Bonded by basketball: Sisters love Big 12 tournament

DALLAS -- If you were at the recent Big 12 women's basketball tournament, you might have seen them on the Jumbotron at American Airlines Center. Who was that group of people who were there for every session and seemed like they were having a blast no matter who was playing?

One day, they were wearing matching white T-shirts with the words "Geneva's Convention" on the back. That might have set some minds stirring. Hmmmm ... there aren't any players or coaches in the Big 12 named Geneva, are there? Nobody is from a town of that name, are they? Does Switzerland have anything to do with it?

No, no, no. Geneva Tuttle was a very big women's basketball fan, and the Big 12 tournament became her annual bonding event with her three sisters. And after illness took Geneva in 2007 at age 67, the gathering expanded to other family members.

"We all played basketball in high school and became fans," said Melba "Cookie" Rankin, 72, who is the youngest of the sisters. "Geneva and I lived in St. Louis, Missouri. And when we found out the first Big 12 tournament, in 1997, was going to be in Kansas City, we were so excited. We called our two sisters in Texas, and they flew into Kansas City while we drove. And it was just a reunion for the four of us girls."

So began a tradition for the sisters, whose maiden name was Raines. They grew up in tiny Whitharral, Texas, 38 miles northwest of Lubbock, home of Texas Tech.

The other two sisters are Wanda O'Neal, 77, and Juanita Wright, who celebrated her 81st birthday this week. Wanda lives in Lubbock now, and Juanita -- "I'm the grandma of the bunch" -- lives in Denver City, Texas, 80 miles southwest of Lubbock.

"Geneva was the star basketball player," Cookie said of the sisters' youthful days playing the six-on-six half-court version of the sport. "She really loved the game."

Cookie and her family moved to St. Louis in 1983, and Geneva and her husband relocated there in 1989. Asked about that first Big 12 women's tournament in 1997, Cookie still recalls the details.

"Colorado won," she said of the Buffs' lone Big 12 title; they are now in the Pac-12. "Like with every year it was in Kansas City, Geneva and I would drive and pack up the car with food. And between sessions [of the tournament] we'd go sit in the car and laugh, and talk, and eat. And just have so much fun.

"It was about the basketball, but it was also just a wonderful excuse for us to get together and bond as sisters. Our husbands were asking, 'Could we come?' And our kids wanted to come, too. But we were like, 'No, absolutely not. This is our sister time.'"

With their roots in West Texas, they were all supporters of Texas Tech and former coach Marsha Sharp. Before moving to St. Louis, Geneva lived in Plainview, Texas, which is home of Wayland Baptist, Sharp's alma mater. That school was a women's basketball power in the time before the modern collegiate era -- in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s -- and their team was known as the Flying Queens.

Geneva, in fact, was so devoted to the Wayland Baptist program during her time in Plainview that the school's annual Thanksgiving tournament was as big a deal to her as that day's traditional feast. Her daughters, Kim Tuttle and Kari Schindehette, who are both Texas Tech grads but now reside in St. Louis, recall that well.

"It was about the basketball, but it was also just a wonderful excuse for us to get together and bond as sisters." Cookie Rankin on her sisters' tradition of attending the Big 12 tourney

"We lived right across the street from Wayland Baptist, you could walk over there," Tuttle said. "We had to plan eating the turkey around when the games were being played. Because Mom would put it on the table and just go. She was a good hostess, but she wasn't going to miss a game."

Years later, Geneva's fondness for the Big 12 women's tournament was just as strong. Her death in 2007, though, made it difficult for her sisters to decide whether to continue their annual trip.

"After Geneva passed away, the tournament was bittersweet for us," Cookie said. "We weren't sure we wanted to go. We needed somebody to help take care of us and make all the arrangements."

Enter their adult children, who always had wanted to join in on the fun. Now, the sisters needed a new "feeling" at the tournament to cheer them up. And their kids came through, starting in 2008.

"When Geneva died, it's something I picked up as a connection with my mom," said Cookie's daughter, Deborah Rankin, who has come to many Big 12 tournament games, as has her brother, David. "It's a bond that we have now, too."

Somewhere along the line, the gathering became known, appropriately, as "Geneva's Convention," in loving memory of the sister who had cherished the Big 12 tournament so much.

The group has befriended Big 12 senior associate commissioner Dru Hancock, who is the chair of the Division I women's basketball selection committee this season.

"Dallas is her home turf, and she's been so kind to us," Schindehette said. "So we love coming down here."

The group also has enjoyed going to Oklahoma City in the years the Big 12 women's tournament has been there, and Oklahoma is their second-favorite team behind Texas Tech.

"We love Sherri Coale," the group said collectively in regard to the Sooners' longtime coach.

The Lady Raiders have struggled in recent years, especially compared to their heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s. But the sisters and their families all still believe that Texas Tech -- coached by Lady Raider alum Candace Whitaker -- will rise again.

"She and her husband actually sat right by us here," Schindehette said. "Everybody was, like, starstruck."

Cookie added, "We're hoping that the Texas Tech fans in Lubbock will start getting excited about the program again. And overall, I like what the Big 12 does for women's basketball."

Cookie then was asked for a favorite memory from the 18 years she's gone to the Big 12 tournament. She can't pick just one -- Texas Tech's titles in 1998 and '99 are right up there -- but then Geneva's daughters reminded her of a funny story they heard from the first year at the event.

The sisters had seats up in the top section of Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, and Cookie couldn't help but notice there was a large empty section near the court. She was eager to relocate, and Wanda and Juanita were game, too. But Geneva wasn't.

"She was very prim and proper, you see," Cookie said. "She didn't want to sit anywhere that she didn't have a ticket for. But I finally talked her into going down there. She said, 'As soon as we do, someone is going to come and have tickets for these seats.' And I said, 'No, they won't, no one has been here all day.'

"Well, of course, no sooner than we sat down ...

Indeed, right then, the ticket holders showed up.

"Oh, she was so mad," Cookie said, laughing. "She said, 'I told you all that would happen.'"

There are all kinds of funny stories and amusing anecdotes like that from the decade when it was a four-sister gathering, and in the eight years since they lost Geneva.

You can tell, though, she's always right there with them, the Big 12 women's tournament's biggest fan of all.