The Loss Within

Before stunning defeat, Wash. U.'s Robin Lahargoue blew out a knee, ending solitary sacrifice for a team that defines gender difference in athletics

Robin Lahargoue pushes the gym door open. She's 45 minutes early for practice, but three of her Bears teammates are already there, firing free throws.

They goof off every once in a while, but even the Globetrotter flourishes -- the passes over the shoulder from behind the back, the absent-minded one-finger dribbling -- are done with discipline. Their red practice jerseys are neatly tucked in, their socks regulation height, their movement choreographed.

They're more like Lippizaners than lumbering bruins.

Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Jennifer Silverberg
Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.
Jennifer Silverberg
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.

Coach Nancy Fahey, the woman who's cultivated that discipline for 16 years, stands at the far end of the court, drilling a younger player. Fahey is said to be the best -- and is easily the most intense -- women's basketball coach in the country.

Off the court, she's artless, as easy to be with as a big sister, with a round face, crinkly Irish eyes and a sentimental streak about her "babies" -- 24 each year, including junior varsity).

On the court, a player could sink 40 baskets while doing handsprings on an oil slick and she'd say, "Try it one more time."

Fahey's Washington University Bears broke women's records last year with an 81-game winning streak. They've won the past four NCAA tournaments, and now, after a season undefeated, they're on the verge of a fifth.

They took a bye for the first round, so they have three days before Saturday's playoff game. They're slated to win, but they're still taking the game seriously, amassing scouting reports as complex as North Korean intelligence on their potential opponents.

No one has contemplated the possibility that they might lose.

The only loss on the coach's mind is Lahargoue's.

She's the Bears' top scorer, so the team is losing an important player -- but they can make up for it. Lahargoue can't. Injury has plucked her from the heat of center court and deposited her on the sidelines. Instant alienation. And no matter how hard she tries to stay with them, no matter how hard the rest of the team tries to keep her there, the reality stays cold. She's an outsider now. Their attention has to shift.

Fahey watches from the corner of her eye as the senior, her clear skin flushed, sits down on the first row of the bleachers. In seconds, she's surrounded by arriving teammates. "R-r-r-r-r-robbie!" calls Lendy Stuber, extending the "r" like a TV announcer, imposing a little flair.

Lahargoue grins at her friend's efforts, absorbing them into her customary quiet. She's not a girl who bothers to toss her ponytail.

Danielle Battle sits down on the bleacher next to her and begins the slow ritual fastening of her knee brace. Tiny speed demon Laura Crowley tugs impatiently at her shoelaces and offers everybody Blow Pops from a giant candy jar.

A Post-Dispatch photographer approaches, scribbling player numbers as he walks.

He stops at Lahargoue, who's wearing the baggy red team shorts and a white T-shirt. The T was meant to be nondescript, but amid all the sleek red sleeveless practice jerseys, she looks like a kid who forgot her bathing suit.

"Are you planning on wearing that the whole time?" he asks, eager to get his IDs right.

She decides she can bear no more pity. "I'd planned on it," she says.

Her voice is so soft, he can't hear the irony.

Half-an-hour before practice, nearly everybody's out on the floor. Balls hammer at the polyurethaned wood and cross in midair, pushing each other through the baskets. Lahargoue walks to the rack and starts throwing more balls into play. Then the signal -- a crescendo of clapping -- brings them all to the center of the floor for the ritual the team calls "positive circle."

Fahey started the circle as a sly bid for harmony when two team members weren't getting along. The trick then was, every player had to say something positive about the person to her right. Eventually the two antagonists traded compliments, and the tension eased.

The circle stayed, morphing into a chance for women to share news about their lives off-court. These players had lives off the court. They weren't there on athletic scholarships, and they were studying -- not the traditional sandbox sports majors but biology, political science, engineering, psychology. Fahey, who graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, insisted they have it both ways: Academics would come first, but it would never be an excuse. They should manage their time.

Today's circle is giggly: Kirsten Klevan, 6-foot-4 with a Minnesota accent, managed to speak Spanish to a cute Mexican waiter and got free guacamole.

More stories follow. Then they sober themselves and go into their famous huddle, a closed circle with arms tight around each other. "One more game, three more practices -- that's all you're guaranteed," Fahey had warned them earlier. "You never know when you are going to be here again. And if you are, it won't be with the same team."

The huddle breaks with a guttural "BEARS!" and assistant sports-information director Chris Mitchell, who's come to shepherd TV crews, shakes his head. "They do this little circle thing, talk about what's going on in people's lives," he says, bemused. "And after that, man!"

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