It’s something of a cliché to say a player is the “heart” of a team, but our ’88-’89 team had an entire cardiovascular system—heart, lungs, blood—in Melissa McCray, “Emma” to her teammates and friends. That year there were five—FIVE—new freshmen, and we were known variously as “the fab five,” “the eat-em-up crew,” and a pain in Pat’s, well, behind. We were a rambly, unfocused bunch, heavy on personality, humor, and appetite, and we needed to be brought into line now and again. This is how Melissa, a senior that year, earned her nickname “mother hen.” Her henny mothering ranged from late-night dorm room visits to tell us how things were, to a cut of the eyes when one of us slumped with inattention, to a whoop of a holler and a big broad grin when one of us came off the bench to score.
Before every game Emma’s job was to write “Let’s do it” in a curly script on the top corner of the board, small enough not to interfere with Pat’s game-plan space, but big enough to remind us that we needed to show up: it was Emma’s collective imperative.
Our “stopper” on defense, Emma taught us through example how to play it (the trick: get down looooowwww and keep those hands moving). She also taught us how to be serious college students (always keep something to read or do). She helped us remember everything from our playbooks to our appointments. At night and on busses, she wrapped her head up tight in a rag, shut her eyes, and fell asleep with purpose. When we had to run distance, she put that head back and ran, chattering to us all the way. Same thing when we had to sprint. I’ve never known anybody whose head could go back like that. I wondered if it made her faster. Emma could roll her eyes like anybody, but she NEVER did it at the wrong time, not like the five of us.
On the night of the championship, Melissa wrote her words on the board, turned around, and put the chalk in my hand. Issuing the collective imperative was to be my job for the next three years, and our mother hen, our Emma, had prepared me well.