When you catch a little lightning in a bottle, especially for the first time, can you immediately recognize your own good fortune? Lacking any context, you can’t really know. But every once in a while, you dare to believe. The kid makes your jaw drop. And the next moment she makes you pull out your hair, enough to prolong the skepticism.
There was a time in Tempe, Ariz., when I thought the heavens had parted. A time when I believed Vivian Frieson was capable of doing anything on a basketball court. We were playing a club team with Kayla Pedersen, the current Stanford star. It was a close one. We were employing fullcourt pressure, as usual, but late in the game too many of our defenders sold out to the ball. One of their players streaked alone toward the basket. The ballhandler stopped in front of our double team short of midcourt and reared back to fire the ball to her unguarded teammate.
Vivian was converging but still was maybe 8-10 feet away. Up went the ball, and so did Vivian, who snatched the pass in mid-air. Next to me, Chris Bown, my coaching partner with the Northwest HoopGurlz, literally stumbled back in his folding chair. “Brother,” he said, wide eyed, “she’s like a (darned) cat!”
A couple years later, after I’d given up coaching to avoid conflicts for my Web site, now ESPN HoopGurlz, I’d tell anyone who’d listen that I used to coach a kid who was (indeed, is) as explosive and fluid an athlete as any I’d seen across the country. They’d roll their eyes or, like so many TV commentators, mispronounce her name as “Frier-son.” Today, April 8, 2010, I wondered if anyone remembered that. When the Tulsa Shock called Vivian’s name as the 31st pick in the WNBA Draft, I wondered if anyone recalled her as the kid the HoopGurlz guy used to brag about.
I never stopped. Bragging, that is. I was in Washington, D.C., to see my photo at the Smithsonian when Vivian had the game of her life – 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four blocks, three steals and the game-winning jumper with 18 seconds left in her hometown, Seattle, to lead Gonzaga to a 72-71 upset of Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament. I stayed up late, screamed and hollered in my hotel room, and watched nearly every second. I say “nearly” because the TV went blank, on only ESPN2, just before Vivian hit the telltale shot.
Until Vivian went to play for Kelly Graves at Gonzaga, I’d only seen her perform such miracles in a HoopGurlz uniform. Vivian had what you would call a strong personality, so Chris and I pushed her by challenging her. We played her at the point, we had her shoot threes, we drilled her on the boxes. I’ll never forget one game, the summer before her sophomore year in high school, when she embarrassed a Pac-10 signee, hitting five three-pointers and once blocking a corner three-point attempt by this player. Vivian got the block by closing out from underneath the basket.
Vivian is a social butterfly, who often knew and hung out with every other player on every team we played. She also had a strong sweet streak, courtesy of her mother, Julien, whom I admire greatly for raising Viv and her sister, Demarea, without much help. In fact, in an effort to provide the best opportunities for the girls, she moved to Seattle from Bremerton – but kept working in Bremerton, requiring two hour-long ferry rides every work day. It was Julien who called me, out of the blue, and was so convincing, I agreed to take her daughter on my team, sight unseen. It was the summer before Vivian’s freshman year at Bremerton, and the club team she was on was not playing her.
I’ll love Vivian forever for the way she treated my daughters, with love and respect. Whenever my oldest, Sassia, went down on the court, Viv would be over, menacing the perpetrators. Likewise, she had a way with my younger daughter, Mika, a special needs kid who still equates the whole HoopGurlz experience with her sister — and Vivian.
Some mistook Vivan’s social nature for lack of focus on basketball. She says she was lazy. I think neither was true. I mean, Viv once took a bus down to Knoxville, to attend Pat Summitt’s camp and chase her dream of playing for Tennessee. I think Vivian needs people to believe in her. And her high-school coaches did not. I remember one phone call during which she said her coach thought she was awful. Chris and I are disciples of Bob Kloppenburg’s and Ernie Wood’s defensive principles and it would never fail that, when I went to watch our kids play with their high-school teams, they’d be the only ones who knew how to provide weakside help, chop-step on closeouts or deny passes. Fishing for a positive, I asked Vivian what her coach said about her defense. “(The coach) said I didn’t play any,” she replied.
Back in the day, Vivian Frieson was a kid who loved to chat up officials. She helped Garfield High of Seattle win a state championship, but was only a fifth wheel on that team and no better than a second fiddle on others. So it took someone like Kelly Graves to believe in her. Believe me, Chris and I believed. We’d seen her do stuff like drive the baseline, wrap the ball around the backboard and scoop in a reverse layup, prompting us to chortle, “Holy (bleep)?” in unison. Graves believed and we all saw what that wrought.
Likewise, I hope the Tulsa Shock’s Nolan Richardson believes. After all, you don’t always know when you capture a little lightning in a bottle. She might just do something you’ll remember the rest of your life.