Ashley McElhiney (VM / Whitney D.)
To say the least, it was an eventful week for Ashley McElhiney, former Vanderbilt star and current head coach of the Nashville Rhythm of the American Basketball Association. Within a span of eight days pro basketball's first female head coach was fired, re-hired, and welcomed home by a happy throng in her home town. This series of photos by VandyMania's Whitney D. helps document for all time the bizarre saga.
To say the least, it was an eventful week for Ashley McElhiney, former Vanderbilt star and current head coach of the Nashville Rhythm of the American Basketball Association.
The stage was set when the Rhythm's Dontae Jones, the ABA's leading scorer and rebounder, accepted an offer to play the remainder of the season in Korea.
With the Rhythm in the midst of a run for the playoff's, the team signed Matt Freije, another former Vanderbilt star who had recently been released by the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, to a two-game contract.
Nashville won the first game with Freije on Friday night. The game on Saturday began inauspiciously for the Rhythm, who fell behind early. But there were no signs yet of the fireworks that would soon break loose.
Early in the third quarter while the action continued on the court, Rhythm co-owner and then-CEO Sally Anthony confronted Coach Mac over her utilization of Freije, catching the attention of fans and media alike.
After a thrilling second half comeback by the Rhythm to win the game, Anthony said that she had fired the coach. Then, after she engaged in a verbal altercation with a fan in full view of the local media, she gave him a little shove and was subsequently escorted by security from the arena.
As fate would have it, the very next day, the Vanderbilt women's basketball program was honoring members of the 1000-point club during halftime of the Florida game.
Despite the fact that the media room was buzzing over the previous night's dramatic events, Coach Mac participated in the halftime ceremony in Memorial Gym.
Danny and Sandra McElhiney were at the Florida game, too, with their old friends Bill and Martha Benningfield. Even without the unexpected crisis with the Rhythm, the week was an emotional one for the McElhineys, who were closing their clothing store in McKenzie, a store they had owned and operated for 32 years.
The following Saturday, February 5, would be the day they would be closing the doors, a day they were looking forward to with excitement and happiness, but with a little sadness, too.
The day was doubly significant because the little town of Gleason had planned a homecoming for McElhiney on Saturday night. The Rhythm would host the St. Louis Flight in the Gleason High School gym. Local organizers were kept in limbo as the fate of the Rhythm, and their coach, remained uncertain for most of the week.
But in the end, the situation was resolved. Anthony would no longer be involved with the management of the Rhythm, and McElhiney was re-instated as the head coach.
So the game was on. All signs in Gleason, starting with hand-placed signs along Highway 22, pointed to Gleason High School, where the game was played in the sparkling new gym at the school.
The old gym with bleachers on one side and a stage on the other, the gym in which McElhiney never lost a game during her middle school and high school years, still stands, but the basketball games are now played in the new gym.
But memorabilia from McElhiney's years at Gleason (including her knee pads) and Vanderbilt were brought over for display in the lobby of the new gym.
The hometown fans turned out en masse. Even JJ's, the local family restaurant, closed at 6:30 so that they could come to the game. When you're from a town with a population of 800, and you carry your basketball team to a state championship, you earn a permanent place in the heart of the people.
The Gleason High School cheerleaders, wearing special commemorative Rhythm vs. Flight t-shirts, were on hand to cheer for the Rhythm throughout the game.
And, yes, there was a basketball game. The dimensions of the high school gym were a little different than in most ABA arenas, and because high school basketball in Tennessee doesn't use a shot clock, the PA announcer would announce "TEN!" whenever the shot clock wound down to 10 seconds.
But since some of the ABA teams play all their home games in high school gyms, this wasn't the first time that the Rhythm players had to rely on audible cues to know how much time was left on the shot clock.
Without the services of Jones or Freije, the Rhythm fell behind early, so Coach McElhiney had her work cut out for her.
The spectators saw a rare 5-point play when Ali McGhee was fouled on a 3-pointer on a "3-D" play, a unique ABA feature which awards an extra point on the resulting possession when a defensive team forces a backcourt turnover. McGhee sank the shot for four points, then sank the free throw to make it a 5-point play.
If this had been a sports movie instead of real life, the Rhythm might have had several more 5-point plays to storm to a breath-taking comeback victory. But in the end, the scoreboard was a reminder that life doesn't always imitate art.
After the game, the coach talked with the media in one of the classrooms adjacent to the gym. Before the impromptu press conference began, her representatives explained that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement which prohibited her from talking about what Anthony had said to her and what had happened behind closed doors during the week.
So they asked about the game, her homecoming, the ABA, and her decision to take the coaching job in the first place.
When asked whether a bright side of the unfortunate incident might be increased exposure for the league, she said, "I'm not so much worried about that. I knew what the ABA was coming in and knew that it wasn't one of the primary leagues that fans watch. But I love basketball at any level, kids, from small to older. I just like basketball, so I was willing to take this and go with it."
She smiled when she said that she was stressing her parents out by being home because they've "gotta have food in the cabinets" and got a laugh when she said that the players don't understand why their cell phones don't work in Gleason.
After the media finished their questions, Coach Mac returned to the gym to sign autographs, pose for photos and greet old friends before going home to spend some time with her family. All in all, it was a week they'll all remember for a long, long time.
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Photo of Sally Anthony at the Rhythm bench by Katy Hamlett for MTSU Sidelines used with permission. Other photographs copyright 2004 by WhitneyD for Vandymania.com.