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

On the court, movement explodes. They're boxing out, blocking each other from the ball, staying "in each other's shorts." The KTVI camera starts to whir.

Fahey ignores the media and walks straight to Lahargoue. In low tones, she confides strategy. Lahargoue nods as she listens, glancing out at the team.

Fahey can't stay there all day, though. She heads back onto the court, gathering her mind, cooling it to icepick focus. Earlier this afternoon, she found herself flashing over the past four years. During Lahargoue's freshman season, she splintered her backside on the bench, much as Fahey had at Wisconsin. But sophomore year, Lahargoue played every game as a reserve. Then, in the NCAA finals, their two All-Americans fouled out. Lahargoue came in off the bench and scored 10 points for the Bears.

Bears Coach Nancy Fahey keeps her team winning by refusing to stress victory.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bears Coach Nancy Fahey keeps her team winning by refusing to stress victory.

Junior year, Lahargoue started for weeks while a senior recovered from a sprained wrist. As soon as the other player's wrist healed, Lahargoue slid back to her old position without a word.

In four years of championship basketball, Robin Lahargoue has never once stormed into Fahey's office to complain. She has never bitched or pouted. She has never questioned a decision -- not even when Fahey made her a starter, then changed her mind eight games into the season because the chemistry wasn't right. Lahargoue threw her heart into the game, upping her points-per-game average from 2.1 to the current team high, 12.9. But she never sought attention, or created drama.

Lahargoue defined team spirit.

Which is why this hurts so much.

Lahargoue remains by the ball rack, her weight on one knee, while her teammates run the wave: continuous three-on-three fast breaks up and down the court until their breath sears their chests.

She remembers her first trip to campus, how she was too chicken to stay overnight with one of the older players but still knew, somehow, that this was where she wanted to play.

It was the best decision of her life.

When she moved into her freshman dorm room, the three senior captains showed up, all towering over her 5-foot-10, to welcome her. She gulped, thanked them, kept their note on her door all year long. Soon the team had nicknamed her Robbie and indoctrinated her into their secrets: Expect to win. Let the confidence seep into your bones. Anchor it in serious hard work. Respect your opponent. If you screw up, leave it on the court.

She'd played all through high school in sunny San Anselmo, Calif., but she'd never felt this kind of bond. The men's team laughed at the Lady Bears because they were so loud, yelling, "I got ball!" and "I'm backside" (to guard someone), and using a million other bits of shorthand to communicate, constantly, where everybody was and what they were doing for each other.

In a late-January slump when the team looked as if it was spinning apart, Coach threaded 60 feet of red ribbon through their shoes and made them execute a series of maneuvers that way, reminding them how much they depended on each other. When she snipped their feet apart, each player kept a scrap of ribbon threaded through her shoe.

The guys would have laughed.

The guys played a different sport, one in which a single player could charge down the court and slam-dunk a quick-and-dirty basket. The women moved fast, but they played a horizontal game, filled with intricate maneuvers and defenses, reaching deep into the bench for support.

UCLA's legendary men's coach John Wooden called the women's game purer and fundamentally better. He made that comment specific to the Bears, complimenting them last year when they closed in on his team's record winning streak of 88 games, 1971-74.

Fahey received the compliment graciously -- but in her mind, "purer" just meant more horizontal. Women can't dunk. The choreography's different. The real differences, though, lay in the internal dynamics nobody ever noticed: the way the women related to each other, the way the team held together, the way they could compete with every ounce of strength they had and win without making the loser their enemy.

They had their own kind of game.

So the publicity washed over them, and they kept playing. Then, on Jan. 16, 2001, the vaunted 81-game streak snapped like an old twig. The Bears had crossed the country to win; they crossed the street to Fontbonne College and lost.

It was disappointing, but it was real, and Lahargoue felt as if she could breathe again. They hadn't cared about the streak; it was the media that made such a fuss about it.

They just wanted to win the NCAA tournament.

Theirs was an odd state of mind, a Zen pool ringed by fiery ambition. Fahey pushed them hard, but she never harangued or rehashed a failure. When a game was over, it was over. Adversity wasn't the other team, it was every single obstacle, internal and external, they had to overcome. And winning --

Winning they loved. They knew how it felt, and they worked hard for it, carrying its savor in their muscles. Every fall, without conscious trying, they taught the new recruits how to be on a winning team. How to carry themselves. How to ignore the usual traps, the glum dwelling on loss, the macho shoring-up of victory lust.

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