Yolanda and Betnijah Laney pay a two-generation tribute to C. Vivian Stringer’s retirement
“She was watching over us, you know, throughout life,” Yolanda Laney said of the woman who coached her at Cheney State and future WNBA All-Star Betnijah at Rutgers.
The scale of C. Vivian Stringer’s legacy as Rutgers women’s basketball coach is almost too big to measure.
Count the Final Fours, for sure, four across three schools: 1982 with Cheyney State, 1993 with Iowa, 2000 and 2007 with Rutgers. In the first and last of them, Stringer’s team reached the title game.
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Count the nine combined Big East and Big Ten championships, plus a Big East tournament title in 2007 won with an upset of UConn in the final.
Then come measures not as easily counted. How many high school players did Stringer impact by recruiting them? How many fans in the stands did she inspire? How many basketball coaches, especially Black women coaches, did she empower to earn seats at the sport’s most important tables?
We might never know the full total.
But to try to get a sense of it, we can ask a family of Philly hoops royalty that knows Stringer better than most.
In 1982, Yolanda Laney was a key player on Stringer’s Cheyney State team that reached the final of the first NCAA championship tournament for women’s basketball. Twenty-nine years later, Yolanda’s daughter, Betnijah, arrived at Rutgers to play for Stringer, and four years after that, Betnijah started a WNBA career that reached All-Star status last year.
“C. Vivian Stringer was a great coach,” Betnijah said. “I’ve known her my entire life, and so to have the opportunity to play for her and learn from her, just the legacy that she’s built, I wish her nothing but the best of luck in her retirement.”
You might figure there was some nudging in the family for Betnijah to play for Stringer. But there was none.
“That was a total decision made by Betnijah,” Yolanda said. “I allowed her to go through her entire recruiting process — which Coach Stringer was very nervous about because she wanted the early commitment from Betnijah about coming to Rutgers. And I let her know that I would not put any pressure or sway her [on] where she made her decision to go.”
In the end, Stringer didn’t have to worry.
“It meant a lot to me to follow in my mother’s footsteps and continue her legacy playing for Coach Stringer,” Betnijah said.
Keeping a secret
Officially, Rutgers announced Stringer’s retirement April 30. But there had been questions and whispers for a while, since Stringer took a leave of absence this past season.
Yolanda Laney had held a hunch for a while that this might happen. Last October, she was out to dinner with Betnijah for the latter’s birthday when Betnijah got a phone call from Stringer. Mother and daughter got on speakerphone together, and Stringer told them she was contemplating retirement.
“She wasn’t certain,” Yolanda Laney said. “I didn’t talk to anyone about it or anything, because it wasn’t a sure thing — it was just like, what do you think, with the way the game and everything, you know, is changing. ... It was something that she was thinking about while she was out on leave.”
A conversation like that sticks with you. So does the knowledge of how strong the bond is between Stringer and the Laneys.
“She was watching over us, you know, throughout life,” Yolanda Laney said, “when I was a player for her, as well as when my daughter was a player. And for her to even bridge the idea that she might be thinking about this says a lot about the way that she regarded us and felt about us, as people as well as players of hers.”
The past and the future
Stringer’s retirement matters in the context of the broader conversation about Black women head coaches in women’s basketball. Just over a month after Dawn Staley enshrined her status as a titan by winning her second national championship, another titan is stepping away.
Laney, whose day job is Atlantic City’s chief municipal public defender, has heard the conversations across the sport about the opportunities that are out there — and the ones that aren’t.
“I think, as a woman, whether Black or white, if you have that type of skill set, you should be afforded that opportunity to be in a coaching position,” she said. “In terms of African American women, I think that there needs to be more African American women on the collegiate level. They have proven themselves time and time again.”
Laney mentioned Jolette Law, a Staley assistant at South Carolina who played for Stringer at Iowa and later assisted Stringer at Rutgers. Law was Illinois’ head coach from 2007-12, and has not had another head coaching job since.
“She’s been dubbed the No. 1 recruiter in collegiate women’s basketball,” Laney said. “I think that along with her, and some of the other talented Black assistants that are on the sidelines, they need to be given the opportunity to lead at the forefront.”
Taking all of this in, how does Laney define Stringer’s legacy?
“Her legacy is all of the players that played for her, that she touched,” she said. “All of the players that she was involved with at Cheyney, when Coach [John] Chaney and her coached and ran our practices together. The legacy that she left with the young women that came to her. The legacy she’s left with the college coaches who when she did clinics, [were] at those clinics.”
And to top it off, she said, “the legacy she left with anyone who was trying to gain some wisdom and knowledge about the game of basketball.”