Chatman mystery continues as LSU rolls into Cleveland

Folks around the Bayou knew Pokey Chatman as the smiling saleswoman, the stable point guard, the face of LSU women's basketball. Look closer, and the word "Lifer" might have been stamped on her forehead.

Now Pokey's gone underground. She hasn't been heard from, at least publicly, since March 8, leaving unanswered nearly all the questions surrounding her departure from LSU. She slipped out to Florida, at some point, to visit friends. She gets e-mails from supporters who offer condolences and cake and ice cream and places to lay low. The phone rings at Chatman's house in Baton Rouge, and her mother, Carolyn Fiffie, answers. She says Pokey eventually will surface, when the time is right, and she'll have her say.

"We know where she is," Fiffie says. "That's all that's important."

It has been more than three weeks since Chatman resigned as head women's basketball coach at Louisiana State University because of an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship with a former player, and her name is still radioactive. Coaches in women's basketball circles don't want to touch it, non-leatherheads are fixated by it, LSU isn't talking about it.

A national columnist recently listed the most compelling story lines in the NCAA tournament and left out the LSU women, and at least one high-ranking administrator at the school was relieved.

"Maybe," senior associate athletic director Herb Vincent says, "we're getting back to some sense of normalcy."

It won't happen this weekend in Cleveland, when the Lady Tigers play Rutgers on Sunday in a Final Four semifinal. The cameras will zoom to the LSU bench and inevitably catch assistant coach Carla Berry, the friend who turned in Chatman.

The rumor mill is bound to churn something new. In a sport that has longed for the spotlight, women's basketball has its story, one that is filled with all the intriguing elements -- forbidden sex, betrayal and a shroud of secrecy.

But nobody wants to be under these lights. Why? Maybe because behind this story is an element that women's basketball has grappled with for years -- the gay-straight question. And while that question permeates everything from recruiting to team chemistry, it's a topic coaches and former players and anyone remotely related to women's hoops would rather not touch.

"We've got a very significant gay element in our game," says a Division I coach who, like most others interviewed, doesn't want to be named in the Chatman story. "The reason people don't want to talk about it on the record is because it's not just about the player-coach relationship thing.

"It's about the gay thing, and that's too much for any of us who value our jobs and value our standing in the women's business. That's too much to have our names attached to."

The 1990-91 LSU women's basketball team was tight and tough and made history when it won the SEC tournament with the help of a spunky point guard named Dana Chatman.

On the court, they were all friends. Off the court, the Lady Tigers knew where they stood. In women's athletics, teams and seasons are sometimes divided by the blue and the pink. The pink team dates men, the blue prefers women. Sometimes, with 18- and 19-year olds, those colors can get blurred.

"We were on the pink team," says one of Chatman's former teammates. "Pokey was on the pink team as far as we knew. We talked about guys and how fun they were.

"We would go out and party and have fun and dance with guys and have a great time."

The teammate thought Chatman was dating a male chef in Baton Rouge at the time of her abrupt exit earlier this month. But she adds that her friend's sexual preference "is totally her prerogative. It has nothing to do with anyone's coaching ability. You should be able to do what you want to do. It's a free country."

But Chatman's demise went beyond sexual preference and into allegations she was involved with a former player. That, coaches say, should be the real issue.

"It doesn't matter if it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago, or two weeks ago," said an unnamed coach. "If you violate that trust of being a role model to the student-athletes, you're guilty there. You're guilty as soon as you cross that line, and there is no coming back."

When LSU sources confirmed that the person was not a member of the current team, speculation swirled through rosters that stretch back to when Chatman was an assistant in the 1990s.

Cell phones rang from Baton Rouge through Florida -- one of Chatman's recruiting hotspots -- to the WNBA. Most players hit the ignore button.

Several Division I coaches who were interviewed and declined to be named said they believe player-coach relationships in women's basketball are rare but that they are more likely to happen between assistants and athletes.

Assistants are often younger, with seemingly less to lose.

"As far as I knew, everything was … We didn't have any issues at that time," says Tommy Goodson, a former LSU assistant who recruited Chatman and coached with her in the '90s. "I haven't really thought about whether I believe it or not. I've tried to stay out of the way. It's none of my business. You hear a lot of things but don't have a way of verifying any of it."

The Dana Chatman that Goodson knows always has been smaller than her opposition, always scrapped and fought, always went by the book.

They met more than two decades ago, and Goodson eventually won the recruiting battle for the once-pudgy kid they called Pokey. He used to kid her when she first came to LSU that she couldn't guard a sitting hen. Her defense was suspect.

But Chatman had the mind of a coach and the nerves of a surgeon, and she pored over film and quickly became head coach Sue Gunter's protégé. Understanding Pokey, people close to her say, means understanding Gunter. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt once called Chatman "Sue Gunter Jr."

Former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, who in the late 1980s sat in Chatman's living room and ate supper with her mother during a recruiting visit, said Chatman was "Miss Gunter's right arm."

As an assistant to Gunter, Chatman helped land Seimone Augustus, a two-time national player of the year and No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. When Gunter was dying, she gave the keys to her program to Chatman, who led the Lady Tigers to their first Final Four in 2004.

"If I don't remember anything about Pokey," Barmore says, "I can remember when Miss Gunter got sick and they went to the Final Four. Every time [Chatman] opened her mouth on TV, it was praising Sue Gunter. That spoke volumes to me about loyalty to that school."

In women's basketball circles, Chatman's name was synonymous with LSU. She went from All-America point guard to student assistant to the Lady Tigers' braintrust. After Chatman took over from Gunter in the middle of the 2003-04 season, Chatman dealt with a toxic swirl of adversity and controversy. Gunter died in 2005 of emphysema, then Katrina hit, then came the scandal that rocked Chatman out of a comfy perch.

The final days of her LSU existence tilted from stratosphere to sea level. According to records obtained by ESPN.com through the Freedom of Information Act, LSU chancellor Sean O'Keefe e-mailed Chatman from his BlackBerry in the late-night hours of March 3, after the Lady Tigers knocked off powerhouse Tennessee in the SEC tournament.

"Coach -- sure proud of the team tonight!" he wrote. "What a fabulous win … "

He asked Chatman if he could speak to the team the following day after the championship game. She thanked O'Keefe for being there.

"It means a lot," she replied.

Roughly 72 hours later, Chatman was hastily announcing her resignation. Around those frenzied final hours when Chatman said she'd finish out the season, then bolted after the unexpected crush of national media attention, she received requests to speak at functions and donate Tiger trinkets. One message gave an itinerary for an upcoming USA Basketball trip to Rome.

Marie Ferdinand, a star guard at LSU who now plays in the WNBA, says she believes all of this is speculation.

"From the time this stuff came out, things have changed so much," Ferdinand said. "There are so many different stories … Every week it's crazy, and it gets worse and worse. Different players' names get thrown in.

"I'm going to sit back and relax and not believe anything until I hear from Pokey herself."

Ferdinand, who married former LSU baseball player Cedrick Harris, said she hasn't spoken to Chatman in a while. LSU phone records show the last call Chatman made from her office the night of March 7 went to Ferdinand's number. That call lasted less than a minute. It remains unclear why that call was made.

Coaches who see Carla Berry on the recruiting trail describe her as private. She's focused and keeps to herself, and that would sum up her public demeanor in the days since March 7.

Berry has declined interview requests, and quietly drifts from airplanes to practices to the sidelines. She's almost become an enigma herself, breaking an unsaid code that what happens in the huddle stays in the huddle. Berry is the one who informed LSU officials of Chatman's alleged inappropriate relationship with a former player.

Before the early days of March, Berry's loyalty, apparently, was rarely questioned. She played in the same backcourt with Chatman from 1988 to 1991, and former teammates say they were close friends.

Gunter trusted her former guard, and hired Berry when she was temporarily out of coaching and working a sales gig with a wireless phone company. Much like Chatman, Berry was always driven. She was known to take her job very seriously even as a grad assistant at South Alabama, which floundered in the cellar of the Sun Belt Conference.

Berry earned her chops as a recruiter by helping land Sylvia Fowles, who dominated in LSU's surprise crushing win against Connecticut in the recent regional final.

What was Berry's motivation in turning in her boss? Was it job security in an uber-competitive profession?

It apparently wasn't done without some angst. In an e-mail to interim coach Bob Starkey on March 7, records show, Berry indicated she had trouble sleeping over her decision. The night of March 8, Starkey sent LSU senior women's administrator Judy Southard an e-mail saying, "Carla has settled quite a bit … We need to find a way to deal with it tomorrow …"

Though the LSU administration commended Berry for her decision, and the staff has received kudos for pulling an emotionally drained team from sure demise to the Final Four, their futures are in serious flux.

Starkey says he isn't interested in permanently becoming the head coach, and Vincent said this week that no staff members have applied for Chatman's job. Since new coaches generally cringe at inheriting an old staff, it's likely that most -- if not all of them -- will be looking for work.

And Berry might have an especially hard time passing the loyalty litmus.

"Two months ago if you would've called me and said Carla Berry from LSU [was interested], if I had an opening, we'd take her," said a Division I coach. "I would say unequivocally. Now … I'd have to have a full-length conversation to understand why what happened happened to make her pull that trigger."

The LSU women's basketball alumni met about two months ago, with their children and their husbands and their new lives, and hung out at their annual weekend catching-up session. Gunter started the function a few years back because she wanted the women to remember they are part of something special, that they are family.

Those ties have been tested. Beth Boulet, a former walk-on guard who played with Chatman, is a season-ticket holder, friend, and has followed the program from a spot in the stands. She hates the way the attention has shifted from a possible national championship to tawdry rumors and talk of Pokey sightings.

She's known Chatman longer than most people, since they were 6 years old playing bitty ball in Louisiana. She imagines her friend smiling somewhere in front of a TV last Monday night, watching the Lady Tigers hug and collapse to the floor.

"For her," Boulet says, "that would've been a dream moment. And I think it still was even though she wasn't on the bench."

Chatman has hired attorney Mary Olive Pierson, a high-profile litigator in Baton Rouge. Pierson says that there is no lawsuit pending against the university. She will say that Chatman watched the game against UConn on Monday night, and called it "awesome."

"She's very proud of that team," Pierson says. "She was thrilled about [Monday] night."

Pokey isn't talking, her mother says, because she doesn't want to distract from the team. But Fiffie hinted that could change when the tournament is over and the churn has subsided.

The Lady Tigers might have found a new coach by then. Vincent says the process has started, but the search will intensify after the Final Four. The scenes on the sideline in Cleveland will be much different than the past three Final Fours. Chatman was the emotional one; Starkey is the strategist who works in his office late at night and stoically sits on the bench, head resting on his chin.

Somewhere, Chatman will sit, too, and watch from afar.

"I couldn't care less where Pokey is at," says Boulet. "I just hope that she's not getting hassled, that she can watch the tournament if that's what she's choosing to do.

"Speculation or not, you have choices every day. Sometimes you make good choices, sometimes you make bad ones. When you do make the bad ones, people forgive you. That's just part of the world. I'm not saying she made a bad choice … I don't know."

Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.