This is one of my favorite Linda O’Keefe stories.
It happened at the Family Circle Cup tennis tournament at Hilton Head in the early 1980s.
O’Keefe — who had played tennis at the University of Dayton and then competed on the Avon Futures Tour, the pro tennis equivalent of Triple-A baseball — happened to be a spectator the day Martina Navratilova, the No. 1 player in the world, went out and annihilated Tracy Austin, soon to be No. 2, for the title.
Before that heavyweight encounter, O’Keefe was approached by famed commentator Bud Collins, who — out of the blue — asked if she would go out and warm up Navratilova.
She jumped at the chance and years later — as the two of us stood in the gym at Sinclair Community College one evening and talked about her career — she still seemed bemused by her reaction when Navratilova began to rocket one shot after another at her.
By the way, these were the same shots she’d soon use to overpower Austin 6-0, 6-1 in the final two sets.
“I kept thinking, ‘Is this the best serve you got? That’s it?. … I can handle this!’ ” O’Keefe recalled with a smile.
Over the years that attitude made O’Keefe one of the most long-standing and accomplished sports figures in the Miami Valley.
And it’s the same mindset she used in a give-no-quarter, 12-year battle with cancer that finally claimed her in 2011.
Mostly, though, that attitude showed itself with the championship tennis and women’s basketball programs she built at Sinclair, teams that regularly made a mark on the national stage and made her the winningest coach in school history,
The late Jim Harrison had a similar handle-what-life-throws-at-you attitude.
He endured triple bypass heart surgery when he was near the end of a 26-year run as a much-celebrated, multi-sport coach at Wayne High School, but he did not retire. Instead he came to Sinclair and forged another 19-year baseball career as a successful head coach and then an assistant.
In fact, he was still coaching on the staff of current coach Steve Dintaman when he suffered a heart attack in the Sinclair fieldhouse in late October 2008 and died soon after.
The players he left behind were so moved by him, they dedicated their upcoming season to him and then — with his jersey displayed in the dugout — they went on to forge a 36-12 record and make the Region XII title game.
O’Keefe and Harrison will forever be pillars of athletic accomplishment at Sinclair and that’s why tonight they become the first two inductees in the new Sinclair Athletic Hall of Fame. An enshrinement ceremony and reception will be held at the gym.
Harrison spent 14 years as the Pride’s head coach, won four conference titles and sent many players on to scholarships at four-year schools and some into the pros, including pitcher Chris Spurling, the school’s first big leaguer, who was drafted by the New York Yankees and ended up a relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers
O’Keefe coached Sinclair tennis for 19 seasons and, amazingly, 18 of her teams made the national tournament. She had a national singles champ (Julie Quamme) and national runner-up (Chris Burkhardt) and would be inducted in the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame for her accomplishments.
She coached the women’s basketball team for 25 years, won 333 games, her 1985-86 team was 26-0 in the regular season and her team in 2003, the last year she coached, made the Elite Eight.
Yet the statistics aren’t what truly distinguish O’Keefe and Harrison, said Dintaman:
“Coach Harrison and Coach O’Keefe were tremendous ambassadors of their programs and Sinclair Community College itself. They were great influences and mentors in young people’s lives. They both made a mark on me and anyone else who ever crossed their paths.”
And that includes Norma Dycus, a legendary figure herself at Sinclair, where she coached volleyball and softball beginning in the mid-1970s, served as an assistant athletics director for over two decades and the AD for another eight.
“The way Linda was able to get together teams to consistently compete at the national level, that’s unheard of,” Dycus said. “There are successful coaches all over the country who have never gotten to the nationals. What she achieved in tennis was remarkable and she did it in basketball, too. That’s unprecedented at most schools.”
Sinclair is a unique place with challenges far different than coaches face at four-year schools.
“You’ve got to be flexible here,” O’Keefe once told me. “Our situation is quite a bit different than at UD or Wright State. We often get non-traditional athletes, someone who is trying to fit basketball or tennis into their life. They may be older or working or have kids of their own.”
Years back I remember she had a 29-year-old starting point guard who was once the wife of a South Dakota pig farmer and who also had served stints in the Air Force in Italy and Japan, had worked at Kroger, had a 4-year-old son, drove 100 miles round trip to school every day and had a 4.0 grade-point average.
I also remember a point guard who worked the third shift at General Motors, another player who worked nights at a North Main Street nursing home, one who was a waitress, one who had three kids and another who traveled to two different jobs and school every day, all by RTA bus.
Dycus said O’Keefe was a mix of tough love and unconditional love with her players:
“If she wasn’t a coach, she could have been a sports psychologist and she’d have been great. So many kids just needed a helping hand with many aspects of their lives and she was willing to listen and be patient and supply the discipline and support a lot of then needed.”
O’Keefe told me she used to tell her players: “Stick with me here and I’ll try to get you to the point where Cinderella takes over.”
And that happened.
Many of her athletes went on to four-year colleges, places like UD, WSU. Wilmington, Ohio University, Cleveland State and many others.
Dycus saw a lot of the same traits in Harrison, whom she called “the perfect father figure for his players.”
Dintaman, who was coached by Harrison and later had him on his staff when he took over, agreed with Dycus:
“He always gave kids an opportunity. He was a big believer in second chances and tried to see the best in his players. He impacted a lot of kids over the years, both here and at Wayne, where they named the baseball field after him.”
Dintaman has seen to it that Harrison is honored at Sinclair, as well..
The team has a sign with his initials on it hanging from the left field wall and the players run out and touch it after each home game.
And there is a scholarship given in Harrison’s name each year.
“It goes to a guy we feel Coach Harrison would enjoy being around,” said Dintaman. “Someone who’s hard-working, dedicated and a good team guy. Someone who gets what it means to be a player at Sinclair.”
Both Harrison and O’Keefe were ones to deflect praise and make sure you talked about their players before them.
I remember, soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, O’Keefe agreed to talk to me about it but first she set the ground rules in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t want a weepy story all about tears and emotions,” she insisted. “I don’t want anyone’s pity. I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. That’s not who I am and not how I want to be defined.”
She wasn’t then and she’s certainly not now.
She, like Jim Harrison, is a Sinclair Hall of Famer.