PISCATAWAY, N.J. - In a performance almost as inspired as their near-championship run, members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team showed yesterday that they are about the content of their character and their talents, not just the color of their skin and certainly not the hurtful words of radio host Don Imus.
Nearly a week after being stung by Imus' racially and sexually defamatory remarks, the Rutgers women had their turn at the microphone at a university news conference.
They talked about anger. They talked about hurt. They talked about a society where things were not as they should be. And they did it all with dignity.
"We ask that you not recognize us in a light as dimly lit as this," said team captain Essence Carson, who spoke of being "highly angered" and "deeply saddened" by Imus' radio slurs.
But Carson, like her teammates, also talked about positives that could come from the controversy.
"We can finally speak up for women. Not just African American women, but all women," the junior from Paterson said.
Team members said they had agreed to meet privately with Imus, who is scheduled to start a two-week suspension from his talk show Monday.
"It's on our terms," said Rutgers athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy III of the meeting.
The scandal erupted the day after the team, which includes eight women who are black and two who are white, fell to Tennessee in the NCAA women's championship. The Scarlet Knights, a young team that began the season with low hopes, won a big following with their near-Cinderella story.
Speaking on air with his producer Bernard McGuirk, Imus had referred to the team as "nappy-headed ho's" and "jigaboos," along with other derogatory references.
Imus has since apologized and offered to meet with team members.
At yesterday's news conference, the team's coach, C. Vivian Stringer, called Imus' comments "racist and sexist remarks that are deplorable, despicable and abominable and unconscionable.
"These young ladies are the best this nation has to offer, and we are so very fortunate to have them at Rutgers University," Stringer said. "They are young ladies of class, distinction."
Stringer, like her players, also suggested that Imus' comments reflected continuing social problems.
"It's not about us as black people or nappy-headed. It's about us as people," Stringer said.
"How could anyone not have been personally hurt when there is no equality for all or when equality is denied?"
Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick said he had been personally phoning all the players' parents. He said the university would continue to stand against anyone who insulted the team.
"We have their backs," he said.
A rally to support the team and assail racism and sexism on talk radio is planned for 1:30 p.m. today on the campus of Douglass College, the Rutgers women's college, in New Brunswick.
At the news conference, players talked about how painful Imus' remarks and the subsequent ordeal had been. They did not commit to accepting the radio host's apology if one is offered during their private meeting.
"We fought, we persevered, and most of all, we believed in ourselves. . . . But all of our accomplishments were lost. Our moment was taken away," said Heather Zurich, a sophomore from Montvale.
Matee Ajavon, a junior from Newark, said she was glad for the opportunity to stand against racism. Nevertheless, "I think this will scar me for life."
They weren't afraid to show pride.
Kia Vaughn said that unless a "ho" is defined as someone who has achieved a lot, Imus misspoke.
"I'm not a ho," the Bronx sophomore said. "I'm a woman and someone's child. It hurts. It hurts a lot."
Nor did they shrink from showing spirit.
Dressed identically in black pants and red Rutgers windbreakers, team members now and then smiled at one another in warm support. One by one, they rose to introduce themselves in clear voices.
Asked what she thought would be appropriate substitute programming while Imus is on suspension, Essence Carson suggested something positive about women.
"It could be highlights of Rutgers women's basketball," she said with a wry smile.