By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Before we dive head first into the 2019-20 Iowa Hawkeye sports calendar year, allow me to look back one last time at this past year because it's something I’ll cherish forever from a work standpoint, but even more so from a personal standpoint.
The 2018-19 sports calendar year will be remembered for the dominance and dignity of Megan Gustafson; for the sudden rise to stardom of T.J. Hockenson; for the resiliency and grit of Spencer Lee; for the clutch shooting of Jordan Bohannon; for the emotional triumph of Joey Woody; but mostly for a heartwarming letter that came to me in the mail in March.
That letter is now displayed proudly in my living room because it means that much to me and because it represents the very best of the human spirit.
It is easy to forget in the wake of our latest mass shootings that the good in us still outweighs the bad, and quite frankly, it isn’t even close.
This letter represents the very best in us and is a shining example of why Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder is so highly respected and admired by those whose lives she has uplifted with her wisdom, compassion and decency.
The letter is actually a sympathy card from Bluder and her assistant coaches, and it was sent to me shortly after my beloved dog LaKota was laid to rest on Feb. 25.
To say that I was stunned to have received the card would be an understatement.
I was blown away by its kindness and amazed by the fact that Bluder and her assistant coaches thought enough of me, and my dog, to send the card during the thick of postseason play.
Iowa was in the midst of advancing to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, and yet, Bluder and her assistants still took the time to send me a sympathy card because they knew I was hurting and because they’re good people.
I mentioned the card in a column that I had written about Gustafson being named the 2019 Naismith Women's Player of the Year.
But I felt that Bluder's act of kindness deserved more than just a couple paragraphs in a column about Megan Gustafson, and that was the inspiration for this column.
Bluder and several of her players met with the media on Tuesday to discuss Iowa’s upcoming trip to Spain where the Hawkeyes will play three exhibition games over the next 10 days.
I didn’t have a chance on Tuesday to say thanks to Bluder for sending the card, but I spoke with Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen for several minutes because I wanted her to know how touched I was by their kindness.
Here they were on one of the most historic runs in program history, and yet, they still took the time to make me feel better.
Jensen knew that I also had recently lost my father – he passed away on March 12, 2018 at the age of 91 – so she wanted to help ease my pain and suffering. The coaches wanted me to know that they were thinking of me and that provided a huge emotional lift.
Once I got over the initial shock of who had sent the card, tears started flowing.
I called my two sisters to tell them about the card and they both knew right away how much it meant to me just from the sound of my voice.
I also looked at some of my favorite photos of LaKota as a way to share this special moment with him.
LaKota had brought so much joy and happiness to my life and he still had that same effect, even in death.
He was my best friend and Bluder and her assistant coaches were fully aware of the void in my life.
So they took action, powered by grace and warmth.
Nearly six months has passed since the card was sent to me in the mail, and I still often read what it says just as a way to feel better.
I’ve known for years that Bluder is highly respected by her players and by her peers, and the card just reinforced that reputation.
Bluder’s players describe her as a mentor, a mother, a friend and a leader. They talk about her warmth and compassion, and about how those traits fits perfectly with her competiveness as a head coach.
That same warmth and compassion is what led to the card being sent to me.
So when I look back at this past year in Hawkeye sports, I’ll remember Gustafson’s 33 double-doubles, Hockenson’s spectacular catches, Bohannon’s clutch shooting and Woody's emotional tribute to the late John Raffensperger in the moments after lhaving led the Iowa men's track and field team to the Big Ten Outdoor title.
But mostly, I’ll remember the words on the sympathy card and then I’ll smile and think of LaKota.