She got game
Story by Chris Graham
Followers of women’s basketball know the significance of the numbers IX and 10.
“IX” refers to Title IX, the landmark federal law that in 1972 mandated that schools, colleges and universities provide equal funding to men’s and women’s sports.
“10,” of course, relates to the 10th season of the Women’s National Basketball Association, which was founded in the aftermath of the run of the U.S. Women’s National Team to the gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Games.
You might be surprised to learn what the number “1892” means to the history of women’s basketball.
Give up? That’s the year that the first women’s game was played – three months after James Naismith put up the first peach basket.
“Most people who follow women’s basketball can go back to the days of Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers – but anything before Title IX is beyond them,” said John Molina, a Connecticut man who is leading an effort to launch a museum dedicated to the history of women’s hoops.
The 80 years that preceded Title IX were a roller-coaster ride – with the game alternately flourishing and waning depending on the mores of the times.
“The early women’s game was very sedate by today’s standards – but at that point in time, in the Victorian Era, to have women doing something at all physical out on a court with a ball was quite revolutionary,” said Susan Shackelford, the co-author of Shattering the Glass: The Dazzling History of Women’s Basketball from the Turn of the Century to the Present.
The roots were put down in women’s colleges in the Northeast in the 1890s – and in short order the sport, different from its male counterpart in that women played six players to a side, with three players on each side of halfcourt, became so popular that school administrators became worried that “the women were not showing the proper decorum, that they were sweating too much, that they were too aggressive, they were too jazzed up about competition,” Shackelford said.
“Even though the notion of what a woman could do physically had broadened, and basketball was a good example of that, the social notion of what a woman should act like didn’t really encompass competitive sports. So to be a proper lady of the time, you couldn’t be but so competitive – you couldn’t be but so active,” Shackelford told The Augusta Free Press.
Women’s basketball didn’t die off, though – the game by the early years of the 20th century had also caught on in working-class communities in the Northeast, the South and into the Midwest where women played a different role in the prevailing social order.
“There was a much broader notion of what women could and couldn’t do in these working-class and black communities,” Shackelford said.
“If black women, for example, were going to be out in the fields pulling cotton all day, which they were apt to do, in the South, anyway, to go run up and down a basketball court was nothing. And in working-class communities, blue-collar communities, the women and the girls worked – hard, physical labor – either in mills or in industrial settings or even just in the community in some regard, just to get by. So again, playing basketball was no great shake,” Shackelford said.
Molina’s grandmother, Bernice Molina, was one of the thousands of women who played organized basketball in the first golden age of women’s hoops in the 1930s. At the game’s highest level was a professional touring team known as The All-American Redheads – who routinely took out the all-male teams who served as their nightly competition.
“They played over 200 games a season. They traveled around from town to town – playing against men and playing by men’s rules. And they were really popular – they used to get thousands of people at their games,” Molina told the AFP.
The Redheads survived well into the Title IX era – after weathering the storm in the 1950s and 1960s that saw the social gains of women in the Depression and World War II years reversed to a great degree.
“The game saw a downturn in participation after World War II. The nation went very conservative – and people didn’t by and large see sports as a great opportunity for women,” Shackelford said.
“They thought that women ought to be at home, raising children, doing things close to home and hearth. There was very much a narrowing of the perceptions of the roles of women in society after the war – and basketball was one of those things that was hurt by this,” Shackelford said.
The passage and implementation of Title IX in the 1970s didn’t change those attitudes overnight, by any means. Barbara Kelly, the first women’s basketball coach and director of women’s sports at the University of Virginia, remembers being informed that she had $27,000 to cover operating expenses for her entire athletics program.
“We had to find facilities, we had to find equipment, I had to arrange the schedules, we had to find officials, had to find uniforms, we had to plan transportation,” Kelly said in an interview for Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, by Chris Graham and Patrick Hite, which is set for release in October.
And Kelly also had to make sure that her team’s games didn’t run too long. More than once, Kelly told the authors of Mad About U, someone representing the men’s team would approach her on the sidelines in the middle of a game and ask her to get the players off the floor so the men’s team could begin warming up for a practice or a game.
Within a few years of the passage of Title IX, though, it seemed that a sea change had occurred. Colleges and universities began offering scholarships to women’s basketball players in the late 1970s – around the same time that an Ohio-based entrepreneur, Bill Byrne, put into motion a plan that led to the development of the first women’s professional sports league, the Women’s Pro Basketball League.
“He figured that with Title IX fully implemented that that meant there was going to be an explosion in girls’ and women’s sports – and he figured that one place that would manifest itself was in team sports like basketball. So he specifically had Title IX in mind when he founded the league,” said Karra Porter, the author of Mad Seasons: A History of the first Women’s Professional Basketball League, a chronicle of the WBL years.
The league played for three seasons – from 1978 to 1981 – before a lack of national media exposure led to its ultimate doom.
“They had to overcome a lot of assumptions about women’s basketball. I mean, believe it or not, some people, even including news reporters, still thought they were playing the halfcourt game. You have to remember, the halfcourt game really only went by the wayside in 1972 – and in some places it was a lot later than that. They had to overcome all of these perceptions about women’s basketball and women athletes,” Porter told the AFP.
The pioneers of the early years of college basketball and the WBL are cognizant of the fact that today, 34 years into the Title IX era, a decade into the run of the WBL’s successor, the WNBA, that battle is far from being over.
“There are still miles to go,” said Rosemarie Skaine, the author of Women College Basketball Coaches, which examines the history of women’s basketball from the 1890s forward.
“Those who were in the game before and after Title IX see it as having come light-years ahead of where it was before. When you look back in the beginning, they had to keep men out of the games, and they had to wear these ridiculous uniforms. Things were better, but there were still restrictions,” Skaine told the AFP.
“In my own experience as a player growing up in Nebraska, we played intramurally – we didn’t play teams from other schools. And then it was only a couple weeks of the year – or whatever they would allow in their curriculum for basketball. There wasn’t much opportunity, really, to participate. You had a couple of weeks of basketball, and then you had to go into flag step clubs and cheer the guys. There was a girls’ athletics association – but basically you ended up redecorating the health room or something like that. It’s a different world now,” Skaine said.
“There may be miles that we still have to go – but we’ve come a long way, I think, by allowing people to develop,” Skaine said.