There's an old saying that goes something like this: "You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been."
After hearing former Sterling High School, Illinois State University and European professional basketball standout Pat McKinzie-Lechault speak Monday night at the Sterling Public Library, I would like to amend that a bit by saying, "You can't appreciate what you've got until you understand how those before you made it possible."
McKinzie's talk in front of 45 folks highlighted the ups and downs of her journey through life, made possible by her love and skill at basketball, that she recounted in her recently self-published book "Home Sweet Hardwood." She is a true pioneer in every sense of the word, as she had so many firsts on the basketball court that, well … how much time ya got?
She was on the first Sterling girls basketball team in school history, just a year after Title IX passed in 1972. She was the first girl in Illinois to receive a scholarship to play basketball. She was the first girl from this area to earn All-American honors. She was one of the first players ever inducted into the Illinois Coaches Hall of Fame.
The list goes on, but I only have limited space. For full details, see "Home Sweet Hardwood," a wonderful trip down memory lane of triumphs, travails and even tragedies McKinzie endured during her life full of firsts. It's an enlightening and entertaining read, and I fully recommend it to anyone who loves basketball, history (or both), as well as to anyone nowadays who takes for granted the rich tapestry of girls and women's sports.
But enough shilling by this guy.
McKinzie wrote and re-wrote the book several times over the past 3 decades, finally giving up on the publishing companies and putting it out herself.
An avid journaler, and an accomplished storyteller, McKinzie weaves a narrative through her childhood as a tomboy in an era when that was frowned upon; the elation of finally getting to play high-school sports after Title IX passed the summer before her sophomore year in high school; the highs and lows of playing on an interracial ISU team under pioneer coach Jill Hutchison.
After that came the desperation of a meager existence in the original professional Women's Basketball League; and then the forging of a new identity as a professional player across the Atlantic Ocean who saw her playing career cut short by injuries and a car accident.
"Some of the stories are hard to believe, but they're all true," McKinzie said. "I started writing in 1985, then it sat for a few years, then I'd revisit it … and this cycle went on for quite some time. I gave up on it several times, but my family told me I had a story that needed to be told."
A fierce competitor, McKinzie admitted she probably never would have written the book is she was still able to participate in sports.
Instead, she said being confined after suffering a broken back in a 1983 auto accident in France "allowed me to observe little things that most people miss, and observe them as an outsider, since I was a foreigner."
"It's like opening a vein," McKinzie said. "You're putting yourself out there for everybody to see. I hope people like it."
The idea for a book was born when McKinzie realized that not much about the time period that would forever change (and finally allow) women's sports has been written. Also, with a daughter who played college basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, McKinzie realized the next generation of women's athletes had a right to know how it all began.
"As a kid, writing was a way to keep myself, a weirdo nutcase outcast, from being marginalized," McKinzie said. "As an adult, it saved my life."
After the injury, McKinzie became "a reluctant coach." Her grandfather coached at the college level, her father at the high-school level, but McKinzie said she never saw herself following in their footsteps.
But once on the sidelines, she (no surprise here) excelled. She was a player-coach in Europe, then went on to coach youngsters in the German club system, high-schoolers at the American Institute in Paris, and is currently working with children of diplomats and political officials at the International School in Geneva, Switzerland.
McKinzie is already looking forward to the next chapter. She plans on retiring "in the next couple of years," and hopefully spending some of her year with her husband, Gerald, in the United States to spend more time with family and friends.
After the often-difficult acclimitization to life in Europe, McKinzie said there is no culture shock when she returns to Sterling.
"It just feels like home," McKinzie said, "and it makes me happy."
Through it all, McKinzie still has fond feelings about the winding road her life has taken.
"It's been more than I dreamed, in a much different way than I ever imagined," McKinzie said. "I feel like I was in the right place at the right time so often, and around the right people who gave me so many opportunities.
"It's not the obstacles that are important, but how you handle them. The struggles I had have made me stronger, and I wish I could go back and tell that little girl back then what it's like today."
McKinzie, who also spoke at the Sterling Kiwanis and Rotary clubs Tuesday, will be at Northland Mall this morning, and I urge anyone who has the time to go and see her.
Meet the woman. Read her life story. Tell me she's not as good a storyteller as she was basketball player.
I dare you.