VOLLEYBALL COACH WINS ALL KINDS OF BATTLES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Juanita Milani nearly blew her stack when a woman barred her husband, Mark, from entering the Catonsville Community College gymnasium in November.

For 13 years, the Glen Burnie High School head volleyball coach had been trying to reach the Class 4A state championship game. And now her moment of triumph was being tarnished by a tournament official who simply did not believe that a white man was married to the black coach.

A Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association rule permits free admission to the spouse of a coach whose team is competing for a state title.

Yet even after an argument, during which her husband produced his driver's license and even called over Juanita for verification, the woman at the door refused to let him in without paying.

"I wrote a letter to the state committee that (asked) 'Is it a problem that my husband is white?' " Milani said. "He had all of the equipment -- the medical box, the balls -- and he came in after us.But they didn't believe he was my husband because he didn't walk in with me."

After shelling out $3 to get in, Mark stood on the sidelines as the Gophers defeated Oxon Hill for the title and finished theseason 18-0.

"He came over before the game and said 'Juanita, every coach in the state wants to be where you are. Forget about what happened and enjoy (winning the title),' " Milani said. "I was relaxed about the game, but inside . . . I mean I was fuming."

Later, Milani, 34, phoned the argumentative woman at the door.

"I told her I wanted a check for $3 written to my husband," she said. "I just wanted it back based on principle."

Paul Rusko, the county's coordinator of physical education and athletics, expressed shock when told of the incident while attending the recent county wrestling tournament.

"I was at the state volleyball tournament and talked to (Milani). She didn't tell me anything about it," Rusko said. "I could see something like that happening many, many years ago, but today?"

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Juanita Milani is the kind of person who resists anything she deems an injustice, not just those having to do with the color of one's skin.

"I don't back down. You can probably see that in the way I coach. If you ask some of my older players, they'll say things like 'Don't get her mad,' " said Milani, who as a youngster used to scrap with her brother, Bill Murdock, who is two years her elder.

"My mom says I'm mouthy, but she doesn't mean that I'm disrespectful, just that I tell people what I think. If there's something that isn't the way I think it should be, I'm going to find out why."

Born in Germany, Milani never lived in one place for more than three years while growing up. Her father, Ray, 63, served in the army's artillery branch.

Shewas transplanted from North Carolina, Texas and Alaska before movingto Fort Meade and eventually to the Glen Burnie area during the middle of her eighth-grade year.

"With a parent in the military, I grew up on military bases and led a very sheltered life," Milani said. "During the time when Martin Luther King got killed, I lived in Alaska, which was like being in Europe. We read about it. We heard about all the burnings and the protests and marches in Baltimore, but Baltimore was on the other side of the world.

"My dad grew up in North Carolina, so he's experienced a lot of prejudice. He's the biggest influence on me. I can just remember growing up and hearing him saying, 'Who cares what color the guy is next to you; he's probably going to be the guy who saves your life down the road.' "

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In 1970, the Murdocks bought a house in Glen Burnie. While her father served in Vietnam, Juanita and her younger sister, Debra, attended Marley Junior High. Her brother attended Glen Burnie High.

"The neighborhood kids had all grown up with each other. Sports was my way of blending in," said Milani. "When I got to Glen Burnie I had an automatic set of friends. I don't think I was a very popular person in high school, buteverybody knew me because I was really into sports. That was my big outlet. I remember staying after school on days by myself and just hitting a tennis ball against the wall. I could do that for hours. I was pretty much a loner."

Although Glen Burnie had no varsity teams for girls until her senior year, Milani remained active. She played tennis, basketball and volleyball. She was sports editor of the schoolnewspaper, was involved in the yearbook and pep club and served as the scorekeeper for boys basketball coach Terry Bogle for three years.

"I took trigonometry and calculus and I probably was the only black person in those classes, although it never really occurred to me that I was," Milani said. "I could understand the anger that some blacks felt, but I didn't feel threatened. I don't think until my 12th-grade year that I actually ran into any conflict at Glen Burnie."

That's when four black girls cornered her in the locker room.

"They were just like, 'We want to talk to you.' And I'm like, 'Yeah?' And they're like, 'We want to know why all your friends are white and how come you don't hang around with us,' " Milani said. "I (said) you guys don't do the things I like to do. If you guys want to play tennis, let's go out and play tennis. Do you want to shoot some basketballs, let's do it.

"I don't really care if you're black or white. I justwant you to do what I like to do. And they just kind of said OK. They just wanted an answer."

Coach Bogle's wife, Kay, was a teacher at Glen Burnie and is one of Milani's closest friends.

"There were maybe 20 blacks in the school and I'm sure Juanita got called some names," said Kay Bogle. "But let me tell you, she's a great person. I might sound like I'm oozing about her, but today my kids live and die Juanita! She's a great role model."

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Milani teaches physical education to sixth- through eighth-graders at Chesapeake Middle School. She also runs an intramural volleyball program when not coaching.

After the Gophers volleyball team's state championship game this season, the team's 10 members, all white, gave her a volleyball inscribed with a personal signature, a brief dedication and a personal thank-you from each player.

One wrote "thanks for teaching me how to beresponsible," and another, "thanks for believing in me when I didn't."

"Race has never been an issue on any of my teams, I'm happy to say, and why should it be?" said Milani, who has a career 131-58 record as coach. "I've had black and white kids play for me. I think theyall feel comfortable talking to me. I think they look at me as I'm acoach and they can talk to me. I couldn't ask for more."

Two years ago, however, in a telephone conversation with a parent, Milani wasaccused of being prejudiced.

Ironically, the accusing parent was black. Milani found humor in the situation.

"Talking on the phone,she didn't realize that I was black, also," said Milani. "And she said, 'Well I want you to know that I'm coming up there because I knowthat you're just prejudiced against my daughter because she's black.'

"I didn't want to laugh and I had such a hard time holding back,but I did."

Then, she added sarcastically, "I said, 'Well, ma'am,please make the appointment and come up. I would love to meet you and sit down and talk to you.' "

The joke was lost on the unsuspecting parent, who never showed up for the meeting.

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Milani attended the University of Maryland from 1974-1978, earning her degree in physical education and health -- a five-year major -- which she completed in four years.

She also made the tennis team as a walk-on. Oneof her college cronies was basketball star John Lucas, a top draft pick and NBA journeyman.

"Athletes had an immediate family and an immediate support group," said Milani. "Some of my best friends were on the track team. I learned my foundation for volleyball at Maryland.I pumped the coach for information."

During her first semester atMaryland, in 1974, Milani again was cornered by black women demanding answers to such questions as, "Aren't we good enough for you?" "Whydon't you join a black sorority?" and telling her to "join one now, and you'd better make it ours."

"They were pressuring me to the point of harassing. I was like, why do I have to explain myself?" said Milani.

"I found myself in the same situation my first year in college as I was when I left Glen Burnie. I turned to my family and I was calling home every other day saying, 'I hate it here, I don't know why I'm in school here.' I was miserable and I got my first 'D' ever."

Her big brother, Bill, came to the rescue.

Slamming her fist on a nearby desktop for emphasis, Milani said, "Bill went right into their room and said point-blank -- 'Why are you bothering my sister?'"

The women never bothered Milani again, and the black fraternityAlpha Phi Alpha chose Milani as its Alpha queen, an honor given to a black woman of academic and social merit.

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Milani met her husband, Mark, six years ago at the Merritt Athletic Club in Woodlawn. She was an employee there and he was applying for a job. They marriedlast May.

Mark, one of nine children, is what Milani calls a "die-hard Catholic"; Juanita is a Protestant. Although their families arevery supportive, it took them a long time to find a minister who would marry them.

"Mark's family priest for years wouldn't do it. When we finally found a woman who would, she was expecting a baby the same month and would not take the risk," Milani said. "It reduced me totears."

Finally, they found a Unitarian minister to marry them.

"We drove up to Westminster and met him in a restaurant. Mark and Iboth ordered a Coke and he ordered a scotch on the rocks," said Milani. "We knew he was the one for us. He was open-minded."

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