Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Here's to hoping all good things don't have to end

In the newspaper business, the thought always is that if Democrats say that you're a stinkin' conservative shill and Republicans call you a pathetic liberal rag, you're doing OK. Because if both sides are mad at you, it's a good indication you're not favoring either.

Geno Auriemma, right, jokingly once referred to Pat Summitt and Tennessee as the "evil empire."

As a writer, I've always tried to apply that philosophy to the Connecticut-Tennessee women's hoops rivalry. I haven't kept an exact count, but I've gotten very close to equal amounts of "You hate us!" e-mail from both UConn and Tennessee fans over the last 11 years of writing for ESPN.com. On a few occasions, both sides have said that about the same column, which is a pretty neat trick.

Of course, I've also gotten wonderful, thoughtful, insightful and funny e-mails from fans of both teams, too.

There are things I'm totally one-sided about. Like the Cardinals vs. the Cubs or "The Twilight Zone" vs. "The Outer Limits" (of course, no one in their right mind could possibly prefer complete junk like "The Outer Limits").

However, honestly, one really can sit right in the middle of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry, not favoring either.

I admire and respect what both programs have done for women's college basketball. Both have set such a high standard and won so much that it's a big event when either one loses. Both teach their players to compete and perform at a superb level, which is not only why they've combined for 12 NCAA titles but also have so many successful players in the WNBA.

However, now the rivalry has truly turned sour, and it might not be reconciled any time soon

Earlier this year, UConn sent a signed contract to Tennessee for the next two seasons. It seemed like it was a foregone conclusion that there would never be an end to the matchup that, since it began in 1995, has become symbolic with excellence in this sport.

But … Tennessee said, "Nope. It's over."

Since Tennessee ended it, coach Pat Summitt and the gang in Knoxville are going to receive the blame from many observers. Even more so because they are not yet offering an explanation for it.

The bloody, bare-knuckle brawl has begun, figuratively speaking, among some fans on both sides who will throw punches at each other via the Internet. Others, though, are united across the divide because, of course, they agree about not wanting the series to end.

Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs ripped Summitt to shreds for not commenting. Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams didn't go anywhere near that extreme in criticism of Summitt, but did chide the decision to end the series and the lack of explanation.

Some of the Internet chatter has accused UConn of releasing this information right before the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame weekend in Knoxville as a kind of vengeance. But a UConn official explained to me that Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch got a tip about Tennessee's refusal to sign the contract and called UConn about it last Thursday. The UConn athletic department responded Friday, with a statement e-mailed to all media that cover the Huskies.

So the timing was not UConn's choice. Once it came out, though, Tennessee seemed unprepared for it. Tennessee has long been the standard for media relations when it comes to women's sports, and Summitt -- busy as she is -- always has been accessible.

But now the program essentially has gone silent, initially saying it couldn't comment on its schedule until the end of July because of Southeastern Conference regulations. Perhaps recognizing how flimsy a reason that appeared to be considering the circumstances, women's athletic director Joan Cronan released a brief statement. But that didn't actually explain anything.

For what it's worth, I've let Tennessee know this approach is not what we've come to expect from a great program and that fans of the sport deserve a timely explanation.

That said, I think Tennessee believes that by not commenting, it is actually saying a lot. An educated guess is that Summitt has had enough of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Is it the one-liners at her expense that he has used for years to entertain the media? Have things gotten particularly nasty in regard to recruiting battles between the two schools? Is it a combination of both? Or more we don't know?

A phrase I've heard from those close to the situation in Knoxville is to "consider the body of work." It's a wry choice of words, typically used by the selection committee chair in regard to NCAA Tournament bracket questions. In this case, it suggests that Tennessee reacted to the cumulative effect of Auriemma's words and actions over the years.

Auriemma always has insightful things to say about basketball. Even though I've been annoyed a few times over the years when it seemed he was being too flip, it's very difficult as a journalist to dislike him. However, I don't know what it's like to deal with him as an opposing coach.

Auriemma's a natural-born wisecracker with a very quick mind who can't pass up available quips. If he were strapped into an electric chair and told, "One more joke from you, pal, and the switch is flipped," … and then someone asked him about, say, Maria Conlon's foot "speed" … the guy just couldn't stop himself. He'd fry.

There's a mind-set that it's just in fun, that it makes for fabulous newspaper copy and TV sound bites, that it spices up the series, that Summitt should understand it's "just Geno's way" and also that it's just strategy on his part to try to get under her skin.

There's truth in all of that -- but it ignores two other things: Not all of his jibes toward Summitt have seemed in jest, and she is not wrong if she feels she has been disrespected. If she does feels that way, I can understand why.

Let's consider a couple of remarks Auriemma made in January, the day before the meeting with Tennessee. In regard to the popularity of the series, he said, "It's great for the schools. I mean, how many times does Tennessee get 25,000 at their place? Legit, I mean. I don't mean when they say they got 25 and they got 12. I'm talking about when they really get 25. When we go."

Later, someone asked if it was "more sexy" -- the reporter's words -- when part of the rivalry was Pat vs. Geno.

"No, not for me," Auriemma said. "I don't think Pat's ever looked at me in sexual terms. I don't think she finds anything attractive about me whatsoever."

Then he continued, "It may be sexy for the media and the fans and all that. But in terms of me personally or Pat, I think she'd be the first to tell you she'd rather keep the focus on the teams."

OK … some might look at those comments and say, "No big deal. What's the problem?" But others might wonder why he took the attendance shot at Tennessee, as if the program had any kind of reputation for inflating those figures. And they might say he really didn't need to grab the "sexy" bait from the reporter and run with it.

Either way, the jousting has been going on a long time from Auriemma's end. Summitt has never liked it and made that clear a long time ago. She won't get into a public war of words. Perhaps she has reached a point where she feels the only effective salvo she can fire is to end this regular-season series.

I'm disappointed for the sake of women's hoops -- for the sake of good basketball, period -- and obviously I don't agree with the decision to end the series. But I also don't know everything that went into making it. I do know that harsh criticism of Summitt is totally unwarranted and unfair. She has aided the growth and development of women's basketball more than anybody.

When any other program has elevated itself, Tennessee has put that team on its schedule. Summitt has been willing to travel to arenas all across the country and take everybody's best shot for decades. Not only does Tennessee play the toughest schedule every year, no other program is even close.

How many interviews has Summitt done? How many stupid questions has she answered without making the asker look bad? How much goodwill has she spread for women's athletics and her university?

Summitt deserves the benefit of the doubt on decisions more than any coach in any sport. That doesn't mean she's never wrong. But she must have felt very, very strongly for Tennessee to have ended this series. I hope she decides to explain it.

We'll wait for that, and to see if the matchup eventually will be salvaged. Perhaps there's still some way the programs can mend fences. It brings to mind another thing that Auriemma said in January when asked if he anticipated the series would ever end.

"The players love it, it's great for the schools, TV can't wait to show it … why would you stop it?" he said. "The only thing that could screw this up is me or Pat. And she probably won't screw it up. So it just comes down to one variable."

All of us reporters there laughed with Auriemma at that. Then he said, "I would think -- nothing lasts forever -- but this is a pretty good bet, this series."

'Mique's exit leaves L.A. in lurch -- and fans full of sadness

So what do we make of the strange case of Chamique Holdsclaw's professional career? In women's hoops, there has never been more of a "sure thing" who turned into such an enigma.

If Chamique Holdsclaw's WNBA career really is finished, there is a definite sense of sadness and loss for those who follow the sport.

Los Angeles' Holdsclaw announced her retirement Monday, the second bad-news shocker of the past few days that's connected to Tennessee. Confirmation that Tennessee is not renewing its regular-season series with archrival Connecticut came last Friday.

Now, Holdsclaw -- Tennessee's all-time leading scorer (3,025) and rebounder (1,295) -- says she's ending her pro basketball career at age 29.

"This was not an easy decision," she said in a statement. "I put a lot of thought into it."

Well … it might have been a good idea to have thought it out before the WNBA season started and the Sparks -- already without a pregnant Lisa Leslie -- were left in the lurch. It's the second time in her WNBA career that Holdsclaw has walked out on a team, having done so with the Washington Mystics in 2004.

I don't mean to be harsh, because I really empathize if Holdsclaw is still struggling with the depression that sidelined her when she left the Mystics.

The loss of her grandmother, the guiding force who raised her, was a devastating blow for Holdsclaw in 2002. She lost a grandfather in 2004, and later said his death prompted a flood of emotions she had been holding back after her grandmother passed away.

Holdsclaw played in Spain and then got a new start in the WNBA on the West Coast, with Los Angeles, in 2005 after asking to be traded from D.C.

Last year, Holdsclaw was excused from the early part of the season as she tended to her father and stepfather, who both had been diagnosed with cancer. Holdsclaw indicated during the season she was considering retiring.

When WNBA.com's Matt Wurst visited with her this past January, he asked again about retirement. Holdsclaw said then that she'd had surgery on her foot and felt it was at 100 percent after bothering her a lot the previous couple of years. Even so, she told Wurst that her playing this WNBA season wasn't necessarily a sure thing.

"I am definitely missing [basketball] right now and can't wait to get back out there and play," she said. "So ask me that question again in a month or so."

Had Holdsclaw called it quits before this season started, all things considered, it might not have been such a big surprise. But the fact that she began the season and then left so quickly is surprising.

Perhaps she had to play to find out her heart wasn't into it. It's unfortunate, though, that Holdsclaw did not give a reason for leaving. Some will say it's a private matter and she doesn't owe anyone a public explanation. However, when you're one of the best players in the history of your sport, and you walk away while still in your prime years, obviously you leave a lot of questions.

If depression is still the problem, Holdsclaw needs to realize there is absolutely no shame in that, no reason not to acknowledge it. It's an enemy that even the strongest people have a very difficult time beating. If that's not it, why leave this open to speculation?

Maybe Holdsclaw just needs more time away from the sport. Maybe she isn't healed emotionally or physically. Maybe more distance from playing basketball will eventually lead her back to it.

But if she really is finished -- or at least finished in the WNBA -- there is a definite sense of sadness and loss for those who follow the sport. Holdsclaw won three titles in a row at Tennessee (1996, '97, '98), was the top WNBA draft pick in 1999 and won an Olympic medal in 2000.

But she hasn't won a WNBA championship. And while she has been very productive in points and rebounds, her on-court demeanor for some time now has suggested an amazingly gifted athlete who has been going through the motions. She has been playing basketball as if it's simply a chore she excels at, but not a passion she embraces. In fact, it has even seemed a burden.

We all can hope that Holdsclaw comes back to the court and finds some joy in the game. But if she doesn't, then we wish for her success in other endeavors -- and some peace of mind in her life.

Mechelle Voepel can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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