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Sue Darling is usually not at a loss, a basketball gypsy who had already experienced the culture shock of moving from Potomac, Md., to Tucson before her senior season at Canyon del Oro and coaching at nine different places from when her Arizona career ended in 1983 to the turn of the century.
A mammogram revealed on Feb. 6, 2002, that Darling had a cancerous lump on her left breast and traces of cancer in a lymph node under her left arm. She was only 41 and “always was healthy, worked out and ate well … all that kind of stuff,” she said.
“I just couldn’t believe it when they told me I had breast cancer. I had to go through all the treatment. That’s when I really thought about the difference about surviving and thriving.”
She was the head coach at four different places by then, including with Air Force for three seasons until 2001. She was Pima’s head coach in 1986, left to get her master’s degree in business administration in marketing at St. John’s, and was hired to be Amphi’s coach in 1988.
She went from Maryland to Tucson to New York City and back to Tucson. She then went to Tempe on two occasions to be an assistant at ASU, also left to Hanover, N.H., to be an assistant with Dartmouth and up to Seattle to coach on the staff of the American Basketball League pro team there before landing at Air Force in 1998.
While undergoing chemotherapy eight months after her cancer diagnosis, Darling wore a purple bandanna over her bald head while coaching under former Arizona coach June Olkowski at Northwestern. “I had to suck it up and get into survival mode,” Darling said.
When Olkowski was let go two years later, Darling was out of a job, but her cancer was in remission and she again felt like “thriving,” not in the basketball arena, but on the streets of Boulder, Colo., as a police officer.
“After I left Northwestern, I was thinking, ‘God, is this the way I want to go?’ I couldn’t remember why I started coaching,” she said. “Having the cancer made me take a step back and made me think about my life and what I was doing.
“I remembered when I was a kid, I wanted to be in the FBI. I kept asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I go into the FBI?’ At that time, I was 43 and with the FBI, you have to 35 or younger. I had a friend who just joined a police force, and she said, ‘You know? You might like being a cop.’ I read about it and studied it and said, ‘Okay, I’ll give that a try.”
While she coached at Mullen High School in Denver, she trained to be a cop with a majority of males a generation younger than her. She qualified out of the academy in 2005 after never before firing a gun.
“Being a cop, I was really fortunate,” Darling said. “I was very well-trained. There are great cops in the City of Boulder. It was like basketball; it was a big team. You just try to keep your city safe and serve the city.”
The desire to return to coaching became stronger each of the three years she was a police officer.
Knowing Arizona had an opening for an assistant, Darling reached out to Niya Butts, who was coaching the Wildcats in 2008. Butts welcomed Darling back to her alma mater. After four years on the staff, Darling became a head coach again, at NAU in 2012 and stayed in Flagstaff for four seasons before she was let go.
Facing a year without basketball for the first time since when she was a cop in Boulder in 2007, Darling became resourceful in May of 2017. Utterback Middle School had a coaching vacancy with its boys basketball team for the upcoming school year.
“I applied for it, interviewed for it, and I got the job,” Darling said. “They pay me $1,000 to do it but I’d do it for free, it’s so enjoyable working with the kids. They pay me. It’s the craziest thing.
“At that stage in their development, you just need to teach the kids what they need to learn and help them be the very best version of themselves they can be as a player and as a human being.”
Shortly after that hire, the coaching position opened with the Catalina Foothills girls varsity team. Darling’s long and winding coaching odyssey continued with the Falcons becoming her 16th stop in her career, which also includes the position at Utterback. She remained at Utterback through last season despite coaching at Catalina Foothills.
“I stayed with the boys and did double-duty with Catalina Foothills because I really enjoy coaching the younger kids and I love being at Utterback,” said Darling, who also filled a need at Utterback as a girls physical education teacher. “The coolest thing over the last three years with me is that I have taken the boys and had them play the girls from Catalina Foothills.
“It’s been one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my coaching career. I show up to school at 7 a.m. and the boys are playing basketball outside because we don’t have a gym. They are playing at lunch. They play after school. They love the game. They come from good families. I have really become endeared to them.”
Darling’s voice was upbeat talking about the kids, but at the next moment, she sounded like she was at a loss again.
“You may not have heard but I put my resignation in at Catalina Foothills; I’m not going to coach this year,” Darling said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic case numbers spiking in Arizona, creating the uncertainty if athletics will be part of the 2020-21 school year, Darling has downgraded herself from thriving to surviving again.
The concern in her voice made it apparent she is not trying to survive her own battle this time, as was the case with the breast cancer. This fight involves the safety and well-being of whom she calls her “kids.”
“I have been encouraging kids to play basketball for about 35 years as a coach, but I just can’t encourage them to play right now because it’s just not safe with the way this virus works,” Darling said. “We have to stay away from each other and you can’t play good basketball staying away from each other.”
Leslie Porter, another former Arizona standout who has a long history of coaching and officiating high school basketball games locally, has also resigned as the Darling’s assistant and as the Falcons’ junior varsity coach.
“I totally supported her decision and told her that I fully expected not to be coaching this season,” said Porter, who a human resources organizational consultant for a select number of departments at Arizona. “I support her decision for us both to step down this season. I completely understand the desire to resume fall sports, but I personally don’t believe that this is very realistic.
“I was consistently sick with the cold and flu last December and January as were the other coaches and many of our players. We were clearly passing colds and flu among ourselves. What would this look like with something as highly contagious as COVID-19? How do you propose that we realistically follow health guidelines for athletes in such face-to-face contact sports like basketball and football?”
The message delivered by distinguished coaches such as Darling and Porter is bound to send waves through the local high school coaching ranks of all sports this season. Coaches must ask themselves if the risk is worth the reward.
Porter is the first woman from her high school to be awarded a full basketball scholarship and the first female to officiate a varsity boys basketball game in Tucson (she credits Boyd Baker, Joe Acker, Brian Peabody and other boys high school basketball coaches in 1994 for that honor).
Darling has been a prominent figure in Tucson since 1977 as a senior at CDO. That’s when the Darlings moved from Potomac to Tucson after her grandfather relocated the offices of their family rubber company to Tucson. Darling’s brothers continue to own and operate R.E. Darling, which makes rubber material for the U.S. Defense Dept.
Sue, a member of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame, holds the distinction of being the first person (male or female) who played either high school or college basketball in Tucson to become a Division I head coach when Air Force hired her in 1998.
She mentioned that none of her stops in her basketball journey is more meaningful than her volunteer work with the Special Olympics, which she has been a part of since when she was with the Dorados.
“I just feel that if you’ve been given a lot, you owe a lot,” Darling said. “I have worked on and off with the Special Olympics since I was in high school. My mom encouraged me to do it when I was young and I ended up wanting to be a special ed teacher.
“I wound up studying physical education, but Special Olympics holds a very dear place in my heart. I did it last year, but I haven’t done anything since this whole virus thing has gone on.”
Facing the danger of COVID-19 brings back the memories of almost 18 years ago when the test results of her mammogram revealed she had breast cancer and she underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments.
“That was difficult back then taking things one day at a time,” Darling said. “That’s what this pandemic is reminding me of. It’s this time in our lives in which we are putting our lives on hold to a certain extent and making sure our family and friends are safe and healthy and that the people who need food are getting food.
“This totally reminds me of my breast-cancer experience because it was like I had to take a year off to heal and get my strength back. It definitely taught me about survival and gave me a different perspective on life, family and friends.”
CDO/UA legend Sue Darling taking stand, resigning coaching position w/Catalina Foothills girls hoops team because “I couldn’t in good conscience encourage my kids to play basketball this year because I don’t think it is safe for them” in midst of COVID-19. https://t.co/5LC9gOe4yR
SUE DARLING’S COACHING EXPERIENCE
Pima College assistant 1983-84
Salpointe head coach 1984-85
Pima College head coach 1985-86
St. John’s graduate assistant 1986-88 (earned her Master’s degree in business administration in marketing at St. John’s)
Amphi head coach 1988-90
ASU assistant 1990-91
Dartmouth assistant 1991-93
ASU assistant 1993-96
Seattle Reign assistant 1996-97
Air Force head coach 1998-2001
Northwestern assistant 2002-04
Denver Mullen head coach 2004-05
Arizona assistant 2008-12
NAU head coach 2012-16
Utterback Middle School (Boys) 2017-20
Catalina Foothills head coach 2017-20
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.