SPOKANE, Wash. -- With just days to go before Selection Monday, Cal senior guard Eliza Pierre and several of her teammates approached their head coach with an intriguing proposal.
The Golden Bears were 28-3 at the time, coming off a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal. They’d captured a slice of the regular-season conference title (along with Stanford), in a season that was riddled with accomplishment. Still, something wasn’t quite right.
“We knew we were going to make the [NCAA] tournament, but it became a point of where basketball had become a job,” Pierre said. “But that’s not our team. Our team is really loose, and we like to have fun. Since it was about to get real serious, we thought, ‘Let’s just have some fun for one last time.’”
After some brainstorming the team settled upon creating a music video, which they labeled “Started From the Bottom,” after the popular song by the rapper Drake. Everyone was doing a Harlem Shake rendition, so naturally, they wanted to do something totally different.
Pierre wrote the lyrics with help from junior guard Mikayla Lyles. Lyles, Pierre and Talia Caldwell each got a turn on the mic. Each detailed an aspect of their California basketball experience, which has been years of struggle for credibility.
Senior Layshia Clarendon collaborated with Lyles and the team’s video coordinator Erik Williams to film it. The entire team participated, filming segments anywhere that struck their creative fancy: planes, locker rooms and disparate pockets of the Berkeley campus all make appearances.
What began as a fun distraction, which the players figured they’d film with iPhones, quickly bloomed into something far bigger. Everyone wanted in on the event. Everyone wanted to support this team.
Their head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb signed on. As long as it didn’t take away from what they were trying to do on the basketball court — and this team had shown a tremendous ability to stay the course — she was fine with her players expressing themselves creatively. “My philosophy in general is that college athletics should be an enjoyable experience for the people involved in it,” Gottlieb said.
“I think you have to embrace this team’s nature of being fun-loving. You have to empower them to enjoy the experience. I can do that because I’m so confident in their focus. They’re creative, and they’re smart kids. If anything, I think that when they’re happier and enjoying it, they’re more likely to play hard and play well.”
The video, loaded to YouTube four days ago, has gotten off to a cracking start. “It’s pretty funny, if you haven’t seen it,” Gottlieb said.
“I don’t know if a lot of head coaches around the country would let their players make this kind of video going into the tournament,” said Clarendon. “It really speaks to her supporting all we want to do, our dreams, our hopes, our goals. I think she sees every day how — not to boast — how awesome we are, how much fun we have and how much we love each other. She doesn’t mind broadcasting that to the world. That really speaks to how good of a coach she is, and how relatable of a person she is.”
Gottlieb says that if she could have anything said about her, it would be that she empowers young women to be better than they thought they could be, both on and off the court.
In just her second season as head coach of the Golden Bears, Gottlieb’s refreshing approach has taken the program to uncharted waters. Following Saturday night’s 73-63 victory over sixth-seeded LSU in the Spokane Regional Sweet 16, Cal reached the first Elite Eight in program history.
Add that to a lengthy — and still-growing — list of achievements this season. The Golden Bears won that share of the regular season Pac-12 crown, and are still improving upon their record of most wins in a season (currently 31).
They’ve displayed a sense of character and moxie that belies their years, winning over fans with their playfulness and charm. They’ve done all this while never losing sight of the task at hand.
In the spring of 2011, it looked as if this thrill ride might not even begin.
Joanne Boyle, the Cal head coach for the previous six seasons, had left for the open position at Virginia. Two of the seven players from the highly touted 2009 recruiting class left the program. Another, Tierra Rodgers, had previously been diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, a rare genetic disease that ended her playing career before she’d ever taken the court for the Golden Bears.
A two-week gap, when the program did not have a head coach, lingered in the air like a chilling note.
In a fight or flight moment, the remaining seniors gathered the team together in a players-only meeting before Gottlieb was named to the post.
They realized that the course of action they decided upon in that moment would change this program, for better or for worse. They opted for the more positive road, and emerged armed with a new sense of purpose and dedication.
“I can’t say enough about their leadership,” said Gottlieb of the seniors. “There was a time where there was no coach, and they got the team together and said, ‘Look, we have to change before anything else changes. Let’s be ready when this new coach comes in.’ They took it upon themselves to make Cal basketball better.”
When Gottlieb arrived in April ’11, she brought the team together and listened to their worries and concerns, regardless of whether they involved basketball.
She told them her dream. She wanted to make this program elite; she wanted to establish a platform from which this team could ascend. “She told us she’d show us the way,” said Caldwell, a senior forward. “The first thing she did was put that base, that foundation. After that, it was just smooth sailing, the rest was just basketball.”
Gottlieb made a point to get to know each of her players on an individual level. She wanted to empower them, to show this bunch that they could become leaders and build something great. “My belief is that unless they know that you really care about the whole person and believe in them as people, it’s hard to ask them to run through a wall for you,” Gottlieb said.
She learned their stories, several laced with unspeakable tragedies no one — let alone a teenager — should ever have to face. She knew that these kids had a choice, and she watched each one of them emerge from their personal rubble not broken or cowed, but emboldened. She marveled at how they didn’t just survive; they thrived.
Though Cal hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament for the past two seasons, the cupboard wasn’t bare — far from it. “We have a lot of individually talented kids,” said Gottlieb. “We had this idea to play a certain way, stay together and be one of those special teams. And they’ve bought in from moment one.”
Cal went 25-10 in Gottlieb’s first season, and gave eventual NCAA tournament runner-up Notre Dame a hearty scare in the second round. The transformation had firmly taken root.
Gottlieb’s six seasons as Boyle’s assistant, first at Richmond and then at Cal, had helped instill this philosophy that she then imparted upon these Golden Bears. She credits Boyle with instilling in her a confidence and freedom as an assistant — something that has carried over into her approach as a head coach. (She spent three seasons, ’08-09 to ’10-11, as the head coach at the University of California Santa Barbara.)
“There’s no question that Joanne was the key figure in my career in allowing me to get where I am,” said Gottlieb. “I think that when everyone feels invested — that this is their team, from my assistant coaches, to operations people to the players on the team … that they are truly invested in it, that’s when you get people doing something special as a group.”
This season, Gottlieb told her team that they had every single piece they needed to reach their goals. Whereas they might once have entered into big games hoping for luck to get a win, the players began to believe in their own ability to directly influence the outcome.
Senior Eliza Pierre alluded to a point during this season’s NCAA tournament second round game against South Florida.
During a Bears huddle, Gottlieb asked the team what play they wanted to run. She could have drawn up a play, but she wanted to hear their take — she wanted them to show her what they saw out on the court. She wanted to empower them.
“We were like, ‘Oh, okay, we’ve got this,’” said Pierre. “She talks with us and it’s like a learning experience. I think she does a great job of making us feel like players as well as adults.”
Under Gottlieb, offense and defense derive directly from the players: both are living, breathing things that can always be improved upon. She’s given the players the framework and foundation and filled them to the brim with confidence. The message is simple: play hard and be who you are. Remember what you’ve worked for.
Gottlieb was named the 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year and is a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year.
With seniors leading the way, the entire program has bought in to Gottlieb’s philosophy. The younger players, like talented sophomores Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Justine Hartman, know nothing else but this unique brand of success.
They’ve embraced their coach’s approach. At times, they sound just like her. Clarendon rattles off defensive schemes and formations during press conferences as if she were reciting a well-worn quote.
Boyd references the Cal basketball brand, explicating its nuances with the sort of ease borne out of familiarity. Senior, junior, sophomore, freshman — doesn’t matter. Each player has bought in. Each player trusts the other.
The seniors have embraced their last tournament. They’re playing with exuberance, embracing every moment of this journey. They want to keep going forward with their teammates.
“We’re a team that celebrates everything,” said Clarendon. “Like lunch or a shoot around or … like, we got smoothies on the way here [to Sunday practice], and we were like, ‘Yeah!’”
They celebrate Tierra Rogers’s indomitable spirit. Even though she can’t play in games, Rogers still attends practices and helps out with drills. Gottlieb made sure she kept her scholarship. Rogers is on schedule to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies.
Pierre’s older brother was killed in August 2011. When the one-year anniversary approached last summer, Rogers — whose own father had been killed while one of her high school basketball games was in progress across the street — flew home with her teammate to provide support. How can a family not grow out of that level of sacrifice and trust? How can it not be enough to simply enjoy every moment with these teammates?
Hence, the video.
Before they hunkered down for the tournament, they wanted to indulge their creative side one last time. Because this season, this journey, has always been about so much more than basketball. They wanted to share that progress with the world.
It was the latest manifestation of this group of disparate elements joining together to do something special. They’ve embraced those differences and united behind them, like only a good team can do. They’ve become what Gottlieb hoped they would be when she first came on board.
There’s never a quantifiable way to see just how much a positive attitude can affect a team. Like a play that goes unnoticed in a box score, it’s felt most deeply by the ones it affects — they know exactly how much it means.
At its best, it can transform a group of individually gifted players into a team that is grateful, upbeat, thankful, and capable of extraordinary feats.
When Golden Bears redshirt junior forward Gennifer Brandon (part of that original 2009 senior class) heads to the free throw line, and Clarendon tells her to think of orange kittens, which Brandon adores, you begin to get a sense of what this all about. It’s these words and actions that keep this team pushing together, said Boyd.
Suddenly, that music video seems a fitting theme for a season — a 2-minute and 59 second-long explication of a program’s resurgence.
When she was asked on Sunday morning what she would say to the team before they head out onto the floor at the Spokane Arena to face Georgia on Monday night, Boyd put it best.
Every line she spoke sounded like a mantra. It was damned near poetic.
“Just be us. Embrace the moment. Be happy that we are here, but don’t be satisfied. Want more for each other, want more for this team, want more for our program, our school, and do something that Cal has never done before. I think that just gives us chills and makes us want to go out and think we can dunk or something, you know.”
Boyd drew upon the importance of playing Cal basketball, of showcasing the best version of themselves. Her teammates and coach, assembled alongside her on the podium, nodded in agreement. Minutes later, they were laughing again.
Disparate elements combining to do something special, while never losing sight of fun.
- Clarendon, Boyd continue pushing Cal into new territory
- Adversity -- and talent -- help Gennifer Brandon shine at Cal