If a high school boys basketball coach is going to talk the talk, he – or in this case she – must be willing to walk the walk.
Mount Pleasant (Wilmington, Del.)
boys basketball coach Lisa Sullivan demands the utmost respect from her players – toward herself, their teammates, and most importantly, the people they come into contact with on a daily basis.
"Last year I kicked my two starting guards off the team for a bunch of small infractions, like cutting in the cafeteria line," Sullivan recalled. "I gave them a warning and they would do things again. I told them, ‘If you don't respect me, you don't respect your teammates, and so you can't play.'"
That's not the only example of the fourth-year coach disciplining players for infractions that, on other teams, might go unpunished.
"My players know I don't fool around, and it's for their own good," Sullivan said. "Those two players I kicked off the team last year are now in college, and I'd like to think me teaching them that there are consequences when you don't follow the rules helped get them there, and more importantly, keep them there."
It's rare when a female coach has to discipline boys. According to Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA) officials, Sullivan is the only female to have ever coached a boys varsity basketball team in the state. (The National Federation of State High School Associations does not officially keep track of the number of women coaching boys' teams. But a 2008 informal survey conducted by the federation found females coaching boys' basketball teams in at least eight states.)
When Sullivan does have to walk the walk, it's more like a "roll the cart."
The 45-year-old Mount Pleasant graduate is battling a very rare nerve disorder known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. Its onset came after a freak toe-stubbing incident while getting on an elevator. It has left Sullivan without the use of her left leg and foot for the past 15 years and counting.
"It causes an intense burning and makes my left leg very sensitive," Sullivan said of the disorder, for which there is no known cure. "It is extremely painful when touched and has spread to other areas of my body, and so now I have it in both legs and my hands."
Instead of taking the easy way out and collecting disability insurance, Sullivan works full-time as a job placement specialist at Jobs For Delaware Graduates. The position requires visitations to work sites all over New Castle County. In other words, when she's not on the court, she's hustling from job site to job site. She also has coached volleyball (head coach), football (assistant) and track and field (assistant) at Mount Pleasant.
"I don't dwell on the pain," she said. "I could just go out on disability, but coaching and working helps me keep my mind off the pain, and so that's what I do."
To get around, Sullivan requires the use of a special cart, called a Roll-A-Bout. She props her left leg up and uses her right leg to maneuver the cart.
"Would I rather be able to run up and down the sidelines when I coach?" Sullivan questioned rhetorically. "Sure. But it is what it is and isn't going to change."
Neither is her desire to coach. Sullivan worked her way up the coaching ranks after a stellar playing career at Wilmington College and Delaware Tech-Stanton. After coaching the girls team at district-rival Concord, Sullivan took over Sanford's girls team, and in just her second season, took them to the state tournament semifinals. It was following that season when she injured herself.
"I honestly thought we could win the state title the next season," Sullivan said. "But I didn't want to start something I couldn't finish, and so in the best interest of the team, I resigned."
Sullivan got back into coaching at her alma mater as an assistant for the girls varsity basketball team. After just one year, she was offered the boys junior varsity job.
"I wanted a different challenge," said Sullivan, who coached JV for 11 years under three different varsity coaches before finally getting the head position. "I wanted a chance to try something new."
After three sub-.500 seasons, Sullivan has successfully blended the talent of six transfers with a handful of returning players who now have a once-unthinkable shot at winning the state title. Mount Pleasant (14-6) has qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 1999.
"It's been a real challenge blending together our talent," a modest Sullivan said. "But like any team, as the season goes on we've started to gel together."
While Sullivan quickly deflects any praise directed toward her back to her players, athletic director Philip Walstrum credits Sullivan for the team's success, both on and off the court.
"Lisa's instructional approach is disciplined and fundamentally sound," Walstrum said. "This lays a foundation for her team to play in a manner that is cohesive and aggressive. This discipline is reflected off the court as well. Under her leadership, her players conduct themselves with an integrity and respect that models the type of leadership of Mount Pleasant student-athletes."
This is the first season since she became head coach that Sullivan hasn't had to excuse anyone from the team.
"This year's players are everything you want a student-athlete to be," Sullivan, who requires players to attend a daily, 90-minute study hall, proudly stated. "They take care of business in the classroom, they behave in school, and they do what they need to do on the court."
One of her star players, senior guard Tomir Gibbs
, said playing for Sullivan is probably tougher than playing for any other coach in the state. But it's one of the things that attracted him to the program.
"I heard she was more concerned about your work ethic in school than on the court," said Gibbs, who transferred from nearby Brandywine High. "And that's what made me look into Mount Pleasant.
"She's been more than what I heard she was going to be," he continued. "She gives me lots of advice on life things, and makes me work harder to be a better player than I am now. She believes in me."
Sullivan said she'll never put winning games before her core values, and it's that philosophy that draws admiration and praise from her peers.
"She teaches the game, and the role sports play in life," said Tommie Neubauer, DIAA coordinator of officials/events. "She truly cares about her team, her school, the staff and especially the game itself. But most importantly she teaches her players about the world. The term role model does not do her justice, she is a life model."
Sullivan might need a cart to get through her own life, but there's no doubt she clearly walks the walk when it comes to handling the lives of her players.
"My players are always students and people first," she said. "It's the only way I know how to coach."Jon Buzby is the sports columnist for the Newark Post, a freelance writer, and on the broadcast team for the 1290AM The Ticket High School Football and Basketball Games of the Week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.