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Geno In Pursuit of Perfection
By Jackie MacMullan Geno Auriemma
Warner Books Copyright © 2006 Geno Auriemma
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-446-57764-2
All of my scars are hidden.
My physical scars are on my stomach, covered by my clothing. They are my reminders of the hot coals that seared my flesh.
The emotional scars aren't as easy to see. I've got plenty of them, but there isn't one person that knows all of my scars. I've acquired them from a life of questioning myself, of constantly striving to prove myself.
The scars come from being seven years old, coming to America from Italy and not being able to speak English.
I arrive in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and I don't know the language. I don't know the customs. I don't dress the right way. I feel out of place, so I'm constantly self-conscious and unsure of myself.
Scars are part of you, whether you like it or not. Once you've been scarred, the marks remain forever. The key is, what effect does it have on you going forward?
I'm always amused when I hear people who don't know me describe me as arrogant, insensitive, and overconfident.
They have no idea how wrong they are.
They don't understand that even after winning five national championships at Connecticut, I still doubt myself all the time. They don't understand that the image of me on the sidelines, the person they see on television prowling backand forth, is not who I am. You need a certain level of confidence to be successful at anything. I certainly have confidence. People think I have too much of it, and say it comes across as cocky, but the truth is, no matter what I accomplish, I'm never sure it's good enough.
It's never as good as it could have been, because I've never coached the perfect game, and my players have never played the perfect game. And when that flawed game is over, I'm convinced it's my fault, even if we win big. It's like the pitcher who throws a perfect game in nine innings. If he doesn't strike out every guy, then he's going to talk about the line drive that was hit and caught by the third baseman. If he's a perfectionist, even after his amazing accomplishment, he's probably going to be ticked off about a slider that just missed the strike zone.
Even after our perfect 35-0 season in 1995, the year we won our first national championship, I found myself going back and saying, "Why didn't we execute that backdoor cut better? Why did their pressure bother us? Why didn't I do a better job?" Those questions dog me. They stay with me, those scars, even though no one else can see them.
I'm not sure what the scars on my stomach signify. Maybe it is a reminder that I came from nothing. Even though I never had anything growing up, my expectation level was still pretty high. Some people who have nothing growing up have very low expectations. If my parents' expectations were higher, they would have accomplished more. Their goals were modest: to get out of Italy. I'm not sure my father even did that of his own volition.
I think he came because his older brothers were already in America and said, "Hey, Donato. Get over here."
I grew up in a little village in the mountains east of Naples called Montella. Most of the homes in the village were made of stone. My name in Italy was Luigi. It was always very cold in the winter, and very warm in the summer. There were no screens in the house, but no flies either.
We used to sleep in front of the fireplace because we had no heat. We didn't have any electricity. We heated up our water over an open flame.
My mother worked, just like all the other mothers in the village. The girls who were too young to work would stay behind and take care of all the brothers and sisters and cousins.
One morning, when I was two years old, it was really cold out. The only way to keep the little ones warm was to place the hot coals on the floor and place the babies in a circle around that pile of heat. On this particular day, I guess I fell asleep. My mom was out working, and no one was paying attention, and I toppled over into the coals. You can imagine what it must have been like to have eight or nine coals stuck to your burning skin, and no one there to help you.
By the time they pulled me out, my stomach was burned pretty badly. I don't remember the pain. I don't remember any of it. My mother said one of the reasons it took so long for someone to notice me was that I hardly made a sound.
In the context of today's world, that's a pretty horrible story. God forbid some little kid trips and scrapes his knee and there's no parental supervision around. That kid would probably be taken into custody by the state. But back then, what happened to me, in the big scheme of things, was not so tragic. Think of all the other children of that era who were born in the mountains of Italy. Many of them never survived their own birth, and others died of various diseases at a very young age. So I got a few scars. I was one of the lucky ones.
Montella was a remote region with no doctors or hospitals. Our family didn't have a car, a television, or a radio. If you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. When you are young, and you don't have anything, you don't even realize you are poor, because you are just like all the people around you. I always felt like a normal part of the universe. I had no idea what the world was like beyond my little village. And on some level, I guess, I wasn't really aware of the struggles the elders in my town had gone through when they were my age.
I just never had a sense of how incredibly difficult it must have been to be my parents, to be ten years old during World War II, to live in fear every single day. I look at my own children now. They have such a comfortable life. My daughters are at the University of Connecticut. My son goes to a private Catholic high school. I can't even imagine what it would be like if all of a sudden an army marched through the center of Manchester, Connecticut, and occupied our town. It's impossible to fathom.
My mother, Marsiella, remembers all of the difficulties of her childhood, but I think it's very painful for her to talk about it. She and her five other siblings lived a life I can't possibly understand.
My mother has never set foot in a school. She can't read. She can't write. She can sign her name, barely. But here's the funny part. In "real world" terms, my mother can do almost anything. The only things she can't do are the things we assume every intelligent, functioning person can do. She can take care of almost every single thing that requires you to get through life. She can manage almost anything that comes her way-as long as she doesn't have to read it.
Even though she was sent to work at the age of ten, that didn't necessarily mean she was going to get paid. She worked in exchange for goods and services. Someone might give you seeds in exchange for your labor, so you can grow vegetables in your backyard. Or they give you livestock. They give you a piglet to raise, and you keep that pig, and feed him, and make him as big as a house, because you know you are going to eat every single piece of that pig before the year is over.
My mother loves to tell the story of my grandmother's pig. At the time, World War II is on and the Germans march into their village. My grandfather has already gone off to war. Typically, when the Germans come to town, the mothers and the children flee to the mountains and hide there.
My grandmother sends her children out the back door of the house and tells them to hide in the hills. But she refuses to leave. She doesn't want the Germans to get her pig. The pig is downstairs in the basement of the house, so she hides there with it, doing her best to keep it quiet so they won't find her.
The Germans stay a few days. My mom and her brothers and sisters forage for whatever they can find in the mountains. My grandmother manages to keep that pig alive. The soldiers leave without discovering her.
The problem during that time was there were no men left behind to protect their families. If they stayed behind, it was either because they were too young, or had been injured in some way, or were unfit for battle. The women that were left behind to fend for themselves became pretty strong and pretty determined and pretty tough. My mother is all of those things.
You learned to protect your family, to stay one step ahead of the Germans. If they came knocking on your door, you better have already left for the mountains. Otherwise, if you were still there, and you had a young daughter, they might take her. People hid their daughters for that reason. There were plenty of unspeakable things that went on in my mother's childhood.
My mother remembers a family that was forced to evacuate their home so the Germans could take it over. A little boy was looking for his dog. He's calling for the dog, and the dog starts barking, and the soldiers tell the mother the dog is making too much noise. But the little boy won't leave without his dog. He calls and calls for him, and finally the dog runs over and starts barking at the soldiers, so they shoot the dog-and the boy.
That is the kind of environment my parents were raised in. My grandmother worked in the fields all day, in the heat, harvesting hay with a sickle. My mother was born on June 11, 1931, and four days later, my grandmother was back in the fields with her sickle. She would come home at lunch and breast-feed my mother, and tell her, "You're the only baby in Italy who is having warm milk for lunch." Then she would go back to work.
Before she came to America, my mother never ventured outside of Montella-except to hide in the mountains.
My father, Donato, was born in 1927. He and his brothers were fortunate enough to have a horse and a wagon, so they were able to get hired by other people to transport things from one village to the next. That's how he made his living.
He was a very proud man, a very hardworking man. He brought us to this country to give us a better life than the one he had, and he succeeded. His life was very simple, and that's how he liked it.
My life, I know, was a mystery to him. He was proud of me, I'm sure of that, but I don't think he ever really got it. A women's basketball coach? That's a job?
Donato died of cancer in 1997. He had been sick for a while, and I remember arriving at my parents' house in Norristown, the same one that I grew up in, and my mother telling me he was gone. She was sitting there, so sad, and I really broke down, but it was as much for her as it was for my own grief. I felt for her, because I was never really able to develop a close relationship with my father.
He was very distant. He just didn't share a lot. And he definitely did not understand what I was doing. He just couldn't grasp why basketball was so important to so many people. He had a hard time understanding why everyone made such a big deal of what I did. In his mind, you measured success and hard work by how much physical labor you put into it.
I've been very fortunate to be successful as the women's basketball coach at Connecticut. It has provided my family and me with just about everything we could ever need. Yet there's a tremendous amount of guilt that comes along with knowing how much easier your life has been because your parents brought you here. Those scars are the ones that never heal.
I remember my mother visiting us once in Connecticut. She was staying with us in my comfortable home, and I was bitching about something stupid, about something that happened in the office, or something that happened with recruiting. She listened, like she always does, but didn't say much.
Later that night, the topic of my grandmother came up. My mother starts talking about her, and before you know it, she's getting very emotional. She starts telling me that when her mother got sick, they couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, so they took her to a hospital about fifteen miles away from Montella. Well, back then, fifteen miles away might as well be the end of the earth.
For seven days, my mother and her family don't hear anything. Finally they get word their mother has died. My mother has tears in her eyes as she tells the story, and she never cries, unless it's for a happy reason.
She tells me, "I never got to see my mother before she died. Even worse, they buried her and nobody had any idea where, because we had no way to go and look for her."
You sit there and you listen to that, and suddenly all that stuff you were bitching about earlier seems so small and so meaningless.
It wasn't until more than thirty years later, on a trip back to Italy, that my mother was able to visit her mother's grave. Her brother located it and took her there to pay her respects. It's an old story, really. If you talk to anybody who is seventy or older, who has come to this country from somewhere else, particularly an Eastern or Western European country, I bet they've had similar experiences.
It's the old-fashioned tale of searching for the American dream. Move to America, get a job, make nothing, scrape up enough to buy a tiny little place, and become one of those families that George Bailey talks about in It's a Wonderful Life. There's a part in the movie where George is accused by his boss, Mr. Potter, of sucking up to those "garlic eaters."
My parents and I were those garlic eaters.
I remember my younger days in Italy, but not as well as I would like. I wish I could close my eyes and retrace the steps I took every day. I wish I could see the guy who made the bread, the guy who delivered the groceries, and the woman who would lower her basket from the second floor and pull up her parcels. I wish I could remember my parents as young people raising a family.
When I was younger, I took great pride in my history. Then I got a little older and I lost sight of it a little bit, because I got so wrapped up in my own life and what I'm doing. But now I'm past fifty, and my mother is in her mid-seventies, and my father is passed away, and I find myself reaching back and trying to recapture my roots, because once it's gone, it's gone.
All my father's brothers who were over there have died. My mother has no other family left except my brother, my sister, and me. The information stream is starting to dry up.
I've asked my mother what the kids in our village did for fun. There were no organized sports leagues. Montella certainly didn't have any kind of teams with fancy uniforms. There was a residual military presence from the war in our village, and as a result, there were some kids who knew how to play a little baseball. There was a field not far from our house in Montella, and there were kids who gathered there informally. I was too young to take part in any of that, but my mom said I would get up and walk there every day, just to watch. I remember going there, but not the specifics. I don't believe there was a backstop on the baseball field, or any nets in the hoops for basketball. Sports were certainly not a priority in the countryside of Italy at that time.
I tell my kids these stories about my birthplace, about the history of their grandparents, and they really aren't that interested. They'd be much more excited and much more impressed if I told them, "Your grandfather played in the NBA," or "Your grandfather played major league baseball." Instead, I'm telling them, "This is what they went through," and I don't think they get it, nor should you expect them to, I guess.
I remember vividly the day our family moved to America. My two uncles had already come over and settled in Norristown. My dad went over next, and left us behind in Italy with our mother. He got a job in a candy factory making hard candy, the kind you eat at the front desk when you check into a nice hotel. I think he made something like seventeen dollars a week.
He sent for us around November. I was so excited about going. I was excited because I had never been in a car, and we were taking a car from Montella to Naples, which was about an hour's ride. I just sat looking out the window, watching everything speed by. To this day, there's nothing I like better in the world than getting into a car and driving real fast.
When we get to Naples, we board a boat to America, and my life as I know it begins. We are on that boat for thirteen days. My mom, I remember, isn't feeling so hot. She suffers from seasickness. My sister, Anna, is only one year old, and my brother, Ferruccio, is four years old. I am in charge of them, especially when my mother isn't feeling good. My brother is a bit of a wise guy. He spends the entire thirteen days learning every swear word the sailors know. All the sailors are Italian, and they get a kick out of my brother.
We are on our own a lot. My brother spends most of the time running around the boat. I spend most of the time chasing after him, making sure he doesn't get himself into any trouble. I am one of those kids who likes to do everything right, and I know if my brother gets into trouble, that means I am going to get in trouble, too.
Excerpted from Geno by Jackie MacMullan Geno Auriemma Copyright © 2006 by Geno Auriemma. Excerpted by permission.
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