“I’m in touch with every player I’ve ever coached,” Diane Richardson says. “We are family.”
The Riverdale Baptist field house is behind the main school building off Largo Road in Prince George’s County. It’s connected to the school by a dim hallway used to store tables and folding chairs. Next door are a half dozen overflow classrooms in white trailers. A steepled church, which holds Sunday and Wednesday services, is easily the prettiest building on the campus.
The school, which has nearly 800 students in pre-K through 12th grade, opened in 1971 as an extension of the church. The gym was built a decade later. Barely larger than the basketball court, it has clunky metal bleachers along one side. When they’re pulled out for a game, fans in the front row sit inches from the action. There’s a utility room in one corner and a small weight room in another. The ceiling leaks during heavy rain, and sometimes the scoreboard shorts out.
Because the school’s six basketball teams share a single court, they alternate practice times. Early practices are rushed, and even with the junior varsity there might not be enough bodies for five-on-five scrimmages.
A late practice means the girls may not see their beds until midnight: Practice goes until 7:30 or 8, then there’s dinner and homework. But these are the practices in which the team really works. Because they don’t have to watch the clock, the coaches take time with the drills, guards sweating at one end of the court and “the bigs”—Richardson’s name for forwards and centers—working on lay-ups and rebounds at the other.
Richardson types up a schedule for each practice and plans drills down to the minute. She has the girls sign in when they arrive, a way of keeping track of who shows up and when. “That way, when they complain about not getting playing time, I can say, ‘Well, let’s see how much practice time you put in,’ ” she says.
Richardson spent two years as a college coach in 2006 and 2007. Richardson had been with Riverdale for five seasons, leading the team to a 142–18 record and earning its first national ranking in 2005. It was only a matter of time before she was tapped by the big schools.
American University’s women’s basketball head coach, Melissa McFerrin, noticed her first; she asked Richardson to join her staff as an assistant in 2006. A year later, Richardson was brought on by the University of Maryland’s Brenda Frese. “I thought, ‘This is it. This is my team,’ ” she says. She’d grown up idolizing the Terps.
But coaching a college team was more like a business, not the family atmosphere she’d cultivated at Riverdale. In college, the players show up for practice or a game and they’re expected to shut out their personal lives and perform. “I’m more of a nurturing-type coach, and this was all work, work, work,” Richardson says.
She left Maryland after a year and took time off to figure out her next step. “The problem was I don’t relax very well,” says Richardson, a self-described workaholic and insomniac. “I’m not the sit-on-the-porch-drinking-lemonade type.”
Late at night, Richardson will be at her desk, sending e-mails and updating her Facebook page. Or she might watch game film, work on a new play, or plan tomorrow’s practice—her husband, Larry, asleep in the next room. She’ll finally drift off around 3 or 4. Her friends know not to call until after 10 am.
When Richardson heard that her old job at Riverdale had opened up, she jumped at it. She missed the kids and the game, missed the practices and strategy sessions and recruiting and championships. Most of all, she missed the surrogate family she’d built at a school an hour from home.
“When I talk to parents, I tell them that this is not just about basketball. We’re family, and most likely we’ll be part of your family for the rest of your life,” she says. “I’m still in touch with every player I’ve coached. They call me when they get married or when they’re having a baby. We are family. Truly. All the time.”
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