October 04, 2008

Heather Owen returns to Stanford in a new capacity

Story by Judy Richter
Photo by Dave Cortesi

During forward Heather Owen’s career at Stanford (1994-98), she and her Cardinal teammates played their way into three Final Four appearances. When the 2007-08 women’s basketball team won its way to the championship game in Tampa, Heather and several other former players were there to cheer.

Now Heather is back at Stanford to lend her support to the team again, albeit in a new role. She’s serving a one-year internship in external relations, focusing on marketing and development.

Where marketing is concerned, her goal is to entice more people to revel in the magic at Maples. To do so, she’s taking a two-pronged approach, focusing on Stanford students and the community, she said during a mid-morning interview at Jimmy V’s Sports Café.

Increasing student attendance is perhaps a greater challenge at Stanford than at some other universities because it has a relatively small undergraduate enrollment and because it fields great teams in so many sports that focus on any one is diluted. Moreover, students tend to take the quality for granted. Another factor is the variety of other activities along with the strong emphasis on academics. “School is the first priority,” she said.

Her approach is to depict the games as a social event, “a chance to interact with your classmates.” Here’s where the team’s new videographer, Bud Anderson, can be helpful. Already he has posted some fun videos on the university’s new YouTube site.

Video also could play a role in trying to “forge new relationships with the community,” both individuals and businesses, while maintaining ties with present fans, “the most loyal supporters,” Heather said.

She wants to do grassroots outreach by giving presentations to schools, community groups like Rotary and the Lions Club, and institutions like senior centers and the Veterans Administration hospital. “Getting out and meeting people” is crucial so that they feel a personal connection to the team.

Local schools can feel that connection when individual players partner with them. After hearing the player (joined by Heather and Bud) speak at their school, the students will attend a game and be honored there. The first school will be Redwood City’s Kennedy Middle School – paired with senior forward Jillian Harmon -- at the Minnesota game Nov. 14. Kennedy students have already heard Jill’s former Stanford teammate Claire Bodensteiner, ’07, whose mother teaches there. Jill and Claire were teammates when New Zealand’s Tall Ferns played in the Olympics in Beijing.

Involving schools “is a win-win at the end of the day,” Heather said. The player gets a chance to deliver a message on her own, and the students meet a positive role model. The entire team also will do community service and sign autographs -- at a children’s hospital, for example -- on a quarterly basis.

Other ideas include games with themes, similar to the breast cancer awareness nights observed throughout the country. Stanford themes might be a green night for environmental awareness or a dog night – “Tara’s real big on dogs” – when the Humane Society brings in dogs for adoption.

The purpose of all these efforts is “making Stanford your team,” Heather said. Of course the fact that last year’s team had such a great season “makes it all the easier,” she said. And “they look great this year, too.”

Now that she’s on the job, she’s finding that head coach Tara VanDerveer “is just a phenomenal marketing person” with terrific ideas.

The development part of her job involves fund-raising, she said in a follow-up phone call. The goal is to enhance relations with donors, alumni, ticket-holders and others and “to make people aware of opportunities and needs” for giving. She praised Tara and assistant head coach Amy Tucker for their ongoing efforts in this direction. “Tara and Amy have done a terrific job of outreach.”

This year, the development program hopes to endow the four coaches’ positions and the women’s basketball program “so the operating budget can come from an endowment,” she said.

She’s also working with Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations, to plan more events for the Fast Break Club “to beef out the social side of it.”

While we spoke at Jimmy V’s, two Cardinal guards – junior Melanie Murphy and sophomore Jeanette Pohlen – sat at a nearby table. They were multi-tasking: studying together while eating. Freshman guard Grace Mashore stopped by to say hello before getting herself a drink and going on her way. They then were joined by sophomore forward Kayla Pedersen with her tray of food.

Perhaps it was this atmosphere of camaraderie that helped to lead Heather back to Stanford. After graduating, she played professionally in the now-defunct ABL and then with the Washington Mystics in the WNBA. Bad knees ended her playing days, so she earned her law degree at Santa Clara University in 2003. After passing the bar, she joined an East Palo Alto law firm. She later opened her own office specializing in employment issues, but “law didn’t afford me the satisfaction and enjoyment that I had in basketball,” she said.

“I knew I missed sports,” but she didn’t want to coach, so she looked into administration. She networked by talking to a lot of people and volunteering, and “this just kinda came together,” she said. And as Tara said at the FBC wine tasting, the hope is that the job can become permanent. “Heather is a worker,” the coach said.

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