Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer’s historic milestone deserves historic honor

PALO ALTO, Calif. — The packed house at Maples Pavilion didn’t wait for the final horn to begin the serenade of Tara VanDerveer.

As freshman forward Nunu Agara dribbled into the frontcourt, and Oregon State coach Scott Rueck gestured to his Beavers not to foul, what was inevitable was becoming official. The crowd rose to its feet, roaring loud enough to make this historic occasion tangible.

VanDerveer showed up to the gym Sunday tied with Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski for the most victories in NCAA basketball history. She would leave alone at the top.

Senior guard Hannah Jump waved for the serenade to turn up. Time expired. The 65-56 win over Oregon State — victory No. 1,203 — was in the record books. Kiki Iriafen scored a career-high 36 points, including the first two 3-pointers of her career. But her performance was just the appetizer, lathering up the crowd for the main event. VanDerveer had crested Coach K to become college basketball’s winningest coach. It was time for the house that Tara built to celebrate its architect. The foundation was now the showcase.

The crowd began to chant with fervor: “Ta-ra! Ta-ra! Ta-ra!”

But wait. Not so fast.

Before Cameron Brink could dump a Gatorade bucket of gold confetti on her coach (who looked relieved it wasn’t Gatorade). Before the approximate 4-foot numbers, 1203, could be set up as props at this hoop party in Palo Alto. Before the stage could be erected and videos played and speeches given. VanDerveer walked to the other end of the sideline and hugged Rueck.

Because you don’t get to 1,203 without consistency, without discipline born of ancient eras, without humility relevant in any age. She climbed this mountain by not skipping steps, by valuing every rep. Not even reaching the summit is worthy of a diversion from principle.

So VanDerveer walked the line. She hugged the opposing assistant coaches. She shook the hand of every Beavers player, greeting them with a smile and a kind word. It wasn’t until she got through them all that she would allow the spotlight of the occasion to focus on her.

Now the ultimate deflector had to accept her flowers.

“When I think of you, one word comes to mind,” Jennifer Azzi, one of the renowned pillars of Cardinal hoops, said in a video played on the big board. “And that’s excellence.”

This place should be called Tara Pavilion. She didn’t build it with her hands in 1969. She didn’t renovate it in 2005. But she gave it life. She made it relevant. Her teams. Her success. Her tradition.

The last time the men’s team brought a championship here was 1942. But here wasn’t here yet. Maples wouldn’t open for another 27 years. The value of this place is centered on the standard the women’s basketball program set when VanDerveer took over in 1985. The outpouring of love has been brewed by years of teams and players worthy of affinity.

She didn’t shy away from Stanford’s elite academic standards, which can be an obstacle to recruiting, because it absolutely fits her holistic message of work ethic.

She has delivered three national titles, 14 Final Fours, 15 first-team All-Americans, 25 conference championships, 30 WNBA players and countless moments.

And 1,203 wins.

Any Mount Rushmore of basketball coaches must include a bob with bangs.

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“We all know that beyond the stats,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the tribute video, “beyond the wins and losses and everything else, it’s the impact you’ve had on so many young lives.”

The significance of this moment was present in the energy. In who was present. Condoleezza Rice. Andrew Luck. Chiney Ogwumike. Azzi flew in with two kids, 6 and 3, which might be as impressive as becoming Stanford’s first Naismith National Player of the Year in 1990.

“I’m not usually lost for words,” she said addressing the fans. “But it’s pretty impressive. All these people here. All the former players coming back.”

A flood of former players joined the festivities. The background vocals were provided by the sea of fans in Cardinal red, many of whom have spent years watching VanDerveer mold young women while racking up victories.

What everyone here knows is this celebration belongs in this place. This venue, this audience, this central figure are worthy of this spotlight. This neck of the woods is foundational to the sport that’s thriving at new levels.

The torch being carried today by the likes of A’ja Wilson and Caitlin Clark, Dawn Staley and Sabrina Ionescu, got some of its spark from this lively hoops hub nestled in these manicured woods of intellectual prosperity. The story of women’s hoops cannot be told without Stanford women’s basketball. And the name Tara VanDerveer is an adjective for its quality.

Nike commemorated VanDerveer’s accomplishment with a white bomber jacket plastered with red tally marks. One for each win. The sporty 70-year-old, still fit enough to leap off the bench and light a fire into 20-somethings, put on the jacket. She looked like racking up another 500 wins isn’t off the table.

“I’ve had such an incredible life,” VanDerveer said on a stage erected as her pedestal. “I don’t want for anything. What I have is right here.”

The stage was christened by Ros Gold-Onwude, who played five seasons for VanDerveer, appeared in three Final Fours and built a reputation for defense. She’s now a versatile broadcaster for ESPN and hosted the festivities. She did a Q&A with Azzi and Ogwumike.

A video played at Maples included praise from Billie Jean King, Coach K, Staley and 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike. But it was Lisa Leslie crashing the Stanford party to declare herself VanDerveer’s favorite. Leslie, the USC star, played under VanDerveer in the 1996 Olympics, along with hoops royalty such as Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Edwards, Rebecca Lobo and Staley. VanDerveer took a year off from Stanford to coach this team on a 52-0 exhibition tour that set the foundation for women’s basketball in America.

Later in 1996, the American Basketball League launched as the nation’s first women’s pro basketball league. In 1997, the WNBA followed.

“I’m not perfect,” VanDerveer said. “I never claimed to be perfect. We’re talking about wins, but we’ve lost a lot, too.”

A whopping 267 games in 45 seasons. But her point is a real one. Winning 81.8 percent of her games isn’t solely why she is worthy of this moment. It’s because of the bar Stanford has represented in women’s basketball, held up by her wiry arms and vintage conviction. Those celebrating her Sunday didn’t speak of her treasure chest of victories but of her principles and modus operandi.

“You have personally helped influence my life and the way that I move,” Leslie said in the video. “I always remember that repetition of error …”

Leslie pointed to Chiney Ogwumike, who finished the last part of the VanDerveer truism:

“Shows a lack of intelligence.”

No disrespect to Roscoe Maples, whose $1.7 million donation led to the building of the original home of Stanford hoops.

But this is Tara’s house. She built it up. She sustained it. And, as the winningest college basketball coach, she deserves it to bear her name.

(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)