Thoughts, sights and sounds from the Saturday ceremony honoring Cindy Russo and Inge Nissen (or "The institution honoring institutions.").
Nobody seemed to be having more fun than the table with Russo's earliest FIU players. That table also stood nearest the alcohol. Possibly not a coincidence, although they sounded more loaded on camaraderie and nostalgia. They talked about running on the soccer field at 5 a.m., flashlights for light, and not touching a ball for weeks early in training camp. My favorite story: if Russo found out two players didn't like each other, she'd make them room together so players either worked out personal beefs or kept them on the down low.
Another table of former players stood shocked as FIU let Rice dribble out the clock on a 68-62 loss. The Panthers trailed by two three-pointers with enough time for two desperate possessions if Rice missed free throws. Alas...
FIU named the women's basketball locker room after Russo and gave her a key symbolizing free admittance to all future FIU athletic events. In the first place, isn't lifetime free athletic event admittance something that should be given to every coach who stays at FIU five years or longer? What, there's a shortage of seats available? FIU really needs the bucks that they can't give the wave-in to every coach who lasts five years in an athletic department perpetually at that awkward age?
Secondly, giving Russo the locker room? I guess that's what left. FIU's sold the court to Lime restaurant. I'm sure they hope to sell the arena name to somebody again (Is there a Sunblazer company making anything, providing any services? Be funny if it were Sunblazer Arena again...). So maybe slap Russo's name on a section of seats? Or, how about both Russo and Nissen's names on the basketball bench?
Speaking of which, Nissen maneuvered players out of Eastern Europe to go to FIU. You think she can't pull a few dollars out of some potential donors? Plus, she's got respect. Find her a job in development for the school or athletic department.
But learn how to pronounce her name first. She was at FIU only 26 years. I'm not talking to you, President Rosenberg. Who am I kidding? Yes, I am.
Whether Andrea Nagy, Branzova and Dessi Dakova stand as FIU women's basketball's Apollo 11 or Mercury Three, they were pioneers who rocketed the program forward. FIU got the jump on talent from the former Warsaw Pact countries once the Soviet Union collapsed. The success of the Hungarian Nagy and Branzova and Davova from Bulgaria prompted other Eastern European players to consider coming to play at a little known American school in a well-known American town.
"How we got them out, I still don't know," Nissen said. "We got lucky that Albena's dad was affiliated with the (Bulgarian basketball) federation. We had sent packages to the federation. And he found them -- "These have my daughter's name on them, what are these?"
Nissen said Daddy Branzova was told "Oh, no, no, don't touch those" then took them anyway. "Then, we were able to contact them," she continued. "When I called over there -- at times, you couldn't get through and you couldn't hear anything worth a damn in the first place."
Then, there was the language barrier. Nissen spoke French to Dakova's mother, who spoke French, and Dakova.
"American basketball was the standard for that time," Dakova said. "There was nothing like it. It was (exciting) for us to go and actually experience that, to train under and American coach. And we said, "Why not?" I think most of us were adventurous at that time since we had played all over the world before coming here. We didn't know anything about the school. We just knew it was here. Miami! Nice beaches!"
Nissen recalls Branzova had to take the SAT a few times to get into FIU. Dakova said she focused on the math part, got almost all the points she needed for eligibility right there.
"She gave us lots of freedom," All-American point guard Nagy said describing Russo's style coaching those early-to-mid-1990s teams. "She brought in all these great players that made us a great team."
The last women's basketball team I covered before leaving the Neighbors Northwest-North Central/FIU slot for the Florida Panthers beat played the most aesthetic basketball I saw in this town until the Heat's Big Three era. Later FIU teams with many of the same players reset the program's standards for success. Nagy picked the 23-4 1993-94 season, the first year FIU got ranked and made the NCAA Division I tournament, as her favorite memory.
I wish I'd seen that team or the 1995 team that went 27-5 and made it to the second round of the tournament. Because Nagy's sophomore year, 1992-93, FIU's women performed with the athletically stylish cohesion of a basketball Alvin Ailey company.
The 6-4 Branzova was the chessboard queen or Eddie Murphy's shoe-throwing mother -- she could mess up your whole program from anywhere. She could score in the post all the way out to three-point range. If she had the ball down low and the defense fell asleep on the backside, she'd whip a no-look pass over her shoulder to a cutting forward for a layup. Nagy ran the fast break with perfect fundamentals, head up, with BMW M3 speed and maneuverability. As soon as someone came open, ZIP! Layup.
"I think we just got lucky," Nagy said. "We had Albena who was a really good shooter. Myself, who loved to pass and had the speed to push the ball. And we had Tatana (Pokorna) who would get out there and finish the fast breaks. Everybody else were parts to the puzzle to make us something really great."