One day in the ninth grade, Tara VanDerveer was playing basketball — as she did most days while growing up in upstate New York — when her father interrupted the bounce, bounce, bounce of the ball and ordered her into the house. He wanted her to work on what he viewed as a less trivial pursuit: her math homework.
“Basketball is never going to take you anywhere,” he told her.
VanDerveer would never talk back to her father, but privately she stewed.
“Algebra,” she thought, “is never going to take me anywhere.”
That infatuation with the round orange ball, which has lasted a lifetime, has taken VanDerveer many places: around the world (from where she would drop her father postcards), across the country to Stanford University for the last 35 years and into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
On Tuesday night, it is set to carry her to an even more rarefied place, when a victory by top-ranked Stanford at Pacific is expected to give VanDerveer the record for most coaching wins in women’s college basketball, moving her past Pat Summitt’s 1,098 career victories, all for the University of Tennessee. If for some unexpected reason the victory doesn’t arrive Tuesday, it will almost certainly come in Stanford’s next game, or the one after that.
That the milestone will be muted by the pandemic — reached in a rescheduled game, played in a nearly empty arena, and with coaches masked up and bench players sitting socially distant on folding chairs — in a way befits VanDerveer, who has always been at ease with a whistle and an empty gym, but less so as the center of attention.
If some contemporaries, like the glowering Summitt, who died in 2016, or the media-savvy Geno Auriemma, the wisecracking Connecticut coach who began the season seven victories behind Summitt and three behind VanDerveer, cut commanding figures on the sideline, VanDerveer does not. She often watches play intently from her seat, as if she’s trying to work a quadratic equation in her head.
“I like being on the practice court, getting to know the people on my team,” VanDerveer said in a telephone interview. “I don’t need a lot of strokes.”
As for Tuesday night, she added: “If our team is successful, a record will be set and I’ll get up the next day and I’ll be riding that Peloton. I’m not going to get a day off. And I’ll hope our country is one step closer to being healthy and that things can go back to normal.”
College basketball, for both men and women, has for now lurched along like a teenager learning to drive with a clutch, with hundreds of games postponed, canceled or rescheduled on the fly.
Few programs have been impacted as much as Stanford’s teams, which left Santa Clara County after health officials there banned games and practices in late November. The Cardinal women recently spent 10 days in Las Vegas. The players, coaches and other staff members wore masks outside their hotel rooms, ate to-go meals (sometimes sitting outside in a hotel courtyard), boarded buses back to front, were tested daily and had their temperatures taken each time they arrived at a gym for a practice or a game.
After Tuesday’s game against Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Stanford’s team will leave on Wednesday for Los Angeles, where it will play Southern California on Saturday and U.C.L.A. on Monday. From there, it will travel to Arizona for a game on New Year’s Day. It is not scheduled to play a home game until Jan. 8.
“I’m not convinced we’re doing the right thing,” said VanDerveer, who coaches with a megaphone so that players can hear her through her mask. “We’re road warriors, but we can’t be road, road, road warriors. We’re not nomads.”
She wondered if it wouldn’t make sense to pause the season through the expected holiday surge of new cases. The extensive safety measures have created anxiety for her players, she said, but so has the prospect of not returning home for Christmas. But there is also a joy that comes from practicing and playing that should be accounted for — and, she said, why should her players be deprived of that when they have been so fastidious in adhering to health protocols?
“We are torn,” VanDerveer said. “Yes, we want to play. And yes, in our brain, we know it’s probably safer not to be traveling around. But we can’t be the outlier. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance. We know it’s not the best thing to be doing, but we’re doing it because everybody else is doing it.”
The game’s effervescent quality revealed itself in Sunday night’s otherwise pedestrian romp over winless California, when the Stanford sophomore Francesca Belibi casually threw down a one-handed dunk after a steal — the first by a woman in a college game since 2013.
VanDerveer much preferred that moment to the game’s immediate aftermath, when she whisked her players toward the locker room after they danced and cheered around her, making a modest spectacle.
At 68, she is uncertain how much longer she wants to coach.
She is enthusiastic about Stanford’s recruits, coyly notes that she will occasionally look up the ages of Krzyzewski (73) and Jim Boeheim (76), and said, “I have a lot of tread on my tire.” But she also had her curiosity piqued by a recent conversation with Muffet McGraw, who retired earlier this year after a distinguished career at Notre Dame. “I asked her how is it on the other side?” VanDerveer said. “She goes, ‘Tara, it’s great.’ I’m thinking, wow.”
If it is hard to imagine some coaches doing anything else, that is not the case with VanDerveer.
She learned to play the piano in middle age. She plays bridge for an hour each day on a laptop with her 93-year-old mother, Rita. She tries to walk her dogs every day when she is home. She swims at the Stanford pool (not blinking when the Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel are in the next lane), and, in a silver lining of the pandemic, she spent 93 days water skiing this summer at her vacation home in Chautauqua, N.Y.
She is likely to give up coaching not when it becomes a chore, she said, but when there is not enough time for everything else. But those are considerations for another day.
For now, she is preparing her players for the next game, striving to make the season so fun that the players do not want it to end. She is using whatever platform she has as a result of her latest milestone to encourage donations to food banks. “People are suffering,” VanDerveer said. “It’s hard to celebrate and be excited about something like a basketball game compared to people’s lives.”
She said she would start with a pledge of her own to a local food bank. She has yet to settle on a number — perhaps $10 per win. She is still working on the math.