Basketball coach Vivian Stringer is maybe most famous outside the sports world for her role as a spokeswoman during the Don Imus scandal, when the former radio host made racist and sexist remarks about Stringer’s players. But there’s much more to Stringer’s career and life — maybe too much even for Coach, the new ESPN documentary about her.
The film kicks off a new series called Nine for IX: Nine documentaries airing over nine weeks for the 40th anniversary of Title IX. We spoke with the doc’s director, Bess Kargman, about working with Stringer — and Coach‘s producer, Whoopi Goldberg.
See an exclusive clip from the documentary, and read our Q&A, below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d you get involved with Nine for IX?
I randomly get this phone call one day from someone at ESPN named Dan Silver. And he said, “We saw [Kargman’s feature-length documentary] First Position and we feel like it’s right up our alley in terms of the way you told your story and how character-driven it is. And we want to know if you’re interested in doing a ’30 for 30.'” I said, “Of course.” And they said, “OK, we’ll get back to you.” So then they called me like a month or two later and they said, “We’re doing this new thing called Nine for IX.” They got together with Whoopi Goldberg, who said, “I want to executive produce this, let’s look for a director.” ESPN recommended me to Whoopi, and she loved my work. And when they told me what the story idea was, all I knew was the Don Imus scandal. But I didn’t know how incredible this woman’s personal story was.
How was Whoopi as a producer?
This is a woman who has a tremendous amount of experience and is a great storyteller, so it was an honor for her to call me up and say, “I want to work with you.” Whoopi was very involved. We would go through at each stage, she would watch and we would have sessions together and go back and forth.
What was your relationship like with Vivian Stringer?
So it was interesting: This is a woman who has achieved so much and has had to do it with extreme fortitude and strength. It took a while for me to get her to open up and earn her trust. I get it: It’s hard to open up and be vulnerable on camera and I knew I had to work with her to get that out of her and it took time.
Was there an “A-ha!” moment?
There were two moments: We had one interview, and I felt like there was more that I wanted to get, and so someone at ESPN pulled her aside and said, “You have to trust Bess.” Every huge achievement in her life has been coupled with tremendous anguish: The fact that her daughter went from completely healthy to forever in a wheelchair, unable to feed herself, unable to talk, unable to hear, in a matter of days — and then two months later she takes her team to the Final Four. And then her husband dies of a fatal heart attack and then a couple months later, she takes another team to the Final Four. I mean all of her greatest achievements have come in the face of terrible grief. It would have been naive of me to expect her to cry immediately to me, telling her story.
The most satisfying thing for me was after she saw it, she gave me a call — I got this random call at noon on a Sunday from a strange New Jersey number. We had sent her the DVD of Coach and we hadn’t heard from her for nearly a week, and so I said, “Uh-oh, this is a bad sign.” She called and she said, “No one has told my story with such dignity and grace and fullness in such a short amount of time. I can’t believe what you did.” And then she goes, “I know I wasn’t easy. I know that I made it clear that I didn’t know where you were going with this in the beginning.” Actually, she kept saying, “I have no words. I can’t believe that I have no words.”
Was it weird, going from features to a short documentary?
To have to cram in so much of her story in under 20 minutes was fairly daunting. It would have been a piece of cake to do a piece that was 90 minutes. So the editing process took a lot of work. But I tried to be very precise in terms of the story I wanted to tell. And I felt like the most critical thing to show was, “You think you know this woman because you heard her name after the Don Imus scandal, but you have no idea.” There’s that famous quote, right, the letter written to a poet’s mother: “Dear mother, if I’d had more time, I would have made this letter shorter.” Making a film shorter always takes longer.
Coach premieres Tuesday at 11 a.m. on espnW.com. Nine for IX premieres on ESPN on July 2 at 8 p.m.