(Disclaimer: No real names were used in this article for the protection of those that came forward and those that were involved. Any quoted material is dated and backed by other members of the team. Journalists never reveal their sources.)
“Hey, isn’t that your coach?”
My eyes shot up and immediately my untied shoe became a non-priority. My eyes scanned quickly in the direction my teammate was pointing. This familiar sinking feeling immediately filled my stomach as my eyes landed on the memorable color schemed outfit. I looked back down quickly, suddenly trying to remember how to tie my shoe again.
This was exactly the confrontation I was not ready for. I guess I was hopeful that he wouldn’t show, but that was a ridiculous hope. I was at one of the most popular events of the Final Four weekend (outside of the actual games), and I was getting ready to play my first game of the day at an elite combine for recently graduated players looking to play professionally. Every WNBA team was being represented on the sidelines, and potential agents were scouring the courts. It was supposed to be an exciting day.
Flashback to three months earlier- I was in my car, blasting Survivor by Destiny’s Child for the tenth time, trying to get the courage to open my door and head into our makeshift locker room and get ready for practice. Deep breath, Klara. It will be over soon.
This ritual happened daily at this point. I was grasping for ways to stay afloat from the nonsense happening outside of my car door. Truth is, I was in the middle of the worst year of my collegiate basketball career, mentally. Even just looking at this blank page two years later, I still can’t figure out the words to explain the nightmare that was my senior season.
It started out just like any other season, the typical off-season workouts, the meetings, the introduction of new players and new rules, etc. Everything was running almost smoothly. This was my first experience in my college career that I started a year with the same coach and we had 8 seniors, which was nice to think I would end alongside the friends I’ve made in this grueling process. I was excited, to say the least. Looking back now, I’d say it was pretty oblivious excitement.
I can’t exactly put my finger on what the starting place was for when everything went sour, but a good starting point would be October, right before season kicked in high gear.
It was October 18, 2017 and some of us had just finished with an individual workout and I still can remember heading to our makeshift locker room (ours was being remodeled, due to be finished before the first game) and looking at my phone to two texts from my teammates. This was odd, as they wouldn’t be texting us during a workout while they were in meetings. The texts were simple, they got cut from the team and wouldn’t be joining us anymore. Boom. Just like that, two full-scholarship seniors cut from the roster, no real reason why was given, with no opportunity for a real goodbye.
This was the first shock, and nowhere near the last.
Within a week of this abrupt change to our roster, our best player went down with a season-ending knee injury. Whispers of coach’s karma filled the hallways in the following days. We went from an experienced, confident team of 9 upperclassmen returners to a team of 5 seniors, 1 junior, and 5 freshmen.
This is where I will bluntly say the sh*t really started to hit the fan. The new group of freshmen were the first recruits of this new coach, and anyone with experience with a coaching change, you know what I’m saying when I say you can immediately tell the difference between the “leftovers” and the recruits the coaches chose.
At first, the verbal teardowns in practice towards our group of “leftovers” started sparsely and weren’t very disruptive, like maybe pink flags if I could give them a flag color. They were comments like “I don’t know how they pass exams they don’t remember anything” or getting called liars or clowns when responding or asking a question. Comments like these can be normal at this level, as coaches have a lot of pressure on their backs to do their job and honestly, I was used to a little verbal violence after four years in the business.
Later, those little pink flags started to deepen in color, and more harsh comments and actions started to take place. Practices stopped being about basketball, but about not making mistakes and running. We ran for most of the entirety of our practices after we started making mistakes, including on game days at shootaround. We were being drilled into believing we were building a new culture with questions like “do you want to compete” being yelled at us as we ran lines after lines, but in reality, we were just stroking a retired hooper’s ego.
Before a conference game, our HC told the team to envision this post player we were going up against as one of the freshmen we had because that would make us play better. “Put on a mask that it’s (freshman 1) since y’all don’t like her and I know that will make y’all go off on her.”
This idea that was created that the “leftovers” didn’t like the incoming class was completely false, but with comments like these stemming from this man we were supposed to listen to and believe, we couldn’t do much to repair the damage.
These comments started at the top and withered their way down into our staff’s mouths as well. A female assistant told me during a game “(senior 1) didn’t communicate to help (freshman 1) make a better decision, but if it was (senior 2) she would have helped her and communicated.”
We started getting called things like “disgusting” and I was mocked in practices by the head coach speaking in my voice when I had a question.
In one team meeting we had (these meetings would run close to 3 hours and go over our daily time limit weekly), the HC asked the room to go around and give their opinion on the senior class. An assistant said we were “disrespectful, manipulative, conniving, and fake” and the rest of the room agreed. When we asked the freshman to explain what exactly they agreed with, there was silence. I still believe that they actually had no clue why they didn’t like us.
After that meeting, in a practice a few days later, the HC in the post-practice huddle said something that still rattles me to this day and still remember it word for word. “If y’all don’t want to get it together, if y’all don’t get together and get connected, you might as well go and commit suicide.”
Yes, you read that right. Our head coach, a man we were supposed to look up to for guidance, told a group of 12 young women ranging from 18-23 to go commit suicide if they didn’t want to play basketball better. As a survivor of suicide, a fact that was known by him and everyone on the staff, I remember immediate tears started rolling down my face, and he stopped and looked at me and said, “now why are you crying?!” in this exasperated tone. I couldn’t bring my chin to stop quivering and our trainer, bless her heart, whisked me away into our water recovery room where my cries could be muffled by the whirring of the hot tub.
Slowly, the freshman group refused to sit with us for dinners. We didn’t speak, we had seats in between us on the bus, and our group of seniors were just holding on for dear life hoping it would end sooner than later. We spoke of going to the Athletic Director, but we were so scared of making it worse we just all decided to try to weather out the storm.
What was once was my happy place was slowly becoming a place I feared, and my love for this game started to get scrambled in the mess of verbal threats and misunderstanding.
As our season was coming to a close, our HC was canceling our shootarounds more often and we didn’t even practice the day of senior night against #1 ranked UConn, stating we “can’t beat them because we can’t prepare” as the reason.
In one of our last team meetings, our HC wanted to assure us he was not afraid of how bad our season went. He went on to state “I’m not afraid of administration” and leaned back and put two middle fingers up in the air while facing the room. He also went on to say to anyone looking for a job or references, that “if someone went to ask him about us… he was going to be honest and not hold back.”
Flash back forward, as I’m staring at this untied shoelace at the pro combine. All those memories were flashing back, and I saw him talking to other coaches and this fear that he could be ruining my chances professionally started to grow. We had finished that season with 10 wins and 20 losses, the worst season I had ever competed in. The year before we had tied the school record for making it the farthest in the WNIT tournament.
The once very big gym full of hopeful professionals became very small in my mind, and I continued to see him around for the rest of the afternoon. Not once did he come and speak with me, even when other coaches in the same circle came and said hello. At one point in the afternoon, some of the girls came up to me and asked me why he wouldn’t come speak to me, one of his players. All the other players had their coaches on the sidelines at their games and with them in between games introducing them to scouts and agents. Even though I was alone, after two long, hard years, I was happy to sit in peace.
Looking back, I should have spoken up during that season, not only for the damage that that season did to my mental, but the damage it did to our group. I’m still shaking off the mental effects of that season to this day. I should have spoken up sooner, for the girls that had to go through the same pain of being a leftover after we left and the group of girls still fighting under that regime. Now, I can only hope that anyone reading this who could be going through the same thing, would speak up before I did.
(*The next season, the team went 11-19 without our group of leftovers.)