"Passion, pride and hoops: The story of Felisha Legette-Jack"
Legette-Jack triumphs in life through family and love for basketball
Felisha Legette-Jack walked the halls of her high school with her head down, fearful of making eye contact and connecting with others. Then she found basketball.
Actually, her brothers introduced her to it.
They were tired of their nerdy sister sitting around the house and reading books all day. One day, they said to her, "You need to do something."
She wanted to do what they did - not what her sisters were doing, which was gossiping about boys - so she went to the courts, shot by herself and watched. Basketball became her life.
It also transformed her.
"When I started going to the gym, I found myself looking at people's eyes, getting my head up and getting a real celebration of myself through the gift of basketball," said Legette-Jack, who just finished her first season as head coach of the women's basketball team. "Because of this game of basketball, it gave me such confidence to be right or wrong. And so I owe this game everything."
Now, she gives back by instilling her love of the game into a new generation of players at UB and trying to revive a program that has struggled in recent years.
In person, Legette-Jack is both imposing and motherly. She has a temper like Bobby Knight but she can also wrap her long arms around a needy player and make her feel like she belongs. Both come from the same source: inner passion. She taps into it when she plays basketball, when she coaches and when she's home with her family or reading the Bible. It defines her and defines what she expects from her players.
"[My passion] comes from my family; we all were very passionate," Legette-Jack said. "Every time we go out to play, the game was always about going out to win. I remember that's how we competed. In order to win, you have to be passionate."
On the trip to Cleveland just a few a weeks ago for the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Legette-Jack made her team watch the movie Invictus - a tale about Nelson Mandela bringing South Africa together through rugby.
When the Bulls found themselves tied with Miami Ohio at halftime, she reminded them of the movie and recited a poem from it: "You are the master of your fate, and you are the captain of your soul," she told them.
"I challenged each and every one of them what their captain role and master role would be in connection with each other," Legette-Jack said. "To go out there and perform for UB and when you come in this locker room, be able to look in this mirror, if you left it all out there, win, lose or draw, but if you didn't, you have to live with that for the rest of the summer."
The Bulls outscored Miami Ohio 52-40 in the second half and received 19 second-half points from freshman guard Mackenzie Loesing, as they advanced to the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament.
"One of the big things that [Legette-Jack] stresses a lot is that to be able to have chemistry on the court, we have to be able to have chemistry off the court first," Loesing said. "It's a family atmosphere. It's not about who the best player is, who's the most athletic, who has the most talent. It's about who comes to play, who's ready to play and who gives their all every single day."
In Legette-Jack's playing career at Syracuse University, she earned honors as Big East Freshman of the Year, was all-league three times and left her mark as the school's all-time leading rebounder and second-leading scorer.
When her senior year came around, she expected to be an All-American and play professional basketball afterward. She had given everything she had in the offseason to the game. Legette-Jack wanted to be the absolute best she could be.
In the third game of the season, she tore her ACL.
She compares the pain to giving birth to a child, but worse.
"When I blew my knee out, I just thought that my life was over," Legette-Jack said. "This game has done so much for me. And that was taken away, so how do I continue and sustain my confidence?"
She did it with the help of an unlikely source - a janitor. When most patients are recovering from ACL surgery, they leave the hospital within three days. Legette-Jack needed seven - spending her final few days at the student health center - as she just wasn't mentally prepared to leave.
She was at her lowest, sensing her life was over and that she had no future in basketball, but every night the same janitor came in and told her, "You go when you're ready."
"One day he came in and said, 'I just think it's time,'" Legette-Jack said. "I said to myself: 'You know what, it is time.' This guy isn't invested in anything [unlike coaches, teammates and family members] but for some reason that guy was the one that made me feel like I was ready to come back."
Of course, her family was there all along as well.
To this day, she keeps in mind the three most important things in life that her mother taught her years ago: God, family and then yourself. Everything else was just extra.
For Legette-Jack, family took precedence - specifically her mother, Thalia Legette.
"She always had a smile on her face but always was so driven to become a significant part of our lives," Legette-Jack said. "No matter what we became, we knew that her work ethic would be the reason why greatness would come to our family. That's why I struggle when I hear coaches or athletes are role models because I didn't look at athletes as role models; I looked at my family as those people."
When Legette-Jack was 8 years old,her father left the family, leaving Thalia to raise five children as a single mother. She already worked full-time as a cook at the Veterans Hospital in Syracuse and picked up a part-time job as a janitor.
"We never had time to feel sorry for ourselves," Legette-Jack said. "Who cares if your dad is not there for you? We just didn't look at excuses. This was all we had and all we had was enough, and we just found a way."
Whether it meant getting up at 5 a.m. to go to their aunt's house because their mother had work or finding their own transportation to school, the kidsdid not make excuses. They didn't want to let Thalia down because they knew she was doing the best she could.
"If I could be half as tough, half as driven, half as humble as she is, then I'm a real cool chick, but I've still got a lot of work to do," Legette-Jack said. "I'm a work in progress.Every day that she says she is proud of me, I think I'm taking a little step closer. But I still have a long way to go because she is such a beautiful spirit."
Legette-Jack's family history became a microcosm of her style of play on the court.
Her brothers, Eugene and Ronnie (who was drafted into the NBA by the Golden State Warriors in 1987), focused on defense. She wasn't going to let anyone outrun her or score on her - the mantra her brothers passed along.
"The way I was raised and the way I think you should play, you're never going to take something I don't think you should have," Legette-Jack said. "I will grab your eyes out of your face. I'll get that foul. You're not coming this way. It's not happening."
Through this intensity on the court, she led Nottingham High School to back-to-back state titles and had over 300 schools salivating over the possibility of signing her to a National Letter of Intent. She could have picked almost any school in the country but to her, the choice was easy. She never considered leaving her mother or Syracuse.
"I just didn't want to leave my mother," Legette-Jack said. "You could have had University X, and if she was there, that was where I wanted to be. You don't know one women's basketball player that came through [Syracuse] and I wanted to bring notoriety to a program and it was right in my backyard, 10 minutes away from my mother. It was meant to be."
The chemistry and family atmosphere she is working to create at UB stems from her days at Syracuse.
Before the injury, she had spent her time developing relationships she has maintained the rest of her life.
"We went after each other [in practice]; we were best friends," Legette-Jack said of her teammates. "If I love you as much as I tell you I love you, as my teammate and sister, then I have to challenge you with everything that I have- to make you cry, throw up, to make you something different than you were before those two hours of practice. We made a commitment of that to each other."
The athletes spent their winters sharing the floor of the legendary Manley Field House at Syracuse and their summers cruising around the city calling 'next' at any park they could find. To this day, they get together every year and talk about "the old times."
Her teammates became her second family, but that wasn't the most important bond she made in college.
The volleyball coaches at Syracuse approached Legette-Jack about showing a new student around campus, David Jack. David was born in Jamaica, where he played on the national volleyball team. He moved to the United States in 1989.
"They said: 'You would look like a great couple with this guy named David Jack,'" Legette-Jack said. "So I was like: 'First of all, I'm single, but you know, I'm pretty cool. I can find a guy if I want to, but I choose not to.'"
Legette-Jack refused and made herself as unavailable as possible. After three weeks of avoiding the situation, she gave in. The pair met in the gym at Syracuse on a blind date. She knew after the first date that he would be the one she would marry.
"Sometimes in life, you know when you meet that special person," David said. "I knew she was special; when I got to know her more, she was that much more special."
On Aug. 10, 1996, the two got married. On Nov. 30, 1998, they had their son, Maceo Jack, who starts on the varsity team as a 6-foot-2 freshman at Williamsville North High School.
Legette-Jack has somewhat of a 'hands-off' approach when it comes to coaching Maceo - she lets his coach take the lead. She saves her intensity for her players. Instead, she has helped him learn the game the way her mother and brothers taught her: through character and passion.
"There's no reason for you to be less than the best on the basketball court," Legette-Jack said,as if she was talking directly to Maceo. "No one's heart should be bigger than yours and don't you dare let someone out-heart you. It's not because [Maceo] is better than the kids that are sitting on the bench, but no one is going to keep running like Maceo. No one can pull that out of him more than his mother and father."
After the ACL injury, Legette-Jack returned as a fifth-year senior, but it wasn't the same. Her class had graduated and it was a whole new team. The Orange went 15-13 that season, according to Legette-Jack, an unbearable and unacceptable record for someone with her ferocity for the game.
The change in her game is what she noticed the most. She was no longer out on the floor as a scorer, rebounder, leader or star player. She was a coach.
"You ask why initially, why [did this injury] happen to me?" Legette-Jack said. "I realized why it happened. I never saw the game from a coach's perspective and I got intrigued by it."
She spent her whole injured season on the bench, watching and learning the game from an angle she had never seen before. It was tough watching her family out there on the floor without her, but she was gaining life-changing experience.
Immediately after graduation, a local high school in Syracuse hired her, where she coached for the next two years.
"I wanted to be a college coach," Legette-Jack said. "I got a call from the Boston College head coach that said they had to hire an African-American coach and she remembered me as a student-athlete and remembered after every game I shook her hand and thanked her for a good game. She said she loved my personality."
The coach at Boston College, Margo Plotzke, made her a deal: If she helped her sign the first two black players to ever play at Boston College, then she had a job. She signed the two kids and her career blossomed from there.
She spent the next 11 years of her life as an assistant coach in Division I basketball, with stints at Syracuse and Michigan State as well.
In 2002, she accepted an offer to be the head coach at Hofstra, a private college in downstate New York. In 2006, Indiana University called and Legette-Jack ascended to the Big Ten. After four years at Indiana, the team started to decline and a new front office was put in place - a different regime from the people who had hired her.
"I was offered to be the assistant coach at Duke before the bottom fell out [at Indiana]," Legette-Jack said. "I chose to stay on because I believed that you go down with your troops if you're going to go down."
For the first time in her life, her morals and strength became a detriment. She tried to turn the program around, but it was too late. Two years later, she was fired from Indiana.
In her last two seasons, Legette-Jack had a combined record of 15-44 - a mark intolerable for a person who was once irate after going 15-13 in her senior season at Syracuse.
She considered herself un-hirable and hit rock bottom. Danny White, UB's athletic director, looked past her latter years at Indiana and knew his program would need someone with her passion.
"She was very retrospective and had a good understanding of why things didn't go as well as she wanted [at Indiana], and I really felt like she learned a lot from that experience," White said. "Pretty quickly [after the interview], I knew that she was the right fit. Her personality, her energy - for us to be as successful as we want to be,itis going to take an incredible amount of passion and energy. There's probably no one that embodies that more than coach Jack. She brings it every single day."
Legette-Jack had to bring that passion to a team that had gone 75-137 in the previous seven years under former head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald.
With a team comprised of players and recruits who had committed to Hill-MacDonald, Legette-Jack's Bulls started the season with a dismal 2-11 record. When outsiders had lost all hope for the season, the Bulls started MAC play a perfect 3-0.
The family mentality that has been such an integral part of Legette-Jack's success over the years is finally reaching the Bulls. Legette-Jack said that it isn't there yet, but they are on their way and are coming close - the Bulls narrowly lost in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament this season.
After everything she has accomplished, Legette-Jack remains humble and doesn't take any credit.
"I've got nothing," Legette-Jack said. "All glory goes to God, who's the head of my life who saw that my shell needed to transform itself ... I'm humbled, I'm grateful and I know that it is just [God] that is allowing me to move along this world the way I'm moving, so that I can be a blessing to other people."
The Bulls will continue to count their blessings, as a former timid, insecure Legette-Jack attempts to transform them the way she once transformed herself.