Legends Spotlight: Michelle Brooke-Marciniak

January 10, 2018

By:Hemda Mizrahi - Rebound Magazine

Editor: Excell Hardy Jr.

How Her Competitive Edge Came to Pass As a Star Player, Coach, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist

Known as one of the most outstanding point guards and leaders to ever play women’s basketball, Michelle Brooke-Marciniak’s competitive roots originated in the backyard of her family’s home in Macungie, Pennsylvania. It was there that she played basketball and other sports with her brother until she attended college, first at the University of Notre Dame and a year later as a transfer student at the University of Tennessee.

Her talents readily appeared and ripened at a young age. “I was probably born with a basketball in my hands. From day one, I was much more coordinated than my peers. My brother was my greatest competitor up through college. We were so close in age and competed at everything. I think about how much that shaped and formed me in my earlier years. What if I didn’t have a brother? What if he didn’t play sports? He knew how to beat me and that was motivating to me. Then I got smart and made up a game that was a combination of jump shots, 3 point shots, one on one, and free throws. I realized I couldn’t beat him muscle for muscle. I had to change the game in order to win.”

Through these formative experiences, she became her own fiercest competitor, and an advocate of taking ownership of one’s career. “I hold myself to a pretty high bar. Both women and men at every stage of my life, from high school to my pro career, have pushed me as competitors. There are too many to list, but if you don’t push yourself and if you don’t have others pushing you as well, you don’t get ahead in basketball.”

Thinking back on the mentors who have been instrumental to her success, she identifies several whose character traits are expressed in the balance of power and grace that differentiate her as player, coach, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. “My mother has been my stability. She pushed me gently and helped me with my confidence, reinforcing positive behaviors rather than pulling out the negative.”

In contrast, her tutelage under the late legendary coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee was fraught with a fiery seesaw of painful lessons and inspiration. She describes Summitt as “a force who is ingrained in my mind and soul, reminding me that she is always there,” adding, “Pat was an incredibly influential role model in the way that she carried herself, dressed, and spoke. She made me believe that there was a greater purpose to playing basketball, that I had to learn how to win and lose with class. She made me compete harder, bringing me to another whole gear that I didn’t know I had. There are intangibles that I learned from her that have carried over to my life as an entrepreneur. Pat would play a film for us over and over, an example of her attention to detail and perfectionism. She tried to keep all of us humble and hungry, wanting us to believe that we would never arrive. Like a sergeant in the military, sometimes her bark was loud and her bite hurt, and it wasn’t fun. There were parts of her that I love, and parts that I choose not to take forward with me.”

Brooke-Marciniak recounts the particularly excruciating experience of a regular season loss at Ole Miss during her senior year. “We ended up losing the game and I fouled out for the first time. I was not on. Everything went wrong for me. Pat let me have it in the locker room, in front of the media, in front of everyone. She wanted to hammer in the message that I let the team down by not bringing my best self. She sat next to me on the bus and lit into me again. It was awful to the point where I was crying, which Pat saw as a selfish act, asserting ‘It’s your fault that we lost.’ I’m hard enough on myself and was under a lot of pressure. We had lost the national championship the year before, which Pat held me accountable for since I was the point guard.

I called Pat at 5:30 am the next morning and told her that I couldn’t handle the way she was yelling at me in the presence of the team. While she got bitterly sarcastic, and retorted, “You’re not tough enough to be my point guard. I’ll handle you with kid gloves and see what happens,” I think that deep down she appreciated the call. It was a rough couple of months but we ended up winning the National Championship. Was that Pat’s intent? Is that why she was so good? She was the toughest on her point guards because she saw them as extensions of herself on court. This strategy may have worked, but I know there is another way to reach that place without it being as painful. Although I loved my teammates and the university, and came through this more resilient and focused, I learned that I don’t want to ever break anyone’s spirit as Pat broke mine.”

After six years as a pro, Brooke-Marciniak served as an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina on the staff of head coach Susan Walvius, from 2003 to 2008. Her self-described “complex” relationship with Summitt continued to evolve. “I had to recruit and coach against Pat, which was not fun, but our relationship strengthened over time. Then I became an entrepreneur partnering with Susan Walvius in 2008 to co-found SHEEX®, a performance bedding and sleepwear company, and that’s when my relationship with Pat took a turn for the better. She was so proud of me. All of the sudden this woman who was sometimes the bully figure in my life became my strongest ally. Pat started buying and gifting our products, putting our sheets on her beds when she had guests. I had to get out of her basketball space for her to appreciate me as being different than who she thought I was.” This change in demeanor coincided with Brooke-Marciniak’s own shifts. “It took me five or six years to gain perspective about playing for Pat. As distance takes over, time creeps in, and cuts go away, you try to learn the life lessons. Over time, I learned that I’m better off because of her.”

A harmony developed between the superstars as their paths converged into a higher purpose outside of basketball. Brooke-Marciniak serves on the advisory board of the Pat Summitt Foundation, a role that emerged from the speaking engagements the two partnered on prior to Summitt’s decline from early onset Alzheimer’s. Before the Summitt’s death at the age of 64, just five years after her diagnosis, Brooke-Marciniak began speaking on her behalf and raising funds for her foundation.

Her most recent fundraising efforts include “Pedal for Pat,” a 1,098-mile bike ride signifying the number of career wins the coach amassed. Brooke-Marciniak seeks to create a platform that illuminates the gut wrenching impact of Alzheimer’s on caregivers and patients alike. “What I experienced which catches all who go through this by surprise is, at some point when the loss of awareness and memory occurs, you realize that this person that you love so dearly is not talking back. It’s like having a one-sided conversation. There is no way you can understand the disease unless you’ve been through it. Beth, my wife, lost her father to Alzheimer’s and she coached me through a lot of emotional ups and downs. I want to be there for others so that they don’t feel alone. I want to get to those whom this has touched and while doing that raise enough money for a cure.” Brooke-Marciniak dedicated each day of the 12-day bike ride to a different person who has been impacted by the disease.

Her competitive drive, which she defines as “that spirit that I know is within me that has always been there,” is also expressed in the growth of SHEEX®. The company’s conception began with a gift from Brooke-Marciniak to Walvius. “I was wearing a pair of shorts that I love to train in. I bought similar gear for Susan, who liked the fabric so much that she remarked, ‘I love the drape and the feel of this fabric against my skin. I’d love to have bed sheets made out of these fabrics. I’d love to sleep in it.’ The infamous response to begin their SHEEX journey, “Let’s Do It.”

As they forged through their final year of coaching at USC from 2007 until 2008, they did just that. Although neither she nor Walvius had a business background, they “knew from sports how to put together a great team.” They also recognized that the performance fabric trend in athletic wear could translate to create not just a product, but a lifestyle when applied to bedding and sleepwear. “We started from scratch, figuring out ways to convert our ideas into a product. We did a lot of research and consistently got smarter on the business and the product, surrounding ourselves with experienced people who knew the things that we didn’t know. The best advice we got was from someone who was going to offer financial help. He said, “I slept on your performance sheets last night and I love them. He then asked, what’s next? What other products do you have? Think about who you want to be 10 years down the line. Do you want to build a product or a brand? Start with one product and make it the best in marketplace, but think about how to expand your presence.”

In collaboration with the Darla Moore School of Business International MBA program at the University of South Carolina, they established a business plan that presented a compelling case for performance fabrics. Now, a decade after its conception, SHEEX® has expanded its collections from bedding to sleepwear to mattresses, and is carried by Bed Bath & Beyond and other major retailers across the country. With globally patented technology secured for its products, the company is poised for international sales.

Brooke-Marciniak offers this advice to athletes who are transitioning into their next career: “There is an inherent risk with anything that you do, but becoming an entrepreneur is scary. How you define failure really matters. You can see failure as an end or a bridge. I had so many failures as a basketball player, but I saw them as bridges. I think people view some of the things that we’re doing as impossible. We have given our time, blood, sweat and tears to make it successful. It’s not impossible if you are handling your failures. People can usually handle success, but handling failure is my best advice.”

In light of the credit that she gives to the powerful women in her life, and her far-reaching leadership, it seems fitting that Brooke-Marciniak was a guest panelist for the Women of Influence Summit at the NBRPA annual Legends World Sports Conference in August 2017. She imparts, “There was player representation [on the panel] spanning over 40 years and dramatically different eras in the progression of the women’s game. But the thread running through our collective message was the same: the key to a great leader is self-examination and self-investment to find your niche. Leadership can come in all forms, there’s not a one size fits all style. As Pat Summitt constantly reminded her players, you win in life when you surround yourself by great people. Relationships form over time and they form with trust. I get joy from sharing my passion with others and being a conduit to a greater purpose. I always want life to be exciting and very purpose driven.” It’s all in the secret sauce of her competitive edge.