I finally made it to an NCAA Final Four, but not as a player or coach. I rocked as the keynote speaker addressing the athletes and coaches from Tufts University, Whitman College, Fairleigh Dickinson University and UW-Whitewater. For today’s athlete to appreciate how much it means, we have to travel back in time.
As a child, I stood, hand on my heart, singing the national anthem, then watching the boys charge down court and praying someone would throw a bad pass, so that I could scoop up that loose ball and fire it back to the official. That was the only game action I saw unless I could convince the boys to let me in their pick up games. Oh, they’d finally let me play if I agreed to go on the “skins” team.
I never fathomed that one day girls would play on center court because when I was a growing up, the medical authorities at the time, believed that if girls played sports their hearts would burst or their ovaries would drop out their bodies.
After Title IX passed in 1972, mandating equal opportunity for girls in education, basketball took me around the globe. Every step of the way I met obstacles.
At Illinois State University, I played for Jill Hutchison, cofounder and1st President of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Hutchison was a part of every rule change in women’s game and her research proved that a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running up and down a full court.
In the 1st Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), we played in empty arenas, and went on strike after months without pay. In the late 70s “a league of their own” was insane, but out of our crazy collective dream we gave birth to the WNBA.
In Europe, I washed my uniform in a bathtub and shopped daily because my refrigerator was the size of school lunch box. Before Internet, my only connection with home was letters that took weeks to arrive.
I battled back from injury to continue competing until a car accident 4,000 miles away from home ended my career. Forget playing ball, I wasn’t sure I’d ever walk again.
How do you deal with those life-changing setbacks? How do you keep your dreams alive after defeat? A championship title is not the only sign of victory.
Today every girl can participate. To my generation, this is our triumph. Our own women’s NCAA Final Four. Though work remains in our fight for equality in women’s sports, our first victory was the RIGHT to even compete.
After college, I moved overseas and decades later saw my first college game when my daughter suited up for Coach Shirley Egner at UWSP. I knew we’d made it when I saw a young girl ask my daughter for her autograph.
I wish I could go back to that girl who sat on sidelines praying she could play with the boys, and tell her what it’s like now. That one day girls like her would be celebrated.
That one day women would be doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. We fought for the right to play ball and in doing so opened doors for our daughters. Though it is unlikely DIII athletes will play professionally, they will have the opportunity to pursue careers in the field of their choice.
I am not famous, just a feisty tomboy who fell in love with basketball as a 5-year-old, and refused to take no for an answer. I spent the 1st half my life fighting for the right to play, the 2nd graciously cheering for others. I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood to bear witness, to give a voice to the silent generation who battled so hard for the rights we have today.
We cannot know who we are if we do not know where we came from. We stand on shoulders of the women who came before us. In women’s basketball, it’s women like Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, C. Vivian Stringer, Sylvia Hatchell, Jill Hutchison, and Kay Yow who paved the way. In my own life, it was my mom and coach.
Today, thanks to Title IX, a girl never grows up questioning her right to be all she can be.
At the NCAA Final Four, I dared athletes to be the first, to refuse to take no for an answer, to stand tall, to be smart. Play hard. Play fair. Play as long as possible. Then pay it forward. Pass it on. Encourage another little girl to chase her dream.
Four decades after the passage Title IX, the little girl who grew up on the sideline finally made it to the Big Dance. I kicked my heels up for all women. Raise the roof. Ladies, we have arrived!