For LSU, it can only get easier

Gunter's death, Hurricane Katrina filled Chatman's offseason with sorrow and grief

National Women

November 18, 2005|By LORI RILEY

Hartford, Conn. -- The toughest question facing LSU women's basketball coach Pokey Chatman now is: Who's going to replace All-America point guard Temeka Johnson?

For some coaches, this might be a difficult problem. But compared with what Chatman had to deal with in previous months, it wasn't a big deal.

For example: How am I going to help 23 family members displaced by Hurricane Katrina? Or, how do we deal with the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken over our locker room and our arena has turned into a triage center where people are dying?

Or, how do I deal with my grief after my mentor and friend, Sue Gunter, died? Do I put it aside right away and leave for Turkey to help coach the U.S. team in the World University Games? Can I?

Point guard problem? What point guard problem?

"It does put things in perspective," LSU assistant coach Carla Berry said.

Berry has known Chatman since their playing days in the early 1990s at LSU, which opens this season as a favorite to return to its third consecutive Final Four. Chatman, who was Gunter's assistant for 13 years, took over in January 2004 when Gunter, who had won 708 games in 40 seasons, became ill. LSU went to its first Final Four that year.

In early August this year, Chatman was in Colorado Springs, Colo. She was an assistant to Harvard's Kathy Delaney-Smith, helping her prepare the U.S. team for the World University Games.

Chatman had visited Gunter before she left, on July 27.

"She was having a wonderful day," Chatman said. "It was almost like the calm before the storm. She was drinking a glass of wine. We had red wine and crackers. She let me take a picture of her on my cell phone."

She got the call Aug. 4, but didn't make it home in time. Gunter had died, at the age of 66.

Gunter, who suffered from emphysema, was on supplemental oxygen and had been hospitalized in the spring. Chatman had already steeled herself for the inevitable.

"I realized [in December 2004] that she would never be the same," Chatman said. "I had a long time to say goodbye. The obvious difficulty was the finality of it. The timing of it complicated things.

"I never properly mourned her. I was too busy taking care of logistics and thinking, `You have to be strong, because if you break, they all break.' "

A week later, she and two of her players, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles, were flying to Turkey. The team won the gold medal.

They returned home. School started and had been open for a week when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where Chatman's family lives.

FEMA took over the LSU locker room. The Pete Maravich Athletic Center was turned into a triage area. If you walked in and looked able-bodied, Chatman said, you were handed a clipboard and told to look after 10 or 15 people who needed medical help.

"I'm sitting in my office and the track is behind me," Chatman said. "Anytime you heard helicopters land, you knew something was happening. Babies were being born over there. There were people dying."

She had 23 stranded family members living at her house, her mother's house, Gunter's house. Her players had to deal with their own issues with family and friends. Chatman's house lost power. One of her great-aunts had just had brain surgery and no one knew where she was. Chatman went to the PMAC to look for her.

"I've been through [hurricanes] before, but no one could have envisioned it would be of this magnitude," Chatman said. "I'm glad I coach, because so much of coaching is dealing with things head-on. You want to lay down and take a nap, but you can't."

Chatman didn't get a chance to mourn Gunter properly until Gunter's enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in early September. Chatman gave her acceptance speech.

And now, finally, she has a semblance of normality, worrying about mundane things such as guards and how much will Player of the Year Augustus miss Johnson's leadership and how her team will deal with one of the toughest schedules in the country. LSU plays at Texas Tech, at Ohio State and at Connecticut on Jan. 16. The Lady Tigers will also face every Final Four participant: Michigan State, Tennessee and defending national champion Baylor, as well as 2004 Final Four team Minnesota.

Nike gave LSU shoes with Gunter's name on the back, but Chatman and the team agreed that they didn't want to put anything on the uniforms.

LSU was on there already. Those letters, they decided, spoke enough to Gunter's contribution to the program.

Lori Riley writes for The Hartford Courant.

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