Dec. 10, 1999
By Alan Wasielewski
If you attend summer school at Notre Dame and love to play basketball it becomes inevitable. Go to the Rolfs Sports Complex for a pick-up basketball game and surely you will find members of the Notre Dame women's basketball there.
The games are competitive and fun. One player seems to be enjoying herself a bit more than the others. She is the unselfish one, the one who is most vocal and the one who is the most intense. In short, she's the one who fits the textbook description of a point guard.
And that is the position Imani Dunbar plays at Notre Dame. She is that special player that stands out above the rest. Dunbar relishes the informal games over the summer and knows the time is meaningful for her and her teammates.
"It is the one time there are no coaches around," Dunbar says. "You can make the behind-the-back pass or miss an open player without getting yelled at. It is the time when our team chemistry gets developed. The bonding during the season, post-season tournament, and the off-season workouts is crucial. It is our game. We have the freedom to play the way we want and I think we become a better team because of it."
That drive to improve is propelling the team to even greater heights than it has ever achieved. Notre Dame has become a perennial contender in the NCAA Tournament and the team is poised for a run at the title again this season. Since the trip to the Final Four in 1997, the goals of the team have become greater with each passing season. The 1999-2000 season is no exception.
An early loss to Illinois on November 27 might have shook the confidence of a less experienced team, but Dunbar, who constantly has her finger on the pulse of the team, knew how to put the game into perspective.
"I kept thinking, after we lost, it wasn?t the NCAA tournament," she says. "If I had my choice of when I want a loss to happen, I wanted it to happen that day. Illinois is a great team. Judging by the way we have played since then, we know that we didn't play our game against them. Because of that loss, we picked our standards up, we didn?t like the way that loss felt. We've decided that we are going to show the country we have a strong mental game - we are going to come out and beat North Carolina. Which is what we did."
Notre Dame did flash a strong mental game by bouncing back from the Illinois loss and winning the Wachovia Women' Invitational Tournament last weekend in Richmond, Va. The Irish beat then ninth-ranked North Carolina in the first game and Liberty in the second to take the tournament title.
"I think we are having a great year," Dunbar says. "The way we recovered from the Illinois loss and bounced back shows our great mental strength early in the season. That will help us later in the year and in March when the tournaments start."
Dunbar has played a key role in the Irish success this season and has stepped into a starting role. Her hard work and dedication has earned her the respect and confidence from her coaches and teammates.
"It is like a dream come true," Dunbar says. "I have been saying to myself all along that it is not a dream, and I am sticking with that notion. This team has great cohesiveness and we are one big happy family. Right now I am living out a dream. Being is the starting lineup has me grinning from ear-to-ear. I feel very blessed that my first career start occurred against Butler in our first home game of the year."
The contributions Dunbar makes to the team is not measured in points, assists, rebounds, or three point field goals. She is the kind of person every coach wants and needs on the team for leadership, she is the one who helps a team build character and team chemistry.
Her experience as a member of the Irish women's basketball team has been an integral part of her life.
"Basketball has been such an important part of my existence here," she says. "I have been blessed over the past two year with so many fond memories that will last a lifetime. My personal life is wrapped around my teammates both on and off the court. They are my closest friends."
It is clear that the time Dunbar has spent at Notre Dame will have a lasting effect on her life, and she is quick to discuss what being a Notre Dame student-athlete means to her.
"Freshman year had to be the greatest learning experience of my life," Dunbar explains. "During my time here, I've been challenged by this program both academically and athletically - Notre Dame, in general, has challenged me. I can look back over the last two years and feel good about the way I responded to those challenges.
"I didn't buckle when times got hard and I didn't run away. I turned to God and his strength helped me through it all. I survived and stuck with it and became a much stronger person. I am grateful for the experience. It was God's will and divine intervention that brought me to Notre Dame."
Dunbar's attention is clearly focused on the basketball season, but she knows that inevitatbly her time as member of the Irish basketball team will end. And true to her goal-setting tradition, the San Angelo, Texas native has a firm grasp of knowing what she wants to accomplish - to be a coach.
On a visit to the Joyce Center this season pay particular attention to the diminutive point guard. No one deserves more the chance to run the Irish show and live out her dream than Imani Dunbar.