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Friday, October 28, 2011
Toni Kokenis dances to her own beat

By Michelle Smith

This season, espnW will spend time with the Stanford Cardinal and their Hall of Fame head coach, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives off and on the court, from the start of practice to the last game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Toni Kokenis emerges from the "Band Shak," the hovel-like space located on the ground level of the Aquatics facility at Stanford, stepping out into the sunshine in full, sparkling Stanford band regalia.

Today it's a red vest, pink striped tie, glitter on her cheeks, blue mirrored sunglasses and the standard-issue white hat personalized with a peace symbol and rainbow buttons, plus a youth soccer photo of her friend Hillary, a bandmate who couldn't make Saturday's homecoming game.

It's a far cry from her other Stanford uniform, the customary jersey and shorts, which she wears as a sophomore point guard for the basketball team.

Kokenis' hair is low-key this week, down and wavy, as opposed to at her last band performance, two weeks ago against UCLA, in which hoops teammate Nneka Ogwumike braided her hair up into a Mohawk.

While her Stanford basketball teammates are roaming around campus, stopping at tailgates, chatting up alumni and doing interviews, Kokenis, fittingly, is going her own way.

She is the first basketball player in anyone's best recollection who is an active member of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band.

Yep, that Stanford band. The one that was on the field when Cal won the 1982 Big Game. The one with the dancing tree. The one that has been suspended numerous times for running afoul of the athletic department's standards for good taste and behavior. Irreverent, colorful, controversial and trademark Stanford.

Kokenis, who has been known to proudly rock tie-dyed T-shirts around campus, got talked into joining the band last year by some of her freshmen dorm mates.

She didn't realize at the time that she'd be breaking a mold.

She played saxophone in junior high and high school, back in Hinsdale, Ill. But she was never in the marching band back then, because there was no time for that with her sports commitments.

At Stanford she's playing the mellophone -- in essence, a jumbo trumpet -- and a bedazzled one at that.

For the record, it came that way, crusted with plastic jewels and glitter.

"This is the one they gave me," Kokenis said.

Band manager Ben Lasley said there have been a number of athletes in the band through the years, mostly wrestlers and some rowers.

But this is the first time he can recall an athlete from a "major" sport participating.

Kokenis has been participating with the band since the spring. Luckily, it's a very free-form kind of thing.

"It's essentially commitment-free," Lasley said. "There are really no expectations that you have to show up at specific times. Our only real expectation is that if you are going to do field shows, you have to make a couple of field rehearsals.

"We are all pretty big fans of the women's basketball team, so we're good with it, but my only concern was, 'I hope she doesn't get hurt playing with us.'"

Still, it wasn't a tough sell for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, who said she never really had to approve.

"As long as she could make it work with our schedule," VanDerveer said. "I think it's great. Toni's a bit of a nut. It works."

Teammate Lindy La Rocque agrees that Kokenis is a perfect fit for the Stanford band.

"She's got a secret side," La Rocque said. "You can't really tell it from the outside, but she can be a little eccentric."

On Saturday afternoon, it was hitting the mid-80s in Northern California, the last gasp of the Indian summer that always seems to show up the week before Halloween.

Kokenis was supposed to be wearing a red blazer.

"I'm so happy I got a vest instead," she said.

Kokenis has marched, a term used very loosely in this case, with the band at three home games thus far. She tries to make the one all-band rehearsal each week, on Monday nights. Mostly, she's picked up her new instrument on her own, with what she confesses has been a minimal amount of practice.

She's hoping to join the band for at least one more home game -- the Nov. 19 Big Game against Cal. But her basketball teams plays two days later at UConn, so that one might be tough.

The band opens the homecoming festivities by parading from in front of the Alumni Center to a picnic area where the Stanford football team walks by on the way to the stadium for warm-ups.

From there, it's a two-hour pregame campus tour, serenading various tailgate groups and parties in the heat.

It's Star Wars Day, and many of the band's leaders are dressed in costumes, from Luke and Princess Leia (in the gold bikini) to Boba Fett and C-3PO. One of the bass drummers is dressed as Chewbacca, and he experiences a mild wardrobe malfunction when his furry costume becomes entangled in the drum and he needs to be cut away from the instrument about a half-hour into the day.

Kokenis is in the middle of the pack, hopping, jumping, bobbing her head to the music and marching nowhere near in time -- and with the Stanford band, that doesn't matter even a little.

"See Toni yet?" said sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike, on her way to the stadium. "It's perfect, right?"

The band makes its way into Stanford Stadium about 45 minutes before game time. It plays some tunes in front of the student section, then goes onto the field for a pregame performance making fun of the University of Miami's scandal-ridden football program and, finally, the national anthem.

Kokenis takes her spot in the stands as the game begins -- the band is embedded in the middle of the student section -- grabbing some nachos with her band meal ticket before halftime.

Then it is back onto the field for the halftime performance, in which the band generally ridicules the visiting Washington Huskies for things like their city's weather and lack of an NBA franchise. Stanford will go on to beat the Huskies 65-21.

Halftime is over, and Kokenis confesses that she's going to have to slip out of band mode. The free-spirited girl who has spent the day hanging out in the heart of Stanford's best-known countercultural movement has some place else to be on a Saturday night.

"I've got a babysitting job," Kokenis said.

And then she is off, a flash of glitter and energy, once again going her own way.