Sometimes, when you happen to be an especially gigantic jerk, you do dumb things.
In 1993, I was an especially gigantic jerk.
At the time I was sports editor of The Review, the University of Delaware's student newspaper. I was young and moronic and inexcusably cocky, and I made it one of my missions to -- and there is no other way to say this -- mock the school's women's basketball team. Why? Because I was a bully with a Bic, and a women's team drawing roughly 400 fans per game is an easy target. Hence, I penned insulting columns and embarrassing headlines, I belittled their accomplishments and dismissed their stars. In one particularly pathetic piece, I dared the coach to allow me to practice with her players. "We'll see how good they are," I wrote -- a line straight out of Chauvinist Pig Loser: 101.
The coach, to her credit, never responded.
Never yelled at me.
Never called me.
Never slammed me.
Joyce Perry merely rose above it all.
I bring this up because, two days ago, Perry, the former Delaware women's basketball coach and a person approximately 1,000,000 times more decent and whole than I can ever aspire to be, died after a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 58.
Perry last coached a college basketball game 14 years ago. Her record over 18 seasons with the Hens was 266-212, with six East Coast Conference regular-season titles and three-straight ECC tournament titles. She was an excellent leader, a wise strategic thinker, a student of tape and a steadfast developer of game plans.
And yet, when it comes to that stuff -- who really cares?
Truth is, 99 percent of college basketball coaches come and go. They are, for the most part, eminently replaceable -- over-excitable men and women of varying ages, pacing the sidelines, yelling out instructions, fighting for victories that, generally speaking, will be forgotten by month's end. They are big on ego and big on Q-rating, and with increasing (and depressing) regularity, today's coaches have singular missions -- win. Not develop, not embrace, not teach, not guide.
Perry, of course, loved to win. Who doesn't? Come day's end, however, there was more to life than beating Vermont or Drexel in the half-empty fieldhouse. "The reason a lot of the women went to Delaware to play basketball was because of Joyce," says Colleen McNamara, a former Hens center and one of the program's all-time greats. "But the biggest life lessons we learned from her weren't at Delaware.
"They were when she was dying."
Three years ago, Perry called McNamara at home offering up four words that chilled the Hens' all-time leading rebounder and shot blocker: Stage 4 ovarian cancer. "She knew it was bad," says McNamara of a diagnosis with an 18-percent survival rate over five years. "She never fooled herself. But the whole time she fought it, she didn't want to focus on anything but living her life to the fullest."
Hence, Perry battled. Instead of wallowing in her bed, she began making speeches and raising money for the HERA Women's Cancer Foundation, an organization that offers support, encouragement and funding in the fight against ovarian cancer. In her addresses, she talked bluntly about chemotherapy, about vulnerability, about the fragility of life. "All throughout chemo she asked when she could play tennis, when she could play basketball," says McNamara. "Her focus was positive. One time a bunch of us were at her house visiting, and she was huddled up in a ball on the couch, suffering unbearable pain. But she refused to complain. She just wouldn't."
One day, in a conversation McNamara will never forget, she asked her old coach how she could remain so upbeat in the face of certain death. Though it went unsaid, there was no real hope for Perry. This wasn't attempting to beat the full-court press, or trying to score over Boston University's Jill Sosnak. This was cancer. Stage 4 cancer.
"She told me that early on she thought she had the cancer beat," McNamara said, "and when it came back, she really struggled. She was angry, and went through the emotions." Then, Perry found peace. She accepted her remaining days as gifts, and would wake up every morning, turn to her husband Gregg (an assistant football coach at Delaware) and announce, "Cheated death again!"
Roughly 1 1/2 months before Perry passed, she was told she had a week. "Joyce didn't accept that," McNamara says. "Her will was too strong." She used her remaining days to reconnect with her former players. The women came pouring into her Lincoln University, Pa., home, tall and short, skinny and big, younger and older. Some were businesswomen, others were stay-at-home mothers. They brought flowers and balloons and cards, expecting to lean over their bedridden guru and whisper into her ear. Instead, Perry would be walking back and forth, offering up drinks, cracking jokes, telling stories, introducing strangers.
Roughly a week ago, not long before she finally slipped into a coma, Perry told her husband that she'd seen the afterlife. She implored Gregg to speak about it at her upcoming memorial service, insisted he tell people that there is no hell, only a blissful heaven.
"That gives me great joy," says McNamara. "Because if anyone deserves to be in heaven, it's Joyce Perry."