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Sunday, April 14, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coach Has Left Sad Legacy -- Parsons Still Shunned; She Broke Most Essential Bond Of Profession

Charlotte Observer

Pam Parsons calls herself the game's "worst nightmare."

Once one of the most successful coaches in women's basketball, Parsons left the sport with its most painful scandal - she had an affair with a player.

Now, for the first time since her 1984 trial and a stay in prison, Parsons tells her story. The former South Carolina coach admits an array of financial, academic, recruiting and sexual improprieties. And she offers no excuses.

"I want to apologize," she says with tears in her eyes, "to all those players I hurt, and I want to apologize to their parents. They gave me their most prized possessions - their daughters. Those girls had hopes and dreams, and I let them down."

Women's college basketball still struggles with her legacy. She brought intensity and style to her work, but she also tore at the trust essential to coaching.

She made stereotypes seem true - that homosexuals pervade women's basketball, that they are untrustworthy and that they entice impressionable young people.

"Pam Parsons left a cloud over women's basketball," says North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, incoming president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "For one thing, people think everybody involved is a lesbian, which isn't anywhere close to being true. What's worse is that she made it like those people who are gay don't follow the rules."

Those generalizations mean that coaches today can win recruits by hinting that competing programs are mostly gay; that some schools shun gay players and coaches; and that the game suffers from that controversy.

Parsons knows she's still an outcast. There's been no other scandal of such consequence in the 15 years since she coached.

"I crossed the boundaries. I broke the code accepted by the group. I deserved to lose people's respect," she says.

Parsons' first star player, Nancy Lieberman-Cline, now a commentator for ESPN, says Parsons could have been a leader in the game. "Pam was a pioneer, and she had some vision," she says. "But you can't excuse what she did."

At 48, Parsons lives in Atlanta with her former player Tina Buck, 33. They admit now what they hid for years - an intimate relationship that began when Buck was in high school and continued while she played for Parsons at USC.

They get by on $15,000 a year. They wear second-hand clothes and perform massage therapy in their small rented home. Neither has medical insurance.

They've spent much of the past decade in therapy, studying philosophy and trying to recover from their public humiliation. In telling her story, Parsons wants to put some issues to rest. Arrogance and deceit, she says, ruined her career.

"The rules didn't apply to me. It got so bad I couldn't even bear to stand in line. I'd sit back there thinking `I should be at the front of this line. I'm Pam Parsons.' "

She also felt she had no choice but to lie about her homosexuality.

"I constantly wore a mask. I constantly had to lie. . . . There wasn't anyone to talk to. When you're under that much stress, you don't think clearly."

Pat Head and Pam Parsons were the most talked-about coaches in 1977, recalls USC athletic director Jim Carlen.

He knew Head (now Pat Summitt) would never leave her Tennessee Lady Vols, so he pursued Parsons at Old Dominion. "I wanted the best coach out there - and I got her," he says.

Parsons had credentials: She played guard for two Amateur Athletic Union teams that contended for national titles. She had played college ball at Brigham Young and held degrees in physical education and exercise physiology. College recruiters liked her Mormon background and her handsome boyfriend, a world-class volleyball player. She made a good package, she remembers recruiters saying.

From 1974 to 1977, in her first coaching job, Parsons went 49-31 at Old Dominion and proved a recruiting wizard, attracting the nation's hottest prospects, including Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen.

Despite her success, she struggled personally. She agonized over her sexuality.

"Only murder ranked worse than homosexuality in my religion," she says. "I didn't know what to do. It was a terrible struggle. I was dating men, but I almost always had a secret relationship going with a woman."

Parsons left Old Dominion in 1977 after a squabble over the Monarchs' budget. Rumors swirled about an affair between Parsons and a player - a brief relationship Parsons only now admits.

From several offers, Parsons chose South Carolina's promise of an "unlimited" budget and a $35,000 salary - among the highest for female coaches then.

Parsons changed the Carolina Chicks' name and their losing tradition.

The Lady Gamecocks went 24-10 her first year and 27-10 her second. In 1980, the unranked Gamecocks fought their way into the Final Four - ultimately finishing third in the nation, with a 30-6 record.

At least 18 players quit during her first three years, citing Parsons' temperamental outbursts and personal attacks.

"My way or the highway" became Parsons' mantra. Parson admits: "I was bouncy with the rules."

Nothing, however, compared with her biggest lapse in judgment. She allowed her lover to become her player.

Parsons met Tina Buck at an Atlanta bar in August 1980. They danced and flirted. Parsons, then 32, says she didn't know Buck played basketball or that she was 17. Buck knew Parsons. Almost every high-school player did. She was thrilled the "Queen of Basketball" showed interest.

"When I met Pam, she was a speeding bullet," Buck says. "She had this air of `I love life. If you have a problem with me - tough.' And I was really attracted to that."

Their relationship developed over the next year - off, then on - as Parsons struggled to accept their age difference. In turmoil, Buck quit high school.

On Nov. 2, 1980, the couple got caught.

A private detective, hired by assistant coach Karen Brown, documented that Buck had spent a night at Parsons' house - violating recruiting rules because Buck was considered a visiting high-school recruit.

Confronted by athletic director Carlen, Parsons says she admitted her affair. He did not intervene in her plans to offer Buck a scholarship - a deal worth about $30,000 over four years.

"It was totally over my head," Carlen now says. "I told her I thought it was bad news. But I didn't know what else to do."

Buck's mother, Janet, says she didn't have an inkling.

"I just thought Tina hero-worshiped this woman and that Pam took a professional interest in Tina," says Janet Buck, an Atlanta secretary and writer.

On April 18, 1981, on an empty stretch at Wrightsville Beach, the couple exchanged vows. Their bond would hold through an unimaginable storm.

A national championship appeared within Parsons' grasp in the 1981 season. Despite team troubles, Parsons had signed some of the nation's best players. And pundits ranked the team No. 2 in the nation.

Tina Buck had earned her high-school equivalency certificate and accepted USC's scholarship. Her 30-point average and scrappy play brought offers from several colleges. To her, the choice was clear.

"If I had it to do over, I would have gone to a different college," Buck says.

The Gamecocks won their first seven games that season.

Then, in December 1981, a player told her mother she'd seen Parsons and Buck embrace and kiss. The mother immediately complained to university officials.

On Dec. 31, 1981, USC's assistant athletic director, Ron Dickerson, confronted Parsons at her home. She resigned, scrawling a two-sentence note, citing health problems. But on New Year's Day - Parsons' 34th birthday - she tried to rescind her resignation. She wanted to negotiate a settlement, including a gag order, to protect her career. It was too late.

On Jan. 2, after beating St. Joseph's, the Lady Gamecocks, now coached by a man named Terry Kelly, flew back to Columbia. Parsons met them on the tarmac on a rainy night holding a banner that read, in part: "WELCOME HOME. I HAVE NOT RESIGNED." Several players burst into tears, including Tina Buck.

In its February 1982 swimsuit edition, Sports Illustrated told Pam Parsons' story. One player compared her to cult leader Jim Jones. An assistant coach charged that Parsons "recruited with sex in mind." And the story told the world that Pam Parsons, Mormon girl from Utah, was a lesbian.

Parsons sued the magazine, claiming that the story was untrue and that it ruined her career. She sought $75 million. In 1984, she and Buck took the stand in a Columbia courtroom, telling lie after lie. They denied they were lesbians. They denied they were intimate.

Then Babs DeLay, a disc jockey from Salt Lake City, testified that Parsons was a card-carrying member of a gay bar there and that the couple had visited 20 to 30 times.

"That's the one thing people ask me most: Why did you lie?" Parsons says. "All I can say is I wasn't thinking clearly. I was still rebelling."

The couple pleaded guilty to perjury. They spent 109 days in a minimum-security prison in Lexington, Ky.

In the 11 years since their release, they've worked as house painters, waitresses and yard keepers, making less than $5,000 some years. They endured snide remarks and harassment, including a Columbia theater's production of a play mocking their story.

They've spent years mending ties with their families.

As for basketball, Parsons says she'd like to coach or help market the fledgling women's pro league - "if they'll have me." Now, she has little to do with the game, some years watching the Final Four on TV.

Parsons may no longer have money or fame or a role in the sport she loves. But she now has freedom she never knew.

She believes she lost her way because she felt forced to lie about her sexuality. Deceit, she says, robs your sense of right and wrong.

"I finally found what I was looking for - peace. I'm not afraid of being found out. I don't have to lie or concoct an image. It's an amazing space to be in. It is something I've wanted more than a national championship."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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