When Michelle Alexander came to Pilot Rock to coach, the girls’ basketball team was terrified of her. Not only was she an outsider from Palouse, Wash., but a self-proclaimed unpersonable personality.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said senior Liz Willingham. “Being in a small community we always know everybody, so when you have someone from somewhere else, it’s kind of intimidating.”

Alexander led the Rockets to a district championship that year, but forfeited the 2009-10 Blue Mountain Conference title on a rookie mistake. It was a flub she worried would draw players even further away.

“I ended up playing a JV player too many quarters, which lost us the tie for first place in league with Heppner,” she said. “Basically I lost league by myself.”

Already on shaky ground, Alexander thought her team had lost trust in her. Little did the first-year head coach realize her basketball lore overshadowed the disaster.

“She was so good at basketball and she knew so much that it astonished us,” Willingham said. “She just showed a lot more to the game than we ever knew before, so losing it for us didn’t matter.”

Alexander’s resume included being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year at Eastern Oregon University. Her Rockets helm was simply a job until tragedy struck her mother Janie Grady in late May of 2010.

“When she got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she was only given five weeks to live. That’s when the girls and I started bonding a little bit more (and) kind of went over the barrier beyond basketball,” said Alexander.

Unlike Alexander, Grady, 65, was personable. An endearing superfan, she attended every Pilot Rock girls’ game that year, getting to know each athlete individually.

“We kind of felt like she was a team mom,” said senior guard Ashley Gambill. “We always looked up to her like Coach did. Coach was more the intimidator and her mom was more of like, ‘You’re doing awesome, good job!”

Grady’s birthday will fall on Monday, paining Alexander and the team alike. Her vacant seat in the middle-left Pilot Rock bleachers reminds Alexander of why she coaches through loneliness as a single mom of three.

“My mom loved basketball and she would be devastated if she took me away from it,” Alexander said. “These girls are my life now.”

Grady, also a single mother, pushed Alexander to be a ballerina growing up. That did not fly with Alexander, who through basketball has found a new family of support at Pilot Rock.

This season, her entire Rockets team gave Alexander a heartfelt surprise. Athletes revealed wrist bands embroidered with the initials M.G.J. at a practice, dedicating their season in loving memory of her late mother.

“I think she really liked it because she was trying not to cry when we showed them to her,” said Gambill. 

Pilot Rock is now undefeated in league (15-2, 8-0 BMC) and the No. 4 Class 2A team in Oregon. On track for a state playoffs appearance, Alexander has a final unfulfilled wish of her mother.

“What I wish over anything is that she would have been able to watch my kids go to state,” she said. “She loved basketball and loved these girls so much.”

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Scott Davis is a sports writer for the East Oregonian. Write him at sdavis@eastoregonian.com.

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