Women’s History Month, March Madness, Acknowledging Ghosts of Women’s Basketball

Half a century ago, no one paid any attention when my friends and I played basketball. We got kicked off the court, but shoved our way back in the game, clearing the lane for Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, Juju Watkins and the contemporary stars of today.

Over the decades, women’s opportunities grew thousandfold because the cultural landscape changed with media exposure. Today girls never question their right to play basketball; they have female sport icons to emulate.

Born at the turn of the twenty-first century, Caitlin Clark grew up idolizing role models. As early as second grade, she wrote about her goal to play in the WNBA. As Caitlin reached the pinnacle of her college career at Iowa, she helped pack arenas. America watched, mesmerized by her engaging personality, athleticism, and exciting style of play.

In the sixties, in my own second grade story I wrote about the lockers playing a basketball game against the waste baskets during recess. Back then, I imagined inanimate objects in school had a greater chance of competing in the game than girls. Yet, like my sports loving peers, we shot hoops anyway creating a path so new that no one envisioned its existence.

The female hoopsters of my era grew up invisible in a vacuum of time.

As a high school junior, we were allowed to compete in three basketball games. My senior season, we played 14 games and won a conference title, which at the time was more than most schools where girls’ sports remained nonexistent. No one registered my Sterling High school records. Why would they? Still, I know the next generation, including my biological little sister, wanted to play basketball like me. They did. In 1977, they became the first IHSA Sterling Girls State Championship team.

Back in my day, without specialists, and pre/post season programs, girls like me had to be our own personal trainers, dieticians, strength coaches and shot doctors. My dad, Coach Jim McKinzie, gave me a head start by perfecting my jump shot and fundamentals. Workouts with coach, Phil Smith, helped me reach the pro level.

ISU Coach Jill Hutchison presenting Wade Trophy Finalist 1979. Best national basketball player award named after Coach Margaret Wade, 3-time Delta State National Champion.

I attended college in the 70s and received Illinois State’s first athletic scholarship (1978.) Right place. Right time. Right people. My coach, Jill Hutchison and her ISU colleagues paved the way for the groundbreaking reform Title IX that mandated equal opportunity for women in college athletics. Her graduate research dispelled the myth that women’s hearts would explode by playing full court. Hence the girl’s 3 on 3 half court game gave way to full court play in 1970. In 1972 Hutchison, along with ISU’s Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics director, created the first women’s national basketball championship.

This year, when Caitlin Clark, broke the all-time NCAA scoring record, she acknowledged Lynette Woodard’s scoring record during the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) era.

“By 1981 the AIAW staged 41 championships in 19 sports and put women’s basketball on national television,” Sally Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post February 24, 2024. “Which is exactly when the NCAA swooped in with a hostile takeover, pressuring universities into abandoning the AIAW, to absorb what the women had built.“

I played ball in the AIAW era. In the infancy of Title IX, as collegiate athletes, we pushed our bodies, played hard, pulled all-nighters and still made it to class. We drove ourselves cross country in campus station wagons to compete against Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and today’s Big Ten schools.

Charlotte Lewis ISU star center 1976 Olympian

In the mid 70s, we knew women could star in showtime. Our ISU center, the late Charlotte Lewis, dunked in practice. Our point guard Vonnie Tomich, a WBL All-Star, knocked down treys from downtown long before the three-point shot was added to the rule book.

Marketing? Sh**! No one in corporate America wanted to promote brands with no names like us. Name Image Likeness (NIL) did not exist. Social media, zilch. Media exposure, nada. Our only fans - loyal families and friends.

Today thousands of people tune in to women’s basketball obliterating the old records of attendance and viewership.

By comparison, in the late seventies, WBL (precursor to the WNBA) players’ paychecks bounced months before the league declared bankruptcy. Back then, no one wanted to watch a bunch of “amazon women” play men’s favorite game.

My sister, Karen, first Illinois State High School Championship basketball player, daughter, Hannah, Minnesota High School State Champion rugby player at sold out Iowa - Nebraska women’s basketball game.

We sacrificed our bodies to chase a dream so farfetched and ahead of its time that we were ridiculed. Those scars of scorn remain etched in our souls. But without us, Luisa Harris, Lynnette Woodard and the superstars of the AIAW and WBL era, there would be no Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers or Juju Watkins. For decades women’s sports have been an afterthought, if considered at all. Thanks to media exposure and exciting play, fans now argue about the officiating, players trash talk opponents, and the women’s game is the talk of the town.

Gender disparity still exist in colleges, corporations, and societies, but the icons of the Caitlin Clark era have demonstrated women’s sport will grow if given a chance.

“Build it and they will come,” said Hutchison, Illinois State University’s winningest basketball coach, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame recipient (2009) and a true visionary of the game.

After a long, arduous journey from the AIAW to Title XI to the NCAA Final Four to the WNBA, the ghosts of the game are hooting and hollering and dancing in the rafters. Forget bracket standings. Ignore NCAA results. Celebrate Final Score. Women Win!

Keep Walking

 

“I considered my options
There was only one I knew
There was always only one.

To keep walking.”

from Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

So simple, yet so profound. Trapped in my royal blue funk, regretting, lamenting, mourning for all the things I can no longer do, I take comfort in the words of a woman who walked the Pacific North Trail solo and chronicled her journey in her best selling memoir Wild.

I can’t ski, skate, bike, play basketball, or pickle ball or any kind of ball game. I can’t hop, skip, or jump. But I can stand tall. Shoulders back, chin up, head high. I can put one foot in front of the other.

Why is that so hard to do? I feel like rigor mortis set in while I sleep. When I wake up each morning, I am caught by surprise. So I roll out of bed, crawl onto my yoga mat, stretch my stiff limbs and marvel.

I am still here.

Alive.

Each new day is a clean slate. A chance to get it right.

I remember to smile, be kind, offer encouragement. Someone else is in much worse shape, facing far greater trials, struggling to survive in tougher circumstances.

Today I had an epiphany.

I am an athlete. Still. Only now I am training for life.
Though I will never again play my beloved ball games, I can raise my arms, clap my hands, stomp my feet, wiggle my hips, shake my booty. I can still dance.

I inherited the iron will of my ancestors whose footprints I try so hard to emulate in spite of setbacks.

My father and grandfather, good sportsmen, great coaches, dedicated their lives to helping others find their way and offered me stellar examples of resiliency. They remained athletes at heart, determined to stay as active as their bodies would allow until their final hours.

I can still move.

I may be slower, stiffer, clumsier, but I can sit, stand and even roll over like Rover.

I’m lucky to be here!

Right now.

Today.

We, human beings, take so much for granted until it’s gone.

Aging can be a losing game. Combined with bad luck, terrible accidents, and bizarre ailments, no one can perceive what challenges await.

Today is our only guarantee.

Seize the moment.

Be brave enough to take another step.

As a child I hated to walk, I would rather run. Walking was too slow, too boring. Now walking saves my soul.

We are all just walking and walking, trying our best to find our way.

To stay the course.

To step forward.

To believe.

Eventually all roads lead to the mountaintop.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to my Pioneer Mom

With Title IX Mom would've have been an NIU athlete

 

As we say in French “merci mille fois” thank you a million times for being my mom!
Greeting card companies remind us to mark this day, but I think of you every day.

I have been so fortunate to have been born to you — a generous, kindhearted, intelligent Norwegian-American mom, who guided me through tough transitions with my identity intact during the tumultuous 60s and 70s. Because of you, I became adventurous, courageous and tenacious.

I hate to imagine what my life would have been like growing up at that time period without a mom like you. You let me be me, warts and all. As if you knew that one day this hellbent, stubborn, ornery child would grow up to be a curious, compassionate, tolerant human being.

You nurtured me as a baby, cheered on my first shaky steps as a toddler and applauded even when those bold footsteps led me across the globe.

A family of four by age 26

I could have never navigated my role as a trailblazer without a forward thinking mom encouraging me to overcome setbacks, supporting me through the trials of being a first, and nursing me back from injuries in my rough and tumble life as a female athlete.

You never forced me to sit pretty on the sideline in dainty dresses, instead you let me mix it up and play ball with boys in my grassed-stained dungarees.

Because you accepted me early on, I learned to like myself long before society willingly let girls in the game.

I often credit Dad as my coach, but you were my counselor!

If I became a Title IX pioneer, it was because from day one, my loving, patient, pioneer mom believed in me.

Four generations

So many of our mothers no longer walk this earth, but their impact in our lives abides forever.

I am grateful that you are still here as such a cherished part of my life. Sometimes I wish I lived right next door, so I could check up on you, the way you’ve have watched over me, but thanks to modern technology, we remain only a phone call apart.

How I treasure our conversations! We discuss everything from ancestors, to books, to history, to politics, to human rights. As a teenager, I ignored your suggestions, but as an adult I turned to you for advice. Today I listen carefully to your words, sometimes, even taking notes when you impart your pearls of wisdom.

First grandchild in the family

Today I truly appreciate your selflessness. As you once told me, we offer our babies as a gift to the world the moment they leave our wombs.

Because of your example, I learned how to live a kinder, calmer, more generous life filled with gratitude.

In turn, I passed on that grace, not only to my own two biological children, but to hundreds of others that I coached and taught.

You taught me how to love unconditionally and then let go. Though, now we too live far apart, my daughter, a pediatrician in the USA and my son, a chiropractor in England fulfill their own destiny helping others through their chosen professions.

You showed me how to be a strong, resilient woman, how to bridge the distances between us and strengthen the bonds between cultures, countries and generations.

Sadly, our mothers cannot live eternally, but we carry their love with us always, forevermore.

 

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Hometown Engraved in Heart Forever

 

Many Sterlingites moved away from town, but like me still bleed blue and gold. Like a tattoo, our Sterling High School days remain ingrained in our hearts.

Decades ago, I moved to Europe to pursue my crazy (at that time) dream to play pro basketball, but Sterling has remained my chez moi. Relocating dozens of times between four different countries, my family, my hometown, my community remained my anchor.

Others SHS graduates have moved across the States, but remained tied to places like Coletta, Woodlawn, Jefferson,Washington and good ol’ SHS. For some local families - Dietz, McKinzie, Smith, Yemm, Zion - our parents serving as teachers, coaches, administrators formed bricks in the foundation of SHS. Following generations became pillars of strength in our own professions and communities.

During turbulent times, on the heels of the civil and women’s rights movements, high school sports united gender, race and economic backgrounds in a sense of community on Sterling’s stellar courts, fields and stadium.

I was a pioneer in the infancy of Title IX, before girls state championships existed. That title belonged to my dad, my younger sister, Karen, and her teammates.

Title IX June 23, 1972, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding made this opportunity possible. It leveled the playing fields for women in sport and education opening doors to careers in law, medicine, and science careers.

SHS implemented Title IX faster than other communities, so Sterling girls gained gender equity sooner than those living in other parts of the country. Consequently, the time was right for our beloved 1977 1st state championship girls basketball team to triumph.

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.

Could hard fought Title IX’s rights be revoked like some of our other recently overturned civil liberties?

An attack on any one of women’s rights is an attack on all of our rights.

Title IX gave me the opportunity to become the first female athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University, a 1st women’s pro league draftee, and one of first American females to play overseas. No one remembers my name. No matter. What matters is that we earned the right to do these things.

“Your role,” my friend Phil reminds me, “was to lead others to the promised land.”

Back in the day, the only glory I had, was beating him one on one. He taught me the sky hook, behind the back dribble and other moves of the NBA, skills that I fine tuned playing pick-up ball with boys in Homer Musgrove Fieldhouse.

In the 70s and early 80s, girls’ basketball was still taboo, which forced me abroad to play the game I loved.

Coaches Phil Smith and Jim McKinzie

Every step of my way, mentors guided me, beginning with my dad and Phil Smith at SHS, Jill Hutchison at ISU, and then Henry Fields, father of French basketball, who took me under his wing when I coached in Europe.

After my playing career ended in a car accident abroad, I followed in their footsteps becoming a coach. For the next three decades, I passed on their knowledge of the game in France and Switzerland. My career can’t be measured in championships, but in the strength of character of those I coached, who later advocated for social justice in their own homelands.

Nothing was a given. Nothing was taken for granted. Nothing was accomplished without gratitude.

As a kid, I felt lucky to grow up playing safely outdoors in Sterling. During backyard games, we learned to share, negotiate and resolve differences. Later at SHS, we honed our skills in athletic facilities finer than any I’ve ever seen in Europe.

I could lament that I sacrificed my body and soul to basketball without ever receiving accolades, sponsorships, and financial rewards of today’s female basketball stars. Or I could feel blessed to have been there when it all began, to play my humble part in history. I will be forever grateful that I fulfilled my calling passing on my love of the game to hundreds of international athletes including my daughter and son.

As the granddaughter of Coach “Mac” Ralph McKinzie and daughter of Coach Jim McKinzie, I grew up with a legacy of integrity. I was a product of Sterling High School, a Golden Warrior and an Illinois State Redbird, raised in the Land of Lincoln.

Fran Smith clears the lane

I touched the lives of kids from around the globe,

But I never forgot my heritage,

I always honored my roots.

Every challenged faced,

I remained Warrior Strong.

No matter where I live,

My McKinzie heart beats blue and gold.

If the Global Pandemic is Over Why Do I Still Have COVID?

Every action from brushing my teeth, to getting dressed, to sitting at the table wears me out. I have muscle aches, headaches, air hunger, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath. I force myself to walk everyday gasping for air at every incline as though I have run up the mountain.

My doctors surmised that I have lingering COVID or what is called long haul COVID. The illness also robbed me of my sense of taste and smell. How cruel, especially when I have the great fortune of being married to a French chef. Yet in comparison to others, my complaints are minor.

In August, our son contracted COVID and he suggested we test. My husband, who barely felt ill, tested positive. I had all the symptoms, but tested negative until 5 days later.

Luckily, I have an expert resource for up to date, accurate information about COVID. My friend, Jono Quick, is a public health specialist, who dedicated his career to focusing on global health security. An internationally known global health leader, Jonathan (“Jono”) D. Quick, MD, MPH wrote in 2018 The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It that eerily forecasted this dreadful fallout of a pandemic. The former director of Essential Drugs and Medicines Policy for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva was part of Dr. Fauci’s think tank committee at the outbreak of the COVID epidemic.

In August, when I tested positive, I called him. “Over half the population has the virus and is asymptomatic,” he told me, “Or they mistakenly believe it is only the common cold.”

He emphasized the importance of isolation during the illness and protecting others. Misconceptions abound making this issue more confusing.There is so much we don’t understand yet, COVID has only been here for 2 years, which is a very short period for scientific knowledge.

How do we protect ourselves and others when the guidelines keep changing?

Dr. Quick stated that these recommendations still hold true.

  • Mask up! But only KN95 or N95 masks are efficient against Omicron.
  • Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate - the virus hangs around indoors.
  • Respect a safe a distance in public spaces
  • Remember that the risk is higher if your immune system is weaker. Even if you already had Omicron and have been vaccinated, you still risk getting it again, because immunity wanes over time.
  • Keep your vaccine updated. The good news is that the vaccine protects you against the most severe forms of the illness.

People are sick of COVID protocols. With lower viral levels during the summer months, European countries lifted flying bans and border entry restrictions. Everyone enjoyed more freedom to travel, but it has never been without risks. With winter approaching, experts sound alarms again. If the rising European rates are a forewarning, as they have been in the past, Americans could be next.

Omicron BA. 4/5 variants plagued us this summer, but the WHO has been continually tracking hundreds of new variants. An 8th wave of infections threatens the European continent. A new variant labeled Centaure, first discovered in India and recently identified here, could hit hard this winter

What about patients like me with immunocompromised systems that still suffer from symptoms?

A recent Scottish study, one of the largest on long COVID, found that nearly half of COVID cases had not fully recovered more than six months after the infection.

According to my neurologist and ENT in Switzerland, the low energy, loss of taste and smell can take up to 18 months to recover from.

Meanwhile the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have noted rising COVID cases and hospitalization across Europe.

Pretending it doesn’t matter because cases are milder now than before is a lame excuse. COVID exposure is like playing Russian roulette. Depending on one’s age, immune system status and other extenuating health circumstances, the results of an infection can be catastrophic and even deadly.

Most members of my immediate family have had milder cases of COVID, but I have lost 2 uncles, (in the USA and France) to this horrible disease. I struggle to fully recover after 3 months; my French sister-in-law still battles complications of post COVID lung inflammation.

America prides itself on freedom, which we all value. But how can the right to carry a gun in public be more widely tolerated than accepting the “inconvenience” of wearing a mask to help prevent oneself and others from contracting a life threatening illness?

Please don’t criticize, belittle or judge anyone who chooses to adhere the guidelines that we cannot afford to ignore.

“Error on the side of caution,” Dr. Quick suggested. “Don’t take risks. Don’t compromise safety yourself or others.”