Stanford's sadness soaks in

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPNET SportsZone


MARCH 29, 1997

CINCINNATI -- You're an intruder into their grief. They sit, still in their scarlet uniforms, some staring at the floor, a few peering up at you with their red, wounded eyes.

The locker rooms are open after NCAA Tournament games. The women do not undress in front of strangers. They take off tape and then sit or stand waiting for you to do your job and leave.

If they won, they don't mind much. They didn't mind in Old Dominion's locker room after Friday's semifinal game. Filled with TV cameras and notebooks and tape recorders, they talked about how they'd just won a game many didn't expect them to -- an 83-82 overtime victory against Stanford that was, for its emotion, drama and high-level play, one of the best in NCAA history.

They had so many reasons to be proud and to celebrate. You felt good for their joy.

But entering Stanford's locker room was, of course, something that made your stomach clench up. You needed to talk to them, try to get them to describe the indescribable.

Old Dominion and Tennessee were the winners Friday, and they deserve all praise for advancing to Sunday's title game. Notre Dame was the spirited underdog, and it deserves to feel good about the huge step it took as a program.

But Stanford's misery -- its third consecutive Final Four semifinal loss -- was the story of the night, and this team deserves a proper goodbye.

For their scholarships, the trips they take, the experiences they get, the bond they form -- this is one of the price tags: They wait in this room with the door open for people to come in and ask about their pain. It must seem like that door is never going to close, never going to let them take off those uniforms -- some for the last time -- never let them hug and cry and comfort each other, let them have these last moments as a team.

Vanessa Nygaard, whose shot just wasn't there Friday, is crying and trying to talk at the same time. A reporter kneels next to her, and she's fighting through it. Tears don't come easily to this zany, charming warrior. She has said before she's no crier, but she cried Friday, more than anything for people she loves dearly, the Stanford seniors.

"It tears my heart out and everybody's on the team," Nygaard says. "This is the one year we were really close. This one hurts the most. This was our year."

Jamila Wideman, who missed two shots in a frenzied sequence at the end that could have won it for Stanford, talks also. Her voice wavers, sobs get caught in her throat. But she keeps answering questions.

Kate Starbird, who followed an unbelievable first half with an inexplicable second half, talks quietly but thoughtfully. She is not crying, though her disappointment is intense.

Her honesty is also intense: "With a big old lead, it's easy to play relaxed. But when they got close, I think I just got tight."

Starbird has always had those big, sad, little-kid eyes, that stone-serious expression that belies her great sense of humor, her engaging personality, the joy she gets out of playing basketball.

She has grown up so much in the four years at Stanford, gone from painfully shy and constantly self-deprecating to handling stardom and being the center of attention. She doesn't want this, but she accepts it.

The self-deprecation is still there -- an endearing quality in someone so gifted -- but somewhere inside, Starbird has come to a realization that people think she is special. Even if she doesn't think that herself.

A day earlier when she was named a Kodak All-American, Starbird was surrounded by a pack of reporters that would have intimidated her in the past.

"I'm not very good as a spotlight person, but I'm working on it," she said that day, and you got to see her smile a lot. You saw a glimpse of what those close to her see. You understand why her cult of fans adore her.

Then Friday night, you saw that she understands both aspects of being a star. You talk when you win. You talk when you lose.

The latter is so much harder, you come away amazed and touched whenever people can do it. The Stanford players did.

Their sadness is so real, because it's not about which team scored the most points in a game. It's about the end of something, and the missed chance to put a happy spin on that ending -- the spin that would have made it easier to say goodbye.

As long as there are sports, there will be locker rooms like Stanford's on Friday night. But they never get easier to be in or walk into, and you never forget them.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star writes a regular women's basketball column for ESPNET SportsZone. Her e-mail address is