Fran Belibi sighed, knowing she was going to miss her shoe collection. But an odyssey awaited her and the rest of the Stanford women’s basketball team. A text arrived early on Dec. 2: “Pack your bags, we’re leaving today. We probably aren’t coming back.”
What do you take for a trip when you’re not sure where you will be going or how long you will be gone?
“I was just throwing stuff in the bag, hoping I’d have enough of the right clothes,” said Belibi, a sophomore forward. “It was a busy couple of hours there, trying to decide what was important to bring and what wasn’t.”
Santa Clara County announced Nov. 28 that it was prohibiting all contact sports at least through Dec. 21, enhanced COVID-19 guidelines that also displaced the San Francisco 49ers. The Cardinal women had played their season opener at home in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 25. But starting in December, they hit the road and became basketball nomads.
On a nine-week road trip through six states that included 12 flights, the Cardinal gained and lost the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, celebrated a historic victory for coach Tara VanDerveer and saw Belibi dunk for the first time in college. They also ordered countless meals through food delivery apps, celebrated Christmas at a hotel, gave one another haircuts and went gaga anytime someone brought a dog to visit.
Stanford is 15-2, ranked No. 6 and is a national championship contender. And while the Cardinal also have been the ultimate road warriors, they finally woke up in their own rooms Monday for the first time in two months. Friday night, they’ll run out on the Maples Pavilion court for a game again.
“It’s definitely gonna hit right in the heart,” Belibi said. “Maples is home. But it wasn’t home for a long while there. We didn’t think it would be home until next season.”
Wheels down: Las Vegas
When the directive came from Santa Clara County, the scramble began. Could the Cardinal go to another county in California for their home games scheduled for early December? What about neighboring states? Where would they practice? VanDerveer, her staff and the Stanford administration tossed around every idea they could think of.
Then came the first solution: Go to UNLV. Lindy La Rocque, a former Stanford player and assistant coach, is in her first season with the Lady Rebels, and she agreed to both play the Cardinal and let them practice and work out at UNLV’s facilities for over a week.
Stanford got victories against UNLV and Washington, which agreed to travel to Las Vegas for a game that was supposed to be at Maples. Meanwhile, No. 1 South Carolina lost to NC State on Dec. 3. In the new rankings on Dec. 7, Stanford elevated to the top spot in the poll.
Stanford stayed in Las Vegas until Dec. 12. With classes wrapped up for the semester before Thanksgiving, the players had free time, but COVID-19 limited activities. They went golfing. They held movie nights in a large ballroom at the hotel, bringing in popcorn and pillows.
Mostly, they were just happy to be playing, and began to settle into the rhythm of the road. It was a 21-member traveling party: 12 players, VanDerveer and three assistant coaches, the director of basketball operations, a video coordinator, a media coordinator, a trainer and a strength coach. But everyone pitched in when basketballs needed to be sanitized, meals ordered, snacks purchased, laundry done, bags carried.
“It was all hands on deck,” VanDerveer said.
Then it was time to head back to California for two games on the march to history.
Wheels down: Oakland
VanDerveer had admired a knee-length, fuzzy coat Belibi wore, and teased Belibi that she might nab it someday. Belibi had another idea.
So when Stanford beat Pacific on Dec. 15 for VanDerveer’s 1,099th victory as she became the winningest coach in Division I women’s college basketball, the team presented her with her own jacket, complete with “T-DAWG” printed on the back.
“I wish it could have been at Maples,” senior forward Alyssa Jerome said, “so she could have been honored in front of our fans.”
Yet VanDerveer was grateful it happened as it did: in a near-empty arena on the road in Stockton, California.
“It allowed me to celebrate just with our team,” she said. “It made it really special in a way that it would not have been, I think, had a lot of other people been around. Instead it was very intimate and very meaningful.”
Stanford’s Fran Belibi gets the steal and hammers home a one-handed dunk.
Two days earlier in Berkeley, Stanford had beaten Cal 83-38 as VanDerveer tied the late Pat Summitt for most Division I women’s wins. But afterward, VanDerveer teased Belibi that the coach might remember the game for something else: Belibi’s one-handed dunk right before halftime.
“We’re going to be talking about her dunk instead of this [record], which I’m fine with,” VanDerveer said at the time. “It was a great dunk.”
Wheels down: Los Angeles
Stanford won two more games before Christmas — Dec. 19 at USC and Dec. 21 at UCLA — to improve to 7-0. Staying in Santa Monica, where the Cardinal could walk to the ocean, was a welcome respite from spending most of their time in hotel rooms.
Right after Thanksgiving, Belibi said, she and her teammates had put up some Christmas decorations in the hallway of the apartment-style dorms they live in on campus.
“And then we left,” she said, chuckling, “so we didn’t get much good out of that.”
The initial order by Santa Clara County was supposed to run through Dec. 21, but it was clear it would be extended. The Cardinal headed back to the Bay Area, undefeated and ready for a break.
VanDerveer and other staff members who lived outside of Santa Clara County were able to visit their homes for a few days. But the players spent Christmas in their hotel in San Mateo County, which is just north of Stanford’s Palo Alto campus. Several players’ parents came, getting COVID-19 tests and then socially distancing with their daughters and those players whose parents couldn’t make it. Others used video calls to catch up with friends and family.
“It was the first Christmas I spent not at home, so it was strange,” said Jerome, who is from Toronto. “I’m used to snow or at least cold weather at Christmas. So, honestly, it didn’t feel like Christmas at all, which was a little sad.
“But thankfully, we also got really spoiled by the families that came. They prepared meals for us, and got us Christmas stockings, and our coaches did stuff for us to make it feel special.”
Wheels down: Arizona
On Dec. 27, Stanford headed south to prepare for games at Arizona and Arizona State.
Being on the road again reminded VanDerveer she’d been through something similar 25 years earlier. She stepped away from Stanford in 1995-96 to coach the U.S. national team, which toured in the United States and internationally for several months to prepare for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
VanDerveer said that experience had its own challenges. Technology was so different, with limited internet and no smart phones, streaming services or food delivery apps. She recalled being in a hotel in Russia when then-U.S. star players Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie knocked on her door looking for powdered milk.
On the other hand, there was no pandemic then, no daily COVID-19 testing, no social distancing or mask-wearing, no uncertainty about when they were going home.
From the start of this unprecedented season, VanDerveer set the tone, reminding everyone how fortunate they were and that “flexible” was the key word. But as their time away from campus grew, so did her concerns about the staff, including those, like associate head coach Kaye Paye, who were spending more time apart from their children than usual.
And VanDerveer, who at age 67 is committed to fitness and swims daily, admits she felt worn down at times.
“I’m not like a spring chicken, and it tires you out,” she said. “But we had the ability to charter a lot of flights, and that was really awesome.”
And again and again, VanDerveer was heartened at how everyone responded.
“Look at Alyssa Jerome. She’s someone who’s started for us, and then other games she doesn’t play,” VanDerveer said of Stanford’s depth. “She is the same person whether things are going her way or not. She is an incredibly positive teammate, and you need that positivity around your team.
“Our leadership with seniors Alyssa, Kiana Williams, Anna Wilson … they were so tuned in to trying to make this work, following protocol, wearing their masks. And the rest of the team did the same.”
Wheels down: San Jose, California
After victories over the Wildcats and Sun Devils, Stanford headed to a new “home”: Kaiser Permanente Arena (KPA), a facility in Santa Cruz where the Golden State Warriors’ G League team plays.
Santa Cruz is also the hometown of Haley Jones, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2019 whose freshman season was cut short by a knee injury. Jones has emerged as Stanford’s leading scorer (14.8 PPG) and rebounder (8.3 RPG), and had 18 points to help the Cardinal overcome having three players out due to COVID-19 protocols in a Jan. 8 win over Oregon.
“There’s been adversity and challenges that we face,” said Jones, who showed her teammates around her hometown. “But we’re just trying to take it in stride. We knew this season was going to be different.”
Wheels down: The Mountain trips
After beating Utah on Jan. 15 in Salt Lake City, the Cardinal were 11-0 and headed to Boulder, Colorado, where someone special awaited. VanDerveer’s mother, Rita, is 93 years old and lives near the Buffaloes’ campus. It has become an annual tradition for Rita to attend practice and take a photo with the team. Because of COVID-19, that wasn’t safe.
VanDerveer visited her on a day warm enough they could sit outside at a distance. And they got their photo, too. The team bus came by, and the players stood at a distance behind them in the street so they could be in the picture with Tara and Rita.
“And she cried, it was very nice,” VanDerveer said, then added with her trademark sarcasm, “Of course, it would have been nicer if we had won the damn game.”
Colorado handed the Cardinal their first defeat this season, 77-72 in overtime.
Was it the high altitude? Had all the travel gotten to the Cardinal? VanDerveer would have none of that.
“I hope this really bothers people and gets under their skin,” she said, “and they decide we want to play basketball at a different level.”
Wheels down: San Jose, California
The Cardinal dropped to No. 5 in the poll, then suffered their first back-to-back losses in a year, falling 70-66 to UCLA on Jan. 22. A win two days later over USC righted the ship, but the Cardinal slid to No. 6.
VanDerveer, who won NCAA titles at Stanford in 1990 and ’92, wasn’t concerned about the rankings. She has had plenty of No. 1 teams. She’s looking for an elusive third national championship. If the losses gave the team some extra fuel, VanDerveer could live with that.
The Cardinal scaled every obstacle that arose. KPA was so booked with games that the Cardinal had to practice at a local high school. One day, heavy winds downed power lines, and the gymnasium was so dark they couldn’t run full-court drills. Still, they worked out.
“Kiana and I started this thing where, whatever happened, we’d say, ‘Bring it on!'” VanDerveer said.
Wheels down: Washington
Because a December game with Washington State had been postponed, VanDerveer decided the best thing to do was play the Cougars twice on their home court in Pullman, rather than try to reschedule a “home” game against them.
In a five-day span, the Cardinal got two dominant wins against the Cougars. Stanford’s defense didn’t allow 50 points in any of the three games.
Maybe a little puppy power helped, too. Twins Lexie and Lacie Hull, junior guards for Stanford, are from Spokane, about 65 miles from Pullman, and their parents brought their dogs to see the team.
Dog visits, in fact, were one of the things the players most looked forward to on their journeys. Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel’s parents came from Colorado Springs with her dog when the team was in Boulder. One of Stanford’s administrators also brought a puppy by the team hotel earlier in the season.
“The kids went crazy over the dogs,” VanDerveer said. “It was just something that reminded them of what was normal.”
To that end, there was also big news on the trip to Washington: The restrictions in Santa Clara County had been amended. The Cardinal could go home.
Wheels down: San Jose, California
Jerome, who had often braided and cut her teammates’ hair during their road trips, woke up in her dorm room Monday morning and thought, “This is nice. I know where I am!’ “
Belibi was reunited with her shoes (“Only rotating between my crocs and my slides was tough on my heart,” she said with a laugh). During the time away, the players had been allowed to return to their rooms to get some things but stayed only briefly.
“It was like, ‘Wow, I’m really back,'” Belibi said. “I had bought a few sweatshirts while I was gone, and then I was like, ‘Wait, I already had 50 sweatshirts.’ “
Finally, after leaning on food delivery apps on the road, they could cook a meal. They could drive a car. After being out of the county, they are still in quarantine. But they are on campus, and Maples is home again.
What will VanDerveer remember most about all of this?
“It’s that the kids, really, were spectacular,” she said. “The entire time, I did not have a single issue with a single player.
“They’re a really great group of young people. If they weren’t, we would have self-destructed being around each other constantly for as long as we were.”