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USA Basketball Book Club – Secret Warrior: A Coach & Fighter, On and Off the Court

  • Date:
    May 25, 2021

The purpose of the USA Basketball Book Club is to share stories from and about members of the USA Basketball family. USA Basketball does not endorse the sale or purchase of these books nor the opinions expressed in them. Catch up on previous reads: The Spencer Haywood Rule | The Mamba Mentality | Standing Tall | Sum It Up

The Basics

“Secret Warrior: A Coach & Fighter, On and Off the Court” is the story of Joanne P. McCallie, in her own words, and it is the account of her diagnosis and challenges dealing with Bipolar Disorder and brain health in the midst of a long and successful coaching career.

“Years ago, and still today, there remains a taboo, a lack of understanding surrounding these types of diseases. The subject is hard to talk about with anyone. For years it stayed buried and hidden deep within me, even though I was determined to deal with it and move on as quickly as possible.”

McCallie, then Joanne Palombo, played basketball at Northwestern University from 1983-84 to 1986-87, where as a senior she helped her team to the NCAA Tournament second round and was All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention. Graduating from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she became an assistant coach at Auburn University, where she earned a master’s degree in business administration. 

Including head coaching positions at the University of Maine (1992-93 to 1999-00), Michigan State University (2000-01 to 2006-07) and Duke University (2007-08 to 2019-20), Coach P, as she long has been known, owns a 628-243 career record (.721 winning percentage) in women’s basketball.

She was the first Division I head coach to win a conference title in four different conferences and the first to be named coach of the year by four different conferences (ACC, Big Ten, America East and North Atlantic).

She announced she would not return to Duke on July 2, 2020, stepping away from decades of coaching women’s basketball, and she published “Secret Warrior” in February of 2021.

USA Basketball

Coach P led two USA Basketball teams to gold medals. In 2006, she led the USA Women’s U20 National Team to a 5-0 record and gold medal at the 2006 FIBA Americas U20 Championship in Mexico City. That first-place finished qualified the USA for the 2007 FIBA U21 World Championship, where she led a second USA team to an 8-0 record and gold medal in Russia.

“Both gold medals were very prestigious and those experiences are highlights of my career.”

Chalk Talk

Known for her “Choice Not Chance” philosophy in coaching, a book she published in February of 2012, coaches will find nuggets of her coaching ideals in this book, although it is more focused on managing her brain health.

“Each player must be motivated differently as she grows through her four-year career. This is a tall task for any coach. Staying technical with the right balance of reason and emotions is a key. Diving into the process of getting better is the focus. When a player bucks you on process, or refuses to become a better defender or better free-throw shooter, then the coach must circle back and try to begin again with a different approach.

Many of the nuggets that are included are geared toward coaches.

“Stay incredibly organized to help the rhythm of the day. It is not a matter of having to do certain things the same way, or at the same time every day, but it is a matter of supporting yourself to dress easily in the morning, eat well, and find time for exercise. Limit your complications in all ways.”

Finding her Faith

Battles with melanoma, kidney health and the death of her father all were catalysts that caused McCallie to not only pray, but to examine to whom she was praying.

“My faith journey came about slowly. I always thought God was good for other people who needed Him, but because I was not raised with much formal religion, my spiritual faith in life and nature was good enough for me.”

Eventually being baptized and sharing her faith with family, friends and her student-athletes, McCallie share some of the highlights of her journey to finding God in the book, including her practice of morning devotionals.

“I have over three years’ worth of notes and thoughts I accumulated through the verses, and lessons, in the devotional books. I found that I was leaving a trail of thoughts for my family, players, and staff that had made me feel more whole, and allowed me as a parent, coach, and mentor to be better and to reach everyone at a deeper, and more interesting level.”

Empathy Throughout

Several times in the book, Coach P notes she is not alone, and many others in the United States and elsewhere struggle with mental health. She notes the support she found in her family and in her team of doctors, alongside the recognition that many cannot or do not have the same opportunities.

“I was fortunate that my issues were caught due to direct episodes, and not because of a slow drip into the world of addiction. We are all vulnerable despite our biggest efforts to be bullet-proof. The life altering conditions for families and societies are clear.”

The results of mental struggles can include addiction and incarceration.

“It is easy to wonder just how many of those individuals were in the undiagnosed category and found themselves acting out through life to manage their brain balance. Only more stories and education will change the landscape enough to know the answer.”

Current Events

Published in February 2020, the last chapter acknowledges the tremendous loss and upset caused worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic, and McCallie shares her hopes for the future.

“We all have the chance to change and improve our own future image. We can be in a better place. Mental health can be seen through the right lens and will be understood at levels never possible before.”


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