In 1981, when she moved out of 25 West Lawn and drove away from the University of Virginia in her Volkswagen Beetle, Val Ackerman cried all the way home to New Jersey. She could return for visits, she remembered thinking, but things just wouldn't be the same.
"If you happen to be feeling the same way tomorrow or whenever your move-out day may be, my advice to you is to relax, take a breath, accept that whole new chapters are about to unfold for you and embrace the journey," she told members of the Class of 2012 during Valedictory Exercises today. On a picture-perfect day, she addressed students on the Lawn after the awarding of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan and Fourth-Year Class awards.
Recounting her own post-U.Va. journey – from playing basketball in France to law school to the National Basketball Association to the founding of the Women's NBA and beyond – Ackerman encouraged the graduates to try different paths and not freak out if something doesn't seem to be working.
There are always other choices.
"One's life path doesn't always progress in a straight line," she said. "If my post-Charlottesville journey taught me anything, it's that there isn't always a direct route to one's destiny and that you shouldn't approach life that way if you're going to make the most out of it."
Ackerman was a four-year starter and three-time captain on Coach Debbie Ryan's early women's basketball teams and was among the first woman scholarship athletes. A recipient of many scholarly as well as athletic awards, she graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1981 with a degree in political and social thought.
At the time of her graduation, she said, there was no WNBA to aspire to, so she played professional basketball in France. The lesson: Get out of your comfort zone.
"I didn't speak French and didn't know a soul over there," she said. "My parents, of course, were in panic mode about this adventure – this was long before e-mail or cell phones and all the other devices that let parents 'keep up' with their children."
Returning to the U.S., she earned a law degree in 1985 and joined a Wall Street firm. In 1988, she landed the job she had always dreamed of as a sports attorney with the NBA.
"It was a job I could be genuinely excited about, and I was absolutely pinching myself that this opportunity had come to be," she said. "But getting this dream job didn't happen overnight. More than seven years passed between the time I graduated from U.Va. and the day I walked into the NBA as an ID-carrying employee."
In 1996, she was named president of the new Women's National Basketball Association, oversaw its launch in 1997 and ran the day-to-day operations for eight seasons. The league, which embarks on its 16th season this weekend, is the longest-running women's professional team sports league in the U.S.
"It was just an amazing opportunity," she said. "I was in a field I understood completely, working in a sport I actually played, at the ground floor of a fledgling business, and doing something important, if not ground-breaking, for women."
With two young daughters, Ackerman scrambled to balance her rigorous work with family responsibilities. Thanks to her husband, mother and mother-in-law, she kept the balls spinning, but eventually ran out of steam and stepped away.
"It was a very difficult decision in some ways, and a very easy one in others," she said, advising the graduates, "You'll need to follow your gut, just like I did – and if your experience is anything like mine, the passage of time will convince you that parenting is the highest calling you can have and being present with your children really does matter."
In 2005, Ackerman was elected president of USA Basketball for the 2005-08 term, leading the organization to an overall competitive record of 222-23 and gold medal performances by the U.S. men's and women's teams at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. That role led to her appointment as the U.S. representative to the International Basketball Federation, known as FIBA, an appointment she holds today. (FIBA rescheduled its board meeting in Puerto Rico to accommodate Ackerman’s talk at U.Va.)
A New York City resident, she teaches in the graduate sports management program at Columbia University. The skills required of those in sports leadership roles, she said, are applicable across the board. "More than ever, we need people in our world, men and women alike, who are ready and able to lead in their way, and to meet with vigor and optimism and some amount of courage the challenges and the opportunities of the modern age," she said.
"If you think the world is full of problems, find a way to be a problem-solver and I guarantee you'll have permanent employment," she said. "Don't be afraid to look critically at situations and think to yourself, would a new approach work? How can this be made better?"
She cited Thomas Jefferson’s words: "Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you."
"I encourage you to think about them every time you reflect on your time here in Charlottesville, and whenever you need an extra push when that alarm clock goes off in the morning," she said.
– by Marian Anderfuren