Team helps Medlock survive tragedy

Medlock's teammates "take care of you on the days you can't take care of yourself." Jim Brown/US Presswire

Those of us in this storytelling business always have to keep close at heart that these are real stories. We're not writing fiction. When we reach the end and go to the next story, the real life we just wrote about is still going on.

Baylor junior Morghan Medlock has a story that Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey says "will make you bawl."

And it will, but that's not the reason to tell it. It's not about recounting tragedy for tragedy's sake. It's about recognizing a young woman who is getting through enormous grief with the help of her strength and that of her team.

It might very well make you cry. But it should make you feel good, too -- because thanks to basketball, Medlock has a whole community behind her.

"The support system I have at Baylor has helped me grow," Medlock said. "And it's let me know that there are people who are going to take care of you on the days you can't take care of yourself."

Medlock got the call on her cell phone on Dec. 19. The Baylor team had checked into its hotel in Oregon that afternoon, and Mulkey was taking a quick bath to relax.

"Then one of my managers was screaming, beating on my door and said, 'Coach, Morghan needs you! Her mother's just been murdered!'" Mulkey said. "I said, 'Get her in here.'"

Medlock, three weeks shy of her 21st birthday, received the news from police in Little Rock, Ark. Her mother, Shannan Barron, was dead in what police determined to be a murder-suicide. Barron's boyfriend, Gerald Gallian, had shot her, then shot himself. Medlock's 12-year-old brother, Nizhan, had found their bodies.

"Morghan came up to the room and just collapsed in my arms," Mulkey said. "I just held her, talked to her, helped her calm down and said, 'Let's call the police back,' because she was so concerned about her little brother being put in foster care because there was no other family there."

One of Baylor's players, Whitney Zachariason, is from Little Rock. Mulkey and Medlock asked police to keep Nizhan at the station until Whitney's mother, Dawn, could pick him up. The Zachariasons took care of Nizhan until someone from Medlock's family in California could get him.

Then Mulkey had to gather the rest of her players to explain what had happened.

"The team was just crying," Mulkey said. "I can't tell you the things that I said, I don't remember. It just came from the heart."

This is a group of Baylor players who have dealt with other difficult things. Senior Rachel Allison's cousin, Natalee Holloway, disappeared on a trip to Aruba in May 2005 and still hasn't been found. Allison and Holloway were born just five months apart and were very close growing up.

The Holloway case became a media sensation -- it was nightly programming for several months on television news shows -- and the mystery remains unsolved.

In 2007, as Baylor prepared for the NCAA tournament, then-senior Bernice Mosby learned her mother's house had burned to the ground and her family had lost everything.

In February 2008, the team's emotional leader, Jhasmin Player, suffered a torn ACL and missed the rest of the season. That is a tough thing to go through, but Player said that, of course, it doesn't compare to some of the things her teammates have faced.

"When I went out with my knee, I already knew life was bigger than basketball," said Player, who's a senior. "I've learned a million lessons through basketball, but Bernice Mosby's tragedy was terrible. And then you have Morghan losing her mother. For Morghan to even be out here playing …

"The thing I'll never forget about that Oregon road trip is how we all grew together as sisters. I've never been closer to a group of women than I am to this group this year."

It was a trip that under different circumstances might have been considered taxing for other reasons. A snowstorm hit Oregon, preventing Baylor from making it to California for a Dec. 22 game at Berkeley. Then it was a complicated process getting everyone where they needed to go for the holiday break.

Medlock had chosen to stay rather than go back immediately to Little Rock. Baylor beat Oregon 81-71 on Dec. 20, and Medlock scored seven points.

The previous night, after finding out what happened, the team had gathered for a somber meal no one felt like eating. There were two tables for the players. They were next to each other, not very far apart, but at this moment they wanted no distance at all.

The players pushed the tables together. And everywhere they've eaten since, they've done the same thing.

"That's what people who never played team sports don't always understand," Mulkey said. "You have so many individuals of different races, religions, cultures -- but you bond for a single purpose: to excel on that floor and become a team that can go as far as your potential can take you.

"People see the fun part. They don't see missed holidays, and all the time we spend together as a team and not with our families. But when you spend that many hours together, you can do one of two things: You can grow tired of each other, or you can really learn to respect and love each other."

Medlock spoke at her mother's memorial, and so did Mulkey. There was a story that Mulkey told then, one she had heard from Dawn Zachariason about Nizhan.

"While she had him, I asked her to go buy him whatever he needed, like clothes, because he couldn't get into his home then. It was a crime scene," Mulkey said. "And she told me she did that, and then when they were walking out of the mall, he said, 'Would you please buy me a Bible?'

"Now, here's a child who had walked in and seen his mother murdered. When we went to the memorial, I said that was part of the strength their mother left to them. The strength that helped Morghan say the powerful things she said at her mother's funeral and for her brother to ask for a Bible. I told them, 'That's your mother coming out in you.'"

How Mulkey dealt with it also was the mother coming out in her. She has two teenaged children of her own, and she knows that sometimes players need their coaches to fill in as mothers or fathers amid crisis.

She also recognized she had to help keep Medlock focused on school and basketball, her day-to-day responsibilities.

"The way I've dealt with it is the way I've dealt with anything in my life," Mulkey said. "You meet it head-on, you comfort them, you love them, you teach them to be strong and keep moving on.

"There is a grieving period, but you have to keep moving on. I'm not a counselor, but that's where you get them professional help when they need it. The rest of us can only do so much, but I guarantee we do whatever we have to do."

Baylor set up a fund, which is approved by the NCAA, for people to help Medlock deal with some of the financial responsibilities after her mother's death.

Morghan and Nizhan do not have the same father. But her dad, Michael Medlock, and Nizhan have had a good relationship. For now, Michael has taken Nizhan to live with him in California.

"He's staying with my dad, who he's been close with his entire life," Medlock said. They're doing fine, and I talk to him all the time. I probably get on his nerves a little bit because I've now become like his mom, and I'm a little overprotective.

"I've become a completely different person. I view life so differently. I'm more aware of my surroundings, and I've grown up so much. I'm wise beyond my 21 years of life."

This is Medlock's first season at Baylor. She is from Pasadena, Calif., and played for the successful Narbonne High program. There were issues with her residency during her time there -- not an uncommon thing in Los Angeles' hoops programs -- that resulted in Narbonne's being stripped of one of its city championships.

Medlock went on to play for Southern California, where she averaged 6.4 points her freshman season and 6.6 as a sophomore. Then she transferred to Baylor and petitioned to the NCAA to grant a waiver to allow her to play immediately, rather than sit out the standard one season.

Neither the NCAA nor Baylor has specified why she received the waiver, but the NCAA does have guidelines to allow it, including family hardships. Medlock is now at Baylor with her stepsister, Cherrish Wallace, who is Michael Medlock's daughter and a freshman on the team.

Morghan drove to Waco, Texas, for summer school last year. Her mother, brother and Gallian made the trip with her, then the three of them continued on and settled in Little Rock.

"A lot of people assume it was a big transition for me to come here, when in reality it wasn't," she said. "This atmosphere, this type of coaching staff, these teammates -- it's how I grew up playing. It felt like home."

Things seemed pretty good in Medlock's life before Dec. 19. Then came her mother's death, and Medlock looked to basketball as a lifeline.

"I don't like to be alone anymore," she said. "I don't like to be by myself and thinking about the violence of the whole situation with my mom.

"I look forward to coming to practice and shootarounds, to being around my teammates. Any time I can get inside the gym -- for extra shooting or anything -- has been a blessing. I think that's helped my performance a lot."

Medlock turned 21 on Jan. 9, and Baylor began the Big 12 season the following day. For the next two months, she filled a reserve role, her season high of 17 points coming Jan. 21 against Texas A&M.

Then on Feb. 28, fellow junior post Danielle Wilson went down with a knee injury against Texas. Baylor won that game, and Medlock scored six points. She had seven in a loss to Kansas -- the game in which the emotional impact of Wilson's absence had settled in and affected the team -- and then five points in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M.

Next it was on to the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City, and Medlock felt it was really time to step forward.

"I was so ready to take on the challenge," she said. "When the game's on the line, when there's pressure, when things aren't going my way, I think I'm at my best. I like those situations, to persevere and overcome. That's how I live my life.

"I thought, 'OK, Danielle went out, and there's going to be talk about "Baylor can't do this."' And I refuse to let the basketball world think we're going to go down without a fight."

Baylor, the Big 12's No. 2 seed, trailed Oklahoma State by as much as 15 points in the second half of its quarterfinal game, yet still rallied to win. Medlock had 14 points, and 12 of them came in the second half, including her second 3-pointer of the season.

"I mean, I expected it from her," teammate Jessica Morrow said after that game of Medlock's play. "I was waiting for it to happen, I guess you could say."

In the semifinals, Medlock had nine points in a win over Iowa State. Then, in the title game victory over Texas A&M, she had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting and was named to the all-tournament team.

Confetti covered the floor at the Cox Convention Center, and Allison happily fell down and flapped her arms, making a "snow angel" in it. It has been an up-and-down senior year for her in terms of her on-court performance, and Medlock's family tragedy had reminded her of her own.

On this afternoon, though, Allison was overcome by joy. And she talked, as Medlock did, about how the team had helped her through everything.

"We've come together as a family; we're just there for each other," Allison said. "I just think we have a sisterhood; it's the closest team I've ever been on."

As the confetti was being swept up and the cleaning crew moved through the emptied seats, Medlock was standing by the court, reflecting.

"I think the journey that I've been on -- since Dec. 19, 2008, all the way up until today -- has just been incredible," she said. "I don't even know how I'm here talking about it. With God's grace, and the help of these people I've been around every day."

She tried to sum up all she was feeling as the closing seconds had ticked off the clock in the title game.

"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, we're getting ready to win a Big 12 championship.' A year ago, I never thought I would be here," she said. "When the tragedy happened, I never thought I'd get out of bed again.

"There were so many different things going through my mind. Wishing my mom was here, wishing my dad was here. I'm just glad I have everyone I do have here."

Next season, she might have Nizhan with her. Medlock said that will be his decision, but she would bring him to Waco to live there. She wants to be the mother figure in his life, especially as he approaches his teen years and needs guidance.

She also has her own healing to do. Baylor is the No. 2 seed in the Raleigh Regional and opens play Sunday in Lubbock, Texas, against Texas-San Antonio. Basketball is still on her front burner. But Medlock knows that when the NCAA tournament is over, she will have to face her grief and loss more directly.

"Honestly, yes, I am dreading the season ending," Medlock said. "Like any person who deals with something like this, I don't want to go back to reality. I know it's going to set in immediately.

"But with the support system I have -- family, coaches, teammates -- and where I'm at with my life right now, I honestly believe that when the season is over, I won't be as bad as I think I will be. I just thank God for this university."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.