Remarks fuel Norman title run
Michael Neal wants his players to remember everything about this state tournament.
The big baskets and speedy drives. The huge stops and powerful rebounds.
The wild celebration.
Yes, he hopes the girls from Norman remember the hugs and the smiles after they beat Bixby 48-37 to win the Class 6A state championship Saturday.
But he also doesn’t want them to forget the racist, vile comments made about them earlier in the week. The disgusting and disgraceful words were said by a broadcaster and caught on a hot mic as the players knelt during the national anthem.
There was a nasty expletive, then a repugnant racial slur.
“But I want them to remember that,” Neal said. “I want them to remember every step of the way and everything that they did, every negative, bad moment that happened to them — and then what happened at the very end.”
The Tigers overcame it all.
On a day the state crowned basketball champions in the five biggest classifications, worthy champs abounded. Remember, all of these teams dealt with COVID-19 this season with games canceled and school online. Some of them had dealt, too, with the disappointment of state tournaments getting canceled before they began last season.
And still, no champ came through more than the Norman girls.
This team came into state ready to make a case as one of the best in Oklahoma history. Stacked with talent; every starter has at least one scholarship offer from a Power 5 program. Undefeated this season; all but three of its wins were by double digits. Would’ve likely been pushing for a three-peat; Norman won the title in 2019 and was a heavy favorite in 2020.
But even with everything Norman had going for it, what happened these past few days could’ve derailed them.
These are still children, after all. Strong and talented, but teenagers. Not yet adults.
Asking them to carry on, to keep winning when a firestorm was swirling around them was no small thing.
How did they process what was happening?
“For a grown adult to say that to some kids,” shooting guard Mikayla Parks said, “of course it’s going to hurt us.”
Point guard and firebrand Kelbie Washington said, “It really kind of broke our hearts.”
The girls say they were buoyed by those closest to them. Family. Friends. Coaches. But they also felt the support of so many others, people who they’d never met, people who called and texted and rallied.
“We had a lot of people in our corner,” Washington said. “Our teachers. Our staff. A lot of people all over Oklahoma encouraging us.”
Norman knelt again Saturday, this time wearing shirts made in light of this week's events proclaiming THIS IS WHY WE KNEEL. Other teams in state showed their solidarity with Norman, including the boys teams from Beggs and Crossings Christian linking arms during the national anthem Saturday afternoon and Norman's semifinal opponent Tulsa Union kneeling Friday night.
Teachers at Norman High knelt, too, posing for a photo and posting it and their support online.
Then there were voices of support from across the country. ESPN commentator Holly Rowe. Former Sooner star and current Dallas Cowboy Gerald McCoy. Norman superintendent Nick Migliorino said he even heard from people at the U.S. Department of Education.
After the game, Oklahoma governor and Norman High alum Kevin Stitt tweeted his support.
“The racist comments directed at the Norman girls basketball team have no place in our society. Period,” he wrote.
The Tigers say they felt the love.
“That was really heartwarming to us,” Parks said, “to know that we weren’t alone.”
Those things will fill the Tigers’ memory banks. When they think back about this season, this week, they will remember not only the games and the plays and the successes but also that they got to see the best of humanity.
But they will no doubt remember the worst of it, too.
What Matt Rowan, the announcer, said about them, then inexplicably blamed on his diabetes — lieabetes, anyone? — will forever be part of their state championship memory. It will always be there.
The Tigers don’t deserve that.
But on the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death, on a day when calls for racial justice once again rang out across our country, here’s what the Norman girls did with those racist, hurtful words — they turned them into their fuel.
“The thing that was said about us,” Washington said, “we’re not going to let that define us.”
They became more, not less. They became better, not worse.
They became champions.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.