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Christine Grant’s legacy on display during Iowa women’s basketball’s Final Four trip
Lark Birdsong, with assist from P. Sue Beckwith, brings Bluder gift from her beloved mentor at Final Four
DALLAS — When Christine Grant died in 2021, it was before the former Iowa women’s athletics director could experience one thing she was “wishing she could still do.”
“When Lisa (Bluder) made it to the Final Four, she’d love to be there,” said Lark Birdsong, Iowa’s first women’s basketball coach and a close friend of Grant.
Grant “knew that wasn’t possible anymore,” Birdsong said, because of her declining health.
But Grant undoubtedly believed a Final Four trip was a “when” and not an “if” for Iowa’s women’s basketball head coach since 2000 — one of her final hires as women’s athletics director.
“That was one of the things that I wished I could have helped her with,” Birdsong said, looking back to when Grant died.
The moment Grant anticipated finally happened this week — a little more than a year after her death — when Iowa appeared in the Final Four for the first time since 1993.
“She would be just beaming with pride,” said Birdsong, who found a way to bring Grant symbolically to Dallas.
She surprised Bluder on Friday with a sweater that belonged to Grant — or, as Birdsong affectionately refers to her, “Christie.”
It is marigold with thin black stripes.
“If you knew Dr. Grant, she wore these sweaters that were of Scottish wool quite a bit — V-necks,” Bluder said.
The sweater had been sitting amid the rest of Grant’s belongings until recently.
One of Grant’s closest friends, Bonnie Slatton, was in declining health last year. So another close friend, Peg Burke, suggested Birdsong take some of Grant’s “really good sweaters” at Slatton and Grant’s residence.
Birdsong’s mother had recently died, and she remembered how much it meant to her to have some of her mom’s belongings.
“I knew that, eventually, these are going to go to folks that probably didn’t know Christine as well as some others,” Birdsong said.
She took the yellow sweater along with a black vest, not knowing at the time what she was going to do with it.
“When they made the Final Four, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s how I can get Christie there,’” Birdsong said.
One of Birdsong’s players from 1976 through 1980, P. Sue Beckwith, now is one of the athletics department’s largest benefactors.
Beckwith facilitated the quick meeting with Bluder on Friday to gift the sweater along with one of what Birdsong calls “Hawkeye hearts.”
“I make these glass hearts, and they’re Hawkeye colors,” Birdsong said.
Birdsong, who was wearing Grant’s vest, brought the Hawkeye heart she made for Grant along with the wool sweater.
Bluder wore the sweater for part of Iowa’s shootaround Friday.
“I know it meant so much to Coach Bluder,” forward McKenna Warnock said.
Bluder wanted her team to experience the gift, too.
“I passed it around the circle yesterday,” Bluder said. “Let everybody feel it, get a piece of Dr. Grant's DNA.”
As star guard Caitlin Clark received the sweater, she pulled it close to her body and embraced it as she closed her eyes in what she described as “an incredible moment.”
Iowa women’s basketball players do not have the same individual connection to Grant that former players might have. The onset of COVID-19 and her declining health limited Grant’s public appearances for the last two years of her life. She died on Dec. 31, 2021.
But Bluder has gone out of her way to carry on Grant’s legacy.
She brought in Amy Wilson, the NCAA’s managing director of inclusion and Grant’s final Ph.D. student, earlier in the season to talk with the team. The dialogue about Grant has continued throughout the season.
“We talk about (Grant) all the time,” Warnock said. “We’ve read so many articles, so many books about her.”
It’s “really incredible,” Clark said, for Iowa — a program known for being a leader in gender equity in sports under Grant’s direction — to be at the Final Four following last year’s 50th anniversary of Title IX.
“Fifty years might seem like a long time to a lot of people, but it’s really not,” Clark said.
Not only have the Hawkeyes gone where Grant knew Bluder could take them, but they’re doing it with sellout crowds and record-breaking TV ratings.
The Iowa-South Carolina Final Four game set an ESPN Final Four record with 5.5 million viewers. The Iowa-Louisville game’s 2.5 million viewers last weekend also set a record for the Elite Eight.
Three of Iowa’s five NCAA tournament games so far have been sellouts, with the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Seattle being the exceptions. The Seattle game also had sizable crowds.
“I know Dr. Grant would be so happy right now if she could be a part of this, and I know she's so thrilled for us,” Bluder said.
While “it’s come leaps and bounds,” some wisdom came to mind for Bluder from her late mentor.
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“I know Dr. Grant would say, it's not still good enough, though,” Bluder said. “And it probably isn't. We still have work to do, but we're getting there.”
While Grant is not physically around to see this progress, those in Dallas have felt her presence.
“I know how proud Dr. Grant is above us,” Clark said. “She believed we could be in this moment. She believed Coach Bluder could lead us to this moment.”