by Chuck Gordon
Ann Hancock ’92 passed by the trophy case every day when she was a high-school student in Elizabethtown, N.C. Occasionally she’d stop to take in East Bladen High’s athletics history, lingering at one particular spot. Along with various trophies, plaques and team photos was a jersey belonging to Pam Hammond, a scrappy former Lady Cougar star who went on to play four years at the University of North Carolina. Alongside the jersey was a basketball with “1,566” written on it.
The small shrine to a local legend was a tantalizing carrot dangling in front of the eager, determined young Hancock. I want my jersey and basketball in there, she thought.
In a notebook, Hancock wrote down “1,566,” Hammond’s Lady Cougar-record career point total. After her first game, she subtracted the number of points she’d scored from Hammond’s, and after every subsequent game she subtracted from what remained, aiming to eventually get to zero and on into negative numbers.
Hammond provided Hancock with a goal, and the young player was all about reaching goals.
She passed Hammond’s total with ease. Even in the days before the 3-pointer, Hancock’s sweet shooting stroke, smarts, and gutsy play helped her notch 2,276 points in her East Bladen career (currently good for 24th on the state’s career-points list). She added 2,195 more during a Hall of Fame career at Wingate, where she was also an Academic All-American and Woody Hayes National Scholar-Athlete Award winner, and where she returned to become the head coach in 2012.
Hammond’s career did more than give Hancock a concrete goal upon which to build her own legacy. It also stoked her dreams. If Hammond could play basketball in college, why not her?
Why not indeed. After all, by this time, girls were allowed to dream of careers in sports and a lot of other fields, a far cry from even two decades earlier.
Hancock came along at a good time. Title IX had been around for a dozen years by the time she entered high school – long enough for girls sports leagues of all stripes to become established. High schools offered interscholastic teams in softball, tennis, track and field, even junior varsity basketball. Hancock knew that, if she worked really hard, she could earn a scholarship to play sports in college – a virtual impossibility for women at the time she was born, in 1970.
“Title IX had been in place long enough,” she says of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. “I was probably in the first generation that really saw the benefits of it.”
Hancock took full advantage of the new opportunities afforded girls in the 1970s. She kept up with the neighborhood boys in every athletic endeavor they tried, quarterbacking backyard football, smacking wiffle balls into the heavy summer air, and most notably draining long jumpers in her neighbors’ faces on the basketball court. From ages 8 to 12, she was the only girl in Elizabethtown’s Little League. Later in life, her mother relayed her trepidation as she answered the phone after tryouts. “When the phone rang, I just knew they were going to say you didn’t make it,” her mother told her. But she did.
“The coach who picked me, he’s so awesome,” Hancock says. “He didn’t treat me any differently than any of the boys.” With Hancock starting at first base, the team went undefeated. “He treated us like college players,” Hancock remembers fondly. He later picked her to play on his recreational basketball team.
When the high school coach brought his team over to the junior high to run a clinic and asked the seventh- and eighth-graders whether any of them wanted to play college basketball, Hancock’s hand shot up. She was the only one to take him up on his offer to practice with the varsity.
“I would practice with the junior high, and my daddy would come pick me up and take me to the high school practice,” she says. “Then they let me be the manager, and I thought it was so cool because I got to carry the uniforms.”
Hancock’s dad was a sports nut who saw the value in athletic competition for all of his kids. Both of her older brothers played baseball in college, and Hancock was encouraged to pursue just about any sport she felt an urge to play. Just about. “Mama drew the line at football,” she says. Everything else was on the table.
Hancock can’t imagine a world where she couldn’t pit her talents against someone else’s. Competition has been a major part of her life for as long as she can remember.
Learning through sports
Hancock admits that sometimes her competitive nature balances precariously on the line between healthy and unhealthy. As a young girl, while attending a volleyball camp at N.C. State University, she was told that no one had ever served a perfect game at camp. Guess who took that as a challenge.
“I served it to the same girl every time, because she couldn’t get it back,” Hancock says. “They said, ‘Well, that was mean. You were picking on that girl.’ I was like, ‘They said nobody had served a perfect game, and I was going to serve a perfect game.’”
She’s mellowed a little over the years but still has a burning desire to test herself in athletics, whether on the tennis court or stalking the sidelines as a coach.
“I’m there to win and compete,” she says. “What I think is so great about athletics is that it’s a test. I want to test myself to see, on that day, am I better than you? I’ve trained and prepared and gotten myself ready, and if I give my best and you’re better than I am that day, I can live with it. A lot of people can’t. I mean, I don’t like to lose, but if I really know that I gave it everything I had and I did what I was supposed to – Congratulations! You did better than I did that day. I’ll see you again next week when it’s time to do it again.”
Respect for healthy competition is just one of the life lessons Hancock dishes out daily as Wingate’s head basketball coach. Bulldog hoopsters leave her program with five mantras ingrained in their psyche – five rules to live by that transcend sports.
“We have our Bulldog Basics: Be on time, tell the truth, do what’s right, treat others like you want to be treated, and exceed expectations,” she says. “If you’ll do those things, no matter where you are, you’ll be successful.”
All of those dictums can be transferred to the classroom, the boardroom, the workplace, and social settings. Hancock’s team is its own lab of difference-making: a contained environment, with basically black-and-white outcomes, in which young people can test themselves, fail until they succeed, and train themselves to live by the Bulldog Basics.
“Coach always talks about how you can’t wait for your dreams and can’t wait for what you want,” says senior Bryanna Troutman, last year’s SAC player of the year. “You have to fight for it, work for it, do whatever you need to do to achieve your goals, whether it’s on the court, in class or just in life. You earn what you get.”
Hancock has lived the Bulldog Basics principles for years. After graduating from Wingate, she was offered a job as a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball program at UNC Chapel Hill. The offer hadn’t come out of the blue. Hancock had worked for it. She’d impressed the UNC staff after her senior season of high school during the 1988 East-West All-Star Game, where she outperformed many of their recruits. During college, she drove to Greensboro on the weekends to help coach one of the top AAU teams in the state. She worked Carolina’s basketball camps every summer, eagerly jumping in to referee, a job absolutely no one wanted.
“I wasn’t really afraid to do the work,” she says. “I try to tell my girls, ‘You’ve got to put yourself in the right place. Don’t expect anybody to come knocking on your door.’ Working their camps, I sort of put myself in front of them to show, ‘I’ll work. I’ll do anything you need me to do.’”
In her second year on the UNC staff, the Tar Heels won the national championship. “I should have retired then,” Hancock says with a laugh.
It’s to Wingate’s benefit that she didn’t. After eight years in Chapel Hill, Hancock spent 10 respectable years as the head coach at NCAA Division I UNC Wilmington before returning to her alma mater, where she’s won at least 20 games seven times and has claimed five South Atlantic Conference titles: three tournament crowns and two in the regular season, including last year, when at one point her Bulldogs reeled off 18 straight wins.
If she returns to Elizabethtown these days, Hancock will find that her old school is in a new building, having merged with another school and been rechristened the East Bladen Eagles. But there’s still a trophy case, and her jersey is there, along with a ball sporting the number “2,276.”
Hancock hasn’t been the only Bladen County girl with big dreams and goals. Twenty-three years after Hancock netted her last bucket, Courtney “C.J.” Melvin scored her 2,277th point at East Bladen, passing Hancock. She went on to finish with 2,502.
Hancock’s OK with that. She had her time. She set her goals, and she met most of them. And she knows what it’s like to be exceptional and still play second fiddle. Despite her scoring exploits at Wingate, she wasn’t even the best scorer on the team for a couple of years. She played alongside Darene Thomas, who is the Bulldogs’ all-time leader, with 3,141 points.
Now Hancock is trying to get her players to understand that although outcomes mean something, setting your sights on something tangible and working toward it is what’s most important.
“I ask some players now, ‘What are your goals?’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Hancock says. “They are afraid to set that goal, because they might not get there. They are afraid to fail.
“If I could give them a gift now, it would be that: There’s nothing wrong with setting a goal and coming up short. That’s OK, as long as you know that you did what you were supposed to do to get there. And then, if you didn’t do everything you could, that’s probably why you didn’t get there.”