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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.