Who Let Them In? Pathbreaking Women in Sports Journalism

My latest book, published by Rowman and Littlefield in June, continues my pursuit of women sports pioneers, only this time they are women in sports journalism. I can’t help but believe that most of the women in my new book benefitted from Title IX as much, if not more, than the basketball players I wrote about in Finding a Way to Play did.

That is, as more and more women athletes gained the opportunity to play in the 1970s, and sports such as women’s basketball gained quite a following, the male-dominated media came around to the idea that some of these teams, such as the Mighty Macs of the AIAW, and Wayland Baptist University’s Flying Queens, needed some coverage. So that caused some of the more progressive male editors to wonder: if we’re writing about women in sports, why aren’t we hiring women to write about sports?

Of course there were a lot of other factors at play (like the threat of discrimination lawsuits), but it’s safe to say that the 1970s, thanks to Title IX, led to the understanding that sports coverage, as well as who covered sports, needed to be more inclusive.

As I point out in my book, many, many women piggybacked on the shoulders of the earliest pioneers: Lesley Visser, Christine Brennan, Andrea Kremer, Robin Roberts, Claire Smith, and a host of others, who began writing and broadcasting sports in the 70s and 80s.

As with my basketball book, I had an interest in writing about these women because I was one of them, at least briefly. I wrote sports for the Portland Press Herald for three years before moving on to the news and features departments. The book was a labor of love and gave me the opportunity to envision what my life might have been like if I hadn’t made the switch to news. 

If I’ve piqued your interest at all and you’d like a discounted copy of the book, direct from the publisher, use this link. You’ll have to create an account. Once you do, you can use this discount code. RLFANDF30.

Like most authors, I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to leave a comment. Better yet, leave your thoughts in the form of a review on



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.


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.



Remembering Anne Donovan

Anne Donovan, right, coached the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun from 2014 to 2016.

When women’s basketball legend Anne Donovan passed away in June, Lisa Blais (now Manning) logged onto the funeral home’s guestbook and posted an old grainy photo of Donovan in a blue warmup suit, with her arms outstretched, and the words, “The ODU salute.”

It was a tribute to Donovan and a shout-out to the teammates Donovan and Manning, Maine’s hall of fame high school hoop star, shared during the two years they played ball together at Old Dominion University in the early 1980s. All of them, like Manning, were in disbelief that Donovan, only 56, had succumbed to heart disease.

“I was shocked,” said Manning in a phone interview last week. She found out via Facebook when a former college teammate dedicated her page to Donovan. Later that day details were confirmed during a televised WNBA game.

“She was a junior when I was a freshman,” recalled Manning. “She was very influential in how I should handle myself … a really good role model and a leader.”

In many ways, Donovan and Manning were kindred spirits. When Manning went off to Old Dominion University in 1981 after her storied career at Westbrook High School, I was writing sports for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. I remember talking to people who thought Manning was making a mistake. A shy, quiet kid off the court (but a fierce competitor without peer on it), some said she’d be better off closer to home. It was also wishful thinking for the many Maine women’s basketball fans who hoped she would head north to Orono to lead the UMaine women’s basketball program.

But Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia, was the powerhouse of women’s basketball back then, having won a national championship in 1980.  To be recruited by Old Dominion was a dream come true and a chance to see how good she could be against the best competition in the nation. And for an admitted introvert like Manning, ODU was a place where the spotlight would not be shining quite so brightly on her, and instead would be focused squarely on star players such as junior center and everyone’s All-American, 6-8 Anne Donovan.

“I was really shy growing up….it’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable being vocal with people,” Manning says. (On the court) it’s such a different feeling. You’re so comfortable in that atmosphere.”

Anne Donovan won two gold medals as part of the US Olympic team in the 1980s. USA Basketball photo

Donovan too had been a shy, quiet kid as a high school star in Paramus, New Jersey. She led her high school team to state championships in her junior and senior year. She earned all kinds of accolades as a high school star and was recruited far beyond her home state. Like Manning, she had decidedly mixed feelings about all the attention paid to her. Her fierce competitiveness drove Donovan to leave her familiar surroundings to play at the highest level of the women’s game.

As a freshman, Donovan led the Lady Monarchs to the AIAW championship and led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. In her four seasons at Old Dominion, she averaged 20 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks per game.

Those who followed women’s basketball back in the 1980s cite the times Donovan matched up against the Russian National team’s 7-2 foot powerhouse, Uljana Semjonova, as an indication of Donovan’s single-minded determination. Donovan was dwarfed and outmatched by the beefy Russian star in their first exhibition game meeting in 1980 and again in the 1983 world championships (The teams didn’t compete against each other in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics because of reciprocal, political boycotts). Donovan was quoted as calling herself a “fly on Semjonova’s shoulder” in 1983.  But Donovan got her revenge in 1986 at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. She literally drew a picture to help her visualize herself blocking Semjonova’s shot. She not only managed to do just that, she also achieved averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds, as the U.S. sent the Soviets to their first international defeat in two decades.

Back at ODU, Manning’s first memory of Donovan showed how respected she was by her coaches and peers and what an influence she could be on her teammates.  It came before the team’s very first team meeting, to which Manning was a few minutes late. Hoping to slip into the room unnoticed, Manning recalls how Donovan came up to her the first chance she got and said, “You need to go apologize to coach right away.” Despite the sternness of that admonition, Manning knew that Donovan was simply taking her role as a team leader seriously and making sure everyone on the team was on the same page.

Anne Donovan on a team trip to Alaska, giving the ODU salute.

Manning’s favorite memories of Donovan involve the goofy things college kids do on team road trips, things that solidify the bonds among them and make teamwork that much easier once you’re back on the court. Donovan was usually at the center of it, like that day on their Alaskan road trip when she invented “the ODU salute.”

After college, Donovan continued to put basketball at the center of her life — coaching at the college level and in the WNBA (where she became the first woman to coach a team to both a WNBA and an Olympic championship).  Manning, meanwhile, played two more years at ODU.  The Lady Monarchs won their first NCAA national championship in her senior year. Manning played one year of pro ball in Ireland before coming home to Maine, starting a family, and coaching her kids during their growing up years. She still coaches at the high school level. And she will always remember the lessons she learned from Anne Donovan.

“Anne always wanted to make sure everyone was part of the team,” she says. “She was such a good and caring person…she wanted everyone to feel important.”

Random thoughts on the 2018 Women’s Final Four

Banners hanging from the Nationwide Arena ceiling this weekend attest to the exciting 36-year history of the NCAA’s involvement in the Women’s Basketball Final Four. There have been some thrilling games over the years for sure. Most recently last year’s semi-final, in which Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111-game win streak on Morgan William’s buzzer beater, provided a shocking finish that looped on highlight reels even during the run-up to this year’s Final Four. Having witnessed  a couple of Final Fours recently (New Orleans and Nashville)  where UConn runaways made the final game anti-climactic, I’d decided to skip the trip to Dallas in 2017. But that Morgan William shot convinced me that I needed to be in Columbus in person in 2018. Just in case.

Columbus, Ohio didn’t seem like an exciting venue for a Final Four, but the arena was packed, and the place was rocking for the semifinals Friday night. My thoughts went back to the first time the tournament was held in Ohio (Cincinnati in 1997). That was the first time I had ever attended the Final Four in person. My sister and I sat almost directly behind the Stanford bench and watched as Old Dominion provided the overtime heroics with a come-from-behind victory over Stanford, 83-82. Guard Ticha Penicheiro scored 18 points in that game, including the game-winning free throw. For the final game, we watched Pat Summitt coach the Lady Vols to a 68-59 victory from behind their bench. The Lady Vols came back from a first-half deficit to win that game with Chamique Holdsclaw (only a sophomore) scoring 24 points.  The other notable thing about that tournament (besides it being the first for us) was the fact that all four coaches were women:  Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Old Dominion’s Wendyu Larry and ND’s Muffett McGraw, something local newspapers trumpeted as the wave of the future.

This time around my sister and I sat high above center court in Columbus, and noted that McGraw was the only female hoping to coach her team to a national championship. Mississippi State’s Vic Shaefer, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, and Louisville’s Jeff Walz were all given more of a chance to win the national title than McGraw — mainly because McGraw’s squad would have to beat UConn in the semifinal to make it to the final game. Her team also had the shortest bench, having lost four players to ACL tears this year — including Brianna Turner, whose 263 blocks in the first three years of her career (not to mention the 14.5 points per game and 7.5 rebounds) had made her the biggest name at Notre Dame since Skylar Diggins had graduated in 2013.

The UConn-Notre Dame game was the second of the night. Mississippi State had provided the heroics in game one, which featured 15 lead changes in regulation.  Leading by 1 and with the ball, Louisville had scored an uncontested layup with only a few seconds on the clock. My sister turned to me and said, “They might regret taking that shot,” and sure enough, 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 by a 10-point margin.

When the second semi-final started, we didn’t give Notre Dame much of a chance, even after they went out to a pretty good 13-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But when UConn came roaring back and was actually up by 7 at the half, we decided to leave our balcony seats (and the incredibly obnoxious UConn fans in front of us) to find a better place to watch the second half. By the time we found our new seats (in the Elevator Restaurant down the street), Notre Dame had come roaring back to tie it. We and the other restaurant patrons watched on the big screen over the bar and roared as the Irish’s Arike Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot to send UConn to defeat.

Most women’s bball fans know the rest of the story. Another Arike Ogunbowale three-pointer gave Notre Dame the well-deserved championship against Mississippi State on Easter Sunday night. Many MSU fans bemoaned the officiating, but the officials missed a lot on both sides. Mississippi’s Teaira McCowan had gotten away with her share of travels on rebounds and put-backs in the post. As had been the case in all three games, the winner had to put aside all the distractions and make the big time shot when they needed it. That’s what the Fighting Irish did.

Parity is a word that gets tossed around a lot when people complain about how women’s college basketball isn’t as exciting as the men’s version. But we left the arena, as Notre Dame was cutting down the nets, feeling as if we really had watched the best Final Four ever. It was Muffett McGraw’s 800th win and second national championship (The last one was in 2001). To say we were glad we were there to witness it is a bit of an understatement. That we’ll be in Tampa for the 2019 Final Four also goes without saying.



Chamique Holdsclaw belongs in the WBHOF

Chamique Holdsclaw greets fans at a Washington Mystics home game last fall. She and other Mystics alumnae were honored during the game. Photo by Joanne Lannin

Chamique Holdsclaw is one of the finalists for induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. The final list of inductees will be announced on Feb. 12. So how come one of the greatest female basketball players ever isn’t a member yet, even though her professional career ended in 2010 (you have to be retired for three years before you can be nominated). And even though she was a WNBA all-star, a member of an Olympic team, a college Player of the Year, and the star of three NCAA National Championship teams at Tennessee from 1996-1999?

The delay is an indication of the struggles Holdsclaw has endured because of her mental health issues. It was only natural for those in a position to nominate her to hesitate until now. How do you make a case for someone who pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of aggravated assault, criminal damage and possession of a firearm after going into a rage and smashing the windows of her ex-girlfriend’s car with a baseball bat?

By her own admission in her 2012 autobiography, Holdsclaw was on shaky ground for much of her pro career, and even before then. As “Mique” was putting up incredible numbers at Tennessee and being called the female Michael Jordan, Coach Pat Summitt was worried about the mental health of her star player. Holdsclaw also revealed in her 2012 book that she’d gone into a deep depression after her grandmother, who raised her back in Queens, NY, died in 2002 and that she had attempted suicide in 2006.

But in 2016, Holdsclaw was the subject of an excellent documentary film, MIND/GAME, which details her struggles and the struggles of other athletes with bipolar disease. As her beloved coach, Pat Summitt, did after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Holdsclaw has decided to use her celebrity to raise awareness about her condition. The 40-year-old has been traveling around the country for the past year, speaking on college campuses on behalf of mental health advocates. Her Facebook page and Instagram accounts are full of pictures of her posing with kids and grown-ups on college campuses and in communities from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Oxnard College in California. She continues to reach out and share her story in the hopes of helping young athletes understand how the pressures of competition can exacerbate depression — and in the hopes of saving lives.

Still, even as she becomes a star on a different stage, Holdsclaw seems ready to claim her place in women’s basketball history. Last fall, she was honored by the Washington Mystics, along with other Mystic alumni, at their final home game of the season. Holdsclaw played for three teams during her decade in the WNBA, but the Mystics are clearly her home team. In 1999, the Mystics had the number one pick and selected her to be the face of their franchise. She earned WNBA Rookie of the Year honors that season and was selected for the U.S. Olympic team (but she couldn’t compete in Sydney because of a stress fracture in her foot). Holdsclaw averaged close to 20 points per game for the first seven years of her career and ended her run with the Atlanta Dream in 2010 with a total of 4,716 points and 2,126 rebounds.

Those of us who watched her lead Tennessee to three National championshiops in the 90s will always think of her as one of the GOATs of the women’s game. That’s why she’s a shoo-in for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s safe to say that the Hall needs to honor “Mique,” not just for her triumphs on the court, but also for her triumphs off of it.

Formula for success at Bentley

(Waltham, MA, 01/17/18) Bentley University coach Barbara Stevens encourages her players as she wins her 1,000th career game, 78-66 over Adelphi in Waltham on Wednesday, January 17, 2018. Staff photo by Christopher Evans

A Bentley loss in women’s basketball is about as rare as a sunny winter’s day in Moscow. But midway through the first half last Wednesday night, it looked like Bentley University’s women’s basketball team might not get their coach her 1,000th career victory that night. Lots of alumni, fans, and media had traveled to the gym on the Waltham, Mass. campus for this Division II game, hoping to see Barbara Stevens join the exclusive 1000-win club. Only four other women’s basketball coaches had won as many games: Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Sylvia Hatchell, and Tara VanDerveer.

With a record of 16-1, there was no doubt that Bentley would get Stevens number 1,000 sometime soon, but at this point, the Falcons were down 22-13 to Adelphi University, a team that had beaten Bentley four straight times over the past couple of years. Stevens called timeout to calm her team, and the Falcons proceeded to outscore Adelphi 27-9, closing out the first half with a 14-0 run. Adelphi made two more valiant efforts to get back into the game in the second half. Bentley responded with decisive runs both times. The rest, including a confetti shower when the final horn sounded, is history.

Nina Houghton of Portland, Maine is a Bentley alumni who played for Stevens from 1987 to 1989. She didn’t make it to Bentley for the big game (it snowed a lot that day, and besides, she didn’t want to jinx the team). Houghton live-streamed the game and emailed her congratulations to Coach Stevens at its conclusion. Houghton says she wasn’t surprised by the team’s response to Stevens’ timely timeout.

“She never panics,” said Houghton, who starred for Cape Elizabeth High School back in the early 80s. “It’s a testament to her understanding of the game and her players … good coaches know just what to say.”

Another former player from Maine, Bri Fecteau, also live-streamed the game from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and echoed Houghton’s reaction. “I pictured her in the huddle telling the girls in that calming voice, ‘Okay, the jitters should be out…so let’s go do it.’ “

Stevens began her coaching career at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. at the age of 23. At Clark, she notched the first 123 wins of her career. She came to Bentley in 1986 by way of UMass-Amherst, where her teams were 34-49. It was there, she has said, that she realized she didn’t need to be coaching Division I, or advancing on the women’s basketball career ladder, to be happy. “For me personally, it’s not about… the ego,” she told the Associated Press a day before the game with Adelphi. “It was about my happiness, feeling that I could make a difference.”

Houghton and Fecteau agree that this “team-first, ego-last” philosophy has been the key to Stevens’ success. She consciously recruits players who fit into that mold, something that is harder and harder to do in this age of AAU super teams and parent-coddled “stars.”

“We’ve all been on teams where personalities don’t mesh,” says Houghton. “When you’re spending 10 months out of the year with (teammates), personalities are not insignificant… she’d never recruit someone with a big ego.”

Fecteau got to see Stevens’ philosophy in action during her visit to Bentley as a high school player. Fecteau had hopes of landing a spot on a Division I team after her successful Westbrook High School career. Her decision came down to two Division I schools (Providence and UMaine) and Bentley. The first time she saw a Stevens-led practice, she made up her mind that Bentley was the place for her.

“The way the team paid attention when she spoke … just the way she teaches and breaks everything down … I was sold,” says Fecteau, who was a member of the teams that won Stevens’ 500th and 600th career games. “You’ll never come across a Bentley grad who’d say ‘I wish I’d played Division I.’ “

Of course, success helps to keep her players happy. But it’s pretty clear they also buy in because Stevens never forgets she’s not just coaching basketball — she’s coaching people.

Houghton had been recruited by Stevens’ predecessor Kathy Sanborn, who moved on after her freshman year to coach at her alma mater, UNH. Right away, Houghton says she knew that she and the team were lucky to have Stevens. Houghton recalls how Stevens called her in her dorm room one day when she was laid up with bronchitis. Houghton had been the Northeast-8 Conference Rookie of the Year her freshman year and had started all 32 games for Bentley, but things weren’t going as well for the sophomore center.

“She told me it was going to be OK … she could tell I needed it. That meant the world to me,” says Houghton, who wound up her career as Bentley’s all-time leader in blocks and third in defensive rebounds.

Three other conversations with Stevens have stuck with Houghton over the years. The first was when Stevens took her aside and told her to leave some of her “niceness” on the sidelines during games. The second was when she lost playing time to a younger player during her senior year. The third was when Coach Stevens reached out to Houghton after her husband passed away seven years ago.
“She’s still ‘Coach’ to this day,” says Houghton. “She’s a mentor. She’s an icon…we all adored her.”

Stevens has also been a mentor to Fecteau, who wound up third in career assists at Bentley and went on to become an assistant coach at Harvard for several years. Fecteau predicts that Stevens, in her 41st year of coaching, is far from finished roaming the Bentley sidelines.

“She gets attached to the kids and gets invested in their lives,” says Fecteau. “It’s like a second family.”

Plus, after Stevens’ Bentley team went 35-0 and captured the program’s first-ever NCAA Division II championship four years ago (with a come-from-behind 73-65 win over West Texas A&M), Fecteau wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Stevens keeps going until she’s helped her players win another crown.

“She doesn’t allow many people to outwork her,” Fecteau says. “She’s a 10 when it comes to competitiveness.”