Ex player answers calling as coach

Aaron Kirscht

Tom Gunderson, former basketball coach at Harding High School in St. Paul, remembers a certain ninth-grader striding into his gym nearly 10 years ago.
Cara Pearson had only begun playing basketball the year before, and it showed. She had the physical ability and perhaps the appearance of a gym rat, though Pearson was anything but.
“I stunk,” she remembers.
But Gunderson saw something, at least enough to keep her around. Uncoordinated but undaunted, Pearson improved steadily throughout her high school career.
“She wasn’t very good, to be honest with you,” Gunderson said. “But she learned very quickly. She worked very hard and was very successful.”
Pearson’s period of ineptitude on the court is long behind her. After helping Harding to the state championship game in 1990, she headed to the University, where she carved out a quietly successful career.
And just as she stepped hesitantly onto the court a decade ago, Pearson is slowly easing herself back to the bench. Pearson is back in the Big Ten as an assistant coach for the Gophers.
But the road back to campus has been a wild one.
Pearson’s eligibility ran out after the 1995 season, and she jumped at the opportunity to play professionally in the Canary Islands of Spain. But after only five weeks, Pearson was back home.
“It just didn’t go well,” she said. “So my agent and I decided that it would be better to come home and finish college.”
Pearson completed her psychology degree and landed a job on the Tartan High School coaching staff. She built friendships and a loyalty to the job at Tartan, but Pearson’s desire to play wouldn’t subside.
“I really missed playing a lot,” Pearson said. “Then Luxembourg came up. I really liked it. It was a great place. The caliber of basketball wasn’t that great, but the lifestyle and the quality of living were high.”
In her second stint as a professional basketball player, Pearson was content. Then Gophers coach Linda Hill-MacDonald picked up the phone. A restricted-earnings position on her staff was Pearson’s for the taking.
“It took me about five minutes to decide,” Pearson said. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. This kind of thing doesn’t come around too often.”
First a player, then a coach, then a player, then a coach. Pearson’s back-and-forth foray through the basketball world may not yet be over — she said she’d still love to play professionally — but one gets the feeling that Pearson is here to stay for a while.
And Hill-MacDonald would have no problem with that.
“As a player she was a student of the game, and she still is,” Hill-MacDonald said. “For someone who’s just coming into the profession, I think she has an excellent grasp of how to teach — how to recognize what needs to be fixed.”
When Pearson came into the Minnesota program as a player, the Gophers were coming off a 6-22 season, Hill-MacDonald’s first as coach. Those numbers are similar to last year, when the team finished 4-23.
So once again, Pearson is smack in the middle of a rebuilding process.
“She’s been where these players are,” Hill-MacDonald said. “That gives her the advantage of knowing what it takes. She can talk to the players from a very unique, and I think a very important, perspective.”
Lisa Dooley, who brought Pearson on board at Tartan, agreed.
“The kids were really bummed out that she wasn’t going to be back,” Dooley said. “She’s on their level, but at the same time, she’s very professional.”
The parallels between Pearson’s playing and coaching careers are unmistakable; both are marked by an unyielding work ethic and perseverance. Once Pearson sets her mind on something, she’s likely to see success.
“The way I look at basketball and coaching are similar,” Pearson said. “I didn’t want to play basketball because I didn’t think I was good, and I didn’t want to coach because I didn’t think I was good at that either.
“It took a push to get me into coaching, but since then I’ve really come to love it, and I’ve become more confident.”
And just as that uptight ninth-grader came to embrace the game a decade ago, Pearson is successfully making her way through unfamiliar territory.
“I hope she’ll stay with basketball,” Hill-MacDonald said. “I think she’s going to be a wonderful head coach someday.”