she coached beside Virginia's Debbie Ryan, who retired at the end of last season. A few highlights of a conversation with her:
As a player My experience at Virginia shaped me and molded me for life, not just in basketball but in life lessons. Debbie Ryan, the legend, the hall of fame coach, gave me the opportunity back in '92 to play basketball at a great university. I got a great education, and … we were top 5 or top 10 every year.
Full circle After college, I was able to go overseas and then played 11 years in the WNBA. The last two years, I went through a moment of sheer insanity where I wanted to coach and play. I coached at VCU during the off-season and then played during the summer in the WNBA. After I retired, I coached at Kentucky for two years, and then I had the honor of going back to UVa and working with Debbie and walking her off the court for the last time as the head coach of UVa. It kind of came full circle for me.
A players' coach There have been good, bad, different, insane experiences that I had as a player. And I think once I became a veteran, I realized those were all opportunities that I needed to have in my life to mold me into the person I wanted to be and the coach I want to be. I think that I'm a players' coach, because I've been able to walk that walk.
How people described her as a player Intense. Mean. Warrior. They hated playing against me. I heard mean often, from coaches and players. [She laughs.] But I think I was just intense, a fierce competitor. I wanted to win at everything. I rallied around my teammates my teammates were my sisters and we went into war, into battle together. Very determined and disciplined. And intense.
This year's team They are passionate young ladies who want to win, so we are looking to have a great year. Anytime you go through a transition, there is a learning curve. …I have had a chance to get to know them all, to learn what their hopes and dreams are not just for basketball. …I'm looking forward to the season.
Her office, with lots of pictures of family and friends I've been in the rat race for so long, I haven't had a chance to be with a lot of my family. …I have pictures of my loved ones around. …It's a culmination of people who've touched my life during my journey. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to be at UNCG. Being from North Carolina [near Roxboro] and knowing I wanted to be a head coach, I didn't know where my opportunities may be. …I drive in to work sometimes and I think Wow, I am back in North Carolina. The air is so different here. Having lived all over the world, it is so great to live here, to have family so close, an hour away.
On joining UNCG I've had a lot of friends who went here. I've spent some time here, throughout the years. We have a niece who is coming to school (this fall). I'm really looking forward to the games and the journey. This is a great place to be. I couldn't have imagined being anywhere else.
In middle school, to get a Boy Scout badge, Nathan Baker participated in a study. The medical professionals were so impressed by his endurance on the treadmill, they asked if he'd try out for middle school track team.
He did not get a response from the coaches, he says.
Nathan, a sophomore business administration major who has cerebral palsy, adds, That's a misconception, that because of my disability I needed to be treated a different way.
But in ninth grade, the high school cross country coach, Mike Miragliuolo, said Yes. He'd be allowed to compete when he could run 5 kilometers. At first he tended to fall, but he improved throughout his freshman year. His first race, his time was 33:55. But by the time he graduated, it was 23:40. About a 10 minute drop, he says.
Nathan advocates exercise for those with special needs. Exercise is good for everyone. It makes them feel good about themselves, he explains.
His exercise this season? He does warmups with the men's soccer team, he says, and recovers the balls as they sail over the nets during practice. Sometimes that involves running.
Warmups set to start momentarily, Men's Soccer Coach Justin Maullin stops by. Want to know how he came to be manager during last year's season? Maullin asks.
Nathan emailed me, he recalls. I want to be manager.
Why don't you stop by my office? the coach emailed back.
Nathan did. Maullin asked him what he could offer the team. He could keep stats, he said. The coach explained they had that covered. What else?
Coach Maullin, I can inspire.
His response? You'll start tomorrow.
Having told the story, Maullin looks over at Nathan and says, You inspired us to a championship, right Nathan?
Coach steps away. Practice for the home opener against No. 12 Duke (which UNCG would win 3-2) will start in a few minutes.
Every season is a new season, Nathan explains about the coming games. We have a target on our back. Last year's squad had an 11 game unbeaten streak en route to the SoCon Championship.
He refers to a Dean Smith saying: Play hard, play together, play smart. If a team does those three things, it's possible they'll have a good season. But I can't promise you anything.
He speaks about his high school track team at Green Hope in Morrisville a diverse group of athletes, he says, healthwise and otherwise. It's one of the biggest teams in the state, and he explains why. Not all run to win, he says. Many run to feel good about themselves.
Among his best pieces of advice? Believe in yourself.