For Women's Basketball coach Natasha Adair, leadership is an act of listening and love
Kids these days.
Born at the dawn of a new millennium, they have already witnessed terror attacks, economic collapse, political instability, environmental calamity, death, devastation and a revolution that has, in fact, been televised. Forgive them their youthful follies and flaws, for it can all feel a bit overwhelming, especially at 19.
But life was never intended to be easy and change rarely is. So, when confronted and gripped by forces that have reached a perilous, ominous, terrifying boil, who do any of us become?
Natasha Adair suggests a coffee bean.
As head coach for Delaware Women’s Basketball, she has found a hopeful message in this parable, in which a mother explains life’s great hardships to her daughter by bringing three pots of water to boil. In the first, she places a carrot; in the second, an egg; in the last, a single coffee bean. Unlike the strong, firm carrot, which wilts in the water to become soft and weak, or the egg, which starts out fragile only to be hardened by the heat, the coffee bean remains uniquely intact, releasing instead something from within that transforms the water around it.
Adair discovered the story last spring, as a pandemic whirled and cries for social justice wailed, and a much-anticipated basketball tournament ended in abrupt cancellation. The message of internal power against external threat spoke so deeply to Adair that she had each of her student-athletes place a coffee bean in a mason jar. When the season finally resumed in late 2020, the team brought the jar to practices. Managers would pack it carefully and bring it to games. There were moments at halftime when Adair would lock eyes with her players and say, “We’re the carrot right now,” and then point back to the jar as a reminder of what and whom she expected her team to be.
The message worked.
This year, UD Women’s Basketball won the CAA season championship for the first time since 2013; senior Jasmine Dickey, HS22, was named CAA Player of the Year; and Adair was honored as CAA Coach of the Year.
It was at once a triumphant celebration and a prelude to the victories that lie ahead. For while the game-day trophy may seem like a fairy tale ending, the story of unstoppable young women who have found their strength, conviction, courage and voice has only just begun.
More than enough
Adair beams with pride at the mention of her players and all they have achieved.
There’s Lizzie Oleary, AS21, 23M. The basketball forward is the team’s foundation, says Adair. “She keeps us together. She’s a natural leader, confident in every way. Her evolution, from quiet, hard worker to mother hen is incredible.”
There’s Dickey, who plays guard and forward. She and Paris McBride, BSPA22, were the first two players to sign under Adair. McBride was “art in motion,” and Adair was immediately struck by the point guard’s demeanor, “her calm way of getting teammates to do what needed to be done.” Dickey, meanwhile, was fearless in every way. “You saw it in her eyes—her toughness, her competitiveness, how she moved on the court. I watched her play and said, ‘That’s the culture [I want to cultivate].’”
Adair speaks at great length about her team. That’s what makes her a great leader, according to Oleary. “A good coach can look at all of their players and know them on a deeper level.”
Last season, Adair developed a new exercise for her athletes. “Describe yourself in three words,” she told them, and to her staff, she said, “We’re not going to coach them with our words. We’ll coach them with theirs.”
One particular response caught the coach by surprise. “Enough,” the student-athlete told Adair. A transfer from another university, the student admitted to “always feeling like I had to prove myself, like I didn’t fully belong.”
That changed at UD. At practices, when she would miss a shot and hang her head down, Adair would clap her hands, look the player in the eyes and remind her, “You’re enough.”
“She treats us like family,” says Tee Johnson, AS23. “She has my back. She doesn’t care about me because I’m on her team, making a basket for her. She’s just there for us, mentally. If I call her at 3 a.m., I know she’ll pick up. She gives me the confidence to know that I can play at this level. That I’m okay. That I’m enough.”
More than enough, in fact. Adair marvels at her players: at their growth and confidence, their spirit and strength.
“I want people to listen to our young people,” Adair says. “They’re sometimes misunderstood, or thought of as ‘too ambitious,’ or dismissed for having short attention spans. But they’re so informed and so aware.”
Bigger than basketball
That awareness extends beyond youth. In May 2020, the world watched in horror as a man was killed, his neck to the ground, his last words an agonizing cry to his mother. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, more unarmed Black Americans would continue to die, again and again, as a virus raged across the globe and disproportionately ravaged communities of color.
The trauma would impact us all, but Adair would fight against despair. As a mother first and foremost, she knew: “You don’t have all the answers, but you know you love the people in front of you. Listen to them.”
With her players, she set up a Zoom call. “How are you feeling?” she asked, and they answered honestly: Hurt. Pain. Anger. Confusion. Then Adair asked: “What do you need from me?” Direction, they said.
The coach took in their words and strategized. She went to Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak, who said, “Natasha, our size allows us to do things that other states can’t. We can make change.”
That was precisely the direction Adair and her players were headed. “Actions Over Words,” Oleary said, and the student’s phrase would become the basketball team’s motto, recited before games and inscribed on team bracelets.
The students met with legislators and police officers, with the governor and attorney general. They learned the power of their voice and wrote letters to elected officials across the state, asking them to ban the use of excessive force and chokeholds, which was finally signed into law, Delaware Executive Order 41, on June 25, 2020.
At UD, players continued the conversations around racial and social justice. Some came to Adair and asked to kneel during the national anthem. The coach wanted to understand their rationale, not sway their decision. And as she heard her players talk about inspiring change through action and education, an idea came to mind.
In 1900, on the birthday celebration of a white man who famously united the country, Black children from a segregated school in Florida would sing a song “full of the faith that the dark past has taught us” and “full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
Abraham Lincoln had died 35 years before the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” were written; Adair would share the words with her students 121 years later. A timeless message with a uniquely American history, the song of freedom and its boundless optimism now follows the national anthem at all Women’s Basketball games. It also plays at UD soccer and volleyball games.
The words take Adair to another place and time. “I hear it pierce through my soul,” she says. “For me to stand here as a Black woman and have this role, to be this example for all my students, for the University, for whomever.”
It means something. Much like the coffee bean. When the world reaches a perilous, ominous, terrifying fever pitch, you can be an egg or a carrot or something wholly different. You can raise your voice in hatred and anger and frustration and scream, or like the women of Delaware Basketball, you can lift every voice and sing.