Cal women a team bonded by strength, perseverance

Monday March 24th, 2014

After an improbable run to the Final Four, coach Lindsay Gottlieb and Cal are ready for an encore.
Courtesy of Cal Athletics

Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb loves the dancing, goofy, highly-skilled young women she recruits to Berkeley, a new hotbed of women's basketball. They're the ones who make all the long hours worth it, she says. She's been through a lot with them, highs and lows, celebrations and tragedies, but she didn't see this coming: The note she wrote in October, it's still up there on the white board.

A year ago the Bears went on an improbable run that ended at the Final Four, a joyous and surprising journey from a team that had been ousted in the semifinals of the Pac-12 conference tournament. It stood out to anyone who watched the Bears on TV or in person, or hung around practice: Those kids just had fun. Cal's postseason sprint to New Orleans, coupled with a stunning, midseason victory at Stanford that snapped the Cardinal's 81-game conference winning streak, served notice that there was more than one women's team in the Bay Area. Now, Cal tries to rally again. After a scare in the first round against 10th-seeded Fordham, the seventh-seeded Bears will take on Baylor, the No. 2 seed and host.

It has been a season of inconsistency for Cal. With almost every player in a different, and bigger, role compared to last year, the Bears have compiled a 21-9 record and have been ranked most the season. "Last year, I think people had a sense of what we were about," says junior point guard Brittany Boyd, who scored 22 in Cal's 64-63, including the game-winner in Sunday's victory over Fordham. "Right now, people are still trying to figure us out. With our seeding, we kinda got what we deserved. I believe we're better than a 7, but we haven't shown it yet. I know our best basketball is still ahead of us."

These Bears are a little rougher around the edges, and a little more flawed. But they've also taught Gottlieb more than she could have anticipated. As Cal went deep in the tournament last season, stories of the Bears' tremendous perseverance flooded the media: Three players from last year's roster had family members who suffered violent deaths, and they spoke openly about the struggles of losing someone unexpectedly. The aftermath of those losses -- all happened before Tierra Rogers, Gen Brandon or Eliza Pierre arrived at Cal, but the devastation still lingered -- tightened bonds in the locker room.

"During that postseason run, the national media was seeing things that I had known and seen every single day," Gottlieb says. "And it was, 'Wow, they are so fun to watch ... Oh my goodness, this happened to this kid? That happened to this kid?' We didn't have the lens on it the way others did, but that team was inspirational, and they were a source of strength for each other."

This year, Gottlieb's had to apply all the lessons she preached -- about perseverance and leaning on your teammates and having perspective that basketball is a small part of life -- to herself. In mid-October, Gottlieb got a late night call from her sister informing Gottlieb that their father, Stephen, had suffered a "cardiac event" during a routine procedure. Three days later, he died of heart failure.

"By the time I got there," she says, "he was essentially gone."

As a child, Lindsay would come home to tell her parents that she learned about the March on Washington, only to discover her father attended it with other activists. He told her stories of listening to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," and took her to the 1992 Democratic National Convention. A Civil Court judge in the Bronx, Stephen would wait for Lindsay to arrive via the subway, then escort her across the street to catch a game at Yankee Stadium.

Now, Lindsay contemplated the loss of a giant as the Bears went through practice without their coach.

"It bothered me a lot, that she had to deal with this, because I know how it feels," says Brandon, a senior forward whose father was shot and killed after being mistaken for an armed robbery suspect when Brandon was a child. "It was weird with her not being at practice, not seeing her smile. I just wanted to hug her."

Lindsay is the youngest of four children, and had already dealt with the loss of her mother, who died of cancer when she was 19. In her mother's absence Lindsay says her father "filled the role of mom and dad."

Ten days is an eternity during the season, a stretch of time that seems inconceivable for any coach to miss. Gottlieb spent days with her family and nights on the phone with her assistants, asking who was playing well and who wasn't, and what had happened in closed scrimmages, desperate, she says, for "a dose of normalcy."

Then at the funeral, a bouquet she never saw coming: Players had pooled their $15 per diem money and sent her a big bunch of flowers with a note.

"When I lost my mom, that time is forever etched into my brain about what a team is," Gottlieb says. "Because I've gone through that, I feel I'm acutely aware of the fact that when these kids or someone on my staff, when they go through these major life things, how the team handles it and helps is going to be something that person remembers forever.

"My dad really had this measured compassion. He was sharp and driven and smart, but not without the human component -- he never gave up on anybody ... I want to do that for people, too. I have a different background than a lot of my players, but we're connected for a reason. We don't give up on each other. They have taught me so much about loyalty and support and yeah, we drive each other crazy sometimes, but the bottom line is that I believe in them as human beings and they believe in me."

She also believes in showing "incredible consistency," so Gottlieb didn't turn into an outward emotional mess when she returned to Berkeley. She hasn't broken down much since her father died, but admits there are nights she gets in her car after a big game and instinctively starts to dial his number. And around the gym, there is an every day reminder that he's gone: Instead of a big, heartfelt speech when she got back to Cal, Gottlieb wrote a thank you note on the white board, telling her players they'll never understand how comforting it was to know that while she lost one member of her family, 12 other members were waiting 3,000 miles for her to come home.

As players filed out of the locker room to catch a plane for Waco on last Thursday, that note was one of the last things they saw.

"Too many times, I think we judge players solely on their ability to win or lose games," Gottlieb says. "When I go recruiting, I get asked what I'm going to provide for players. What I want is to give them unconditional love and a family, because that type of relationship is far more important than the Xs and Os.

"But this year the strength they've given me, it's not something that's lost on me."

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