|Sometimes, like the Iowa Hawkeyes' C. Vivian Stringer, right, and Laurie Aaron in 1993, you celebrate those moments that life gives you to celebrate.|
In Iowa, 1993 was a year with plenty of that rarified air, and I've been thinking about that year -- specifically the 1992-93 basketball season -- a lot lately. Yet in my mind, I don't remember it as a season of glory. It was a season of grief.
Twenty years ago, the Iowa women's basketball team earned its first and only trip to the Final Four and had a team good enough to contend for a national championship. I was The Des Moines Register's beat writer for the Hawkeye women's team, and it was gearing up to be everything a sports writer dreams of covering, only to end up a different story altogether.
On the night before Thanksgiving, the 47-year-old husband of then-coach C. Vivian Stringer died of a heart attack. Her life and the life of her family changed forever. Somehow, in ways I still can't get my head around today, she joined her team six weeks later and continued the season.
In that same two-month period, was the death of Hawkeye men's basketball player Chris Street in a car accident and the deaths of the women's team's former ballgirl and its team physician.
People think sports writers have the easy job, that we cover fun and games. But people forget that those involved in sports -- as players, as coaches, as writers -- experience the same gamut of life as everyone else.
And it was all there in that season in Iowa City.
The national media figured it out, of course. Week by week, they came into Iowa City to tell the story of the team that was rising up from all this adversity to play beautiful basketball. National media were generally kind, but their presence made it all less about the individual games and more about the greater narrative.
And every time, there would be the questions. I would think to myself, "Please don't ask, please don't ask, please don't ask ... " and of course they always would. You could just see the energy drain out of the coaches and players as their moment of joy was interrupted by a reminder of the sadness around them.
These players and coaches were people I had known for years and had come to care about. I got to the point where I felt protective of them and would even just make up questions on the fly at press conferences to change the subject or mood. After months of this, I had begun to hurt for them, too. I'm certain my co-workers who covered the Iowa men's team that season felt much the same way.
Journalists are members of our communities, and what happens to our communities happens to us. We get to know the people on our beats, and life can creep into any beat there is, sometimes when we least expect it.
I recently learned the story of a former colleague, a longtime courts reporter. In 1988, he was at an administrative building looking for a story on a slow news day, and the coroner asked him if he wanted to have lunch with him in his office. My colleague declined and walked away.
Minutes later, a gunman came into the coroner's office and shot him to death. My colleague set aside his horror and grief, called the office of his afternoon paper and asked them to hold the presses. A half-hour later, he had the story written.
Last month, that former colleague died. I got the call on a Sunday evening, assigned a reporter to write his obituary, suggested some people he could call, looked through some photos to choose just the right one and edited the story.
As I closed the story, I closed my eyes. There were tears building, but I sighed, went back to work and kept them from falling.
To paraphrase a movie about baseball, there is no crying in journalism. It's not that we don't feel the need; it's just that if we ever started, we might never stop.
(This post first appeared as an essay in the Wisconsin State Journal and the Des Moines Register.)