Rabalais: Justice serves purpose for Lady Tigers

As the LSU women’s basketball squad returns to its hotel from Wednesday’s pre-Southeastern Conference tournament shootaround, Team Lady Tigers and Team Justice merge into one.

The hotel lobby is a happy cacophony of overlapping voices belonging to LSU players, coaches and a close band of followers who “ooh” and “ah” over Nikki Caldwell’s daughter, Justice Simone Fargas.

Wednesday was Justice’s first birthday, a special date she will no doubt one day learn she shares with Shaquille O’Neal.

The Big Aristotle turned 41 Wednesday. Take a moment to ponder what makes you feel older: LSU coaches having babies or Shaq sliding deeper into middle age.

Caldwell trades basketballs and game plans for a bottle and party plans. LSU’s traveling party will gather in the hotel later Wednesday evening for Justice’s birthday celebration — Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse meets the 2-3 zone. Caldwell will even allow her hardy band of eight players to partake in a little ice cream and cake on the eve of their game Thursday night against Auburn.

It’s a good bet no other team at this year’s SEC tournament rolls exactly like LSU. But it’s a world which Caldwell has learned to navigate artfully.

She hopes, like all parents, she is being a good mother to her young daughter as she balances her job with being present for Justice’s first big moments.

She is certain being a mother is helping her be a better coach.

“She makes me a better woman and a better coach,” Caldwell said. “I am able to better coach other peoples’ kids now that I have one of my own. I wouldn’t say it’s a softness, but you can walk away from a loss a little sooner because I have to go into mommy mode. I can’t stay coach when I go home.”

It’s been an unprecedented year for Caldwell, who was starting to feel her first labor pains as her team made its way back to Baton Rouge from the 2012 SEC tournament (LSU lost to Tennessee on Sunday and Caldwell gave birth on Tuesday).

Much of Caldwell’s world has changed, including her style of coaching.

“Being a mom, I have a tendency to coach like a mom would,” Caldwell said, “in a sense of doing the right things, playing this game a certain way, making sure you’re representing this program. It’s the same things you tell your child when they’re out. It’s about us as a family.”

Her LSU team is arguably as closely knit as Team Justice, whose main members include Caldwell’s partner Justin Fargas and Caldwell’s mother, Jean. Perhaps it’s addition by subtraction — a thinning roster of eight players thrust into survival mode and finding the best of themselves.

“We have a slogan: ‘eight is enough,’ ” Caldwell said. “They play that way. We’d love to have other people on the bench. But we’re making the most of it.”

Enjoying, perhaps as Caldwell is, having their cake and their basketball, too.