Talking success, pandemic play and social justice activism with basketball’s winningest female coach.
Story by Julia Brown
On Sunday, January 24, Stanford University women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer did something she’s done over 1,100 times in her storied career — she coached her team to a win.
But for VanDerveer, who in December passed the late University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt to become the coach with the most wins in Division I women’s college basketball history, the victory over University of Southern California was one in a stretch of games that have been unlike any others in her career.
It was a home game for Stanford, but with coronavirus restrictions at the time prohibiting live sports in Santa Clara County, the game was played at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz, home to the NBA G League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors. Gone were the fans, replaced by cardboard cutouts of Stanford Cardinal fans accustomed to congregating together in Maples Pavilion, including one of VanDerveer’s mother.
Stanford, with a 12–2 record as of Wednesday (January 27th) and ranked №6 in the country, is more than halfway through its regular season schedule with an eye toward March Madness. Last year, tournament play was cancelled for men’s and women’s college basketball teams amidst the onset of the pandemic in March.
VanDerveer, a Menlo Park resident, has led the Stanford women’s basketball team for more than three decades, guiding many women who have gone on to have success at the professional level, including 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike and sister Chiney Ogwumike, Candice Wiggins, and Jayne Appel. VanDerveer has accounted for over 80% of Stanford’s victories since its first varsity season in 1975 and has led her Stanford teams to two NCAA championships, 12 NCAA Final Four appearances, 22 Pac-12 regular-season titles, 13 Pac-12 Tournament crowns and 31 trips to the NCAA Tournament. In 1995–96 VanDerveer served as head coach of the USA Basketball National Team, leading the team to an Olympic gold medal.
In an interview earlier this month, VanDerveer talked about reaching the milestone of leading the all-time coaching wins list, what it’s been like coaching basketball amidst coronavirus restrictions and protocols and social justice activism in basketball.
You’ve had so many accomplishments in your career. Where does passing Pat Summitt for the coaching wins record rank among them?
The fact you’ve coached that many games shows longevity, but it’s not a record I was trying to set because I’ve taken a year off from Stanford and I’ve changed schools. I’m proud of the fact I’ve been at Stanford this long and our team has been successful, but I don’t really focus on that (record) at all.
How did you celebrate the milestone, given the COVID restrictions?
There were no fans. It was pretty intimate with our team. We had some cupcakes and basically went back to the hotel, we took pictures with the team — that was pretty much a team celebration. The team got me a Comfy sweatshirt that says T-DAWG on it and it was fine. It was great to be with the team and have that experience. It would’ve been fun to have my mother be at the game; she’s a big fan of our team. It would’ve been fun to celebrate with our fans, but I got a lot of text messages, emails and letters. … Our fans are a big part of the success of our team and my success so I did miss that, to be able to celebrate with them.
The team hasn’t been able to play on its home court for months due to local coronavirus restrictions prohibiting live sports. [Editor’s note: Santa Clara County lifted the restriction on live professional sports this week; the team’s next scheduled home game is Friday, Feb. 5.] To what degree has that had an impact on and off the court?
It’s challenging, but I think our team is flexible. They’re a very resilient group and we recognize this is what it is this year. In order to play this is what we have to do. It is challenging, but we’re excited to play. And every team is going through some challenges. Ours probably is the most challenging, no doubt.
In general, how would you characterize the pandemic’s impact on this season?
Because the tournament was taken away from us last year I think people are excited to train and be with each other … We know we’re at the end of the pandemic and we’re going to get through it, but it’s more fun to be playing and practicing under those tough conditions than sitting at home.
Have you adopted any routines or creature comforts during this season?
(When) we bus over to Santa Cruz I bring a spin bike; trying to keep your routine for me is working out. It’s challenging, it’s very different but we’re around each other all the time and I’m really grateful (the players) get along with each other. They’re a very close team, they care about each other and they’re helping each other get through this.
What was your reaction to seeing the Atlanta Dream and fellow WNBA players coming out in support of Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock and being credited with generating momentum for his victory against then Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler in November?
The WNBA has been a league of deep thinkers and serious social justice leaders, (including) Nneka Ogwumike, Layshia Clarendon. I’m proud of them for finding their voice and leading the way when we need that.
What do you think when you hear people who believe athletes should be seen and not heard — that they should just, as one news anchor famously directed toward LeBron James, “shut up and dribble”?
That’s not the world we live in. Athletes have a visible platform with social media and all kinds of attention that’s brought to them and they understand they have a voice and they use it. I think that’s great that they do.
What are your hopes as the team heads into the last month or so of the season and where do you think the team could stand to improve?
We definitely have a lot of room for improvement and it is challenging when our practice situation is very limiting. We try to do the best we can in watching video but our defense was very lacking in our Colorado game (and) we fouled too much. … And I credit Colorado, every time we play we have a bull’s-eye on our back and we have to understand every team is motivated to beat us and we have to come out and rise to that challenge. … It is challenging what we’re doing, but it’s nothing compared to people that have lost jobs or lost family members or friends because of COVID. We’re doing the best we can and we miss being in Maples (Pavilion). We miss just the regular little things about going to the gym, having a locker room — things you take for granted. I think we’ll appreciate all those things more and our fans more. We miss our fans tremendously.
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