Small World: Duke Pair Faces Purdue

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPNET SportsZone


MARCH 27, 1999

It was early April 1996 at the annual Boo Williams AAU tournament in Hampton, Va. I lived in the area at the time and always visited several gyms during the event to see which Division I coaches were in town. Duke's Gail Goestenkors was.

"Guess who just called me," she said.


 Gail Goestenkors
Coach Goestenkors worried about altering team chemistry when Nicole Erickson and Michele VanGorp transferred to Duke.
"Nicole Erickson and Michele VanGorp."


The two Purdue sophomores, angry about the firing of Boilermaker coach Lin Dunn, wanted to transfer. If it worked out, they preferred to go to the same place. Dunn suggested that they call Goestenkors, her former assistant at Purdue.

Duke was losing two seniors: its best 3-point shooter, Jen Scanlon, and its center, Ali Day. How much better could you ask for as replacements than Erickson and VanGorp?

I figured most coaches would be jumping up and down with glee, but Goestenkors was pensive. She knew how talented they were -- Duke was still trying to get a foothold in recruiting the elite level, and these two as prep stars had been that. They still had two years to develop into college stars.

But there were other issues to consider.

Transfers were rare for Duke in women's or men's basketball. What about the chemistry factor? Goestenkors already had a big freshman class, which was the one Erickson and VanGorp eventually would join as juniors. Would that leave Duke with an unbalanced team, one that would really struggle the year after that class left?

Then again, would that class be so good that it was worth it?

More than any of that, though, Goestenkors was worried about the kids themselves. Were they making a wise decision to leave, or one that they would end up regretting? Would they not only be good for Duke, but would Duke be good for them?

Of course, it was that very concern for their welfare ahead of her program's potential gain that was the reason Goestenkors got Dunn's recommendation in the first place.

Another player from a high-profile program also had been in contact with Goestenkors that spring about transferring. She had recruited the player, who disliked the school she'd chosen and wanted to come to Duke.

Goestenkors had listened to her, consoled her, gave her advice, but was honest with her: I can't take you now, I've already recruited somebody at your position and it wouldn't be fair to her. Plus, if you're unhappy with your playing time there, it's not going to get better here.

But in the case of the Purdue duo, potential playing time at Duke was more than likely.

Goestenkors thought that with some polish and a guiding hand, VanGorp could turn into a dominant center. She sometimes let on-court frustration take her out of her game. A year off from competition to work on things, to mature both physically and emotionally, probably could be good for her.

But Erickson was the one Goestenkors seemed more worried about. Erickson was the basketball junkie who might be driven crazy by having to sit on the sidelines for a season.

Still Goestenkors thought that Erickson and VanGorp probably needed to be together, that their friendship would be essential in helping them get through any move.

Well, you know what happened. They came to Duke, the year away did help VanGorp and did drive Erickson nuts, but both became fixtures for the Blue Devils in their two years playing at Duke.

Friday night in San Jose, Erickson and VanGorp led the way in Duke's semifinal victory over Georgia and then faced the inevitable questions about Purdue.

They're a little tired of talking about it, especially with some of the numbskulls here asking questions. (The random idiot factor among the media in Duke's postgame press conference was staggering. Dumbest among several dumb questions: "Coach, did you think there was a letdown tonight after beating Tennessee?" Uh, short-term memory problem? Wasn't it like 5 minutes ago that Duke finished beating Georgia to go to the championship game?)

But Erickson and VanGorp will have two more days to be asked about Purdue, and they'll get through it just fine. Because, frankly, all they have to say is, "We did what we thought was right."

If you ask me, these two kids displayed the kind of loyalty and integrity that most adults wouldn't have (and didn't) in the Purdue meltdown.

Now, the whole conflict between Dunn and Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke that resulted in her losing her job was rife with rumors.

Seems like some people are always claiming to know "the real story," but never are forthcoming with it. Everyone was left to make assumptions and form opinions. And mine is that even if Burke thought he was justified in taking away Dunn's job, he had no justification for trying to ruin her in her profession.

Who tried to support her? Her fellow coaches? Hah, they're scared of their own athletic directors. Who's going to stick their neck out for someone else? And besides, it provided a good job opening. Right, sharks?

But VanGorp and Erickson didn't believe Dunn was treated fairly. And they did stand up for what they believed. Whether you agree with their assessment or not, you should admire their character.

They had to uproot their lives and then sit out a year of competition because they refused to remain part of something they thought had harmed someone they respected.

This is not to say the Purdue players who stayed were in any way wrong, because they weren't. After all, they had chosen a school, not just a coach. You couldn't fault any of them one bit for wanting to stay.

But with both these teams in the title game Sunday, it appears the decisions all made were the best ones.

Including Goestenkors, who had what might have seemed like the simplest decision -- taking Erickson and VanGorp -- but wisely approached it from a harder angle.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star writes a regular women's basketball column for ESPNET SportsZone. Her e-mail address is