BERKELEY, Calif. — Sleep-deprived and feeling a bit down, coach Lindsay Gottlieb took a stroll last March a day after California’s season ended in the NCAA tournament. She was still absorbing being abruptly thrown into the offseason.
Her phone buzzed with a text message. Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team was still playing, wrote: “Do you have any scholarships left?”
Gottlieb had an open spot — but wanted to know who her colleague was talking about. VanDerveer provided a quick rundown on a 6-foot-3 forward from New Zealand named Penina Davidson. Gottlieb texted back with one word, “Interested!!!!!!” with “about 5,000 exclamation points,” she said.
The rival coaches worked together to find Davidson a new home when the young woman’s test scores didn’t get her into Stanford, a thoughtful gesture by both sides not seen every day in college athletics.
Gottlieb, who led Cal to its first Final Four in 2013, credits not only VanDerveer’s commitment to doing right by Davidson but also her care for the game of women’s basketball.
“Any time I coach against Tara I still feel like I need to pinch myself,” said Gottlieb, who learned from VanDerveer’s example handling this situation. “It’s an amazing story — 100 percent it makes me say, ‘Wow,’ that someone who’s across the bay and is clearly very competitive but values what we’re doing here enough to say this might be a good fit for a young player that she cares about, that means a ton. It really is neat.”
VanDerveer discovered Davidson when she attended Stanford’s camp as a way to get noticed in the United States. Everything seemed a go for Davidson to join the Cardinal until that devastating email arrived from Stanford’s admissions office saying her academics had kept her from getting in.
“Thankfully, and I really appreciate it now, Tara reached out to Lindsay, and that’s how I ended up here,” said Davidson, who liked the similarities of Northern California to what she knows back home. “We really appreciate the work they did. They helped us quite a bit. I didn’t know anything considering that my only one option was Stanford.”
VanDerveer’s longtime associate head coach, Amy Tucker, called the family and promised to do her best to find Davidson a spot somewhere that would be a good fit. Then came the text messages and calls, a half-dozen or so different inquiries to other coaches by VanDerveer and Tucker.
“We were so disappointed that Penina did not get in. She had put all of her eggs in the Stanford basket,” VanDerveer said. “She is an outstanding young woman and she comes from a terrific family. When Stanford was no longer an option Amy spoke with the family and told them that she would help find Penina a good fit.”
Two and a half weeks after that conversation, Davidson was on a plane and visiting Cal’s campus with her father, Greg.
— Lindsay Gottlieb
“I realize that putting Penina’s interests and the game first was quite unusual in the highly competitive NCAA basketball environment,” he said. By the last night of her official visit, she committed on the spot surrounded by her new teammates, who roared in delight at the new addition. Before the trip, she had no idea she would be playing for Stanford’s No. 1 conference rival.
“We hope she has a great career and is nice to Stanford!” VanDerveer said.
“Tara’s just one of a kind, just so genuine,” said Cal assistant Charmin Smith, who played for VanDerveer at Stanford. “She’s coaching basketball, coaching young women, for the right reasons.”
When Davidson asked Smith how the commitment process would go, Smith advised Davidson to let everybody know, “I want to be a Bear.”
So, at Burger Bar in San Francisco on April 12, Smith held her breath when Cal’s players began clinking their glasses to alert everyone that Davidson had an announcement to make: “I want to be a Bear!”
It’s not completely uncommon for college coaches — especially those at schools with rigorous admission requirements such as Stanford — to reach out to other schools to find student-athletes an alternative choice.
Former Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh, a close friend with VanDeveer and now leading the San Francisco 49ers, did it.
“She’s amazing. She’s a phenomenal friend,” Harbaugh said. “The Cal coach can take that as a great compliment, obviously somebody Tara cares about and wants to see them go to a good program and a good coach and a good environment and atmosphere.”
Now, Davidson — always one to find the positive in every situation — is settled at Berkeley and ready to contribute in any way she can as a freshman.
“I don’t like to not achieve a dream,” she said.
A month after arriving in the Bay Area and beginning her summer program, Davidson got a large wing tattooed on her right forearm. It’s to honor her mother, Bronwen, “my right-hand woman.”
“She can pull it off. She fits in,” Smith said. “She’s a Berkeley kid.”
Berkeley by the way of Stanford.