Friday, January 21, 2011

SPORTS>>Rodden closes book on storied career

Leader sportswriter

When Sylvan Hills girls coach Bee Rodden hangs up her whistle at the conclusion of basketball season, it will mark the end of a career full of triumph, tragedy and brushes with history.

A native of Hope, Rodden grew up with schoolmates who became major political figures while she became interested in a life in athletics. Rodden played for Hope in the old, 6-on-6 format then became one of the first Cotton Blossoms basketball players at the University of Arkansas-Monticello in the early 1970s.

Now in her 19th season at Sylvan Hills, Rodden is ending her coaching career not far from where she started at Pulaski Robinson in 1976. She coached the junior high program for 11 years before moving on to the small town of Bradford in White County for two years.

Deaths and illnesses in the family kept Rodden briefly out of coaching until a series of fill-in jobs landed her at Sylvan Hills Junior High in the early 1990s. She became varsity coach in 1998.

Four decades in the game have given Rodden an informed perspective on the development of women’s basketball.

“The women’s game has changed tremendously,” Rodden said. “Just the strength of the athletes and the abilities they have now — I never lifted a single weight in high school, but the whole dynamic has changed.”

As a pitcher with a strong curveball, Rodden was the first girl to play for the Hope little-league baseball team in her first athletic adventure.

Rodden was a shooting guard on Hope’s varsity team and was a mentor to Janet McCain, later to become Arkansas’ first lady Janet Huckabee. McCain was two grades behind Rodden, while McCain’s future spouse and future Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was a year older.

Janet Huckabee ran for Arkansas secretary of state during her husband’s term as governor, and Mike Huckabee ran for the Republican presidential nomination won by John McCain in 2008.

The 41st president of the United States, Hope native Bill Clinton, was eight years ahead of Rodden in school.

“I’m one of the few residents of Hope who never ran for president,” Rodden said.

The 6-on-6 format featured three defensive players who stayed in the backcourt while the three offensive players never left the frontcourt. Rodden was a shooting guard for Hope until her graduation in 1972.

Rodden’s dream was to play basketball at Ouachita Baptist University, but at 5-3 she didn’t attract any interest so Rodden got in on the ground level of the developing program at UAM.

The team was a club-level group that scrimmaged various opponents in Rodden’s freshman year before the Cotton Blossoms joined the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association her sophomore year.

“That was my first introduction to playing 5-on-5, and the first time I had ever played defense,” Rodden said. “Boy, was that an awakening. Here’s this slow white girl, and it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get in the lane and stop you from driving.’ ”

The Cotton Blossoms finished second in the conference their first year and won the AWISA title Rodden’s junior and senior seasons.

“I was just at the right place at the right time when they were trying to start a team,” Rodden said. “That’s what it’s all about. When an opportunity rises, you’ve got to take it.”

Rodden majored in physical education and health, and set her sights on landing a coaching job. Opportunity knocked her senior year when Pulaski Robinson coach Bill Faulkner hired Rodden as his assistant.

“He called that spring, I went up there and interviewed and three days later, I was hired,” Rodden said.

Rodden started out as assistant on the junior and senior high teams in August of 1976. Faulkner handed over the junior-high program to Rodden before the end of that season, and that’s where she stayed until 1987.

That year was one of the most trying of Rodden’s life. She lost her brother Charlie to a heart attack at age 47 in February, and her father Otto died of pancreatic cancer in August of 1987.

Rodden took a year off and took on a series of odd jobs, but ended up at Bradford Junior High the following year.

The school was small, but there was plenty for Rodden to do as a health and P.E. teacher, and a basketball, softball and cross-country coach. Rodden was also named coach of the peewee program the following January.

“They worked my tail off,” Rodden said. “That was the first time I ever realized you get what comes in. The kids were all white, and none of them had ever played man-to-man before.

“It was easier for me to change than it was for them, and we played a 1-3-1. It was there that I learned you have to adapt to what you get.”

Rodden decided the small-town life was not for her, and that, along with health problems with her mother, Ann, brought her back to Hope.

Rodden considered a switch to physical therapy before taking on fill-in roles at Sherwood Junior High, Mount St. Mary Academy and Jacksonville Junior High.

She began her stint with Sylvan Hills Junior High in 1992 and helped start the varsity softball program in 1997. She became varsity basketball coach in 1998, the same season current boys coach Kevin Davis started.

Sylvan Hills gave Rodden the chance to reconnect with old schoolmates. Rodden played with Monticello girls coach Lucy Williams at UAM and the pair played under coach Mary Jane Lavender-Gilbert, who was inducted into the UAM Hall of Fame in 2001.

Williams, one of the first African-American women’s players in the state, coached at Crossett and has led Monticello for four years.

Lavender-Gilbert and Rodden have been conference opponents since Sylvan Hills returned to the 5A ranks in 2008.

“She’s just a funny person, and she doesn’t pull any punches,” Williams said. “She’s going to tell you exactly what she thinks, but she does it in a way to where you can’t do anything but laugh about it.

“She handles her kids the same way she handles people – she’s fair. She teaches them the things on the court they need to be successful. I guess in a way that’s how our styles are the same – we’re from the old school, and the way we were brought up, there was no such thing as side stepping.”

Rodden is 144-175 at Sylvan Hills and 483-373 overall. She said her biggest victory was a regular-season conference triumph over West Memphis in 2000.

It may not sound like a big deal, but considering the Lady Blue Devils had torched Sylvan Hills 109-42 two years before, it was one Rodden wanted badly for her seniors.

“It was surreal,” Rodden said. “Everything we did that day was perfect, and those kids beat West Memphis 50-44. That was a great deal of satisfaction.”

Rodden plans to relocate to Florida in The Villages retirement town an hour north of Orlando. The Villages is billed as a Disneyland for adults, complete with golf course, tennis courts, softball clubs and a variety of arts and entertainment.

“My heart will always be in Arkansas, but I’m ready to go on a new adventure,” Rodden said.

“I’ve never lived anywhere but Arkansas, so I’m kind of excited. If you’re bored at The Villages, it’s your own fault.”

As for women’s basketball, Rodden will carry fond memories and has encouraging words to future generations.

“If she’s willing to work hard and improve her game, there’s a team for her somewhere,” Rodden said of the modern girls player.

“There’s a team that will need her. It may not be a big school, or even close to home, but it’s out there.”