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Originally published November 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 9, 2007 at 10:14 AM

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Steve Kelley

UW Women's Basketball | Getting on Tia Time

Tia Jackson is in love with basketball. For her, the bright lights of game night are romantic. Sweats are a fashion statement. The roar of the...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Tia Jackson is in love with basketball.

For her, the bright lights of game night are romantic. Sweats are a fashion statement. The roar of the crowd beats the warm-blooded groove of an old Luther Vandross tune. Floor burns are beautiful.

Her pedigree is all hoop highbrow. Her philosophy has been shaped by some of the most impressive coaches in the history of the game.

Jackson, the new Washington women's basketball coach, played for Vivian Stringer at Iowa and for Cheryl Miller in Phoenix in the first season of the WNBA. She coached under Tara VanDerveer at Stanford and went to a Final Four with Gail Goestenkors at Duke.

Already she's a roundball Rhodes scholar.

"A great basketball mind. I think that's the best way to describe her," said Miller, now an NBA commentator for TNT. "She was a coach's dream. A coach on the floor. I think she's going to have tremendous success at Washington."

Sitting in an office inside Hec Ed early one morning last week, Jackson, 35, dressed fashionably in a Huskies-purple sweat suit, talked about the great influences in her burgeoning coaching career.

Stringer:

"She's one of those people who can get you believing that anything is possible," Jackson said. "That's something I've always kept with me and tried to share it with my players. Whatever it is that we desire to be, we've got to start dreaming it.

"It's not something that's instantaneous. It's a mind-set. It's how you feed your mind. I'm really big on getting the players to believe before we can actually do."

On the front of the players' notebooks this year, Jackson has written, "It's What We Dream and What We Believe. And How We Train Is Where We Go."

Miller:

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"The motivational side of me, I think a lot of that came from Cheryl Miller," Jackson said. "The way she got us ready for games. She would come in and get us believing that we were going to take on this giant and we could be David and really take it at them. I've tried to embrace that with what I do."

VanDerveer:

"Tara's the big video lady," Jackson said. "She's very good at breaking down film, studying the game. I was still young in the game [27], and I learned how to look at the game from a different angle."

Goestenkors:

"Compile all the coaches and put them together, and that's Gail," Jackson said. "She's very good at connecting with the kids individually and then taking all those things I talked about with the other coaches. Teaching the players through video. She's very good at all of it."

Jackson didn't just play the game. She learned it. And when she went to Phoenix, she tested the Mercury's first-time coach.

"She's one of those players who, if you're in the huddle and you're the coach, you'd better know what you're doing, because she does ask a lot of questions," Miller said. "Actually they'd be suggestions like, 'Hey, maybe we should move in this direction.' And a lot of times her instincts and her thoughts were spot on."

All of those coaches helped steer Jackson toward her first head-coaching position at Washington.

But her life and her coaching also have been shaped by tragedy, her own and others.

"Whenever she's gone through difficult times, in basketball or life, she's relied on her faith, her strength and her resiliency," said Goestenkors, the new coach at Texas. "All of that comes from the difficult times she's been through in the past. It's all made her stronger."

Jackson was a star at Iowa in 1992, the season Stringer's husband Bill died suddenly from a heart attack. And the way Stringer handled that tragedy was instructive for Jackson when she went through her brother Eric's death from AIDS five years ago.

"Tia is wise beyond her years," said her best friend Wendy Palmer, a center for the Seattle Storm and an assistant coach at Kentucky. "It's kind of scary. She's only two years older than me, but she's like my big sister."

Palmer has endured her own tragedies — the death of her grandmother, the murder of an aunt and the death of a close friend.

"Tia was always there for me," Palmer said. "It seems like she's more concerned with me than she is with herself. She's the most loving, caring, passionate person. She's just a sweetheart.

"When her brother died, it was tough, because she was away so much and couldn't be there all the time. But even through all of that, she'd call me to see how I was doing. I would ask her about herself and she would say, 'We're hangin', but how are you?' She could be going through a bad storm and still want to make sure that the sun was shining on your side."

Jackson was a junior at Iowa in 1992, preparing to go to Stringer's house for a Thanksgiving lunch when an assistant coach called to tell her Stringer's husband had been rushed to the hospital. He died en route.

"It was surreal," Jackson said. "Mr. Stringer was like a father to us. He would condition us, and I was only 20 and being young we all wondered what we could do to make life better for Coach Stringer. You just don't know."

Stringer left the team for a month and returned in January.

"Whatever we had to do, we just did it," Jackson said. "We had 5 a.m. practices, so she could be home with her family for dinner. We looked after her kids when we could. I'd never cooked, ever. But I did some cooking for her. We grew even closer as a team."

And that team went to the 1993 Final Four.

"I think that closeness we developed catapulted us to the Final Four," Jackson said. "To play at the ultimate level, it was a way for us to take Coach Stringer to a place she'd never been to. It was a way to sustain the season and keep her from having to be home by herself. It was like, the longer we could play, the longer the season could be, the better."

Five years ago, when Jackson was an assistant at UCLA, she got a phone call at 4 in the morning. Her mother was on one line and her other two brothers were on extensions, telling her Eric had died.

"I think every day I'm affected differently by his death," she said. "Moments when I think about him, I get sad sometimes. But I'm very motivated to educate people about AIDS. I'm able to articulate it to my young nieces and nephews. I like talking to them about him, because I don't want them to forget who he was and what he meant to our family.

"He was a wonderful guy I had in my life and when I have kids I want to be able to share with them stories about this guy who would have been their uncle. He is still someone who is very real in my life."

Jackson talks about her journey from a player at Iowa to the coach at Washington as a "navigation." She says, "It just feels like my navigational system was kicking in and at full effect when this opportunity came along."

And she is the right person, at the right time, with all of the right credentials to reignite Washington.

Goestenkors calls Jackson "the whole package."

"Some coaches are great recruiters, some are great with X's and O's, some are great with people," she said. "She's really good in all areas, and that's rare. She has a great thirst for knowledge of the game. And that's part of what will make her a great head coach."

Basketball has helped her navigate through the deepest tragedies. She has grown up in the game. Washington is just the next natural step in her life.

Tia Jackson is in love with her game. And she's here to share.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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