Bound by Tragedy

Lindsay Gottlieb's Cal basketball team has undergone immense tragedy en route to the first Final Four in program history.

For as long as Barack Obama has been the President of the United States, he has stayed true to an annual tradition come every March. He takes the time to fill out a bracket.

Not only does Obama spend hours navigating through the Men's field of 68, but he also makes sure to pencil in his predictions for the women as well. And of course, as with anything the president decides to do, he catches some flack from an opposing side.

Shouldn't Mr. Obama be spending his afternoon on foreign policy rather than bracketology? Isn't this just a publicity stunt to win over the 8-34 ESPN demographic? If it weren't for Title IX, would Obama ever fill out a women's bracket?

Regardless of where you find yourself in the petty debate, there is no argument when it comes to Obama's passion and knowledge for the game of basketball. The man knows his hoops. So when he sat down with ESPN to walk America through his Women's Final Four predictions, it meant something when he chose the California Golden Bears to be one of the last four standing. In retrospect, when one understands the story behind the 2013 Lady Bears, Obama's upset pick begins to start making sense.

We've all heard the rhetoric a million times. Turn on any press conference after an important athletic event and the word "adversity" will start to bounce around like a ping-pong ball. Every team has adversity and every good team ends up overcoming it. But what the Cal Women's basketball team has experienced goes far beyond adversity. The Cal women have overcome tragedy.

If there were a cover girl for the Lady Bears' excruciating hardship, that girl would be Tierra Rogers. Now in her Senior year as a scholarship athlete at Cal, Rogers has never stepped foot on the Haas Pavillion floor.

Growing up in the Hunter's Point district of San Francisco, Rogers was a basketball prodigy from the moment she was old enough to dribble a ball. On the playgrounds near Candlestick Park, Rogers was known affectionately as "The Lady Iverson". There was nothing Tierra couldn't do on a basketball court. She was so good, her father, Terray "Tat" Rogers, used to take her to the park and bet other grown men that her daughter could make more than 7 out of 10 shots from the free throw line. It wasn't that Terray had to do it, but the money was too easy. Tierra was virtually automatic.

By high school, Tierra found herself as the best player on the best team in the nation, the Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep Irish of San Francisco. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Lady Irish won the State championship. For two straight season in ‘07-'08, Tierra's team never lost a game. She was a can't-miss star in every sense of the word, but on Jan 12, 2008, things would never be the same for Tierra. This is when two men in hooded sweatshirts rushed at Terray Rogers in the parking lot of a basketball gym. As the gunshots sounded outside, Tierra was in the gym getting ready to play the second half of a regular season game. Terray was pronounced dead at the scene.

In many ways, Tierra was the reason her dad was doing well at the time of the shooting. If it wasn't for her inspiring potential on the basketball court, her dad might have already been gone well before she reached high school.

Adam Rogers, Tierra's grandpa and Terray's dad, was murdered in San Francisco back in 1977. He had been in and out of jail and heavily involved with drugs and gangs. In his later years, Adam had rehabilitated himself to the point where he became a community activist. Adam Rogers Playground still stands in Hunter's Point today for the good things he did, but he ultimately fell short of outrunning his demons.

The same story could be told of Tierra's dad Terray. Shortly after Tierra was born, her dad was locked up in jail for his involvement with drugs and gangs. When he got out, he followed his father's footsteps of reinventing himself as someone with a job and a positive presence in the community. Perhaps what truly kept him on track was his daughter and the athletics gifts she had that made everyone in the Rogers family so optimistic about the future.

Just months after her father was murdered outside the gym of one of her games, Tierra found herself inside Arco Arena in Sacramento. Another state championship would be won for SHC Prep. Another undefeated season in the books. Of course, this time it didn't feel right. Tierra wanted to quit basketball entirely. The basketball court didn't serve as a sanctuary for her to remove herself from Tat's death, it only made the memories more vivid.

A year later, now as a McDonald's All American, Rogers choose to stay close to home and take her game across the Bay to play for the Bears. Tierra forged a fast bond with the Cal coach that recruited her, Joanne Boyle. Boyle promised her a fresh start: A new school, a new campus, a new home gym to play in.

In late September of 2009, just weeks before Rogers would put on a Cal uniform for the first time, she collapsed during a routine workout and nearly died. Rushed to the hospital, doctors were able to keep the freshman guard alive, but her college basketball career would be over. At the hospital, Rogers would be diagnosed with a rare heart condition: arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.

A defibrillator was implanted and rigorous exercise was deemed out of the question. Overnight, Rogers went from a world-class athlete, to someone who wasn't allowed to run a mile in under nine minutes.

Fast forward four years and Tierra can still be found on the Cal bench, supporting her teammates. Joanne Boyle, the coach that brought Tierra to Berkeley, has since left Cal to coach at Virginia. Somehow, Tierra has stuck it out. Showing up at practices and games week after week, year after year. The University has honored her scholarship all the way through and rightfully so, as Rogers has found a way to make an indelible mark on the Cal program, even without a uniform on.

As the Cal Lady Bears sit in their hotel rooms in New Orleans on the eve of the Final Four, there is no doubt some reflection being paid to the greatest season in Cal basketball history. Cal has never appeared in the Women's Final Four and outside of Stanford, it has been 25 years since a Pac-10 (or Pac-12, for that matter) team has made it this deep into the tournament. And while Tierra Rogers wasn't able to contribute in the box score to help this team accomplish so much, her intangible contribution as an unofficial trauma counselor can't be measured. Two of Tierra's current Cal teammates have also lost family members to gunfire.

Gennifer Brandon, Cal's Junior interior scorer and rebounder, was a young girl living near LA when her dad was shot and killed after being mistaken for an armed robbery suspect. Greg Brandon had recently retired from the NBA, where he played for the Seattle SuperSonics. The shooting sent shockwaves through the family and Gennifer's mother began fighting a battle with alcoholism.

Brandon soon wound up in foster care. Fortunately, she found her way to Berkeley where she has slowly blossomed into one of the most athletic players in the nation. If the Bears expect to be the last team standing in New Orleans, much will be due to Brandon's ability to change the game with her athleticism.

Perhaps the Bears' fiercest defender – senior Eliza Pierre -- also happens to be the team's shortest player. With her feisty energy, cornrows and a pair of her signature glasses, Pierre comes off the bench for Cal and seems to wreak havoc on opposing teams' point guards.

Sadly, Pierre has been the lastest Bear to lose a loved one to murder. In the summer of 2011, Eliza received a call only to learn that her older brother Wilson had been killed in a gang-related shooting at a party in North Hollywood.

Fortunately for Brandon and Pierre, they have not needed to look far for advice on how to get through a basketball season with the unfathomable weight of murder on one's mind. Tierra Rogers has done it. She has done it as a starting guard for one of the best Bay Area high school basketball teams ever, and she has done it from the sidelines for one of the most inspiring college basketball teams ever. She has done it and lived to tell about it.

When the Lady Bears take the floor in New Orleans on Sunday evening, it will be a far cry from a half full Haas Pavillion. Instead, it will be under the bright lights of New Orleans arena where the NBA's Hornets call home. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to believe President Obama will be tuning in via Air Force One to check in on his cinderella pick that proved him right. As they pronounce in a recent viral youtube video, a team that has been to the darkest of bottoms, is now here. "The whole Cal team is here," at least for 40 more minutes.

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