by Scott Kindberg
December 17, 2020
A ‘Laser’ Among ‘Pinballs’
Tara VanDerveer is now the winningest Division I women’s basketball coach in history. Her top-ranked Stanford team made that happen Tuesday night with a 104-61 thumping of Pacific that moved VanDerveer past the legendary Pat Summitt on the all-time list.But if you pull back the figurative curtain a bit on a career that began during the Carter Administration, you realize there’s more to the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Famer than wins (1,099), losses (only 253), national championships (two) and Olympic gold medal-winning teams (one).
I know that to be true because Tara’s friends told me so this week. All hail from Chautauqua County and all have stories to tell, most of which have nothing to do with putting a ball through a hoop. And thanks to a long-forgotten video that resurfaced only days ago, the night Tara made history has even greater meaning.
More on that later.
Dave Turnbull texted Tara after win No. 1,098, an 83-38 rout of Cal on Sunday night that tied her with her friend, Summitt, who passed away in 2016.
“(I wanted) to wish her luck on her upcoming record-breaking game,” the Jamestown resident said, “She responded exactly how I would have expected: ‘Thanks, Dave! Hope is all is well with you and your family! Do you have snow?'”
In other words, Tara is happier talking about others than she is about herself. In all likelihood, she is Stanford’s all-time leader in “deflections.”
“As great of a basketball coach that Tara is, she is even a better person,” said Dave, who has known her for years. “She is humble, kind and down to earth. Every time we talk or text she always wants to know how my mom, family, dogs and team are doing.”
Dave, who coached girls high school basketball at Maple Grove and Southwestern in recent years, noted that Tara has “provided several lifelong memories” for those programs.
“When my daughter, Mia, was 8 years old, Tara gave an impromptu clinic for Mia and about 20 other 8-year-olds,” Dave recalled. “She shook hands, took pictures and signed autographs for each little girl.
“Years later, Tara let the Southwestern girls basketball team attend Stanford’s closed practice in Columbus, Ohio, prior to playing in the season-opening shootout with UConn, Louisville and Ohio State. At the conclusion of practice, Tara took a team picture with each of our teams at midcourt.
And, finally, two years ago, Tara again showed her generosity, Dave said, by letting the Southwestern girls team attend Stanford’s practice before the Cardinal’s game at the University at Buffalo.
“We then attended the game the next day and Tara took the time to speak to the team at the conclusion of the game,” Dave said. “Tara’s kindness will forever be remembered by all of the girls that were fortunate to be part of these special occasions.”
Nancy Bargar and Wendy Lewellen have been friends with Tara for more than 50 years, a bond that was formed when they were counselors at the Boys & Girls Club at Chautauqua Institution. Together they taught swimming, sailed Lightnings on weekends and played bridge with many of the other teenagers who spent their summers there.
“Tara is good at a lot of games,” Nancy said, “and she’s constantly learning.”
Noted Wendy, who lives in Bemus Point, and has known Tara since 1963 when they were both 10: “She was the only girl gym rat during the boys’ pickup hoop games in the old high school club (at Chautauqua). One guy later related that if she couldn’t get into the game she would just stay and dribble, shoot at a side basket, and stare and stare and stare at the action.”
Competition was her fuel, even way back then.
“I could always see that she, the oldest of five children, was special,” Wendy said. “If pressed to define her in one word, I would choose, ‘focused.’ The rest of us were pinballs. She was a laser. I still feel that to be true today. She had her nose in a book as (the rest of us) prioritized the evenness of our tans and how to sneak out to (Snug Harbor).”
Nevertheless, Tara could “giggle and guffaw with the best of us,” Wendy noted.
Like the time they donned foul-weather gear and tennis racquets to take on a pesky bat bedeviling them in the Girls Club counselor dorm at Chautauqua. “Brave as she seemed, she too hit the deck the second the bat flew out at us,” Wendy recalled.
Under most circumstances, however, Tara always stood tall, particularly when it came to playing sports on the Institution’s grounds growing up.
John Keating, now a Mayville resident, was part of that group back in the day and witnessed Tara’s athletic prowess and recently uncovered Chautauqua Daily articles to confirm it. In fact, she still holds the age-group record in the softball toss.
“I believe that if it hadn’t been basketball it would have been something else,” Wendy said. “But for some reason the sport of basketball seized her intellect and her spirit and it clearly, thankfully, has not yet released its grip.”
Tara’s players — past and present — are the beneficiaries, Nancy said.
“A few years ago, I went out to California to see her team play an exhibition game,” the Lakewood resident said. “In the practice gym each player, with huge smiles, introduced herself to me individually and engaged me in conversation. You could see the basketball culture Tara and her staff have developed extends beyond the court. I came away with my own attitude adjustment. Back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the positivity that radiated from these young women. (It) made me want to do better on that quality myself.
“Tara’s treatment of people overall, her understanding of personal relationships goes a long way in motivating everyone she comes in contact with.”
Then, again, there are situations that have no explanation.
Greg Peterson, like Tara, is Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame inductee. While Greg wasn’t enshrined for his athletic or coaching successes, the local attorney’s contributions for chronicling this area’s sports history is second to none.
Therefore, what the Lakewood resident uncovered Monday of this week — a home video he produced nearly 25 years ago — carries special meaning.
“We owned a condo unit contiguous to the VanDerveers at Chautauqua, so over time as our kids were growing up we got to know the family,” Greg said “Van, Tara’s father, and Rita, Tara’s mother, were the nicest people.”
So on Aug. 4, 1996 — the day that the Tara-coached United States women’s Olympic basketball team claimed the gold medal — Greg, his son Brent, then 10, and three of Brent’s buddies made the short walk to the VanDerveers’ home with a congratulatory note and a bottle of champagne for Van, the proud father.
“What we knew from Rita was that Van got very nervous during games and would not watch them,” Greg said. “It was Rita who would fly to games or watch the games (on TV). She was very much in the moment. Van was very interested, and he knew all the players, but when it came to actually playing the game, he preferred to watch the highlights.”
So while Rita was in Atlanta witnessing the historic clinching victory in person, Van proudly watched the medal ceremony on TV in his living room with Greg recording it all.
“I don’t think he knew I was filming,” Greg recalled.
That’s because Van’s eyes were glued to the television as the “Star Spangled Banner” was played, his foot tapping to the music.
“The film captures the ceremony, dad being very emotional and him talking about some of the players to the boys,” Greg said. “Essentially, it was four boys sitting around the TV with Van, and I’m physically sitting behind them, more or less in the shadows.”
But a true exclamation point to his story wasn’t made until the final minutes of Stanford’s victory over Pacific late Tuesday night.
With the Cardinal 40 points ahead and Tara’s 1,099th career victory secure, the announcers on ESPN2 regaled viewers with stories about the beloved coach. One of them concerned an email she received earlier Tuesday that contained a video link from nearly a quarter century ago.
Yes, THAT video link — the one made by Greg and ultimately emailed to Tara’s personal email by Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame President Randy Anderson hours before she made history.
“It was another piece of serendipity,” Peterson said. “I put the video on YouTube years ago, but I put it under ‘private,’ so nobody could see it. … I’m not sure why, two days ago, I culled through those videos … made it public and sent it.”
Sometimes no explanation is required.
Because, in this particular case, Tara now has a piece of family history featuring her late father, in their beloved home located at one of her favorite places on earth.
A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.