Talbert’s coaching career left lasting impact
By Mike London
Laura Edwards lives in Atlanta now, and as a 35-year-old pilot instructor for Delta Airlines, she’s traveled many miles from her North Carolina roots.
But Edwards’ thoughts the past few days have been on her teen years at East Rowan High School. Her high school basketball coach, Gina Talbert, passed away on Thursday at the age of 60. It was a profound shock for Edwards and former Mustangs now scattered across the country. They’ve been communicating, on Facebook mostly, trying to help each other come to grips with the loss.
Talbert had been ill, but her death was sudden.
“I keep thinking back to my last season at East (1997) and the night we won the South Piedmont Conference tournament,” Edwards said. “We were all so happy we won, but really we just wanted to win that tournament for Coach Talbert. We’d never won anything for her.”
It was a memorable tournament final played at Concord’s Rimer Gym on Feb. 28, 1997.
East had finished second in the regular season in a five-team SPC that included champion Concord, A.L. Brown, Northwest Cabarrus and Central Cabarrus. It came down to the Mustangs and Concord in the final. Edwards made the 15-foot jumper with four seconds left that lifted East to a 70-68 victory and Talbert to her first tournament title.
All the Mustangs who took the court in that game — Maleah Mauldin, Karen Brown, Julie Austin, Khara Bost, Nicole Loggins, Lauren Simpson, Danielle Cross and Brooke Misenheimer — did their part, but it was fitting that Edwards, who came from a devastating knee injury to be named Rowan County Female Athlete of the Year, decided it. While her teammates jumped around, Edwards grabbed Talbert and they hugged and laughed and cried for two minutes.
Winning that game for her coach still means more to Edwards than making an epic shot.
“Coach Talbert was a great coach, but she was a lot more than a basketball coach to all of us,” Edwards said. “She helped me through math class. She helped me survive high school. She always was there for me when I was coming back from the knee injury. Every bit of success I’ve had in life goes back to her. She inspired us to be the best we could be, off the court as well as on it.”
Misenheimer and Cross, who is now Danielle Porter, are the head basketball coaches for Carson and East Rowan, respectively. Their schools are rivals, but they are friends, united by their tie to Talbert. Both have led their teams to 20-win seasons and championships. Talbert watched with pride as their coaching careers blossomed.
“I’d joke with her about which one of us she’d cheer for when East played Carson, and she told me that was like trying to choose her favorite child,” Porter said. “She always wanted it to end in a tie.”
Talbert was Misenheimer’s cousin, so Talbert was part of her life since she was born.
“I remember how proud she was of me when I was hired at Carson,” Misenheimer said. “Then those first three years (4-67) were so very tough that sometimes I would question myself. But Coach Talbert was always there, encouraging me that we’d turn it around. Then when we won our first championship (2012), one of the first congratulatory emails I got was from her.”
Misenheimer played on Talbert’s varsity squad as a freshman in the 1996-97 season.
“She trusted me as a player and as a leader very early and that was a big part of me becoming a coach,” Misenheimer said. “She loved the game and taught us to love the game. I try to teach that same love to my players now.”
Misenheimer learned from Talbert that players have different personalities and can’t all be treated exactly the same. Some need encouragement and confidence-building. Others need a kick in the shorts now and then.
“She understood people and she was a great motivator,” Misenheimer said.
Talbert coached nine full seasons (1992-99, 2005) and two partial seasons (1991, 2004) for the Mustangs. She coached 152 wins, fifth on the county’s all-time list. She’s second at East to all-time county leader Jesse Watson. Watson coached Talbert in the early 1970s when she was Gina Poole and before she went on to play at UNC Charlotte.
Talbert’s coaching style was demanding, but there were also light moments.
“She set the bar high and demanded excellence, but she found that perfect balance as a coach,” Misenheimer said. “She operated with a lot of tough-love, but at the same time, she always let you know she cared about you and she let you know when she was proud of you.”
For Porter, who had an independent streak as a teenager, there were tough-love lessons to learn from Talbert and extra conditioning laps to run.
“We had different ways of thinking at times, but there always was mutual respect between us,” Porter said. “Coach Talbert was one of those people that when you were around her you stood up a little straighter and you said, ‘Yes, maam.’ None of us ever wanted to disappoint her and we would’ve run through a brick wall to keep from disappointing her. We really wanted to make her proud of us.”
Talbert was Porter’s mentor long after she stopped coaching her.
“She was my No. 1 advocate for the East job and she was my sounding board and someone I always could count on for solid advice,” Porter said.
When East Rowan won the Sam Moir Christmas Classic last December, Porter walked off the court and saw Talbert smiling.
“She just gave me a little nod of her head, but I could see how proud she was,” Porter said. “That’s something I’ll always remember.”
As much as it hurts, Porter and Misenheimer understand there’s a cycle of life. Their teenage basketball years are in scrapbooks, and now they’re 30-somethings trying to inspire and teach the next generation of teenagers. Talbert will remain a big part of both of them.
“It’s hard to accept she’s gone, but she’ll always be Coach to me,” Porter said. “She had so much positive impact on so many young women. She made a lot of us who we are.”
Misenheimer will speak at Talbert’s funeral on Monday. It’s a responsibility she’s accepted with a heavy heart but with a purpose.
“Gina Talbert was respected countywide, but in the East Rowan community, she wasn’t just respected, she was loved,” Misenheimer said. “Her legacy will go on and on forever.”