Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Houston Musician Samantha Banks Needs Our Help

On Friday, Feb. 23, percussionist extraordinaire Samantha Banks suffered “a major hypertension event that caused bleeding in her brain” and is currently in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster shared this news on her Facebook page this morning. A GoFundMe account for Samantha has been established by organizer Fabian Perez to provide immediate funds for Banks’ medical expenses.

In just 14 hours, 20% of the modest $10,000 goal had been met by 26 people. There’s still a long way to go. Excitedly, after 15 hours, it was already up to $3561 given by 43 people. But $10,000 is only the minimum to meet what will be potentially high hospital expenses, plus rehabilitation in coming weeks, involving daily transportation to and from the hospital, medicine, and living expenses. So please don’t stop getting the word out. The goal is first for her to wake up and make a full recovery, as everyone is praying for and expecting, as we ask for, walking on faith. Ruthie Foster's fan base is a great start; Houston fans who watched Ms. Banks grow up is another.

A Houston musical prodigy, Banks attended HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and went on to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Studies there included Percussion Performance, Music Theory and Composition and Music Education. In the Brazos Valley, we’ve been fortunate, for almost two decades, sheer joy in fact, every time we’ve seen Banks on stage performing with Ruthie (sometimes with bassist Larry Fulcher and guitarist Renn Carson]. That’s been a magical music combination.

Samantha’s talents shine through all her music, whether using a full drum kit or creating a perfect rhythm with a set of spoons and a tambourine.

Because Samantha is presently not conscious, the power of music has shown a true healing effect on her in just the past few days. Ruthie shared that Samantha’s daughter, Briana, “played music for her, and her blood pressure lowered, so we believe she can hear us.” Messages of hope and prayers for healing, plus financial gifts in any amount are what are most needed right now.

Independent musicians are classically underinsured. In fact, anyone in the music business understands that, as a group, you play for love, not money, to pursue the dreams in your mind and the music in your heart.

Those who make it into a superstar category are the exception to the rule. The music that Texans all flock to hear, the music that Samantha plays, is heard in concert halls like the Cultural Activities Center in Temple, Texas, Kerrville’s Folk Festival, SXSW in Austin, and the Main Street Crossing in Tomball, Texas. There's every small club, outdoor venue, and path down long dirt roads involved just to play the music that fuels your spirit.

Here’s a portion of “Another Rain Song,” with the band of Ruthie and Samantha, from April, 2017.

Ruthie asks, in behalf of Samantha’s daughter and mother, for prayers and words of affirmation and joy. Everyone can go to Ruthie’s Facebook page and add your words of support there. As Foster explains, they are reading every message to Samantha, even though she remains unconscious. The power of love is mighty and strong. The power of faith is welcomed and requested.

The beauty of a collective group of strangers, one to another, when rallied for a singular goal is the power of love. As Ruthie sings and Samantha plays in Ruthie's song, "Full Circle," you know the refrain, “Everything that goes around comes back around again.” It’s time today to rush in and make a contribution to Samantha’s fund--in any amount--for the long way back to the stage. Your gift can be anonymous if you prefer.

Please share your message for Samantha on Ruthie Foster's Facebook page and the direct link to the GoFundMe account is there as well. Get well soon, Samantha; we want to be first in line for your first concert back in action! STORY UPDATE: As of 3.17.18, this is the progress on the funding goal. $33,060 of $50,000 goal Raised by 465 people in 18 days Updates are posted on the GoFundMe page, so check here for the latest information:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Rev. Billy Graham, Angels, and Tiny Bubbles: A Story of Hope and Love

On Wednesday, Feb. 21, a man some described as “America’s pastor,” the Rev. Billy Graham, died at age 99. That single event set in motion an adventuresome trip down memory lane for me, as I reflected at length and in depth about my childhood, where I’d first heard him preach in person. He was appearing at the open-air Alamo Stadium, constructed in San Antonio’s Monte Vista district, in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project (thanks Wikipedia). In those days…life was different.

My mom had decided that since my great aunt Emma and our family friend Charlotte wanted to go hear him, and they didn’t drive, we’d all go to hear him. As a child of six, I was naturally inquisitive, pelting my mom with questions before the service began. Why was church outside and it wasn’t a Sunday? Were these bleachers called pews? Why was there such a long distance between the “congregation” and the minister? Mom patiently answered my questions, the woman who should have been awarded some kind of medal for surviving the raising of an overly inquisitive child.

And then it began. George Beverly Shea sang. I think that’s what I’d once thought the “voice” of God must sound like. Booming, full, inspired, and amazing. I listened to Shea’s voice on his songs, not the lyrics, all except for the alter call: “Just As I Am.” That one, I found myself singing along to, as best I could back then. I was oblivious to the thousands of people around me that day. I was remembering this week what might be my first memory of being lost in meditation or fully in faith.

As an adult, I’m less fixed on structure for terms that relate to a higher power by a name. I generally describe my faith in terms I learned growing up, but I’m open to a greater, more inclusive or less restrictive understanding wherein there is essentially the presence of the spirit I feel is holy, wholly.

At the end, Rev. Graham invited the audience to come forward if we wanted to be “saved.” Again, I whispered to mom, “Mom, do I need to go down there to be saved?” She smiled her angelic smile and shook her head no, saying, “No, honey you were saved when you were born because I gave you back to God. You are his child. You’ve been baptized and there’s no need to go down there.” “Okay,” I answered, strengthened in my decision to remain in my bleacher, err, pew.

Fast forward many decades. Church worship is a subject fraught with a list of “terms and conditions” that many impose on what it feels “right” to do, and when and where and how one can worship. Some Sundays I find comfort in gathering in pews or folding chairs, with longtime friends as family, surrounded by love and belonging. Other Sundays, I can walk in nature, observing the awesome wonder of the world we live in, expressing my appreciation as best I can. There’s no right or wrong for me, really, just a choice that feels like I’ve emerged from my reflection on the week as a stronger person, renewed to try the week ahead with energy and intention. I acknowledge my sins in prayer and ask for forgiveness and a clean slate to try again to do better. I don’t like hearing politics in church, ever, so when I do, I tend to bug out and head for the hills until I’m prepared to return with a calmed heart.

The week behind me had been filled with challenges, some exciting and delightful; others found me in uncharacteristic intense melancholy. I was “stuck” and I didn’t seem to be able to get out of the mud. Along my path came a call from dear friend, to chat about things we had an exciting time discussing, and that conversation cheered me greatly. I had almost snapped out of my blues, intensified by the gray, sun-scarce skies and falling rain. Even with every light in the house on, it wasn’t quite enough to turn the melancholy to cheer.

I kept my head down and kept working, a sure-fire cure for what ails you…make forward progress every day if you can. If you can’t, try anyway. Keep trying.

When she called back an hour later, I fully expected to hear more surprising delightful news. Instead she asked me point blank: “Are you happy? Is everything in your life the way you want it to be right now?” I blinked, swallowed and said, “Well, it’s okay. It will get better. Just staying focused.”

“That’s not good enough,” she said. “What are you going to do to change it?” Fast forward to my receiving a lovely good “talking to,” one that left us both reminded to never give up on our dreams, no matter how absurd or outlandishly unrealistic.

It was in that moment that I snapped to…and was grateful for someone bravely stepping out and sharing truth…I let go of the need to control. And I returned to wait patiently, eyes wide open. Whoa, Nellie. Answers began appearing everywhere around me.

Back to Billy Graham. I thought about him being the minister for so many presidential inaugurations, during the days he preached actively, and his may have been only one of the people in the 60s you could send something to by mail (for a $.03 stamp) just addressed to “Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota” and it would reach him. That’s impressive.

Plenty of time to reflect in the past 72 hours and seeing challenges met, obstacles overcome, and a renewed focus on my dreams, with no need to control the outcome. All because a faithful friend reached out to ask a question: “What are you going to do to change it?”

Can’t speak for everyone, but the more I thought about the lifelong goal of Billy Graham to serve God and help others, the words to “Just as I am,” and the words of truth I’d heard, they were signals of changes coming for the good, in not only my life but in the lives of many around me who similarly needed to know that they’re not “stuck.”

Saturday morning was priceless time spent, surrounded by 120 (we know, as we counted them) Crayola Crayons, paper, and an active imagination of a 5-year-old and an almost 1-year old and their Pippa. I witnessed unbridled inspiration at work. These are two youngsters who inspire more than they’ll ever know, and they teach equally as much as they enjoy life.

When the 5-year-old was building a house from box and paper, and little brother crawled over to “participate” and ripped the roof off while smiling, I saw an angel in action as his older brother smiled at him, retrieved the paper, and put the roof back on without even as much as a blink of an eye. A little later I suggested we put some of his little brother’s building blocks inside the house to elevate his project. He shook his head no.

“Why not?” I asked. His reply: “Because if we use up a lot of his blocks, he won’t have many left to play with.” Facepalm. V-8 moment. I’m so jazzed about the unconditional love I saw so early between two angels, seen only because I was lucky enough to be there at that moment. If only adults could be so wise.

Saturday night we blew bubbles. Well, I did. And he karate kicked and kung-fu’d them, complete with gales of laughter, a rap verse he made up by himself, and some awesome dancing to a song he heard in his head. Whoa, Nellie. Children are smarter than the rest of us. All the time.

He asked my opinion about how to decorate the roof (now safely reaffixed to the house). Wisely, I didn’t answer his question with my thought, but with another question, “How do you think you’d like to decorate it?” That wasn’t original to me. I’d learned that process from a wise creative named Thomas Bähler, whose own father used that same technique to answer the question “How do you be creative,” asked that way when Thomas was about the same age as my young pal. His answer? “I think it should be a rainbow,” he said, and he proceeded to create a marvelous rainbow.

And then another amazing angel went on an errand with me at my request. Without even questioning why, off we drove in order that I could find a way to break through one final barrier of languishing in “shoulda, coulda, woulda, used to, don’t any more,” and I emerged, quite quickly, renewed and affirmed that life has always been grand, and the past is the past and is just fine safely tucked in the past, and today is the future just around the corner. Put a bow on that box of regrets, sealed it shut and sent it off to the Dead Letter Office. Zoom! Path cleared.

My Sunday morning began beautifully, though, because before I went to sleep last night, a very overworked but very strong friend of grander faith than I have ever had reached out to me to send me an inspirational set of lyrics she wondered if I’d heard…they were new to me, but wonderful. As we “chatted” back and forth via e-mails later into the night, she asked me what had been on my mind this week. And I told her. Her reply to me and the devotional she wrote for me personally arrived this morning on my e-mail. And I smiled, uplifted, and got ready for church. She’d taken the time to start a grand day in motion. Was I ever lucky!

Made it to church, only four minutes late. Thanks to dear friends insisting I sit with whenever I’m there…I took a seat in the pew in front of them and felt welcomed. I was about to stare a hole in the stained-glass window to my left as I waited for inspiration. Nothing was flowing to mind as I waited.

Suddenly, 10 minutes into the service, the children’s anthem, “This Little Light of Mine,” blew me out of my discomfort and into sheer joy. I saw the oldest daughter of two dear friends singing her heart out, correctly with all the motions, joyfully. And then there was one voice up there not quite in sync with the rest of them.

Not quite sure who it was—she had a good, strong, voice, but she had her own timing, and her own movements—she had the “X factor” of pizazz. She just wasn’t in lockstep with the rest of the children, but she didn’t seem perturbed, nor did her fellow singers. Again, with children and their unconditional ability to love.

I’d spotted my kindred spirit up there…I understood her. At the end of the song, the audience, err, congregation clapped, and the one I’d spotted, sure enough, waved joyously to the crowd after the applause, in you know, “the God bless you, thank you, and drive safely” benediction, with joy. Reminded me of another dear friend right after she’s received a standing ovation. That unparalleled joy and showing love of music—that’s what to aim for! Sing your song, shine your light, make a difference, even if you don’t accomplish it in a traditional way.

Five minutes later, at the end of my pew came a gentleman whose appearance was slightly disheveled, though to be fair, there had been quite a bit of wind and weather that had blown all of us through the doors of the sanctuary this morning. Two people in a pew, as far apart from one another as one can possibly be spaced, because we’d both entered the pew from different doorways to reach our spot du jour.

As my mind wandered slightly during the service, I’d contemplated my seatmate, who focused straight ahead, intently, doing a far better job of paying attention, I suppose, than I was. As the end of the service approached, I’d reached the inevitable decision point. You know how, at the end of services, the minister asks you to reach out and take the hand of the person next to you during the group prayer? I knew that was coming.

And I didn’t fear taking his hand. I just didn’t want to scare him off. Sometimes when you’re in the company of people who all seem to be different in that they all seem to know each other, the separation created by being “new” or “different” can be more daunting to the newcomer.

One thing our church does well, at least by many members, is to welcome people around them with sincere greetings and warm handshakes and exchange of kind words. I love that. Two of my three seatmates/buddies behind me grew up in this church, and they are primo at inviting people to join them. But it was all about my duty to be welcoming, and it was just me and the stranger in my pew.

After the sermon and the acolytes had extinguished the candles, the pastor was inviting us to stand. So, I stood and moved gently down the pew to the stranger, all the while thinking that, even though he didn’t know me, I hoped he trusted me to stay there and not take off out the door wanting to exit before the rest of us. He stayed firm.

The pastor then invited anyone in the congregation to come forward to the altar rail to pray as long as they wanted to (shades of Billy Graham again) as the organist began to play, and we began to sing, all the verses of “Just As I Am” (Really? I’d forgotten just how many verses there were. Oddly I didn’t have to look up at the big bouncing letters on the screens…they just came back from my retrograde memory).

With the first note of the song, he left the pew and went down to the altar to pray. My three pewmates behind me jettisoned down the same direction so that he wouldn’t have to be up there alone while praying. Still others went down to pray. I stayed behind. Before the end of the song, he returned to our pew again. For that entire song, I’d felt his pain. Whatever was seemingly troubling him, or was it me, just seered through me like a lightning bolt. I began to find tears welling up and then stinging my eyes as they rolled down my face. Darn it. Why did I have to cry? BFF says, “Don’t fight the feeling when you cry; you need to cry.” Okay. Noted.

When next the congregational prayer time came, I reached for his hand and he held mine securely. His hands had seen a hard day’s work, but they were gentle as he held mine in his. I placed my left arm on the right shoulder of the young man in front of me, whose hand I have held the past few weeks. He is an amazing child whose struggles with a spectrum make his accomplishments more powerful than grownups twice his age.

Children, you know, feel everything even when they don’t understand it. He saw the tears in my eyes and moved his left hand around his chest and up onto his shoulder placing it over mine, comforting me. A powerful healing and repair of my spirit of hope happened, and I felt it. As the prayer ended, the gentleman looked at me, even though my red eyes and tear-stained face were probably pretty scary.

“God bless you,” he said, as he looked deep into my eyes, waiting for mine to look back and see his spirit behind his face. I did. I found my voice and said, “Thank you, and God bless you.” He smiled and said, “He has blessed me. You see, I’m an evangelist and I travel all around preaching God’s word, and starting all kinds of trouble everywhere,” he said with a light smile. I knew what he meant. Disrupting status quo can freak some people out, but the true search for a higher power, some call it God, some call it Spirit or the Divine, means searching your own soul for truth and finding kindred souls and spirits who resonate on the same wavelength you do, I think.

As he left the church, a friend behind me said she’d seen him outside the church before service began, seemingly walking past our church and down a few blocks towards the main intersection. She said, “I guess he decided to come back into our church this morning.” I nodded and said, “Yes, he did. He picked our church to join us this morning.”

People have their choices of worship across our twin cities. Some congregations gather together because they believe the same thing. Others gather in mega groups to provide a haven from those who believe the same thing or their thing or our thing. I’m the most multi-ecumenical person I know, in that I feel at home in every denomination and those places without, because I’m there to hear a word of hope and reassurance that this world with all its imperfections is not “all there is.” And I find comfort in that.

I went to church this morning, and “they took me to church this morning.” The little girl who waved broadly and smiled at the crowd when she’d completed her song. The gentleman stranger who revealed himself as an evangelist before leaving the congregation. And, the appearance of loved ones in my life throughout the past four days, finding their way into my world from places seen and unseen, and the powerful lessons of never giving up on your dreams really packed a wallop. Yet, I was rejuvenated rather than exhausted with the transformation that happened.

My takeaway from the activities and experiences is this: angels are all around us, some we see, others we can’t spot. We have this day to express love to all those in our lives, whether we know them or not. Children are the most honest group of people you can ever hope to meet. The love of children heals adults with hugs.

As our nation heard from young adults in Parkland, Florida this week, the future of our country is in good hands. We are right to have hope, even when you think it’s time to throw in the towel. This is not about politics. It’s about the willingness of young people to speak up and take a stand, any stand they wish, but to speak up and express their opinions. These young people who needed healing the most were the ones doing the healing by reassuring a nation that they were determined is the major gift of the week. Powerful.

And while Billy Graham went to his heavenly home this week, if you’ll allow me my childlike construct of what we all call “the next place,” it seems that hundreds of angels appeared in our world to continue his spirit of goodness, love, light, and sharing what they believe with those who will listen.

To share unconditional love with others is a wonderful goal of the day, every day. Tiny bubbles blown into the air that caused a child to laugh with joy and gift me with his wisdom; the silent expression of love that an energetic infant makes as I hold him close and he surrenders his energy to my shoulders, to take comfort and rest; worship songs from old hymnals reminding us of rituals of childhood that were as much a part of our DNA as they remain today. Sharing time with friends and loved ones, in person or by phone or by e-mail—all these things together represent so many reasons to be joyful, optimistic, and unceasing in being hopeful about tomorrow.

Just as I am, indeed. Rest in peace Rev. Graham and thank you for reminding us through your life that one person can make an impression, one that can last a lifetime. Here’s to a grand week ahead for everyone.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Violation of Team Rules Cause Aggie Women’s Basketball Team Embarrassing Loss to Miss. St.

Today, the No. 17 Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team put on their single-most embarrassing effort this season, as they unfortunately cratered, faded, and tanked, 76-55, against the now-SEC Champions, the No. 2 Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs, playing in Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi. And that was before the game had even started. Everyone could see the “L” coming home on the plane with the team. Why?

Because without even a media press release sent out to alert beforehand, the TV announcers had only seconds before game time to note for the audience that freshman Chennedy Carter and senior Khaalia Hillsman would not be starting the game today for a “violation of team rules.”

Announcers were quick to say that the players had “been late to an important team event,” just so the audience would know it was “different” than the violations of team rules that members of other Aggie teams have committed, also the most selfish acts of irresponsibility on their parts.

No matter the circumstances, it’s reasonable to say that this irresponsible behavior cost the Aggies the game today. How selfish is that? Immeasurably. In the first few minutes of the game, without the whirling dervish centerpiece around which the Aggie offense must revolve, and the absence of the post player to prevent opponents from easy access to drive to the basket, it was no surprise that Mississippi State jumped out to an early 11–0 lead.

If there was ever a slim chance of staying close in the game, it was already a major fail with this opening move. You have to commend Aggie Head Coach Gary Blair for enforcing team rules, because to do so meant accepting the predictable loss. You can’t begin a championship caliber game with two “star” players on the bench the first three minutes and expect the other team members to be able to run plays around which they were not the original focus. It was a confusion-laden offense, reminiscent of clown cars driving in every direction at Ringling Brothers Circus again.

No, it didn’t have to be this way. All good things considered, with preparation and mental toughness, it would have been just as easy to walk in there, having prepared, and desiring with passion and determination to be the team that turned the Lady Bulldogs into 27-1. Imagine what a victory like that would have done for the No. 17 Aggie women? Tomorrow, that No. 17 will disappear as quickly as the two hours of today’s game.

Four years ago, Mississippi State’s team didn’t execute the plays the way they did today; they didn’t have the physicality that they did today. They didn’t seem like a powerhouse on the court, but off the court, they were a team united by example, by force, and by fierce insistence of the man whose nickname here was the “Secretary of Defense.” On the court, that gentleman is far from warm and fuzzy.

The Lady Bulldogs began building this year’s team four years ago, and four of the five starters are seniors. They couldn’t recruit nationally—they drew from Mississippi, an even more important accomplishment. So, 2018 is their year. Next year, there will be an all-new group of players on their court. And Coach Schaefer’s lawn will be a little less busy, or maybe it won’t be.

But who and what has taken over the Aggie court, and who has changed this team from a group of nationally recruited players to the team on the court today? Last year Danni Williams was the team hero, more so than any other player, and remained humble and felt the respect and regard of her team. This year, Williams has had moments, or games, filled with self-doubt. Or, she’s been double-teamed out of key position, and is trying to fight her way out of that slump, and there’s no pressure like not performing this year as you did last year.

What does it say about Aggie post play when the smallest Lady Bulldog on the court, Morgan William, whose listed 5’5” height is about 5 inches too generous, was able to drive right to the basket, undaunted?

Another good question is why is Anriel Howard always in double-doubles for her shooting and her rebounding? Simple. Anriel fights for that rebound every single time there’s a shot. She winds up getting her own misses and going for second-chance shots, often getting them.

Jasmine Lumpkin’s shooting time has increased the last few games, mostly because she’s worked herself into an open spot on the court and has the guts to shoot, no matter the outcome. She has no reason to be anything but proud of how she played today. Her defensive abilities are exceptional. But she can't do it all by herself out there, though she fights every play of the game. It doesn’t matter about her missed shots—at least she took shots.

If you’re looking for one potential source of the biggest problem in todays’ loss, assuming that the Aggies did well the second quarter and really kept Mississippi State contained well, the stat sheet has the answer. Courtesy of Asst. SID, David Waxman, here’s how today’s game stacked up.

Five Mississippi State players scored in double figures, and Victoria Vivians had 26 on the day, with 2 assists. Vivians also had 12 rebounds and teammate Teaira McCowan had 11 rebounds. The Lady Bulldogs had 10 of 21 three-point shots fall their way, compared to 1 of 12 by the Aggies, the 1 three-pointer going to Chennedy Carter.

Roshunda Johnson scored 16, point guard Morgan William scored 12, Blair Schaefer had 11, and Teaira McCowan had 11 points…a very nice spread. Only five Lady Bulldog players scored. Morgan William, by the way, led the team with 7 assists, and guess how many assists Aggie players had for the game: 3. Just 3 assists. Anriel had one, Jasmine had 1 and Chennedy Carter had 1. There’s your loss. No one was getting the ball to the open person.

To be fair Mississippi State played a swarming defense, yet not every Aggie was covered all the time. Apparently, every time Chennedy Carter had the ball, she shot it. She made 12 of 29 field goals, 1 of 8 three-point attempts, and 6 of 7 free throws. She held the ball 37 times compared to her teammates. The most shots attempted by any other Aggie were 7 by Howard (making 3), 7 by Williams (making 0), 7 by Hillsman (making 2), and 3 by Lumpkin (making 0).

Right as the game began, the announcers spoke glowingly again of the value of having Chennedy Carter in the lineup for the Aggies (noting how they were scoreless without her), and how she’s surely freshman of the year, having shot 46 points in one game and 36 (I think) in another.

That’s too much pressure on one child, and apparently she’s put it on herself to carry this team when she thinks they can’t perform. And yet, shooting 12 of 29 field goals and 1 of 8 three-pointers is hardly freshman of the year material, nor is it anything like shooting lights out. It’s just volume, volume, volume.

Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin continued to be the MVPs of Aggie team play, as Anriel was perfect on free throws, making 8 of 8. Jasmine made 3 of 4. This duo also led in rebounds (Anriel had 10, Jasmine had 7). One bright new spot is that Caylinne Martin was thrust into starting role and got 2 points and 5 rebounds in 10 minutes of play, compared to 4 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes of play by Hillsman. Martin is finding herself more at home when in the game. Still plenty of teaching time ahead.

Carter can be proud, individually, that she is now third place on Texas A&M’s single-season point list, with 605 points this season; her 31 points “tie for the third-most for a Texas A&M freshman in a single game,” and today her fifth 30+ point game of the season. But her team lost, so…so what?

After this game, the team will have a chance to talk to one another and determine how they will play Arkansas, Missouri, and in the SEC Tournament. Change has to begin from the bottom up. The coaches can’t fix this. They’ve done everything they can. They’ve taught the players, supervised them, coached them, encouraged them and even coddled some of them. But their job ended with the end of this game.

Only the players can effect positive change, which begins in their attitudes, their commitment to this team, and their passion for winning. No ball will go unrebounded. No shot will not be followed up, and no opposing team will slip past them every single play in the future--if they choose to win.

Today's attendance was 9933 fans of Mississippi State--that's another record to match as well.

Meanwhile, quoting Vic Schaefer, God bless and Go Dawgs, to Aggie Coach Vic Schaefer, Associate Head Coach Johnnie Harris, Director of Operations, Maryann Baker, and Director of Scouting/Video Coordinator, Skylar Collins, and congratulations to Teaira McCowan, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson, Victoria Vivians, Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry, Zion Campbell and Chloe Bibby on being the SEC Champions.

It was indeed the day for Coach Vic Schaefer and all of his staff and team to celebrate their SEC Championship. They earned it. And one thing is clear: they celebrated as a team.

Either this team will return as the fightin’ Texas Aggies that everyone sings the song about, or they won't. One thing is sure: they'll either be united or untied. By Thursday the fans should know for certain. Aggie fans are hoping for the best.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Prognostications and Expectations—How Do They Really Impact Aggie Women’s Basketball?

After watching last night’s Aggie women’s basketball game against Ole Miss, in the clear victory 83-54 over the Rebels, I began reflecting about how the team had developed this year, compared to all of the prognosticators’ opinions and rankings and laudatory platitudes awarded before a single whistle had blown this season.

Back in November, 2017, TAMU women’s basketball was picked 4th in the SEC, and three players were named preseason All-SEC: Khaalia Hillsman (First team), Anriel Howard, and Danni Williams (Second team). Also, in November, the Aggies were ranked 20th in the AP Preseason Poll.

Currently, the Aggies are in a three-way tie with South Carolina and Tennessee at 8-3; leading are Mississippi State (11-0) and Georgia (9-2). That could change a lot before the SEC tournament, then we shall see.

Danni Williams was named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Watch List in November, 2017. Also, Khaalia Hillsman was named to the Lisa Leslie Award Watch List as well. Nice, but, what kind of pressure did that put on those players for their season?

If you’ve attended more than three games this season, you know unquestionably that Anriel Howard is more a first teamer than a second teamer (biased personal opinion aside), and undoubtedly MVP of the year so far.

And right behind her is Jasmine Lumpkin.

These two comparatively unsung heroes are the ones making the best plays, the free throws, the rebounds, and the mid-range jumpers that keep the Aggies alive while opponents try their latest double team dance-off against Khaalia or Danni. You don’t see them, however, on national watch lists, because they’re the best team players who focus on teams.

So, if you’re missing the best players, why the hype of the preseason rankings and awards? It’s all come down to numbers, statistics, and something for the commentators to discuss between plays, I guess. But it doesn’t begin to watch the action on the court when the team goes over to congratulate the unsung heroes for doing their jobs, every single game. The smiles and true regard you see exchanged between teammates are worth more gold than any of the countless number of trophies that will be handed out by season end.

It was perfect Monday night at the radio show at Rudy's BBQ, when Gary Blair pronounced Jasmine Lumpkin as his Fifth Dimension in the wheel that goes ‘round and ‘round on the team. He had to ask the crowd if anyone there remembered the Fifth Dimension, but he picked the right place to ask that question. We all knew the answer.

You can’t have the Fifth Dimension without the harmonies of Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, and Lamonte McLemore singing together. And, if you have Anriel, Danni, Khaalia, and Chennedy out there on the court, Jasmine is that perfect fifth.

Now then, there’s the whirling dervish, Chennedy Carter. She was named espnW National Player of the Week in December, 2017, with 46 points in the Aggie 75–74 victory over USC, only the third TAMU player (Courtney Walker in 2015 and Kelsey Bone in 2012) to do that. Carter has also been named SEC Player of the Week several times this season, but how does that help her get more assists than points in her point guard play? It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers.

Fortunately, the past three home games, what statistic has mattered most of all are the smiles on the faces and the affirming high-fives, hand slaps, hugs, and side bumps for each Aggie team player who is playing the best team play. It’s a Danni Williams passing the ball to Khaalia Hillsman, when she just as easily could be shooting it herself, and then smiling when Khaalia gets the bucket. It's the tandem passing between Williams and Carter down the court and then both deciding who should shoot the ball, to a successful conclusion and approving smiles between teammates that measures success better than any stats.

It’s an Anriel Howard who gets that rebound (after rebound) when she’s not the tallest player on the team, because she is doubly determined to play her role on this team and she’s the best junior we have out there, who acts more like a grad student in her maturity.

It’s Jazz Lumpkin who is the one you can count on. She has made believers out of some audience members who had no idea what she was capable of, but she wasn’t listening to doubters or naysayers. Lumpkin was listening second to her coaches but more importantly, she was listening first to her heart that told her she is a valued member of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team and she loves this game. And look what happens when she’s on the court—magic!

Watch game film or live in action, to see that Howard and Lumpkin are always standing up, straightest and tallest on the court. They may be just as wiped out as all the other players, but their stance does not show it. Their shoulders are not slumped. They have backs as straight as lifetime piano students build, and therein stems the attitude of a true warrior. These subtleties are the extra advantage they take into battle for the victory.

And then there is the unselfish smile of admiration these team players show one another. It’s hard, when you’ve had hot shot shooting days on your roster for years, whether high school or college, and it’s up to you to make the shot or pass it to someone with a higher likelihood of making it. Women are natural competitors, but here we are nearing the end of SEC play, and this team has much to be proud of in its solid capacity playing together—united in goals.

You can't overlook the solid coaching and permanent imprint of Associate Head Coach Kelly Bond-White, Assistant Coach Bob Starkey, and Assistant Coach Amy Wright, for each of their contributions to this team, and it takes supervision, coaching, studying, teaching, advice, and a lot of listening to the words of these talented women. Mike "Radar" Ricke has what it takes to keep these teams going strong, and new Sports Performance Coach, Kayln Sticher, is working to build the endurance of each of the players.

Not everyone is on that same page of the hymn book yet, but these kids are coming to A&M being told their entire high school and AAU careers how great they are. Rule number one is “Never believe your own PR.” But they do. They get named to preseason watch lists, to weekly shout-out lists and the accolades can fill the room. Chennedy Carter, though, is one who seems oblivious to the awards and the accolades heaped on her and she's just getting out there and making offense happen, which helps her stay the course of every game. That telescoping focus on the basket at hand is key. Just like the famous scene in "For the Love of the Game": "Clear the mechanism."

Chennedy Carter plays for the love of the game, and ultimately a pro career ahead, but it's one game at a time, one season at a time, one victory at a time. Last night she had 7 assists and 4 steals (fun to watch). Danni Williams had 4 generous assists. Given the nature of the game, it would have been nice to see more assists than the 17 total for the game, where players were in double-digits. Ole Miss had 13 assists and four players in double digits, too.

But, you know what? Kayla Wells wasn’t named to a preseason thing, and she’s brilliantly and quietly making her way into prominence with sure shooting, confidently and smartly. Wells and Jada Walton both had 4 rebounds, and N’dea Jones had 5 rebounds last night, fourth only to Anriel (14) and Khaalia (7), and Jasmine (6). These freshmen are coming on strong, and that's one of the best things to watch and enjoy in person at these games.

Sometimes staring at the jumbotron or stat boards, you can lose focus and miss the eyes and the hearts of the players who are out there executing plays, carrying out strategy, and fighting for victory, or to at least walk out of the arena, holding their heads up. Team play is a victory. Selfish play is demoralizing to the team and the crowd alike. Ole Miss played hard as a team in training. They passed the ball. They looked for openings and in the second half they got the three-point shots we left wide open while learning not to do that. Many shots simply would not fall the Old Miss way, but they kept after it, they kept trying.

Postgame, Ole Miss’s coach, Matt Insell, described his team as “a little scared out there and I really didn’t understand that.” It occurred to me how sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the clipboards with the numbers.

Coach Insell’s statement was profound, and perhaps is the key to beginning the turnaround he will ultimately find as his team gains skills and savvy. After all the Texas Aggie women have appeared exactly that way (cowed playing powerhouses) at times.

But what do victories really mean, and to whom? One thing is sure: It’s fear of failure that drives UConn players, if you listen to the words of Geno Auriemma shared last month.

At UConn, per Geno, “Maybe it’s just the function of this program because there are no easy passes here, no get-out-of-jail cards…You come here, you’re competing against really good players and you compete every minute of every day, every drill, everything we do. And then you get rewarded”…“any player who claims not to be afraid to fail is lying.”

That’s just a portion of his interview, and not to take it out of context, but what basketball coach or team doesn’t want to win? Who doesn’t give everything they have in practice? If they don’t, are they still on the team next year? Maybe, maybe not. what are the stakes, though, among the best of the best teams?

So, Coach Insell likely found his words explaining that he was proud of their effort, their hard work, against a solid SEC contender, and time would show continued improvement, to keep the faith. That’s a life lesson that means something to their future success.

In watching coaches on the sidelines during big ticket games, Texas A&M can be proud of both Gary Blair and Billy Kennedy for their sidelines demeanor compared to others in the SEC. Sometimes I think Bruce Pearl (Auburn men) shouldn’t be wired, or the camera shouldn’t go on LSU’s Nikki Fargas so much. Her glances scare me and I’m just sitting in the arena!

Maryland’s Brenda Frese is cool and collected. The great Pat Summitt, whose "We Back Pat" fundraising effort all SEC schools are backing, was a calm leader. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey is an example of…well, I won't finish that sentence.

What role does fear have in women’s basketball? What and whom should a player be afraid of? Disappointing their parents? Letting their coaches down? At Texas A&M, add to the pressure packer, the challenge of looking good or bad in front of a crowd of virtual strangers who spent thousands of dollars on primo seats. If you're given to pressure, the way things go sometimes, players seem to carry on their backs the way they feel when, and how soon, the crowd leaves Reed Arena--that's not good.

Seeing how many stayed last night, to sing the War Hymn along with the players, an aftergame tradition with a win, was demoralizing to this team. Seeing the game well in hand, I saw several Aggie faithful nick out in the fourth quarter. I guarantee that if we'd won against Mississippi State last night, you would have every single ticket-holder have to be swept out of Reed after refusing to leave the scene of the victory.

Players are also surrounded by fans who adopt and nurture them as their own, which is a two-edged sword, but mostly good. Players hear many things, mostly affirmations, from these well-meaning loyalists who want to soften the blow of a loss, and yet, the coaches are trying to teach the players to accept losses, examine root causes, correct the behavior or errors, and to keep on fighting for success. The question never seems to come around to whether these players are letting themselves down. They are last on their own list, much of the time. No time to think! A lot of input is what these players get and perhaps that offsets the pain of statistics of missed opportunities or things that should not have happened.

Numbers are cold, emotionless, and constantly changing. The heart of a coach, though, should remain consistently in teaching and encouraging mode, if you’re going to win in life as much as in the game. Aggie coaches are doing their parts, 24/7, and it is their most important priority.

Speaking only for myself, it would help immeasurably if the administrative leadership of TAMU (academics and athletics) would make their physical presence at the games a priority. Longtime fans remember days of old, where students and players were shown the importance of Aggie athletics for both basketball teams, when the President and Vice Presidents attended the games with their families. Season ticket holders know exactly where those prime seats are and it is beyond frustrating to see them wide open vacant, with only an occasional brave student sliding into a seat or two, which is a good thing, so it won't be such a vast blank space.

It’s powerful and important to kids from towns large and small across the state to see “leadership” supporting their event. Case in point: tomorrow night’s men’s game vs. Kentucky has scalping priced tickets available on Flash Seats for the worst seats in the house. It’s Kentucky and the way Calipari’s one-and-done zen masters are playing, the Aggies could very well hand the Big Blue Nation a battle.

It’s beyond ironic when a Kentucky journalist wrote that “Struggles aside, UK’s Hamidou Diallo still projected as first-round NBA Draft pick.” But what kind of education are these highly celebrated athletes getting year-round from the media?

Diallo is a freshman, and until someone stops the crazy bus, Kentucky will always be a school for the pre-pro players to wear blue and white for one year, sort of, and be called a Wildcat and then move on….without a hope in heck for a college education. Kentucky could care less if their players graduate. Texas A&M cares and devotes major financial resources to teaching their student athletes.

However, in stark contrast to our upcoming Kentucky game tomorrow night, an essentially capacity game, last nights’ women’s game was fortunate to have 300 students from the TAMU Corps of Cadets in the student section. They made a major difference in showing school support.

Shelby Metcalf earned his EdD with his dissertation on how “Crowd Behavior at Southwest Conference Games.” No joke…it’s a real thing. Think about it—how does collective approval via crowd noise impact you directly? Likely it impacts the players with adrenaline, joy, and emotions, as they feel good about what they’re doing for their team and this school, and they deserve the best, same as the others. The crowd is vital.

Just as it was easy to make a greater profit by selling more bottles of water at Aggie concession stands at a lower price (volume, volume, volume), fill the stands with kids who deserve it for free. Simply round up the to-be-unused/unsold-because-we-only love-football administration tickets and give them away for free to students who can’t afford a sports pass, or a $15 plus tax ticket for a reserved seat online, or even a $40 single ticket on Flashseats for Kentucky tomorrow night? Fill Reed Arena with people who really want to be there and can’t afford it, and you can even sell some water and popcorn. It’s a win-win.

If you are free Monday night, come to Rudy's BBQ on Harvey Road and enjoy unscripted remarks with Gary Blair and his audience. Young Elizabeth Miller is a very promising broadcaster and she's not only not self-conscious about being on the radio, just like her dad, Steve Miller, she is delightful. Watching Gary and Elizabeth reminds me of George Burns and Gracie Allen, "So how's your brother, Gracie?" and she'd hold forth!

Now, come Thursday night, everyone is encouraged to get up off the couch and stomp on over (with apologies to the Brothers Johnson), to fill Reed Arena for the next (affordable) women’s basketball game, set for Thursday, February 15 against Florida, and it’s the BTHO Breast Cancer game, so wear your pink shirts (this year’s or last), and show this team the love they deserve. Your presence will make all the difference in the world to these young student-athletes. Stay and allow them to come into the stands and say "thank you for coming," the way their coaches inspire them to do.

Last night, TAMU Head Coach Gary Blair notched his 350th win at Texas A&M with this game, but you can rest assured that only Asst. Sports Information Director David Waxman had that on his mind, because Blair was there to play ball and to teach his kids.

It's never too late to begin to root for this team. No one will ask you how long you've been coming. They'll just be glad you came.