Karl Lindholm: ‘Nancy made it fun.’ Middlebury hoop star became medical leader
This is the story of Nancy Gaden, basketball player extraordinaire.
Before we tell of Nancy’s accomplishments, let’s set the context: if you look at the record book in women’s basketball at Middlebury College, one woman dominates: Sladja Kovijanic, ’93.
Sladja is without question the best women’s basketball player ever at Middlebury in the nearly half century Middlebury women have played the game seriously.
She was spectacular, one of the very few best players in all of DIII NCAA hoops at the time. In 1993, she led the country in scoring with an average of 30.9. Let’s pause for a minute. . . . she averaged 30 points a game!
She is the leading scorer in school history with over 1,600 points. The teams she led were 64-20 in her four years (1989-93), 18-2 in her sophomore year and 17-5 her senior year when they were ECAC (pre-NESCAC) Champions.
Sladja was inducted into the Middlebury Athletics Hall of Fame in just its second year, 2015, the first women’s basketball player. Easy call.
Sladja has all of the scoring records except one: most points in a game (though she did score 47 points in one game and 45 and 44 in others).
OK, here’s where Nancy Gaden comes in: a freshman in 1980, Nancy Gaden scored 52 points in a game and that’s the record. That same year, she averaged nearly 30 points a game (29.5), just a sliver behind Sladja. She also had a 44-point game in a 72-69 loss to Norwich.
So who is this Nancy Gaden who scored more points in a basketball game than anyone in the 43-year history of the women’s game at Middlebury: what’s her hoop story?
Simply put, Nancy Gaden was a player. Had she stayed more than just that one year, 1979-80, she could well have given Sladja a run for her money for pre-eminence in the sport at Middlebury.
In the four decades since she left Middlebury, Nancy Gaden has built a career of great distinction outside sport. More on that later.
1979-80 was just the third year of Middlebury women’s basketball. The coach of that team was 25-year-old Missy Foote, who later gained national fame and recognition as the women’s lacrosse coach at Middlebury (14 consecutive Final Four appearances, five DIII national championships!).
In the years after the passage of Title IX (1972), Middlebury was expanding its athletic offerings for women. Missy was the first women’s basketball coach, and at the same time also coached swimming (a fall sport), and lacrosse.
In the first five years of the basketball program, the team only won 14 games, six of those games in one year, 1980, when Nancy Gaden, a 5’6” guard, led the team. The year before she arrived, Middlebury won no games (0-10); the year after she left, Midd was 2-10.
In the one winning season (6-5) with Nancy in 1980, the losses were all against more established programs — Williams, Hamilton, Norwich (twice) and St. Michael’s, but all were competitive games.
“We were a ragtag crew of young women in a fledgling program,” Missy recalled, “with a coach who had two other sports overlapping. But we were a tight-knit group and Nancy made it fun.
“She was a coach’s dream, confident, but not cocky,” Missy said. “She handled the ball all the time and could shoot and hit from anywhere on the floor. We had a good rebounder (Ty Kennedy) who would outlet the ball to Nancy and she would score on the break too.
“She was a fireball and made the game fun for everybody.”
According to Missy, it was not her great skills that endeared Nancy to her teammates most, but rather her “incredible enthusiasm. She had such a curiosity about her world,” Missy said. “She lived her life ‘with her head up.’ As a coach, who could ask for anything more?”
Prior to coming to Middlebury, Nancy had been an outstanding player in high school in Jamestown, N.Y. “Basketball was a really important part of my life,” she told me in conversations last week. “My high school team dominated our league and played in regional tournaments across western New York.
“I chose Middlebury because of the beautiful setting and strong academics. I loved playing at Middlebury. We had a really wonderful team of well-rounded women of many talents. Basketball was a really enjoyable outlet for us — a transition into adulthood and a lesson in how sports can fit into your life.”
Nancy came to Middlebury with a notion that she would go into medicine eventually, perhaps as a doctor. During the course of that year, her ambition in life came into clearer focus. She asked herself, “What do I really like about medicine? It wasn’t holding a clipboard at the end of the bed. I wanted to be in the room with the patient. That’s nursing.”
So she transferred after a year at Middlebury to the University of Rochester, which had “a great reputation for nursing and an affiliation with Strong Memorial Hospital and the school of medicine.”
Now, lest you think Nancy was simply the best player on a weak program in college (which she was at Middlebury), the University of Rochester chapter dramatically reinforces her basketball abilities.
The “U of R” had a well-established women’s hoop program, playing at a high level against such teams as St. Bonaventure, Niagara, Cornell, Colgate, Bucknell, Boston College, and others. Nancy “walked on” as a sophomore and quickly became the starting point guard. She played every game for the next two years, 24 games in 1980-81, and 32 games (including seven postseason tournament games) in her junior year when the Yellow Jackets went 23-9. She scored over seven points a game in her two years.
Rochester had the National DII/III Player of the Year, Jody Lavin, the leading scorer in their women’s basketball history (over 2,000 points), so Nancy became a distributor and defender. She can be found here and there in the record book at Rochester too: for example, she has the second-most assists in a season with 150 (4.8 a game) in ’81-’82. The demands of her nursing studies precluded playing her senior year.
At this point, I have expended most of my column space: what about Nancy Gaden’s next three and a half decades or so? That could fill another column. Here’s the shorthand version:
Nancy Gaden has built a career of great distinction in nursing leadership, having earned a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in nursing practice, and served in leadership roles in a number of Boston-area hospitals.
At present, she is Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) at Boston Medical Center with 1,600 nurses under her supervision. She described BMC as “the largest trauma hospital in New England. We care for the most vulnerable patients in the communities we serve. My job is to care for the nurses so they can care for the patients.”
When I asked Nancy if her basketball experience informed her nursing career, she responded with this anecdote:
“After I got my job at Boston Medical Center, my boss, the CEO, Kate Walsh, told me that one of the biggest reasons that they chose me was because I had been a point guard and played basketball in college.
“In their experience, leaders who played team sports were more successful at inspiring their employees and collaborating across disciplines.
“So I think I owe basketball a great ‘thank you’!”
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