Earlier this year, Sunday morning, January 3rd to be exact, I received a text from a very good friend in the Portland area. He wanted to give me a heads-up about a lead story in that day’s Maine Sunday Telegram regarding the very successful University of Maine women’s basketball coach in the ‘90s, Joanne P. McCallie. He knew I would want to read it.

I replied that I had already made my Sunday morning run to the Rangeley IGA to pick up the Telegram, and that I had already leafed through the sections of the paper and had stopped in my page-turning tracks when I hit the sports section. Two large photos of Coach McCallie, one in action on the sideline, accompanied the lengthy lead story entitled “Telling Her Story…to try to help others” by staff writer Mike Lowe.

Joanne Palumbo McCallie’s new book SECRET WARRIOR. Of note in the background is 2 or 3 feet of the 118+ feet of book-filled shelves in our cabin on Gull Pond.

It was a fascinating story about her basketball and personal life, and especially her new book SECRET WARRIOR, A Coach & Fighter, On and Off the Court. It wasn’t due to be available from the publisher until mid-February. I had then already ordered it (pre-publication), online. My friend wasn’t surprised.

He knew that I had been following her impressive career since her eight successful University of Maine at Orono coaching years in the ‘90s, that were eclipsed only by the highly successful U of Maine hockey team and its two national championships under the inspiring guidance of the late coach Shawn Walsh during that same decade. And that I really, really had been following her career since 2007 when she was named Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Duke University!

Anyone who knows me knows about my unbridled pride in Duke, my graduate school alma mater. I couldn’t have been more excited when I found out that she would be leading that already very successful women’s basketball program. I don’t think I need to tell you about the successes of the men’s basketball program at that impressive (in many academic and athletic ways), top-tier university in Durham, North Carolina. However, I (again), digress.

Joanne (Coach P) McCallie’s impressive career has been on the big stage of college women’s basketball for about thirty years. I know there are Rangeley girls basketball fans over the course of the past twenty years at least who would be interested in this book as well (since the year 2000 when we moved full-time to our cabin we built in the late ‘80s on Gull Pond) who have grown up watching girls basketball success in the RLRS gym under the direction of Coach Heidi Deery. Coach Deery herself was an outstanding basketball player at RLRS before going off to college.

She returned to build a girls basketball program that clearly eclipsed the boys version (in my opinion, at least) thanks to her enthusiasm, love for the game, and, I believe, a real love and concern for her players. And not just their efforts during the snowy basketball season, but their future post-high school endeavors as well.

In the winter of 2000, I began watching the girls basketball team’s home games at the recommendation of local sports (and community) enthusiasts. What I noticed early on, was a desire by Ms. Deery to positively affect the self-confidence of her players while insisting on personal accountability, without demeaning criticism for criticism’s sake during the games.

I found myself usually seeking out a seat close to where the team gathered during game time-outs at critical moments, so that I could listen to her suggestions for, and yes, demands of…her players. Watching the faces of the young players as they (and I) attentively listened to her every word. Then watching them try to put in play her advice on the court…was often the best part of the games from my point of view. It brought me back to Lady Lakers home games as often as I could make it. But certainly not as often as the loyal parents, grandparents, classmates and supportive teachers who were at every game, but I did go to a number of games primarily for those sideline demonstrations of leadership and teaching expertise’ in that noisy little gym with all the girls basketball banners decorating the far wall.

Which brings me to women’s basketball playing and coaching on a much larger national stage…especially the stage of Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University since 2007 when Joanne P. McCallie from Brunswick, Maine took over the women’s basketball program at the university that I have been so positively influenced by since beginning my master’s degree studies at Duke’s graduate school in physical therapy in 1972.

First, I would like to share a brief overview of this impressive woman’s progression from being an All-American high school basketball player known as Joanne Palumbo from Brunswick, Maine in the late ‘80s, to her 13-year stint as head coach at Duke, ending last year at the age of 55. A successful tenure from which she resigned in the fall of 2019 after compiling a 330-107 record leading the Blue Devil women, and a lifetime Division 1 record of 646-255 at the University of Maine, Michigan State University, and finally Duke University from 2007-2019. Pretty impressive in my book. And speaking of “book”, I am now doubly impressed by her after reading her very recently published book that recounts her “secret challenge” of living with bipolar disorder since her third year of coaching at the University of Maine in the early ‘90s.

Joanne Palumbo was a highly-recruited basketball star during her senior year at Brunswick High School. She chose to continue at Northwestern University, a very strong program at the school’s Evanston, Illinois campus just outside of Chicago.

After graduation, she soon continued her education pursuing an MBA at Auburn University in Alabama. Part of her financial aid package was the role of assistant coach of Auburn’s very strong women’s basketball program. She was much admired there, while testing her own coaching skills. She was still Joanne Palumbo at the time. Her players gave her the nickname “Coach P” and it continued through out her years at Duke, even though she married her husband John McCallie, and took his last name, while still at Auburn.

The opportunity to become the coach at the flagship university in her home state of Maine came along and she soon built that unknown program into a conference championship-winning team, and her team even made it to the NCAA Women’s Tournament six times in her seven years at UMaine She became known not only as an inspiring, hard-working coach, but also a very effective recruiter of basketball talent.

That success led to her being named the head coach at Michigan State’s women’s team. Then, as now, a very successful program. The pinnacle was playing in the national finals championship game in 2005. They lost that game, but her program was clearly very nearly the best that year. Two years later, Coach P was recruited by Duke to lead their team after their already very successful coach was wooed away to the University of Texas in Austin.

Highly successful seasons continued at Duke under the new coach who grew up in Maine. I was thrilled, quite honestly. In addition to my passion for Duke’s men’s team (along with almost all of Duke’s other alumni) which at that time had already won three of their five national championships, I began following the fortunes of the women’s team closely on the GODUKE.com website and elsewhere.

In 2011, I was in the first year or two of my second 6-year term on the Duke Alumni Association Board of Directors representing the university’s now-clinical doctorate program in physical therapy (DPT). We would have three on-campus meetings yearly, each lasting three days. The winter meeting was always in February and thoughtfully timed with a home men’s, and sometimes women’s, basketball game. The alumni association staff would always gather up (scrounge) tickets for those of us who were interested. I was always interested in yet another game in Cameron Indoor Stadium watching my beloved Duke Blue Devils play. The game that year was a conference women’s game versus Boston College on Saturday evening.

Our meeting was scheduled on that Friday through Sunday. The Friday schedule ended about 3 or 4 p.m. I knew that Coach P’s team would be practicing in Cameron that afternoon since the men’s team was playing elsewhere on the road that weekend. I got on the phone that morning and called the women’s team office in the attached building filled with athletic team offices. I just wanted to meet Coach P during her practice session for a few minutes, but I knew that I had to play a couple of “cards” to possibly make it happen. I identified myself first as a member of the Duke Alumni Association Board of Directors (sounds impressive enough, eh?), and that I was from Coach P’s beloved home state of Maine (hopefully that would seal the meeting if Card A didn’t do the trick). A quick conference with Coach P, and they said I could show up at a certain entrance at a particular time and I would be let in to the Friday practice that is normally closed to the world except for the coaches and players.

My courtside meeting with “Coach P” during a pre-game practice session at Duke University, in February, 2011. The following evening her Duke Blue Devil team defeated Boston College. Read the text for further details regarding that meeting.

I was thrilled. We met on the main court’s sideline and had a wonderful conversation for about 10 minutes. The main topic was Maine, of course. I think it functioned as a brief respite for her from the game-preparation stresses. I, of course, had no idea at the time about her almost career-long mental health issues. Nor did I, and most of the rest of the elite college basketball sorority until late 2019 when she resigned from her dream job at Duke.

Turns out, she was looking for the right time to step away from the highly challenging world of Division I basketball coaching and recruiting, tell her story to others, especially via her new book Secret Warrior. She is looking forward to a post-Covid career of helping other individuals, families, and colleagues to understand mental illness better, and what the keys to a successful life are, amid the all the personal challenges through lectures, small group discussions of her book…and other avenues. I just know she will make a big difference for many trying to cope with bipolar disorder in particular or to understand mental illness in general.

If this column stimulates you to know more about her story I highly recommend the following. Go to amazon.com’s book section and type in Secret Warrior by Joanne P. McCallie. Then do as I do whenever I am considering a new book I have heard about that I think I might find fascinating….I go to the “reader reviews” first. In this book’s case they are very heartfelt and complimentary. Then go to the “look inside” at the top of the book’s cover image. Read her 3 or 4 page “Introduction”. Then read at least the first page of chapter one that begins with this sentence: “Growing up in Maine is the greatest gift my parents could ever have given me”.

That is just about the same sentiment both of our sons have said to us often even though they are now grown up, long graduated from their respective universities, and living with, and raising, their young families in Colorado.

If the above inspires you to read the book….you have a few options: Call Wess at Books, Lines, and Thinkers bookstore and have him order it for you, order it online (sorry Wess, but that is certainly an option for many), wait a year and perhaps the Rangeley Public Library will have it, or is able to get it for you through the inter-library loan service, or you can ask to borrow my copy. But don’t ask for a couple more weeks at least, as I have just mailed it to my good friend in Cape Elizabeth. I know he will find it as compelling as I did !!

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.
Garrison Keillor

Respect Science, Respect Nature,
Respect Each Other, and Respect the Truth

Per usual, your thoughts and comments are very much welcome. Just launch an email towards [email protected] Thank you in advance.

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