A great day for a special ‘Knight’

By Paul Franklin
Updated: September 12, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — For nearly seven months, C.

Vivian Stringer couldn’t find the right words. Following a standing ovation during her introduction that lasted nearly a minute Friday night, the words found her.

At the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, held at Symphony Hall, the Rutgers women’s basketball coach simply spoke from the heart.

“I have to tell you that this is one of those defining moments. This is the most humbling experience of my life,” she said. “And I see all of you. I see you first through the grace of God, and he has given me many lessons, and without him I would not be here.

“So many of you that I see just represent what I consider to be the earth angels, because God knows I would not be here if for not so many of you. My story is one of a person who’s taken advantage of these people.”

She addressed an audience of more than 2,000, including her current staff, family members, and former players. She had said during the week that she was hoping she would not cry. She did.

It was when she began to talk about the death of her husband, Bill, who died at the age of 47 when she was coaching at the University of Iowa.

It was then that she leaned on family members more than ever.

The memories caused her to choke up as she momentarily paused up at the podium.

She spoke about growing up in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, a town so small “it’s not even on the map,” she said. “To me, this is the most unusual and unexpected thing in the world. (But) I was a big dreamer. I remember watching the soap operas sometimes and wondering, “Who are these people that actually dress in suits and gowns at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?’ I don’t know anyone like that!”

She spoke of her late father, who continued to work in the coal mines despite having his legs amputated. “He taught me to never to make excuses, and he continued to work and support his family.”

She added that she didn’t realize at the time how her mother, by example, “having lost my father, would demonstrate to me how strong I needed to be, when things happened.”

Earlier in the day the inductees spoke at a press conference in the rotunda at the Hall of Fame facility. Surrounding the rotunda on the upper floor were four rows of black and white yearbook-like shots of Hall of Fame members, sort of an extended version of the TV game show “Hollywood Squares.”

The very last picture on the north end of the ceiling was Stringer. The square to her right was blank, awaiting a member from next year’s class. To her left was a photo of another member of the 2009 class: Michael Jordan.

Making the experience all the more special was the quality of the 2009 class, among the best ever: NBA greats Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, and Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Stringer’s credentials include ranking third all-time on the career victories list in women’s college basketball (825), and being the first college coach to have taken three teams — Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers — to the Final Four. In her 38 years she has taken her teams to 22 NCAA Tournaments.

“It would be overwhelming enough that I would be honored as such,” she said. “But Michael? My God. What else can you say?”

As for Jordan, he has known Stringer since, as he put it, “back in the day.”

“Vivian and my father grew a bond when we were on the Nike trips. With my mom, too. We would sit up nights, and we would just talk about the game of basketball,” he said. “She became a confidante to the family (and) we would communicate periodically when our paths would cross. My father really admired her coaching style, her openness, her teaching skills.

From that day we have always been somewhat connected.

“I’ve seen her over the years a countless number of times. She’s always been as polite and respectful to me, that I can ever remember. It gives me great pleasure to go into the Hall of Fame with her. If my father was here,” Jordan said, breaking into a smile, “he’d be ecstatic that he knows two Hall of Famers.”

This remains one Hall of Fame than she could never have imagined, and prior to the ceremony she tried to express what the honor meant to her.

“It was nothing ever that I planned. As I grew up, it was never possible to for me to dream anything like this. To stand on the same stage with these legends, people that I’ve just greatly admired, is beyond anything that I can explain,” she said. “I found myself a lot just saying, “I can’t wait until it’s over.’ But it’s not that. It’s the moment that you want to hold on to for life. It almost catches my breath that I would be honored on this stage, and that I’ll be able to be a part of basketball history is a dream come true.”

She is now, and words will never change it.