For nearly a month, the Rutgers women’s basketball team played without its Hall of Fame head coach, C. Vivian Stringer, because she has an undisclosed medical condition.
But her presence was clearly felt. Before their first-round N.C.A.A. tournament game on Friday, the Scarlet Knights wore bracelets that read: “What would Coach say?”
After Rutgers, the No. 7 seed, lost to 10th-seeded Buffalo, 82-71, in Storrs, Conn., the players probably did not want to know the answer to that question. Now a more pressing question remains: Will Coach Stringer be back for a 25th season at Rutgers?
In a statement released last week, Stringer, 71, said she would return, and the acting head coach, Tim Eatman, had said he was certain that she would be back.
People ask Eatman all the time if Stringer is ready for retirement, he said. He tells them they should have seen her at work just before she took her leave.
“Coach is on 10 from the time she walks on the floor to the time she leaves the court,” said Eatman, who has been a Rutgers assistant for four seasons.
To aid Stringer’s recovery, Eatman said he has avoided discussing the game with her.
“With Coach, we try to stay as far away from basketball because Coach is not a person who will put her finger in, and not put her whole body in,” he said. “I will try to stay as far away from her so she can focus on getting back to this program.”
The team has spoken to Stringer about once each week during her absence, and her voice remained a source of inspiration even though she has not seen her players.
“For me, Coach Stringer is just a really strong, powerful woman, and it’s hard to not be moved by her when she talks to you, or when she says she has a plan for you,” guard Arella Guirantes said Thursday. “I know a lot of my teammates feel the same way, and they feel as though she’s a mother figure to them.”
Eatman said the bracelets were especially significant for the seniors.
“I wanted the seniors to understand they started their journey with Coach and they’re not ending it without her,” he said. “I want them to understand that she’s still here with them in spirit. They may not see her face, but everything she instilled in them is here.”
Perhaps on Friday the upheaval finally caught up with the Scarlet Knights, who finished 22-10. In a span of five days at the end of February, two of Rutgers’s best players were kicked off the team for a violation of team rules; Rutgers lost four of five games; Stringer took the medical leave of absence; and Eatman took over.
Eatman knew he needed to bring his emotionally frayed team together.
He showed two pictures to the players. One was of a horse, overloaded with gear, as well as a cowboy. The other was of a sleek racehorse, which looked ready for the Kentucky Derby.
“So which horse do you think can win?” he asked the players, then answered his own question: “Not even Secretariat could win a race if he was weighted down. So you have to take off that burden.”
“We need to step up,” a player said.
“No, you don’t have to step up,” Eatman replied. “You need to take off the stuff that’s loading us down so we can run.”
The players nodded.
Then they symbolically did just that. Each player wrote down something that was holding her back. They threw the pieces of paper in a stainless steel pail. Then guard Zipporah Broughton lit the paper on fire.
“Once we get caught on fire, we can run through whatever we need to run through,” Eatman told his players. “If we ever get caught on fire, we’re going to be just fine.”
That never happened against Buffalo. The Bulls trailed by 2 points after both the second and third quarters, but took control of the game midway through the fourth.
It was a disappointing end to a season that began with a celebration when Stringer became the fifth Division I women’s coach to win 1,000 game. More than 100 of her players, past and present, were there that night. Two of Stringer’s fellow basketball Hall of Famers, David Robinson and Charles Barkley, recorded tributes to her, the first African-American coach to reach the 1,000-win milestone. So did Billie Jean King, Whoopi Goldberg and Hillary Clinton.
It was an extraordinary moment, even for a coach who has reached the Final Four with three different programs, Rutgers, Iowa and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Her last trip to the Final Four, when Rutgers lost in the 2007 final, was marred by racist and sexist comments directed at her team by the radio host Don Imus. Stringer got more attention when she stood up for her players than the team had for its success.
Now her current team waits for her return.
“Even at the age she’s at now, it’s just crazy how much she outworks all the other coaches, and it just shows the love that she has for the game,” Guirantes said. “And as a player, you want your coach to have that love for the game just as much as you, and a person that just wants the best for you.”