One of the biggest news stories of 2007 blended the constructs of race and gender into the world of sports and entertainment. In April 2007, nationally popular radio host Don Imus made controversial on-air comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team following the team’s loss in the NCAA Tournament Championship game. His comments shortly drew national attention by the media, advertisers, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who called for Imus to be fired from his radio show (which was also simulcast on TV by MSNBC). The comments, which are well known by most, won’t be repeated here but seem to be an insult of the highest degree when you describe a women’s hair texture and promiscuity in unflattering terms. Don Imus would eventually be fired and return to morning radio several months later. The entire Rutgers event allowed people to learn much about Imus, his charitable work, and his previous history of controversial statements but also allowed the national public to witness the strength, character, and class of the Rutgers women’s basketball program and specifically its head coach, C. Vivian Stringer.
Four years have passed since the Imus incident and none of the current Rutgers Scarlet Knights were on the team in 2007 that had to go through the Imus ordeal. The one constant of that 2007 Rutgers team and the current team is their leader; Basketball Hall of Fame head coach C. Vivian Stringer. In taking on Imus’ words, Stringer did so with incredible class and dignity along with eloquent and thoughtful words. C. Vivian Stringer has maintained Rutgers’ success as an elite women’s college basketball program but since Imus has achieved as much off the court. Stringer wrote a New York Times best-selling autobiography and received the distinction of Nike dedicating a building in her honor, the C. Vivian Stringer Child Development Center, in the years following 2007. Stringer became only the third woman to have a building named after her on the Nike campus. C. Vivian Stringer’s ability to rise above the Imus situation is something she seemed to have passed down to her players as the entire starting lineup of 2007 NCAA Championship runner-up Rutgers team has gone on to do special things in the four years since Imus’ comments.
Starting center Kia Vaughn took legal action against Imus and CBS Radio following Imus’ comments. She contended that the comments had damaged her reputation but eventually withdrew the slander and defamation lawsuit. Vaughn was a sophomore center for that 2007 Rutgers team and went on to have a successful remainder of her college career and was selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2009 WNBA Draft. Kia Vaughn has played her entire career in the East Coast as she started her WNBA career with the New York Liberty. 2011 has been her best year of her three year career as she has made a career high in starts while improving in virtually every statistically category from points per game to rebounds per game to field goal percentage.
Starting guards Matee Ajavon and Epiphanny Prince were players known more their talents than their creative names. Ajavon, born in Liberia, was the fifth overall pick of the 2008 WNBA Draft by the now non-existent Houston Comets. Due to ownership issues, things didn’t work out for the WNBA’s first dynasty, the Houston Comets, so Ajavon was sent to the Washington Mystics in a dispersal draft. After a quiet three year start to her WNBA career, Ajavon has had a strong 2011 by nearly tripling her points per game 2010 output from 5.9 to nearly 16 points per game! She has taken advantage of her increase in minutes with the Mystics. Epiphanny Prince was a high school basketball legend even before playing for Rutgers. As a true freshman phenom on the 2007 team, Prince seemed like she would rewrite the Rutgers record book after her senior year. Surprisingly, her senior year at Rutgers never happened as Prince left Rutgers early to play professionally overseas while citing a desire to improve her family’s living situation. Prince would come back to the U.S. to be drafted by the Chicago Sky with the fourth overall pick of the 2010 WNBA Draft. In 2011, Prince was named to her first of potentially many WNBA All-Star Games.
Starting forward Essence Carson was one of the team’s captains and expressively spoke out against Imus’ comments in its aftermath. Her words exceeded the wisdom of any normal college junior. Following her productive collegiate career, Carson was selected with the seventh overall pick of the 2008 WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty. Carson would join former teammate Epiphanny Prince at the 2011 All-Star Game for the Eastern Conference. Carson’s starting frontcourt mate, forward Heather Zurich, also had powerful words during a Rutgers press conference addressing the Imus comments. While Zurich never played in the WNBA, she did play professionally overseas and now has a burgeoning career as an assistant coach for the UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball team.
As a true testament to the type of young women that Imus was dealing with, the four former Rutgers and current WNBA players are considered candidates for this year’s WNBA Most Improved Player award. That speaks to the great work ethic and determination have that allowed the women of Rutgers to deal with the whole Imus situation. C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers program is clearly about more than producing pro basketball players and focuses on developing well-rounded student-athletes. It is difficult to know exactly what Imus was thinking when he made his controversial remarks but it is clear that the women of the 2007 Rutgers basketball team have empowered other women by succeeding despite what one man says.