For Rutgers Players, a Great Run Spoiled

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One week ago, the Rutgers women's basketball team awoke in Cleveland and prepared for a historic moment. For the first time, the Scarlet Knights would play for the NCAA national championship, and the metropolitan New York region buzzed. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine attended the game. The Empire State Building was illuminated in scarlet in tribute.

A week later, the Scarlet Knights awoke on campus at the center of a national news story, far removed from their unforgettable season, over slurs made by radio host Don Imus last Wednesday.

At a news conference yesterday in Piscataway, N.J., Rutgers players and Coach C. Vivian Stringer expressed regret at being embroiled in the controversy. They reminded the school and the country that the Rutgers' women's basketball team had made a name for itself not because Imus called the players "nappy-headed hos" but because of its talent and resiliency on the court.

"This week and last, we should have been celebrating our accomplishments from the past season," sophomore forward Heather Zurich said. "But instead we're here."

Said Stringer: "While all of you come to talk about this great story, this Don Imus story, in the translation you have lost what this is really all about. At the beginning of the year, we were humiliated. But through perseverance and hard work, determination, ultimately they ended up playing for the national championship. And no one believed in them but them. That's the greatest story. It's not where you came from, but where you're going, not where you start, but where you finish."

With five freshmen and no seniors on its 10-player roster, Rutgers lost its first two games of the season and stood at 5-5 after 10 games. Players studied film and practiced for 10 hours daily over winter break, Stringer said, and from that point the Scarlet Knights won 22 of 25 games before Tennessee beat them in the national championship.

Along the way, Rutgers demonstrated its perseverance with stunning victories. It lost to Connecticut by 26 at home on Feb. 26, then beat U-Conn. by eight points eight days later in Hartford, Conn., to win the Big East tournament, the school's first league championship. In the NCAA tournament, the Scarlet Knights beat No. 1 Duke, which had throttled Rutgers by 40 points in December. Stringer told her players then they were her worst defensive team in 35 years of coaching. In the Final Four, Rutgers set a semifinal record by allowing just 35 points against LSU.

"You are familiar with what you might think is the story," said Rutgers Athletic Director Robert E. Mulcahy III, who attended the team's news conference along with Corzine and the school's president, Richard L. McCormick. "But the real story is not the despicable and degrading comments issued by Don Imus and his producer. The real story is about the 2007 Rutgers women's basketball team: their incredible accomplishments, where they came from and how far they went."

The 10 players were applauded as they walked to the dais, introduced themselves and said where they were from. They sat in a row to the right of the podium, a collection of "valedictorians of their class, future doctors, musical prodigies and yes, even Girl Scouts," Stringer said. "These young ladies are the best this nation has to offer and we are so very fortunate to have them here at Rutgers University."

The controversy stung Stringer. The same year she made her first trip to the Final Four, in 1982 as coach of Cheyney State, she discovered that her daughter had been stricken with meningitis. She made it again with Iowa in 1993, less than six months after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. This season, it seemed only joy would accompany her as Rutgers reached the pinnacle of women's college basketball. It was a hope lost with Imus's words.

In 20 minutes of stirring remarks yesterday, Stringer attacked Imus's comments, calling them "deplorable, despicable, and abominable and unconscionable."

McCormick said he would call each player's parents, with the player's permission, to offer the university's support. "Just at the golden moment when we were celebrating the team's accomplishments came Imus's despicable words," McCormick said. "We have their backs."

Team captain Essence Carson said players would meet with Imus, as he requested, in an undisclosed location at a time to be determined. After the meeting, the team will weigh whether or not to accept his apology, she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company