By Norah Machia
When Syracuse University Women’s Basketball Coach Felisha Legette-Jack unexpectedly lost a close friend to heart disease, it was both a shock and a wake-up call.
Her friend had undergone open heart surgery, and the odds for a successful recovery seemed to be in her favor. But that optimism was short-lived. At age 62, the coach’s long-time friend, who had seen her through both the good times and the bad, passed away.
Legette-Jack knew if that could happen to her friend, it could happen to any woman, including herself. In fact, cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. The American Heart Association estimates that one in three women die from heart disease each year, yet most cardiovascular diseases are preventable with education and lifestyle changes.
Legette-Jack is determined to raise awareness about the risks of heart disease in women by encouraging friends, family and colleagues to openly discuss the issue, and the steps that should be taken toward a healthier lifestyle. Teamwork, she said, is essential for success, both on and off the basketball court, she said. Women should support each other in the battle against heart disease, because “we are all stronger together.”
It was just a few months after starting her new coaching position at Syracuse University that Legette-Jack accepted an invitation to be a keynote speaker at the Syracuse Go Red for Women annual luncheon. The event was one of several held throughout the year by the American Heart Association to increase awareness of cardiovascular disease in women and to raise funds for lifesaving research.
Lifestyle changes recommended by the American Heart Association to prevent cardiovascular disease include lowering cholesterol, controlling blood pressure, staying active, eating healthy, managing weight and quitting smoking. It’s also important to be aware of any family history of heart disease.
The American Heart Association is an organization that Legette-Jack has supported for many years, and she was happy to connect with the local chapter in Syracuse, she said.
Women often dedicate much of their time and energy into caring for their families and/or building their careers, and as a result, it’s easy to ignore their own health care needs. But this must change, Legette-Jack said.
“It starts with taking care of yourself, because you can’t help others if you don’t first help yourself,” she said. That includes regular check-ups, learning your risk factors for cardiovascular disease and taking steps to prevent it.
For Legette-Jack, as with so many women, it’s an on-going challenge to carve out time for daily exercise and maintain a healthy eating plan. But the coach has taken several initiatives to incorporate both into her busy schedule.
She has a treadmill set up in her office at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center on the SU campus. Legette-Jack often walks on it while reviewing the films from previous games (talk about multi-tasking), and aims for a 3-mile daily walk.
Even small bursts of exercise add up, said Legette-Jack. She takes stairs instead of elevators as often as possible and parks a distance from any store to walk across the parking lot. “Taking that empty cart back into the store” adds a few more steps into the daily total, she quipped.
Legette-Jack tries to eat a healthy diet by following the “80/20 rule,” a guideline calling for nutritious food to be eaten 80 percent of the time, and allowing for “favorites treats” the other 20 percent. It’s easier to stick with this eating plan for the long-term because it doesn’t deprive someone from occasionally having a favorite snack or meal, she said. She also strives to eat all her meals within an 8-hour time frame.
As a result of her regular exercise routine and eating plan, Legette-Jack feels healthy and energetic. She consistently has an optimum blood pressure reading in the 110/70 range, she said.
Legette-Jack was hired as the SU Women’s Basketball Coach last spring, and this is her first season coaching the Orange. But she is no stranger to Syracuse University basketball.
Her career started at Nottingham High School, where she led her team to two state championships. Since a young age, it was her dream to play basketball at Syracuse University.
Legette-Jack had a record-setting career with the Orange from 1984 to 1989. She was named the 1985 Big East Conference Freshman of the Year, led the team to its first Big East championship, and played in Syracuse’s first NCAA tournament game. During her time at the college, she became a four-time All-Big East selection and a two-time All-America honorable mention.
When she graduated from Syracuse University (with a dual degree in child and family studies and psychology), Legette-Jack was the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. More than three decades later, she became the first female athlete to have her jersey retired by Syracuse University.
Legette-Jack started her coaching career as the girl’s varsity basketball coach at Westhill High School in Syracuse. She later became an assistant coach at Boston College, and then returned to Syracuse University, where she worked as an assistant coach from 1993 to 2000.
She became head women’s basketball coach for Hofstra University, and later Indiana University. Most recently, Legette-Jack was head coach at the University at Buffalo, where she led the women’s basketball team to play in four NCAA tournaments. She finished her career at Buffalo with a record 202 wins in 10 seasons before accepting the coaching position at Syracuse University.
Interestingly, Legette-Jack is not the only athlete and coach in her family. Her husband, David Jack, played on the Jamaican Men’s National Volleyball team, and coached both the men’s and women’s national teams. Jack has also coached youth volleyball teams in schools and clubs throughout Central New York. He is a licensed real estate professional with Howard Hanna Real Estate Services.
Their son, Maceo Jack, recently graduated from the University at Buffalo, where he was a member of the men’s basketball team. He is currently playing for the Cheshire Phoenix in the British Basketball League.
Legette-Jack has set another goal for off the court – helping youth in the Syracuse area make positive connections through basketball. Having grown up in public housing owned by the Syracuse Housing Authority, Legette-Jack is familiar with the many life challenges faced by residents, especially younger people.
The coach credits her mother, Thalia, who worked as a janitor and cook, for instilling in her a strong work ethic and teaching her not to get too caught up in job titles. Her mother’s advice has kept her grounded throughout her basketball coaching career, Legette-Jack said.
“My goal has always been to empower everyone to be part of the team,” she said. “We all have a stake in this journey together.”
After graduating from Syracuse University, she helped organize three annual youth summer basketball camps for hundreds of children at Syracuse Housing Authority sites throughout the city. Legette-Jack is planning to return to those same locations in the near future.
“I would like to get in the community more and stop by some of the Syracuse Housing Authority sites to meet with the kids,” Legette-Jack said. “I would just like to show up, maybe go to an open gym program. It would be a low-key approach, no television cameras.”
She smiled and added “I’ll just tell them I was in the neighborhood.”
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