Arch: Christi Hester ready to savor her moment

“She says, ‘Got anything red, yet?’ ” Christi Hester Mack said with a laugh.

“I tell her, ‘Mom, relax,’ and then she says, ‘You know, you ALWAYS looked good in red.’ ”

She always played pretty well in red, too.

Wearing a University of Dayton women’s basketball uniform from 1996 to 2000, several years before she would meet and marry Chris Mack, now the Xavier men’s coach, Christi Hester scored 1,268 points for the Flyers.

And that includes a junior season where she was severely hobbled because of an injury that nearly cost her her right leg. Had the 5-foot-9 guard scored that year the way she did any other season, she would be No. 5 or 6 on the Flyers’ all-time scorers’ list instead of No. 13.

As it is, she remains close to No. 1 all-time when it comes to players who were beloved and embraced by their fellow students and especially the fans. With a slashing style of play, an effervescent mix of charisma and sass and an eccentric fashion sense on the court — she was nicknamed “Socks” because of her ever-present knee-high stockings — she became the Pied Piper of UD basketball.

She had numerous pen pals. Older fans invited her to their homes for Sunday dinners and in grade schools and junior highs across the Miami Valley, Christi Hester fan clubs sprang up, just as one did on the UD campus.

Young girls came to Flyers games wearing their own high socks and a hairstyle like hers. As for the fellows from the fourth floor of Marycrest, they simply waved a sign that read “Hester for President.”

While she never made the Oval Office, she will be in the center circle of Blackburn Court tonight when she’s introduced to the UD Arena crowd at halftime of the Flyers’ regular-season finale with Richmond.

She’s one of four inductees into the UD Athletics Hall of Fame. The others are Butch Zimmerman, the late Pepper Wilson and Keith Waleskowski.

Interestingly, Waleskowski’s wife — the former Chrissy Donovan — is a good friend of Hester’s. They were UD teammates, later coached together in Cincinnati and now play on the same rec league volleyball team.

As she talked about today’s festivities, Hester proudly wore a silver medallion around her neck that was a gift from another friend, Gina Berry, who played tennis at Xavier.

It was engraved with her No. 30 uniform number and “UD Hall of Fame.”

“I’m overwhelmed by all this, but excited,” she said. “I’m excited for several different reasons and No. 1 is my girls. They only know of my love for Dayton because I talk about it all the time. Now they’ll see. There’s a reason UD is selected to host the first round of the NCAA tournament every year. There are no fans like that.

“It’s easy to say that as a spectator — you say, ‘Man that place is crazy, it’s rocking’ – but when you’ve played there, there’s a different feeling you get walking into the Arena. Every time I go there I get butterflies.”

Today she’ll be joined by her husband, daughters Lainee, 8, and Hailee, 7, several other family members, some former team members, including Janette Jaques, who was her bridesmaid, and Bob and Barb Mittman, a Miamisburg couple who followed her when she played at UD and have stayed friends since.

She had a similar contingent with her last year at UD Arena when Xavier played the Flyers, but that day she — and to a lesser extent her husband, who some Flyers fans dislike from his playing days at Evansville and an inbounds pass (instructed by then-Aces’ coach Jim Crews) off Wes Coffee’s head — was taunted in the most sexually explicit terms imaginable by a couple of guys in the UD student section.

She was reduced to tears and eventually sought help from UD officials.

The two antagonists were kicked out of the Arena and though a few clueless — and anonymous — sorts later took Hester to task on fan messages boards, UD officials, in her words “handled it the best I’ve ever seen. They went over and beyond what was necessary.”

UD president Dan Curran, athletics director Tim Wabler and other school officials responded with letters of apology. Fans and students did the same.

“Honestly I haven’t thought about it since,” Hester said.

And she said she won’t focus on any of that today:

“I’m not going to try to convince Dayton to love my husband. If they can’t forgive and forget, well, that’s how it is.

“But I’m going there Saturday for me and the amazing opportunity Dayton gave me to play there for four years. To me Dayton is a special place and I’m honored to represent a school that stands for everything you find in a great university.”

‘Dayton girls are better’

Playing at Holy Cross High School in Louisville, where she was the runner-up for Kentucky’s Miss Basketball and also all-state in volleyball and softball, Hester chose UD over Kentucky, Louisville and some 40 other basketball offers.

The reason was then-Flyers coach Clemette Haskins, herself a former Kentucky Miss Basketball, a three-time All-American at Western Kentucky and the daughter of NBA player Clem Haskins.

Hester’s precocious ways as a freshman — she laughed easily on the court, kibitzed with the refs, and had a give-no-quarter attitude in practice and games — took some getting used to by a few of the Flyers veterans, but she soon won them over and became the team leader.

“As Christi go, so goes UD,” Haskins once told me back then.

The summer before her junior year Hester needed minor surgery to clean up a bone chip in her knee. She had it done in Louisville and a couple of days later she could not bend her leg at all.

The surgeon told her it was nothing to worry about and her new blood work was lost. A dozen days after the surgery she was sick — had lost 12 pounds — and her dad noticed red streaks running up and down her leg.

She was brought to a different doctor and immediately rushed to surgery.

“I remember my dad coming in,” she said. “It’s the first time I ever saw him cry. He said they’re going to try to save your leg. I remember the moment I woke up, I grabbed my leg — and it was there — and that was the best feeling.”

By then Haskins had left UD and Hester asked new coach Jaci Clark for a medical redshirt season. Clark refused and so Hester rushed her rehab, suffered a stress fracture in the other leg and saw limited action, scoring 56 points in 14 games.

She came back strong her senior season and led the Flyers to the WNIT.

After UD — and making it to the final cut of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever — she eventually was offered a job as director of basketball operations for the Xavier women’s program and in later years has coached everything from the Colerain High girls team to the second- and third-grade teams on which her daughters now play.

When she got to Xavier, folks there turned matchmaker and helped line her up with Mack, who had played there as a transfer and been an assistant before following Skip Prosser to Wake Forest.

The two eventually married and then Mack came back to Xavier as the head coach in 2009. That was all fine except for the rivalry with her alma mater.

“I hated that part of it,” she admitted. “No Dayton fan or Xavier fan will ever know what I experience when I walk into UD Arena for that game. Having played there and then having to come back there for an opposing team is the hardest thing I ever had to do. I want to cheer for my alma mater as much as I can.

“When I’m there with my parents now, I have to remind them to stop dancing to all the music they play. But it’s hard. That was us for four years and I loved my time there.”

Except for last year, she’s never had a bad experience.

“I always defend the student section,” she said and then smiled. “They used to hold up a sign, ‘Dayton Girls Are Better – Ask Coach Mack.’ “

No distractions today

Actually, Mack and his brother Tim both married UD grads.

“Tim married Ann Zesterman — her brother Pete was a walk-on at UD a few years ago,” Hester said. “As we like to tell them, at least they recruit well.”

Because of the emotional response Chris still gets from a few Flyers fans, UD officials are taking no chances. Christi and Chris and their girls will watch the game from an upper area of the arena and Christi will be introduced by her maiden name.

Chris said he doesn’t want to be a distraction and wants to make sure the day is strictly about Christi:

“To get inducted into your hall of fame means you were a heck of a player. I’m just happy for her.”

Christi said she especially wants her daughters to take in the whole experience:

“I think it will be neat for them to see Mom in this setting. They get to see Dad all the time and Lainee even goes on the road with him to some games. But they’ve never seen me play.”

They have seen a high-socks photo though.

“Hailee saw my picture and said, ‘Big hair? Big earrings? Guess that was in back then, huh mom?’ ”

Well, as it turns out, Mom has a picture of the girls, too:

“They both want to be college basketball players and Lainee was saying, ‘I’m going to Xavier.’

“And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s not forget about Mommy’s school!’

“I took them to a couple of (UD) women’s games over the years and I have blackmail. I said, ‘You know, I have a picture of you and Sissy with Rudy the Flyer!’ ”