Tribute to David Stern, an architect of the WNBA

David Stern at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, on the occasion of his induction into the hall in 2014. Photo by Joanne Lannin

When the WNBA began, way back in 1997, I was annoyed with David Stern. The NBA commissioner had put his full weight and influence on the side of this fledgling league. In fact, he and Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s first commissioner, had worked together on the blueprint for the league in the early 1990s and used the tremendous popularity of the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic team (which won the gold medal in Atlanta) to help launch it.

But I was annoyed because I didn’t like the idea of the WNBA. I didn’t like the fact that the league was a “little sister” to the NBA (in fact most WNBA teams were owned by the NBA team in their city and shared administrative staff).

Mostly though, I didn’t like the fact that the WNBA only played its games from April to September. I was gung ho for the American Basketball League’s approach. That league, that began around the same time as the WNBA, was founded on the premise that women should be playing during the traditional basketball season — and that the interest in college women’s basketball would naturally sustain it and help it to grow.

Well David Stern, who died this week at the age of 77,  obviously proved that his vision was the right one. While the ABL folded after three seasons, the WNBA is going into its 25th year. Women’s basketball players and coaches are hailing Stern today for his belief in the WNBA and for coming up with a model that has proven to be sustainable.

Ackerman, who released a statement upon Stern’s passing, summed things up pretty well.

“We mourn a titan, an innovator, a perfectionist, a taskmaster, a role model, a mentor and, most of all, a dear friend,” Ackerman said. “We will sorely miss his boundless energy, his unquenchable intellectual curiosity, and his irrepressible habits of asking hard questions, never backing down and always speaking his mind.

“Those of us who have given our lives to the game of basketball owe it to David for taking the sport to heights Dr. Naismith never could have imagined.”

This is not to say that the WNBA is without its flaws still. The “little sister” tag still fits in some ways. Just ask the players who have to fly in cramped seats on commercial airlines to their games. Or the players who must go overseas to make the kind of money they deserve. Still, people are quick to point out, and I certainly can’t disagree, that without Stern’s vision, women’s basketball might still be hoping for a professional league to play in here in the states. If Stern had decided that a women’s pro league had to wait until the women’s college game had gained the popularity of the men’s game, we might still be waiting.

Because let’s face it, our society is still plagued by sexism. Women are still seen as both inferior and a threat (both ironic and paradoxical) by a segment of male sports fans. These guys don’t just ignore the women’s game; no, they are vitriolic in putting forth the notion that women in sports has no value whatsoever. As a consequence, most news outlets still can’t bring themselves to cover NCAA women’s basketball or the WNBA on a regular basis. Women rarely make the front page unless a fight breaks out or the game involves some sort of scandal.

So thank you, David Stern. You not only guided the NBA for 30 years, you also helped grow the “league of their own” that has brought enjoyment to so many women’s basketball fans.

Mainstream media still treat the WNBA like a novelty

Britney Griner is mugged on a regular basis according to her teammates. Arizona Republic photo.

Brittney Griner of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings rookie Kristine Anigwe got into a big-time skirmish after some extended  bumping and pushing under the basket last Saturday night. Griner, who teammate Diana Taurasi says is constantly getting punched and held because of her size and strength, clearly had had enough. She attempted to chase Anigwe down the court; it took several players and an official to hold her back. Luckily, Anigwe decided retreating was the best strategy or else it could have gotten really ugly.

The New York Times, USA Today, and the national TV networks all gave the incident —which led to six ejections and suspensions — major attention. That the Wings came from behind after Griner’s exit was not even mentioned in the USA Today story (Well they did mention the score). The coverage was all about the personalities involved, with the video getting lots of hits throughout the next few days.

What this suggests is that the mainstream media still only covers the WNBA — a 23-year-old league— when fights break out, when someone gets arrested, or when an enterprising reporter decides to explore why the league still isn’t making money.

Instead, the media should be using this opportunity to shine a broader light on the ongoing issues that WNBA players say need to be addressed, such as subpar officiating, better working conditions, and fair pay.

This incident, after all, shows that in the WNBA,  just as in the NBA, the players are so talented and the stakes so high, that the game is much more physical than even in the highest levels of women’s college basketball.  Just as Megan Rapinoe’s brashness brought boatloads of attention to U.S. women’s soccer, Britney Griner’s  outburst could be seen as a metaphor, an insistence that players deserve to be taken seriously.

Griner says she is fed up with the subpar officiating and is thinking seriously of not playing in the WNBA next year. According to the Arizona Republic, the 6-7, six-time All Star and WNBA scoring leader is making close to the maximum $115,000 salary this season. She makes more than a million dollars playing in Russia after the WNBA season ends. Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi played exclusively overseas in 2015, getting a $200,000 bonus from UMMC, a team funded by the second-largest copper mining business in Russia, NOT to play in the WNBA.

Whether the Russian and European leagues make any money doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Most of the teams are funded in part by local governments and often backed by corporations who willingly pay the big salaries to international stars  to draw publicity and to promote their brands. Here in the U.S., however, the WNBA is under constant scrutiny and success is measured by the ability to turn a profit, along with the ability to generate buzz and attention from the media.

For most of the league’s first 20 years, WNBA players were patient and understanding of the need to build the league before rewarding players financially. But they have begun to complain that the league could do more to market itself and to treat its players more professionally. Last year, the Las Vegas Aces forfeited a game after it took 25 hours of travel to get from Las Vegas to Washington because of cancellations and flight delays. The team didn’t check into its hotel until four hours before game time and voted not to play because they were so exhausted and feared for their health and safety.

The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) has voted to renegotiate its contract with the WNBA after this season. Working conditions are an important topic. And while they are not looking to make NBA salaries, they do believe the league must make their pay scales comparable to those of European teams, which would help keep WNBA players from having to play year round.

Perhaps in anticipation of these demands, the WNBA does seem to be ramping up its marketing and perhaps turning the corner in terms of visibility. Leading the way are the Las Vegas Aces, who moved from San Antonio where they’d been the San Antonio Stars for 11 years. The glitz of the Mandalay Bay Events Center and the marketing savvy of their new owners, MGM Resorts International, right away gained the team some media attention. The Aces hosted the annual WNBA All-Star game this year and made it an all-weekend party, which many in the media obviously appreciated.

In addition, WNBA games are getting easier to find on TV this season. In years past, ESPN was the only outlet for watching the WNBA, and coverage was hit or miss to say the least. Every game this season can be found either on ESPN2, CBS Sports Network or NBA TV. In addition, many local TV stations are carrying WNBA games. NESN in Boston, the Red Sox and Bruins station, carries two or three Connecticut Suns games per week.

The Athletic, a subscription-based website/app devoted to 24-hour sports coverage, is also covering the WNBA this year. The publication has a stringer responsible for each WNBA team, tasked with filing stories each week that go beyond game results. According to Hannah Withiam, the editor in charge of the new effort says, “We felt it was the right time for us as a company to launch WNBA coverage the way we wanted to, with on-the-ground reporting of all 12 teams and the league as a whole.” Withiam says response from subscribers has been positive. (That’s not to say you can’t find comments from neanderthal trolls who say the WNBA shouldn’t even exist below some stories)

Molly Yanity, a freelance writer and journalism professor, is the The Athletic’s stringer for the Connecticut Sun. She thinks The Athletic’s decision was a smart one, timing wise.

“Right now there are some real dynamic personalities that are attractive to a lot of different demographics,” she says, adding, “(The WNBA) is always going to be a niche market but I think having them cover it brings some professionalism to the coverage.”

In other words, perhaps the time is right for the mainstream media to treat the WNBA as a legitimate professional league —  covering it on a regular basis — not just when fights break out,


Standing shoulder to shoulder with the game’s greats

The 1975 U.S. Women’s Pan American team. Carolyn Bush Roddy is the third from the left (between Coach Cathy Rush and Lusia Harris) in the back row. USA Basketball photo.

When Carolyn Bush Roddy got the call telling her she’d made it into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year, she’d just gone into the local Walmart in Knoxville. She was unable to move or say anything as Danielle Donehew, the executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, gave her the good news. When she hung up, she couldn’t remember what she’d gone into Walmart to buy.

“So I went out to my car and just boo-hoo’d like a baby,” she recalls. “Then I went back inside and got what I’d come for. I drove home real slow….I don’t remember how I got home.”

Bush Roddy has been around the game of women’s basketball for more than 50 years. She can cite a connection to every single person who either played, coached, or officiated their way into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in its first 15 years of operation (except of course for Senda Berenson, who invented the game in 1892). Finally, she’ll be joining the greats of the women’s game when she’s inducted this coming June as part of the hall’s 21st class.

“My basketball career has been like a gigantic puzzle. Every piece has taken time to fit in where it needs to be,” she told me last week in a phone interview. “The hall of fame is the piece that’s finally found its place in my puzzle.”

Indeed, Bush Roddy has been part of many of the changes in women’s basketball in the last 50 years. She started out as a stationary guard in the old divided-court days at Roanne High School in Kingston, TN in 1966. “I was really spastic, and I could not walk and chew gum at the same time,” she says. “However, Coach (Freddie Paul) Wilson saw something in me and kept working to help me get better.”

She moved to stationary forward her sophomore year and, at 6-2 and 145 pounds, began dominating  the action. She says she owes Coach Wilson a huge debt of gratitude for helping her develop not only her skills but also her passion for the game and the discipline to achieve her goals.

As an example, she cites the rough start to her freshman year in high school. She had 4 F’s, 1 C, and 2 D’s at the end of the first marking period. After the grades came out, Coach Wilson made her sit in the gym and watch the team practice while she did her homework. Every 30 minutes, he would tap her on the shoulder and ask if she wanted to play. When she answered yes, he’d tell her she couldn’t yet. This went on, she says, for two solid weeks.

“He was testing me to see how much I wanted to play,” she explains. “The next semester I had 4 A’s, 2 B’s and 1 C….All you have to do to get me to do something is tell me I can’t do it.”

Bush Roddy went on to earn MVP honors in 12 different tournaments her senior year, and played in the East & West All-Star Game, held at Stokley Center on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville campus in 1971.

Bush Roddy is interviewed for a local station after the news of her induction in the WBHOF. Randy Ellis photo

Options for playing basketball after high school were improving around the country, but for a “country bumpkin” who didn’t want to stray too far from home, Hiwassee Junior College in nearby Madisonville, TN, which had switched to the five-player, full-court game, made sense.

“I’d always played with guys growing up,” she says. “I loved the five-player game.”

Her team made it to the national junior college tournament in both 1972 and 1973, which was held in Enid, Oklahoma. There, legendary coach Harley Redin of Wayland Baptist College took notice of Bush Roddy and recruited her to finish out her college career with the Flying Queens.

Wayland Baptist became known as much for flying the team to its games around the country as it did for its 131-game winning streak in the late 1950s. Bush Roddy says she grew to enjoy the plane rides, but you wouldn’t have bet on that if you’d seen her during her first trip to visit the Plainview, Texas campus.  “Marsha Sharp (one of the assistant coaches then) had to come onto the plane to get me off,” she recalls. “But I got used to it real quick.”

Wayland Baptist won two AIAW consolation bracket championships during Bush Roddy’s two years there. After graduation, Bush Roddy made the Pan American team that won a gold medal in Mexico City in 1975. She started every game along with Lusia Harris, Julie Simpson, and Anne Meyers. Other members of the team were Pat Summitt, Nancy Lieberman and Sue Rocjewicz.  Averaging 87 points per game and allowing opponents just over 52 points, the U.S. women went undefeated in the tournament. Against defending champion Brazil in the game for the gold, the U.S. won 74-55, ending a 12-year drought for the U.S. women in international play.

The following year, Bush Roddy was the last person cut when USA Basketball was assembling the 1976 Olympic team. Still, she has lots of great memories of international play, including an incident in Moscow when she literally stopped traffic after she’d decided to let one of her teammates braid her hair.

“I don’t think a lot of Russians had seen a black woman with braided hair. People were slowing down and stopping to look at me,” she recalls. “The KGB had to come and escort me back to where we were staying. Nobody was mean or anything, but I was scared. Needless to say, I unbraided my hair as quickly as possible.”

Bush Roddy played three seasons in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) with the Dallas Diamonds from 1979-1981. By then she was married to her husband Steve, doing coaching clinics with Clemson’s Jim Davis and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, and working at one of the government plants in Oak Ridge, TN. When Coach Dean Weese (who’d been her coach at Wayland Baptist) called to ask if she’d play for Dallas, she asked Steve how he’d feel about making the move.

“All he said was ‘When do we leave’,” Bush Roddy recalls. “He’s always supported me in everything that I do.”

Bush Roddy attributes much of her success to her faith in God. It’s a faith instilled in her by her grandmother long ago and affirmed three years ago when she and Steve both survived battles with cancer.

“I never cried or worried,” Bush Roddy recalls. “I just gave God the glory.”

Three years later, they are both cancer free.

Carolyn Bush Roddy, holding city proclamation making Feb. 5 Carolyn Bush Roddy Day in her hometown. She is flanked by her husband, Steve Roddy (at left) and her son Brent Roddy. Carolyn Slay photo

Over the years, Bush Roddy has stayed involved in women’s basketball. In 1996, Bush Roddy became the assistant coach of the women’s basketballl team at Roane State Community College. A year later, she took over as Head Coach at her alma mater, Hiwassee College. From 2000-2003, she was Head Coach at Knoxville College. From 2002 through 2006, she served on the Board of Directors for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bush Roddy has reservations about some of the changes in the women’s game. She thinks the 3-point shot is ruining the game. She thinks shooters should use the backboard more, and she believes parents shouldn’t let their kids play one sport all year round.

“I’ve seen so many kids who could have been great burn out,” she says. “Even though I worked hard, I was allowed to grow up as a kid.”

Bush Roddy is already working on her speech for her June 8 induction. She’s going into the hall with a group that includes Ticha Penichiero, Ruth Riley, and Valerie Still.  She plans to mention some of the women who’ve gone before her, thanking them for paving the way for her.

“Players like Nera White, Dixie Woodhall, Pat Summitt…they’ve allowed us to stand on their shoulders to help build the women’s game,” she says. “I hope someday that some young women will say they stood on my shoulders too.”







Out on a limb already

Morgan William gets ready to shoot during the 2018 semifinal game against Louisville. Photo by Joanne Lannin

They haven’t played Notre Dame. They haven’t played UConn or Baylor. And it’s two months until tournament time gets underway. Still, my money is on Mississippi State to win it all this year. For me, they are the sentimental favorites, and if there is justice in the world of women’s basketball, Vic Shaefer’s talented team deserves to make it all the way to the top of the mountain this year.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Mississippi State until I watched them lose by 60 points to the Breanna Stewart-led Connecticut Huskies three years ago in the NCAA regionals in Bridgeport. After that humiliating sucker punch, Mississippi coach Vic Schaefer said of UConn, “They are like piranhas at a roast. You can’t get that bone out of there fast enough.”

A year later, Mississippi State got its revenge, stunning the basketball world by ending UConn’s 111-game win streak with an overtime victory at the buzzer in the national semifinal at the 2017 Final Four. Morgan William (who hit the winning shot in OT) and Victoria Vivians (who hit the game tying jumper in regulation) were the heroes of that epic win. But Mississippi State went up against its biggest nemesis in the next game for the national championship. South Carolina handled the Bulldogs pretty easily, thanks to South Carolina MVP center A’ja Wilson and coach Dawn Staley’s great game plan.

Last year Mississippi State made it to the final again — by knocking Louisville off in overtime in the semifinal. Leading by 1 and with the ball, Louisville had scored an uncontested layup with only a few seconds on the clock. But MSU’s Roshunda Johnson hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the score and send the game into overtime. There they dominated the deflated Cardinals and earned their spot in the Finals. Teaira McCowan, MSU’s 6-7 center had 21 points and an astonishing 25 rebounds. Vivians had 25 points, and William chipped in with 12. The Mississippi State fans who crowded the bar next to the arena before the final game against Notre Dame were ebullient with their chants of “Hail State!” With Vivians firing on all cylinders and McCowan finally coming into her own, victory, and the national championship, seemed assured.

But Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw had other ideas. Yes, she’d lost star center Brianna Turner (and three other players) to ACL tears. But she had Arike Ogunbowale, whose buzzer beater in the other semifinal game had sent UConn to its second Final Four defeat in as many years. The Fighting Irish were riding on as much of a high as the Bulldogs. And so it was that another Ogunbowale three-pointer (with a 10th of a second on the clock) gave Notre Dame the championship, 61-58.

With that loss, it seemed that Mississippi’s window for winning it all might be closing. McCowan would be the only returning starter in 2019, as Vivians, William, Johnson, and Vic Shaefer’s feisty point guard/daughter Blair all graduated. But out of the blue, Texas A&M’s star forward, Anriel Howard decided to transfer at the end of her junior year. Eligible to graduate last August, she didn’t have to get a waiver to continue playing somewhere else. She looked around for a school with a good graduate program in media and communications, as well as a great basketball program. She made trips to UConn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, and came away sold on the Bulldogs. Howard said MSU’s family atmosphere and the fact that her role would be well-defined were the selling points.

So far, Howard has been just what the Bulldogs needed, taking the pressure off McCowan and providing a formidable tandem with McCowan in the paint (even though she’s only 5-11). Of late, she’s carried the offense, which has given MSU’s younger starters the time and the room to adjust to their roles in Vic Shaefer’s offense — and they are coming up big in the early going, as #6 Mississippi State remains undefeated in the SEC.

Mississippi State lost to #5 Oregon during an early-season West Coast trip but otherwise, they’re undefeated.  I’m betting that the time has come for them to reach the mountaintop.


Another Tennessee legend

Joan Crawford, left, Nera White, center, Doris Rogers, right, and Doris Barding Moore in front, were a winning combination for Nashville Business College in the 50s and 60s. Photo courtesy of Doris Rogers.

A number of women’s basketball legends have come from Tennessee. Topping the list, of course, is the late Pat Summitt, who played on an Olympic championship team and coached the Lady Vols to more than 1,000 wins in her career.

Among players, though, you have to go back a ways to find the legend of all Tennessee legends: Nera White. White was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, the first woman so honored. She was also one of the earliest members of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville.

White was born on Nov. 15, 1935 in Lafayette, the county seat of Macon County, about 60 miles northeast of Nashville.  She was the eldest of seven children, and she didn’t start playing basketball until high school because her responsibilities on the farm.

As a freshman at Macon County High School (where the gym is now named after her), Nera was a starting forward on the girls’ basketball team and was voted the most valuable player for her high school district in 1954. Legend has it that in one game she single-handedly stalled the ball for the whole fourth quarter — dribbling across the front court with two or three players chasing her — to preserve the team’s lead. (Tennessee had adopted the unlimited dribble rule in 1952, so this very well could have been true!)

After graduation, White went to George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, now part of Vanderbilt University, for four years. But this college did not have a women’s basketball team, so Nera was recruited to play for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team sponsored by Nashville Business College.

The Nashville Business College coach, John Head, was impressed with White’s slender, 6-foot-1 frame, her dribbling and shooting skills, and her quickness. She had large, strong hands and could control the boards, dunk the ball, run the floor faster than anyone else, and seemingly stop on a dime. According to her former teammates, she could glide from midcourt to the basket with three long dribbles.

White flies through the air during an AAU game. New York Times photo.

Nashville paid White’s room and board at Peabody College, but she never got her teaching degree because she was too shy to do her student teaching. Instead, Nashville’s sponsor, H. O. Balls, hired White to work in his printing shop after she graduated. Her pay was only $1 an hour, but she continued to earn her wage while playing games and practicing.

With White leading the way, Nashville won 10 national titles. She was named an All-American for 15 straight years. White wasn’t just a scoring machine. Though she could hit a jump shot or hook shot from 30 feet away, she took pride in her rebounding and assists. In 1962, as Nashville Business College sought to win back the AAU national title from Wayland Baptist, White found herself being triple-teamed as she drove to the basket against the Flying Queens’ collapsing defense. She scored only 8 points that night but grabbed 14 rebounds and handed out 11 assists. Nashville won the national championship in 1962 and began a dynasty of eight straight titles from 1962 to 1969, including 96 wins in a row.

White’s career ended in 1969 when the AAU adopted the five-player game rules. H. O. Balls opposed the change and chose to disband the team. White, 33, could still run up and down the court with anyone, but she chose to retire. According to her obituary (She died in 2016), she returned to Lafayette, and put her heart and soul into farming the land she grew up on.

White also adopted the son of an unmarried former teammate when he was three days old and raised him on her nearly 200-acre farm. She was somewhat of a recluse but was well known and beloved in the town where she lived out her days.

“Nera worked hard cutting hay, raising tobacco, and tending to her cattle. She was always willing to lend a helping hand to someone in need,” her obituary read. “During the cold winter months, Nera would take hay to people that didn’t have enough for their animals. She had a heart of gold.”

It is her basketball prowess that the rest of us should remember. Those who saw White play, or played with her, believe she could have held her own with the players of today because of her outsized talent and her understanding of what makes a team great.

“She cared more about and took more pride in helping a teammate get open, than she cared about scoring herself,” former teammate Doris Rogers told me in 2015. “She was the most talented player I’ve ever seen.”



Happy Birthday, Doris Burke

ESPN’s Doris Burke at an NCAA Division I regional semifinal game several years ago. She now analyzes NBA games fulltime. Photo by Joanne Lannin

This has been a good year for Doris Burke, ESPN’s first female full-time analyst on national NBA broadcasts.  Burke, who turned 53 on Nov. 4, had her contract with ESPN renewed in a “multi-year” deal this past June. In September, she was honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Curt Gowdy Media Award.

Though calling National Basketball Association games is the pinnacle of sorts in the broadcasting world, women’s basketball is still near and dear to Burke’s heart. Indeed, it wasn’t just the hundreds of men’s college basketball games she called, but also the decade’s worth of NCAA Division I women’s basketball Final Fours and WNBA broadcasts that convinced ESPN she had the chops for the fast-paced, weekly grind of the NBA.

Night after night she proves that she not only knows the game inside out, but also does her homework on the players and the coaches she’ll be talking about.  According to a New York Times story on Burke earlier this year, she typically gets to the arena early on the morning of a game to interview coaches and players about strategies they’ll be employing and challenges they’ll face. Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, was quoted as saying that Burke comes across as having played and coached at high levels, but unlike some other former coaches/players who analyze games, she “has the gift for making the complex simple.”

Burke’s ability to break things down and explain them simply probably would have made her a darn good college basketball coach. Her point guard mentality was honed having played basketball at Providence College in the mid-80s (where she is still among the team’s leaders in career assists). Soon after graduation, she returned to PC as an assistant coach, but after she got married, she decided she couldn’t be a great mom and a great basketball coach too. Instead, she started doing Lady Friars’ radio broadcasts, which led to gigs broadcasting Big East radio and TV games.

By 2003, Burke had come to the attention of ESPN, which hired her to be a sideline reporter for its men’s collegiate basketball games. It was a stereotypical position: the men in the broadcast booth analyzing the action, the woman on the sidelines humanizing the players. It bothered her, as it does many women, that for female broadcasters, the path to the top has to go through the sidelines, whereas men often go directly to the broadcast booth. But Burke’s passion for basketball and her desire to analyze games at the highest levels won out.  From there, her incredible work ethic and her personable style began to pay off. Fans and players recognized her the moment she walked into an arena and approached her for a chat or a selfie. In 2016, the video game NBA 2K moved Burke up from sideline reporter to color analyst. Management finally figured out that they needed to move her up as well.

When Burke made her Hall of Fame appearance in September, she thanked all the “heroes” she says played critical roles in her career, including her bosses at ESPN who “lifted me up every single day.” But she had special words for her female colleagues at ESPN, including Rebecca Lobo, Holly Rowe, and Beth Mowins. “We need members of the distaff side to be sources of support and counsel,” she told the audience. “And I cherish all of these women.”

Amen to that.



Ora Washington inducted into Naismith BHOF

The Tribune Girls basketball team, ca. 1930s. Ora Washington is third from the right. Photo courtesy of the Charles L. Blockson Collection at Temple University.

In 1930, the Philadelphia Tribune Girls began a run of 11 straight “unofficial” national championships. Ora Washington, perhaps the least well-known superstar of women’s basketball, was their undisputed star. She singlehandedly raised the game to a new level, and for her accomplishments, she was inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial BHOF this past weekend.

In Finding A Way to Play, the Pioneering Spirit of Women’s Basketball, I devoted a big chunk of my chapter on African-American exploits in the early days of women’s basketball to Washington. Her story is an amazing one that deserves to be more widely known.

Like many blacks, she came north to Philadelphia from the South during the Jim Crow era. The first sport she mastered was tennis and she made a national name for herself in that sport during the 1930s and 40s. She was recruited to play basketball in her spare time by the local black women’s team, the Germantown Hornets. Another team, the Philadelphia Tribune Girls lured Washington and her tennis partner away from the Hornets in 1932.  That’s when the Tribune Girls really began to take off and make a name for themselves.

The Tribune Girls were equally adept at playing by both the women’s six-on-six rules being used in high school and college, and by the men’s full court five-player game. In their clashes with other independent teams, they mainly played five on five, which showcased Washington’s ability to dominate on both offense and defense. In one 1935 contest in front of an “overflow crowd” in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Ora Washington  and the Tribune Girls defeated what was considered to be a local powerhouse, the  “strong Tiger Girls,” by a score of 48-5.

Women’s basketball coverage was sparse in most newspapers. This was the backlash era of girls and women’s basketball, when most colleges had succumbed to pressure to dismantle their intercollegiate varsity teams and replace them with non-competitive intramurals. Semi-pro teams sponsored by businesses filled the void and the Tribune, a black newspaper in Philadelphia, was among them.

The Tribune Girls drew crowds and headlines most everywhere they went. The team’s owner, Otto Briggs, sought to capitalize on their popularity by scheduling road trips “out west,” which in those days meant the Midwest. The Tribune Girls usually made one trek each season to Ohio to challenge white teams from a strong, tri-state area league. A few of the Ohio teams reciprocated by coming to Philadelphia for at least one game a year. The undisputed star of this all-white Midwestern league was center Ruth “Susie” Sponseller, who played for the Leavittsburg Athletic Club. Stories about Sponseller always recognized her as “the best female basketball player in the world,” and she routinely scored more than half of her team’s points. Throughout her career there were whispers that Sponseller was really a man in disguise  because of her muscular build and masculine mannerisms. But the Philadelphia Tribune Girls couldn’t have cared less about Sponseller’s lack of femininity. They weren’t exactly paragons of gentility themselves. Washington was described as looking like she’d been out picking cotton all day by one opposing player from the 1930s. “She looked like the worst ruffian you ever wanted to see,” said the opponent, a black college girl who played against her.

The Ohio newspapers that regularly reported on the white women’s league games totally ignored the mixed-race exhibitions between Sponseller’s team and the Tribune Girls.  But the short roundups in the black press hint at the epic battles waged on the court. Though Sponseller’s team won many of those exhibitions, the scores were always close and Washington always held her own against her taller, beefier rival.

The Tribune Girls also traveled to the South to play independent teams and black women’s college teams. Black women’s colleges were under the same kind of pressure to dismantle their intercollegiate athletic programs in the 20s and 30s that white women’s college were, and many did. But a smattering of schools resisted the pressure to ban their women’s teams in the 1920s.

Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the progressive havens for black female athletes in the 1930s. In 1934, Bennett College went undefeated, soundly beating all the opponents they could find. They invited the Philadelphia Tribune team to campus in March of 1934 for the challenge of going up against the team everyone heralded as being the best in the nation. The games were staged at the Sportsarena in downtown Greensboro, a venue that was not usually open to “coloreds.” More than one thousand spectators crowded into the Sportsarena and the local white press sent reporters to cover the event. Players interviewed in 1996 about the games recalled being unsettled by all the hoopla surrounding the series, and also by the physicality of the Tribune’s play. The Tribune Girls showed up with two sets of flashy uniforms and changed from their red and white ones at halftime into gold and purple uniforms with socks to match for the second half.  According to one Bennett player, the Tribune Girls passed around half-pint jars of corn liquor in the locker room, each player taking two or three swigs before heading back out to play the second half.

Bennett lost all three games to the Tribune Girls. Recalling the games decades later, Bennett players were still marveling at the amazing, albeit rough, play of Washington. “I never saw her when she hit me, but she did it so quick it would knock the breath out of me, and I doubled over,” said Bennett center Lucille Townsend.

Ironically, the Tribune Girls and the Bennett College women’s program both disbanded at about the same time — in the early 1940s. The college finally succumbed to the pressure to replace intercollegiate athletics with intramurals and play days. The Tribune Girls disbanded soon after Washington retired in 1943. She continued to play tennis  in the all-Black American Tennis Association (ATA), however. Washington won eight ATA National Crowns in women’s singles between 1929 and 1937. She also won every woman’s doubles championship between 1925 and 1936, and mixed doubles championships in 1939, 1946, and 1947.

Ora Washington posed with some of her tennis trophies. Photo from Charles L. Blockson Collection of Temple University.

Sadly Washington died in relative obsurity in 1971, five years before she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. She was inducted posthumously into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Thanks to the work of women’s basketball historian Pam Grundy and black basketball historian Claude Johnson, Washington’s name finally rose to the top of the pile this year and she is now rightly enshrined in Springfield, Mass, alongside the men and women who pioneered the game of basketball.