Sure, there had been clues. But this was suburbia, where the extraordinary blends into the ordinary. It’s a rule of physics out here.
When we moved into our Delaware County house a few years back, we noticed a Villanova University flag on the porch next door. Loud shouts coming through the wall during basketball games. Murmurs from the backyard that one-half of the thirtysomething married couple on the other side of our 1920s twin had been a killer on the court.
But all I saw in Trish Juhline Brunner was a tall, thin nurse who trudged out of the house in scrubs at dusk to pull graveyard shifts at an intensive care unit full of premature babies at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A fellow mom. Just another grownup caught up in the frenzy of trying to make a modest life come to life.
You know what you know about your neighbor, and that seems like more than enough.
But then it happened. A day on an elementary school playground several years later that told the whole story.
Trish and her family were about to leave. Move to Havertown. She and I took our kids out to play one last time. I brought along a basketball — a first. Shooting alone, I sank a layup. But the net refused to let the ball through. I stared at the dimpled brown orb as it dangled. Trish, crouched over her daughter’s stroller, was stuffing away a toy octopus.
“Oh, girl," she said, craning her neck toward the hoop, “don’t worry. I’ve done that a million times.”
The mommy of little Maggie and Christopher Brunner stood up, took three quick steps toward the basket, and jumped. Her right hand brushed the net, freeing the ball. And Trish, with the grace of a swan, returned to the asphalt without dislodging a strand of hair from her ever-present blond ponytail.
What. Was. THAT.
On my laptop later, I found the goods.
Trish Juhline had appeared in 279 Inquirer and Daily News stories. In 2003, her picture landed on the front page of the Inquirer and the back page of the sports-crazed tabloid.
She was Villanova’s all-time three-point shooting empress (a record unbroken until only a few days ago). A woman whose jersey the school later retired. Whose life-size picture hangs inside Villanova’s newly renovated arena, because she was the leader of a crew of underdogs who in 2003 snapped the University of Connecticut’s historic 70-game winning streak with a 52-48 upset in the Big East Tournament championship game.
This was the person in the house separated from mine by just inches of masonry. She was the Nick Foles of a too-small Villanova squad. A shooting guard by way of Cardinal O’Hara who trampled the titan of NCAA women’s basketball.
Such are the secret lives of our neighbors. Such are the extraordinary things we achieve, only to push them aside to keep moving on.
“When we first started dating, it was all of her friends who told me about her basketball career,” husband Chris Brunner told me during a break from the Villanova-Georgetown men’s match-up Feb. 3 at the Wells Fargo Center. Trish had just been honored at center court during halftime as a new member of the school’s Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
“It was always her friends," he said, "jumping in and giving me the stats.”
“Trish as a player was just tenacious,” former coach Harry Perretta said in a highlight reel made for her induction. “I’ve never seen a kid compete as well as she did in a game.”
Before being called onto the court to be honored, she high-fived Patrick Ewing as he left for the lockers. If you know anything about basketball, you know why that’s a big deal. The former New York Knicks center and current Georgetown coach is best known in these parts as being the losing Big Man “in the paint" when Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats beat Georgetown for the NCAA championship in 1985.
She says she left the game with no hard feelings after trying the WNBA for a spell. But the only way to make a decent living — dribbling through Europe — would have meant a life far from the family she loved in Havertown, where she was raised.
Still, I wondered: This hall-of-fame stuff had to bring out pangs. Did it? I asked as she and I walked back to a private box at Wells Fargo.
“It was really hard for me to say goodbye to the basketball career," she said, holding daughter Maggie on her hip and pulling Christopher along by hand. "But I did. And now, all this stuff? It’s just fun.”
A few nights later, during a shift at HUP’s neonatal intensive care unit, I found Trish near an incubator that contained a 2-pound, 10-ounce newborn. The unit was quiet. The other nurses said they knew little of Trish’s past. But this was a woman, they said, who brought what truly mattered: calm under fire and a gift with parents under great stress.
“We’re going to have to frame this article, Trish,” nurse Liz Baronofsky joshed as she waltzed by our cameras.
“Oh my God, you know it,” Trish jabbed back. “Staff bulletin board.”
A bit of locker room talk, after all. And with it, the ex-basketball star adjusted some tubing. Read some charts. And continued with life. Not as it once was, but as it has become.