Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
The NCAA March Madness Men’s and Women’s Tournament is officially underway. But even as the sports world celebrates Women’s History Month and 50 years of Title IX, there’s a story seldom told about the first and only HBCU (Historically Black College or University) basketball program to play in the NCAA national championships.
The story of the Cheyney University (then College) women’s basketball program, which was highlighted by Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Pickman in March 2022, is one of American lore. Their story contains all of the heroic American qualities we’ve grown to love in sports stories: grit, perseverance, and determination. Yet, Cheyney’s basketball saga is rarely—if ever—mentioned. Now the time is due—albeit overdue—to celebrate the 1982 Cheyney women’s team for its preternatural journey. Doing so can help fans, athletes, and coaches better cherish the inestimable value of our journeys just as much as the value of our achievements.
It’s astonishing that C. Vivian Stringer amassed 251 wins as a head basketball coach for the Cheyney College Lady Wolves after volunteering her coaching services. Cheyney College initially hired her in 1971 as an assistant professor. She taught health, physical education, and organization and administration. “I never got paid,” Stringer told Sports Illustrated. “I was just grateful to have that opportunity.”
The same was true of the players she coached. None of them received athletic scholarships. They didn’t even have an adequate locker room: they dressed for their games in their dorm rooms rather than Cheyney’s classroom, which was their makeshift locker room. They never stayed in hotels due to the cost; instead, they bused back to campus after their games.
“We never felt sorry for us,” Stringer told SI. “Because we didn’t have anything, we feared no one and I think that was the greatest motivation in the world.”
The most significant test of Cheyney’s resolve came during their historic 1981-82 season when Stringer’s toddler, Nina, was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. Assistant coaches Carlotta Schaffer and Ann Hill covered for Stringer, ensuring that the Lady Wolves didn’t miss a beat when their head coach had to be away for her daughter.
Through it all, Cheyney qualified for the first-ever NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament thanks to their fast-paced offensive play. As the team dominated their way to the Final Four, Coach Stringer traveled back to Philadelphia between games to be with her daughter.
When the Lady Wolves defeated Maryland University by a ten-point margin in the Final Four, only two opponents stood in their way of a championship. One was the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters. The other was a bout of menstrual cramps that nearly debilitated the Lady Wolves’ star player, Yolanda Laney. Laney didn’t even think she could get out of bed on the morning of the championship game, let alone play. But, she did nevertheless. Despite the pain and setbacks, the Lady Wolves took an early lead in the contest, but eventually fell to the Lady Techsters.
As the Lady Wolves sat stunned in the locker room after their loss, Coach Stringer encouraged them: “Keep your heads up. We were here. Nobody else can say that.”
Times have certainly changed. But the struggle that molded the Lady Wolves into a national championship runner-up is a story that’s unlike any before it, nor will there ever be another one like it in college basketball.
Too often in sports we only look forward to who will be the next great athlete or team to “wow” us. We don’t spend as much time remembering and reflecting on past winners and losers. Each athlete and team has a journey that shapes who or what they are today. When we neglect the memory of those journeys, we dilute legacies.
The same is true for our personal and spiritual lives. Consider all that the Lord has brought you through. Consider your own stories of perseverance, struggle, downfall, and redemption. The paths that God has sustained us on—even to this day—have molded us into jars of clay that contain treasures beyond measure (2 Corinthians 4:7). Lecrae says it best in his recent song “Journey” from the Church Clothes 4 album: “When you going through, cling to God, let Him hold you/It ain’t the destination, it’s the journey that molds you.”
After decades without a team, Cheyney University revived the Lady Wolves for the 2022-23 season. And more than 40 years later, the 1982 Cheyney team received a nomination to the 2023 James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. ESPN also debuted The Lone Wolves, an SC Featured documentary spotlighting Cheyney’s successful season. “I think this team showed what’s possible,” said producer Temitayo Anjou. “Regardless of the circumstances and what one may or may not have if you’ve got dedicated players who want to compete, there’s always a chance.”
That’s the most significant takeaway for all of us, regardless of whether our competitive days are behind us or we’re just struggling to live through every day. As long as we’re willing to persevere and trust in God’s process, we have more than a chance. We have the assurance of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and glory awaiting us.