Ottaway rebounds in life: Hollidaysburg native writes about struggles in college hoops
Amanda Ottaway was traveling through Europe when she got the call that her mother was sick. She hopped a plane from Bosnia, her latest stop on a tour that was more than just sight-seeing. The Hollidaysburg native had taken off work to write a book about her time as an NCAA Division I basketball player.
Ellen Ottaway, a pharmacist at UPMC-Altoona, survived another nine weeks in a Pittsburgh intensive-care unit before dying from pneumonia on Sept. 23, 2016. Her daughter, the oldest of five surviving children, had to make a tough decision.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Ottaway, now 28, said in a telephone interview from her Brooklyn, N.Y., home recently. “But I knew my mom would be really mad if I didn’t finish the book on time.”
She made that deadline, and “The Rebounders: A Division I Basketball Journey” was released March 1 to coincide with March Madness, the annual NCAA basketball tournaments.
Ottaway will return to her hometown several times for book-signing events including Saturday at the Altoona Barnes & Noble Booksellers and June 1 at the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library.
“The Rebounders” is a brutally honest portrayal of Ottaway’s four years as a member of the Davidson College (N.C.) women’s basketball team, from injuries to sitting on the bench to enduring unsympathetic coaches and the bodily functions of teammates sharing a room on the road. (She changed their names to protect their privacy).
And she was upfront about sneaking out of the team hotel to buy booze after losing the conference championship.
“It’s a little embarrassing. Nobody wants everything they did in college to be published in a book for people to read,” she said. “But I figured I might as well be honest because I know (those things) can happen to other people and, if it helps one person, that was the reason for writing the book.”
Ottaway said plenty has been written about the winning ways of coaches and players and their leadership tactics that can apply to “real life.”
“But what has been written tends to ignore the day-to-day realities, the good and the bad, the dancing in the showers and the crying after the injuries,” she said. “I wanted to get into the minutiae.
“I wrote the book I wanted to read when I was 16. It didn’t exist for me then.”
Hollidaysburg Area High School
Ottaway was a four-year starter at Hollidaysburg Area High School where the six-footer averaged 19 points her senior year and set the school’s all-time scoring record by the time she graduated in 2008. She was recruited throughout high school by a number of big colleges — Division I schools — including Northwestern and West Virginia.
But she didn’t just excel at sports. Ottaway was a National Merit Scholar with a grade-point average of 94. She was a good writer in high school, said Sue Gunsallus, a now-retired HAHS teacher who taught Ottaway her senior year.
“We always had good discussions about books,” Gunsallus said, of the Advanced-Placement English class. “She was a very interested person, an excellent student. She understood the nuances in literature.”
Gunsallus said she hasn’t read “The Rebounders” yet, but “I’m sure it’s well written.
“She always worked really hard, so I’m not surprised at all. She had high expectations of herself and that’s what it takes,” she said.
Gunsallus said she had a lot of students like that, but most didn’t excel in sports, too.
“She handled both very well. I never remembered a time where athletics took precedence over academics and that was a really positive thing,” she said.
Joe Hurd, who previously had coached basketball in the 1980s and 1990s, was brought in to coach the HAHS girls’ team for Ottaway’s senior year.
“She had been pretty successful without me, and I wondered whether that relationship was going to be a real productive one with somebody new calling the shots,” said Hurd, who today is the president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Comm erce. “She certainly was one of the more talented kids I coached, and she was also extremely coachable and always looked for opportunities to get better.”
He even changed her position for the sake of the team, but she “never once complained,” Hurd said. She won a number of awards, including area player of the year, but the season ended on a bitter note.
“Most people would say we underachieved,” he said.
After losing the first two games of the season, the team won 14 in a row, lost a game to State College Area High School before finishing out with wins. It entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in its division and faced Altoona Area High School, a team it had easily defeated twice during the regular season. Altoona pulled the upset, knocking HAHS out of the playoffs and ending the season and Ottaway’s high school career.
“I was disappointed,” Hurd said. “I had a group of seniors that were really great kids to coach and had known nothing but success until that playoff game. They handled the disappointment well.”
Afterward, Ottaway wrote and gave Hurd a five-page letter that he still carries about the coach-player relationship that took him aback because she was so forthright, he said.
“I remember when I read it, I thought, she’s a darn good writer,” he said, adding that he is waiting his turn to read his family’s copy of the book. “When I found out she was writing a book, I wasn’t surprised.
“I know her college career, basketball-wise, was not … a high level of success as she had hoped. But I also know she is somebody who could certainly handle those types of situations. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
Not surprisingly, Ottaway’s father, Brent, said he thinks his daughter’s book is “brilliant.” He is an associate professor of communications at Saint Francis University in Loretto.
“My main complaint is that she downplayed the fact that she made her team better,” he said. “Objectively better: Davidson’s point differential with Amanda on the court was significant all four years she played.
“She did the little things that tend to be unappreciated, even by some college coaches: She set the best picks of anyone I’ve seen, boxed out reliably, took more charges than the rest of the team put together,” he added, referring to specific basketball plays.
She was a team player, always encouraging her teammates from the bench.
“When she broke the high-school scoring record, she didn’t want to stop the game for a ceremony,” he said.
Growing up, Ottaway was always competitive, playing soccer, track and field and volleyball, in addition to basketball. But he always knew she would be a writer, her father said.
“Starting when she was 3 years old, Amanda would crawl up into my lap and dictate ‘books’ that I would type and print out for her to illustrate,” Brent said. “By her first day of kindergarten, Ellen and I had concluded that she would be a writer.”
Within a few weeks of representing Davidson College in the WNIT (Women’s National Invitational) basketball tournament, she represented her school at a poetry competition at Michigan State University, the proud father boasted.
But she still would not let him read her manuscript until after it was published.
“Dad, it’s about my college years — I don’t ever want you to read it,” the father reported. “To which I replied, ‘You know I’ll be able to buy a copy, right?'”
“The Rebounders” picks up with Amanda’s mom dropping her off at Davidson College, where she had won a full scholarship, and she immediately began forming relationships that would last a lifetime.
The story covers “the life of a mid-major athlete: recruitment, the preseason, body image and eating disorders, schoolwork, family relationships, practice, love life, team travel, game day, injuries, drug and alcohol use, coaching changes and what comes after the very last game,” according to a press release from the publisher, the University of Nebraska Press.
It touches on some touchy subjects: “the objectification of female athletes, race, sexuality and self expression,” it said. The book is “a feminist coming-of-age story.”
Ottaway said she had never considered herself a feminist before college.
“I think I was a strong young woman who believed that women should have the same rights as men, but I didn’t understand,” she said. “My mom was such a strong woman, she worked and did everything around the house. She was a feminist, but she would never call herself that.”
Ottaway said she became one when she saw how women, particularly athletes, are judged more harshly than men — especially about things that have nothing to do with their athletic skills.
While the book covers some serious topics, Ottaway demonstrated a sense of humor in describing just how tough academics was for Davidson student-athletes.
“We didn’t get any of that inflation crap they had at Harvard,” she wrote.
But she knew she would go pro in something besides sports, and appreciates the rigorous academics and her bachelor’s degree in English.
“It was a challenge, but worth it, for sure,” she said.
After graduating, Ottaway would not return home, as she set out to travel the world to enhance her writing skills.
“We tried to raise our children to be strong and independent, which means staying out of their way when they show those traits,” Brent said. “That doesn’t mean I was thrilled when she, say, announced shortly after graduating from college that she’d bought herself a ticket to Tanzania.”
She worked as a writer for three years in Washington, D.C., saving her money so she could travel some more and start writing her book. She went out west, lived in Mexico for a couple of months before heading to Europe, which is where she was when her mother got sick.
Once the book was completed, Ottaway moved to New York City because “this is where you go if you want to be a writer,” she said. She works for Courthouse News, a national news service that covers legal issues, and is based out of the Brooklyn federal courthouse. Last week, she covered the sentencing of Martin Shkreli, the convicted fraudster who had separately and smugly raised the cost of an HIV drug by 5,000 percent three years ago. She may cover the U.S. trial of notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman later this year.
She won’t be covering the U.S. Congressional race in Pennsylvania’s 13th district. Her father is a Democratic challenger.
“I’m a journalist,” she said. “I’ve got to keep my distance from it … But I support him because he’s my dad.”
The Ottaways are a close family. When her brother Casey, a senior basketball player at HAHS, endured vicious taunts about his late mother from opposing fans at a game earlier this year, they honored his wishes.
“That was a tough time for the family,” she said. “But he led us all and he got to the point he didn’t want to talk about it any more. It was over. The students met up and talked about it. Take the high road and move on.”
His children’s nature to forgive is a trait they got from their mother, Brent said.
Amanda dedicated her book to her two families: “The one I was born into, and the one I was recruited into. I love you all endlessly.
“But mostly for my mama, the strongest woman in the world.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.