Coach Rhonda Craig: Dream Past the Concrete
The glossy wood gymnasium floor at Taft High School gleams emerald green and gold. Dressed in a white sweat suit and an easy smile, Rhonda Craig, the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Taft, sets up a scorekeeper’s table and chairs for the two of us to sit down and talk.
She’s entirely at ease on the court. Her basketball sneakers squeak as she pivots to retrieve the chairs, her gait athletic and spring-loaded. She has an easy smile and laughs readily, sharing her warm demeanor and rich stories on this cold, winter morning.
Rhonda Craig is more than just a coach. She’s a mother of two; she’s the founder of a nonprofit called Sisterhood 360; she’s embarking on a personal battle with multiple sclerosis; and she’s a devoted leader to young women who need it the most.
Interview by Madeleine Meeks. Photography by Maggie Heath-Bourne.
Where are you from? Tell me about your family.
I’m from Cincinnati, and I grew up right here in the West End. My dad worked at Heekin Can, and my mom worked at Kroger’s. My mom worked second shift, and my dad worked third shift, so I was around my dad a lot. My mom and dad both graduated from Taft, too.
Although we lived in the inner city, you would never know it. We looked like we were this family of wealth – which we were not – but everything looked bright and lively with encyclopedia books and all these challenging things in the rooms.
How did you get involved with basketball?
Growing up, my dad liked to say I was born to play basketball. Basketball was kind of like a gift that God gave me. I’d go watch the big guys play and I’d be practicing, thinking to myself, “You know, I think I could do this.”
I never knew how good I was because my dad never told me. He always told me, “You got to work hard.”
Tell me about your struggles with basketball.
I was born in the ’70s, so back then, to be a female playing basketball was not seen as normal. It’s kind of sad because when I was in the fourth grade I was thinking I didn’t fit into society. My friends were playing with dolls and I despised dolls. My mom would come home with dresses and I’d be like, “I hate them; why does she keep bringing these things?”
It always felt like kind of a curse, to have this talent, to play basketball. One day on the playground, this guy said, “You’re just a tomboy,” and I tell you, it hurt so bad.
I ran toward my grandmother’s house, and I was crying, and she said, “What’s wrong, baby? What’s wrong?”
And I said, “Grandma, they keep calling me a tomboy.”
I just wanted to give up. I was weird. I didn’t fit into this world. I just didn’t want to be here anymore. I was 12 or 13, and I thought that no one understood me. I didn’t know why I was made like this; I just wanted to give up. At that time, I wanted to take my life.
You live in a family and people see you, but they really don’t see you. And you hear stories of kids killing themselves and I’m like, I was one of them. I had a plan in my head.
Grandma said, “Baby, do you know what a tomboy is?”
I said, “No, ma’am.” I had a definition, but I didn’t really know.
She told me, “It’s just a girl who plays sports better than boys.”
That definition changed my life. Forevermore. It taught me not to give up. And it changed the boys’ lives because I beat them like crazy then. I also asked God to help me remember what it felt like to be 13 or 14, to be in this weird space where you don’t always fit in. I wanted to remember what that felt like. I think that’s what led me here [to Taft] because I remember what that felt like.
What was your experience with college basketball?
Even during my freshman year [at the University of Akron], I never wanted anyone to know that I played basketball. I had an athletic scholarship, and I had to work out every morning. I’d get up early and lift weights at five in the morning. I was up before anybody.
Then I’d come back [to the dorm], sneak in, and get a shower. We had a clique at the dorm where we’d eat breakfast together, so I’d join them. Then I had another couple of practices during the day and school. The girls in my dorm didn’t even know for the first half of the year that I was on the basketball team.
But we had this game that made it into the paper. Somehow I stole the ball and took a last-second shot and won the game. So at breakfast the next morning, my R.A. has the newspaper. The rest of us are just talking about our day, but my R.A. is looking at the newspaper, looks up at me, looks at the paper, looks back at me. And this newspaper was passed around the table and it got to my roommate, Heidi. And Heidi’s eyes got like [widens eyes] and I said, “Heidi, what’s wrong?” and she asked, “Is this you?”
I felt like I’d been outed.
The girls in my dorm didn’t even know for the first half of the year that I was on the basketball team.
But their embrace was so wonderful. They said, “Rhonda, why…? We will come and support you.”
I told them, “I wanted people to know me for me. I felt like there was a stigma for having an athletic scholarship, and I wanted you to know that I was smart. I wanted you to know me for me.”
After that, they were there every game. They didn’t miss a home game. They cheered me on, and became my family away from home. It was amazing that I got to play basketball and people got to know me for me. I always felt like basketball is only one component of me. I don’t want you to put me in a box because I have a talent. I always struggle with me and this basketball thing that I love.
[Editor’s note: Before Rhonda returned to Cincinnati, she graduated from the University of Akron; received a master’s degree in public administration; and worked at a juvenile facility and Job Corps.]
What brought you to coach at Taft High School?
My grandmother said to me, “You need to get your breasts checked,” because my mother died at 48 from breast cancer. So I got checked, and they found a lump. It was benign. But while I was sitting there, the T.V. was on and they were talking about Taft High School and all the dropouts. Taft was a really good school back in the day, but it was horrific by the time I came back to Cincinnati.
It felt like a voice was talking to me, saying, “What are you going to do about it?”
So I decided I’d put my resume in. [The athletic director] told me, “Rhonda, you don’t want this job. These girls won’t come to practice on time; they won’t…”
I said, “If you give it to me, I’m going to make a difference.” And when I came in, we were horrible. We were three and 17. But we just kept working and the next season we were 17 and three. And we just kept winning and winning, and getting better.
Why do you call the Taft High School women’s basketball team “the Taft Sisterhood”?
The reason we call ourselves the Taft Sisterhood is that each of us touches each other’s lives and we all are female. We all have different backgrounds, but we have the same connection: We’re all female.
I realized that my boyfriend in college – who was from Cincinnati – would be walking with me in the hall, and if we passed guys they’d say “what’s up” to one another even though they didn’t know each other. It was like they were brothers. We as girls don’t do that. We look each other up and down. So I taught these girls that we’re a sisterhood, that each of us have a connection, a story, a reason for living. The things that are happening to you in your life? There’s a reason for it – and maybe it makes you stronger; maybe it makes you better, but there’s a reason why you need to remain here and continue to go through your struggles. Not only that, but we’re here together.
I taught these girls that we’re a sisterhood, that each of us have a connection, a story, a reason for living.
Me and my assistant coach, Angela Harris, we talked about how the girls didn’t have anyone in the stands for them. These girls were playing their hearts out, and there was no one in the stands for them. So then I read this book about this young lady who’s all-American, playing basketball, doing great. Her mom was in the stands every time, every game. So she’s scoring points, getting all kinds of accolades. In the book you realize her mom was blind, so her mom never got to actually see her play. But it was never about her mom seeing her play, it was all about her seeing her mom in the stands. That’s all that mattered.
So what we do here is a [mentorship] program called Champions. [Editor’s note: To get involved with Champions, email Rhonda at email@example.com.] There’s somebody that says, “I believe in you and I’m going to be there for you.” All we ask is that, at the end of the game, the mentors say good job to their girl. You don’t have to know basketball; you don’t have to love basketball; you just have to be here. We used to have a bunch of people from Procter and Gamble and other companies in the stands for these girls. And the team got better and better and better. It wasn’t because of me; it was the connection with these mentors. And they’re still connected today. Some girls who went on to Ohio State still keep in touch with their mentors, and the mentors still go see their games, get them jobs and stuff.
Tell me about the Sisterhood 360 nonprofit that you’ve founded.
I created the nonprofit Sisterhood 360 because Cincinnati Public Schools – as well as they do, they don’t do enough, as far as for the girls to have things. The poverty, the food … I spend more money on food for these girls… They’re starving. They don’t eat at home; they don’t eat here. And I’m asking them to run up and down a court for two hours, and we have intense practices, and they don’t have anything to eat and no bus fare. I’m big on how we need to look the part. We need to have uniforms and look the same. I’m not going to have one girl with [Nike] Jordans and one girl with Buddies. We’re going to look like a team – and I’m going to treat them like I would my daughter. I love my kids to death, so I want them to look nice and cared for.
A part of Sisterhood 360 is to get funding to get these girls help, so every year we do shoes for $100. I try to keep it at $100; no more than that. Every year we do what we call the retreat. It’s one night; 24 hours. No cellphones. And there’s no basketball at the retreat. We teach the game of life.
One retreat, we did a simulation where I would talk about life, and I would give everyone a card. Your card may have said that you graduated with a four-year degree, and you would have to go plan your life with that. I would tell you how much money you make, and you would have to figure out your housing and all that. One girl got a two-year degree; one girl didn’t graduate; one girl had a baby, and so on. So my girls got to see that not everyone is going to get a big car, a big house, and all that.
The things that are happening to you in your life? There’s a reason for it.
The best part about this simulation is we do red cards, which mean crisis. Because things happen: Your car breaks down; you’re pregnant. One girl told me when I gave her a red card, she said, “Coach, life is hard.” [Laughs.] Yeah, life is hard, but it’s doable.
I teach my girls about the world, about expenses, about credit. It’s all about exposure. Some of my girls are first generation graduates of high school. Think about that.
Also, at the retreat, we do team building activities, and there’s always a time where the coaches go up against the girls, either with karaoke or dancing. The girls are amazing, but the coaches always win because we’re always the best. [Laughs.] At one point, the girls were interviewing me and learning about my life, and they were like, “Coach, you’ve been through all that?” They got a better idea of me, and after all that, they all play together so much better.
In what other ways have you embedded life lessons into the game of basketball?
I always tell my girls that basketball is kind of the crux of it. I figure if they like the game enough that they’ll come to school every day because that’s mandatory. Their grades will be better because that’s what we require for them to be on the team. They’ll graduate, and then we’re going to look for jobs for them.
What’s been your experience with multiple sclerosis [M.S.]?
I’ve had it about two years now. When the doctors said it was M.S., I was like, “What is that? I’m not prepared for M.S..” So I got to learn all about it. It’s one of those crazy diseases; they don’t know what it comes from, if it’s genetic or not. All the symptoms look like anybody could have it.
The first year I was totally in denial. And my daughter – she’s so sweet – she sat me down one day and said, “Mom, it’s just a setback. That’s all this is. We will get through this.”
There are some days where I have to call off basketball practice because my M.S. affects me with fatigue. It’s really the fatigue. And I have to tell myself, “Rhonda, chill out; it’s okay to call off.” I’ve had to adjust my life to see how I’m going to deal with this.
Who is the most influential woman in your life?
My grandmother is definitely the person that has impacted my life the most. My grandmother – my mom’s mom – who never drove a car, who was very spiritual, always wore skirts… She’s the love of my life.
When I saw how much my grandmother made all her life, I don’t understand how she did it. She had more than enough somehow. She told me, “Rhonda, I have more than enough because I gave. And because I gave, I was blessed.” And that’s so real. I’d hear stories about my grandmother helping kids because when she grew up, her mother was in the hospital all her life and my grandmother had to go door to door to beg for food with her sister.
She ended up getting her G.E.D. She was on the welfare system and she would tell us, “That’s not a system you’re supposed to stay on. That’s a system you’re supposed to get on, and then get help, and get out.” She prided herself on doing that.
This lady transformed my life, kind of saying education was the way out.
What women have you influenced?
A lot of the women I’ve coached, a lot of them. One of my girls – I love her to death, Martina – she told me, “Coach, you inspire us to dream past the concrete. When you live in the inner city like us, all you see is concrete. Now we dream past the concrete.”