Tuesday October 2, 2012Starting Over: How Tragedy Helped Vicky McIntyre Find a New Family
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They first sensed a change in the phone calls late last spring. All the way from Omaha, Neb., Pamela and Larry McIntyre could tell by the tone of their daughter's voice that things were different.
A good different.
Her face via Skype confirmed as much. Vicky McIntyre told stories about her new home, her new team and the new teammates she adored. She beamed. She gushed. Above all, she smiled.
Yet, when they came to Gainesville and saw the bubbly demeanor in person, the McIntyres were convinced. It was as if Amanda Butler and her University of Florida basketball team -- make that basketball family -- had rescued their child. The Gators had dropped a ladder into the deep, dark abyss that swallowed Vicky's soul and helped her rediscover the passionate zest of their girl.
Pamela went to the UF coaches.
"Thank you," she said. "We have our old Vicky back."
The Gators, in turn, have a new Vicky and are delighted about it. Not just because the 6-foot-7 McIntyre represents the tallest player in UF women's history, either.
No question, the presence in the paint of the Oklahoma State junior transfer has been felt with practice having begun this past weekend -- but the Gators are equally thrilled for what McIntyre brings to a locker room that thrives on closeness.
"She's a great basketball player, but also a great person who wanted to be part of an environment where she not only felt she belonged but also knew she was going to be an important member of the family," Butler said. "When Vicky came here, she wasn't looking to replace what she lost. She was looking for a fit. It had to feel right."
The fit and feel, so far, have been perfect.
"For me, this is a fresh start, a second chance," McIntyre said. "It's not that I've forgotten the past -- that'll be with me forever -- but I want to live in the present and work toward a future. I found a place I can do that."
She had a comfort zone at Stillwater, Okla. Loved it there.
Then came Nov. 18, 2011.
The text messages went out to members of the OSU team around 4 a.m. Asleep in her campus apartment, McIntyre didn't hear the alert, but her roommate did. Soon, the whole floor was awake and wondering about the text.
Mandatory team meeting 6:30 am
No one knew why, but as the players milled about the hallway and readied to head for the basketball center they figured it wasn't about building team chemistry. Not four days after beating Rice by 46 points in the 2011-12 season opener.
When McIntyre and her teammates arrived at the gym it was a still dark. A police cruiser was parked out back. The media relations director's car was there, too. Inside, the locker room was filled with confusion that gave way to hysteria.
No one knew what was going on.
Minutes later, a stream of university officials filed into the room, among them OSU's athletic director, assistant coaches, trainers, counselors.
And a minister.
Cowgirls assistant coach Jim Littell spoke to the group.
"Their plane went down ... they're gone," he said.
OSU head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna were killed the day before when the small plane taking them on a recruiting trip crashed into a hillside of the Ouchita National Forest about 45 miles west of Little Rock, Ark. The pilot of the plane, former Oklahoma State Sen. Olin Branstetter, and his wife also died.
The tragedy rocked the OSU community two-fold, as it came 10 months after the school mourned the 10-year anniversary of a plane crash that killed 10 people, including two players, affiliated with the Cowboys men's basketball program.
Budke, 50, had built the OSU women from the dregs of the Big 12 into a postseason regular, including a school-record 24 wins and first top-10 ranking to end the '09-10 season. Serna, 36, had been by Budke's side throughout the ascension and as Cowgirls recruiting coordinator shared in the team's success, along with the promise of a roster stocked with up-and-comers.
Now, utter devastation.
"He was a father figure and she was like our sister," McIntyre recalled in her first interview since transferring to UF in May. "What happened that day put a huge hole in all our lives and nothing there was going to fill it."
Certainly not the basketball season.
The Cowgirls, with Littell taking over, went a solid 22-12, but McIntyre's heart was no longer in the game.
It was broken.
"I wanted to play, but it was so hard," she said. "I was used to looking over at the bench and seeing him there and coming out of the game and getting a high-five from Coach Serna. I was so used to their encouragement, their style of play. It was just so hard going through something like that emotionally and bringing on to the court every day."
She stopped to wipe away tears.
"Everywhere I looked, I thought of them," McIntyre said. "Reminders were everywhere."
Including in her basketball numbers.
As an OSU freshman, McIntyre started 17 of 31 games, was second in both scoring (11.7 points per game) and rebounding (5.5), and led the team with 49.5-percent shooting from the floor and 66 blocked shots. She poured in 24 points against Iowa State, had a double-double against Texas Tech and blocked five shots against Oklahoma.
But like the smile on her face, her sophomore statistics turned upside down. Playing time was cut in half, along with her scoring (4 ppg).
Her parents watched her play and saw defeat and depression in every step their daughter took up the court; when she was on it, that is.
"What happened was so sudden and left such a huge hole," Pamela McIntyre said. "It was hard for her to get over it and hard for us to watch. She had to have a change of scenery, but it had to be the right change of scenery."
McIntyre sent out transfer releases to a handful of schools.
Florida assistant coach David Lowery was the first to respond. Lowery did his homework. He knew of McIntyre's circumstances, spoke to people in her inner circle, then placed the call to Omaha.
At first, her parents were surprised to hear from Florida. It was so big, so far away and yet with such a prestigious reputation when it came to academics and athletics.
Lowery, though, made the situation feel much smaller (tighter, actually) than the McIntyres envisioned.
"She needed to know we had confidence in her and believed in her, which of course we did. She was going to be a unique player the moment she came to Florida," he said. "But just as much, this kid needed to know people were going to care for her."
That's where the "Florida family" pitch struck a chord.
"She was looking for a place she could recover and heal," Butler said. "But she was also looking for an environment where she felt she could blend in, belong and thrive. Vicky knew what she was looking for. She was looking for what felt right more than anything else."
McIntyre visited Florida and instantly was sold.
"They accepted me right away," she said.
Junior forward Lily Svete asked if she'd be her roommate. They clicked instantly, but so did McIntyre's personality with the rest of the Gators. They adored her effervescence, sense of humor, clean-freak traits, advice about boys, baking and motherly instincts.
"She's a hopeless romantic, too," freshman Chandler Cooper said. "Everybody loves Vicky."
That was what she needed.
"Something happened in her life and in dealing with it she's changed for better," Svete said.
"You can see it, you can feel it. When there's a tragedy in your life you have a chance grow from it and come out better for it."
The basketball part of it, by the way, has barely begun.
The NCAA accepted McIntyre's petition and waived the required year a student-athlete transfer must sit out. She's eligible to play right away.
The Gators are confident McIntyre will make an instant impact.
"She's 6-7," Svete said.
It's a skilled and savvy 6-7, her coaches add. McIntyre moves well for her size -- she'll have to in the Southeastern Conference, which is more up and down than the Big 12 -- but also thinks the game and has a good grasp on what her role will be, especially on the defensive end.
Or as Cooper put it: "We love it when 'Motherly Vicky' turns into 'Beastly Vicky' on the court."
Now, roll in the tutelage of former WNBA star and UF standout Murriel Page, the Gators' post coach (and school's No. 2 all-time scorer and rebounder), and there could be a new-found force at work beneath the basket.
"That's what she takes pride in; being a protector of the paint," Butler said. "She really will give our guards a lot of confidence that they can get out and pressure on the perimeter knowing they have a great goal-keeper back there protecting the rim."
It's only fair.
The Gators, after all, have been charged with looking after her. It's an assignment they were thrilled about.
"Sometimes, I think back to where I was and where I am now, and how everything [at Oklahoma State] changed my life," McIntyre said. "I'll never forget the people who were there for me and loved me."
She wiped her eyes.
And she smiled.
"Now I have that again ... and it almost feels like I've been here from the beginning."