Some thoughts after the WNBA all star game

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Brittney Griner tips the ball to Maya Moore at the 2015 WNBA all star game.

The WNBA All-Star game came to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut Saturday, July 25. Hardly a defensive struggle, the stars shot the lights out to the delight of the 8,000+ fans packed into the arena. With the score tied and less than three minutes to go, Maya Moore scored the West’s last eight points, ensuring there would be no overtime loss to the East like last year in Phoenix.

The final score was 117-112, thanks to the amazing three-point shooting from Moore (6 for 10 from beyond the arc and 30 points overall) and the East’s Alex Bentley (5 for 8 from three-point land and 23 points). No surprise that Moore, a UConn grad who plays for the Minnesota Lynx, won the MVP, but Bentley’s 23 points off the bench were a surprise to everyone but her Connecticut Sun fans.

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Sue Bird looks to dish the ball to a teammate. This was her ninth all-star appearance.

Three of the players chosen in 2011 as the top 15 players in WNBA league history,  Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird, and Cappie Pondexter, made the team again. This was Catchings’ 10th and final all-star appearance. She has announced her retirement after the 2016 season, but there will be no all-star game next year in lieu of the Olympics in Rio de Janiero. Catchings scored 8 points and became the all-star game scoring leader with 104 points in those 10 games.

The East led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, with the Chicago Sky’s Elena Delle Donne leading the way. This was the third year she’s been named an all star, but the first year she’s been healthy enough to play. She ended up with 16 points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes of play.

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Elena Delle Donne elevates over Brittney Griner for two of her 16 points.

One of the game’s highlights was a Brittney Griner rim-hanging dunk early in the second half. Griner proved that she’s put the eight-game suspension that stemmed from domestic abuse charges over the summer behind her. She ended up with 21 points, three blocks, and nine rebounds.

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Griner finished off her crowd-pleasing dunk by hanging around the rim for a while.

Overall, the game was the crowd pleaser that everyone had come to see. There will be no all star game in 2016 because of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero. It will be interesting to see which all stars will be making that trip next summer!

To read more about the WNBA’s beginnings, read my new book, Finding a Way to Play. Available here: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=HY4DLBXHZVS3W

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing the publication of Finding A Way to Play


Finding a Way to Play will be ready to ship the third week of August. To order a copy click on this link. https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=HY4DLBXHZVS3W

Here’s a description from the back of the book.

Finding a Way to Play is a love story about women who have gone to great lengths to play the game of basketball. In this book you will read about:
* The earliest pioneers who played despite concerns about risks to their health and femininity
* Black and Native American women who endured racial discrimination as they searched for opportunities to play
* Lesbians who hid their identities for fear of being denied the chance to play
* Women over 50 who ignored aches and pains to rediscover the joys of a childhood passion.
Young adults who read this book will come away with an understanding of the roads their great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and their own mothers traveled to bring the game into the future. Those who grew up before Title IX may find themselves or loved ones in the stories of women who kept the earliest flame alive and grew the game for their daughters to enjoy.

“Joanne Lannin has played and covered the game of basketball with great fervor and passion, and in her new book she captures the spirit of the women who pioneered the sport she treasures. Their stories are inspiring, heartbreaking and infuriating, and they spring to life with the author’s steady voice guiding the way. If you love the game, you’ll love this book.”
Jackie MacMullan – ESPN Senior Writer and author of When the Game was Ours, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

JOANNE LANNIN played basketball in high school and college and currently plays on a senior women’s team. She was a sports and feature writer for the Maine Sunday Telegram in Portland, Maine for 22 years. She writes a blog about women’s basketball at http://www.findingawaytoplay.com.

Cover design by Sue Schenning
Cover photograph courtesy of Francies “Goose” Carroutte and Gary Newton<a

Finding a Way to Publish

After three years of interviewing, researching, writing, re-writing, and gathering photos, my book, Finding a Way is just about ready to go to the printer. The picture that accompanies this post is the book cover. My friend and basketball teammate, Sfinalcoverdesignwithoutnameue Schenning, designed it and I couldn’t be more pleased with her work.  Gary Newton and Francies (Goose) Garroutte have given me permission to use their photo of Hazel Walker and her Arkansas Travelers.

 People have asked how much it will cost, overall to self-publish my book. The answer is: it depends on how many copies I want to print and how widely I want it distributed. Like many self-publishers today, I could send the book to a local printer and take care of all the promotions, library and bookstore distribution myself, but I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to help me pay for a first-class effort. With the extra $2,500 I’m raising, I will be able to choose a printer with a solid track record of providing a full package of marketing and promotional help. I’ll also be able to have many more copies printed than I could have on my own. My goal is to get the book into the hands of as many fans of women’s basketball that I possibly can. So if you are willing to help me, check out this link. Every reward level includes a signed copy of my book, so you might just think of it as a pre-order. My goal is to deliver the books to those who’ve asked for one by the middle of July.

Oh, and if you want a sneak preview of the book, just browse through my blog posts over the last couple of years.  Several are “rough drafts” of the chapters I’ve added to the book.

Thanks for any and all help with my project. Women’s Basketball Rules!  And I want the world to know it!

RIP Lauren Hill

121314-CBK-MSJ-Lauren-Hill-pi-ssm.vadapt.620.high.0Lauren Hill passed away today after an almost-two-year battle with brain cancer. It was not unexpected, but still a moment that brought pause and sadness to much of the sports world.

Since Lauren went public last fall with her desire to play college ball despite her encroaching disabilities, I’ve admired her courage and her competitive spirit from afar.

Lauren had committed to playing for Mount St. Joseph while still in high school. When she told her coach a few months later about her diagnosis, she assured him she would continue to play for as long as she could. He assured her that there would continue to be a place for her on the team.

Her disease, a rare form of brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, slowly robbed her of her ability to move about the court with the grace and speed she was accustomed to. She had to wear sunglasses everywhere because bright lights bothered her. She wore headphones to block out the sounds that painfully vibrated off her ear drums. Yet she came to Mount St. Joseph last fall committed to playing as much as she could. I beamed right along with the rest of the sports world when her Mount St. Joseph College was successful in moving up her team’s first game to Nov. 2 so that she could fulfill her dream of playing at the college level. I was moved by her infectious, earnest, bright-eyed spirit, as well as the rest of the sports world’s reaction to her. She captured the hearts of fellow athletes — of anyone — who has had to struggle and has persevered in their efforts to play a game they love.

Lauren’s inaugural college game had to be moved to a bigger stage because so many people wanted to see her play. In the stands were WNBA stars and another indomitable spirit — Pat Summitt — who presented Lauren with the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association award for courage that is given in Summitt’s name each year, usually at the end of the season. In all,  Lauren played in five basketball games last winter and scored two baskets in each of them.

“She brought an honor to the pursuit of athletics that far eclipses any championship ever won,” wrote Mechelle Voepel in an ESPN.com tribute to Hill.

Lauren will also be remembered — even more so by many people — for her efforts on behalf of cancer research. She became the face of an ongoing foundation raising money for pediatric cancer research. And even as she continued to weaken and face more and more physical challenges, she continued to encourage and inspire other cancer patients.

Upper Deck has created a tribute basketball card to Lauren for the purpose of continuing her fight on behalf of cancer research. The tribute card can be found on the website that has already raised $1.5 million in her name. It includes these inspiring words from Lauren: “I have learned to see the blessings in every moment and through every struggle no matter how tough it might be. Nothing holds me back from living my life and chasing my dreams.”

In his poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Houseman noted how “the cheering throngs that had chaired” the athlete through the town in his hour of glory were “townsman of a stiller town,” the day he died.

I’m filled with that same sense of sadness at Lauren’s passing. And yet I know her spirit will live on — not in the cliched sense with which we all comfort ourselves in times of grief, but in a very real and tangible way.  For Lauren epitomizes the spirit of every person who has made the most of what life gives them. Lauren’s story inspired millions of people, as she courageously found a way to play.

 

Will Cinderella’s coach turn into a pumpkin Monday night?

Every tournament needs a Cinderella and seventh-seed Dayton is filling the role admirably in the Albany regional. Dayton’s devil-may-care attitude in this NCAA tournament is epitomized by Andrea Hoover, the senior who said before their upset win over number three seed Louisville, “We aren’t just happy to be here…we came here to win.”

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Andrea Hoover drives to the hoop against Louisville. NCAA photo.

The Lady Flyers believe they belong, and they sure showed it against both Kentucky Thursday in the round of 32 and against Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen Saturday afternoon. Led by Hoover’s 26 points, the Flyers took control of the game early. Some might say that Louisville’s seniors simply had an off-shooting night (1 for a bunch from beyond the arc) or that Jeff Walz relied too heavily on a pair of freshmen who were not ready for this level of tournament pressure. In truth though, Dayton’s tenacity on defense took Louisville out of its game — and the Cardinal’s go-to, ice-in-her-veins former star, Shoni Schimmel, was in the stands with her family — not on the court with her little sister Jude, unable to stop Dayton’s runs with a timely 3.

Dayton has made it to the Elite Eight for the first time in the team’s history. It’s just too bad they have to face Connecticut Monday night. The Lady Huskies are using the Albany Regional to strike fear into the hearts of the teams it may face in Tampa Bay next weekend. Another pummeling of an inferior opponent is on the horizon. But while Cinderella’s coach is likely to turn into a pumpkin before midnight, the Flyers have proved that they belong on the same court with the rest of the contenders to Connecticut’s throne.

Freshmen phenoms

IMGP5833It’s not surprising when Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut adds a freshman to his starting lineup who proceeds to make an impact. Two years ago it was Breanna Stewart, pictured right, and Moriah Jefferson. This year it’s Kia Nurse, who was named the AAC’s top freshman this year by virtue of her scoring in double figures 20 times, including in her first 10 games as a starter. Nurse is the perfect complement to Jefferson in the back court, given her knack for finding the open player in transition. That’s something she did to perfection as the point guard for the Canadian National team which finished 5th in the FIBA World Championships last year.

“She is not afraid to make mistakes like some freshmen are,” Auriemma told the Hartford Courant earlier this month. “She just plays.”

While UConn is expected to sail through the Albany regional’s opening round (they play Texas at noon Saturday at the Times Union Center), another freshman phenom (or two) might be poised to give them a tougher fight on Monday night. Louisville is the favorite to defeat upstart seventh-seeded Dayton in the 2 p.m. game Saturday in Albany.

Louisville Coach Jeff Walz with the Shimmel sisters

Louisville Coach Jeff Walz with the Schimmel sisters

Jeff Walz’s Cardinals will be walking onto the court with a pair of freshmen, Mariya Moore and Myisha Hines-Allen, in the starting lineup. Moore and Hines-Allen were selected for the ACC’s All-Freshmen starting five, along with Azura Stevens, a guard/forward from Duke, Shakayla Thomas, from Florida State, and the player with the best field goal percentage in the country, Brianna Turner, of Notre Dame.

Hines-Allen has averaged 12.5 points per game in the postseason. Moore led Louisville in scoring during the regular season (13.9 ppg), 3-pointers (52), and free throws (108), and is second in assists (108). She has scored in double digits 23 times this season and recently became the sixth player in school history to score at least 400 points in their freshman campaign.While neither freshman has made anyone forget Shoni Schimmel, they’ve been the 1-2 scoring punch that Louisville has needed to propel them to their fourth Sweet 16 in five years.

“We definitely need their energy and excitement,” said Jeff Walz before the game with Dayton.

As the Sweet Sixteen begins, it will be fun to see what the freshmen phenoms bring to the table.

Mighty Macs back in the spotlight

1973In the summer of 1968, 200 women took to the streets of Atlantic City outside the convention hall where the Miss America pageant was being staged. In a symbolic act, they tossed bras, girdles, hair curlers, and false eyelashes into a trash can and set them on fire. Their actions captured front-page headlines across the country and fanned the flames of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.

But at tiny Immaculata College, 90 miles northwest of Atlantic City, the young women who played basketball for newly-hired coach Cathy Rush in 1971 were hardly concerned with all the changes swirling outside their  campus.  Immaculata was an all-girls Catholic school still firmly rooted in the traditions of the 1950s.  By and large insulated from the issues in the “real” world, they still wore pleated wool tunics and sashes over their white blouses. They attended Catholic mass before games, started every game with a prayer to the “God of Players,” and fully expected to become wives and mothers when their college days came to an end.

Yet the “Mighty Macs” — as they would come to be known — did more for the “cause” of women’s basketball than any other team of their era. They captured the imagination of male and female sports fans and catapulted women’s basketball onto the national stage by winning three improbable national championships from 1972-74 (they were runners-up in two others). Immortalized in the 2011 movie, Mighty Macs, the real, live “Mackies” as they were called on campus, were inducted as a team into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, 2014. They joined their coach, Cathy Rush, who was inducted in 2008.

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Theresa Grentz at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction press conference.

“This is the ultimate,” said Theresa (Shank) Grentz on the eve of the induction. “The things we had, the time we had was a Camelot. It was very special….We didn’t have all the material things, but we had what it took.”

With an enrollment of about 400 girls, Immaculata College was a liberal arts institution with a strong fine arts and home economics program and no physical education major. Yet women had played basketball at Immaculata since the 1930s due to its proximity to Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was a Roman Catholic stronghold where Catholic Youth Organization leagues encouraged girls to build Catholic values through athletics. The CYO leagues channeled girls into Catholic high schools, and from there, many matriculated to same-sex Catholic universities such as Immaculata.

One of the products of this system was Sister Mary of Lourdes McDevitt, who led her inner-city Philadelphia high school, the oldest Catholic girls school in the country, to the Catholic League basketball championship in the mid-20s. When she became president of Immaculata College in 1954, she would often stop by the women’s basketball practices to shoot some hoops, and she never missed a game during her 18-year tenure as college president. Sister Mary of Lourdes broke with tradition in 1962 by hiring a coach who was not a member of the faculty — and was not even Catholic. Under Jennipher Shillingford, the Mackies  earned a reputation for playing tenacious, street-ball defense and employing a give-and-go offense (even given the restraints of the six-player game). They began to attract the best CYO League players and many Catholic girls from outside the Philadelphia area, who were surprised by the level of play and the support given to the basketball program.

When Shillingford retired and became athletic director in 1971, she and Sister Mary of Lourdes made the hire that would be the catalyst to Immaculata’s national acclaim a year later. Cathy Rush — a Baptist no less — hadn’t imagined being a basketball coach when she graduated from West Chester State College in 1968. She’d played basketball at her high school near Atlantic City, but after her freshman year, the administration cut all girls’ interscholastic programs, so she made the switch to intramural gymnastics. At West Chester State, she majored in physical education and played basketball for two years. Those were fortuitious years, as she was coached by one of the pioneers of the women’s modern era, Lucille Kyvallos.

Kyvallos, who had grown-up in Queens, New York, the daughter of factory-working parents, was a no-nonsense coach who taught her players to understand the x’s and o’s of the game. After leaving West Chester State, she moved on to her alma mater, Queens College, where she had her pick of inner-city girls who had honed their skills playing against boys on the playgrounds of  Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Most college women’s teams made the switch to the five-player game in 1969, and while other colleges were still playing zone defense exclusively, she taught her teams man-to-man defense. The results were impressive. “That first season we won 10 out of 12 games,” she recalled. “But more importantly, the women were learning the discipline necessary to be committed athletes.”

At Immaculata, meanwhile,  22-year-old Coach Rush employed the same no-nonsense approach as her mentor. Her  two-hour practices consisted  of 90% drills and wind sprints and very little scrimmaging, and they gave Immaculata the edge over most opponents when it came to conditioning. For all its conditioning, though, Immaculata might never have made it to the national stage had it not been for their 5-11, 156 pound center, Theresa Shank (Grentz), who was a freshman the year Rush arrived for the 1970-71 season.

Shank had led Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia to the CYO and citywide championships three years in a row. She was quick and agile, with a soft shooting touch and a sixth sense about the direction in which a missed shot would bounce off the rim. Shank was actually a bit bored by girl’s basketball in her high school years because of the six-on-six rules that limited dribbling and running. But by the end of the 1960s, physical education leaders made the changes that brought the women’s game more in line with the men’s game. In 1966, the unlimited dribble became official. In 1969, the five-player game was instituted on an experimental basis, along with the 30-second shot clock.

Shank had a full academic scholarship to attend  Mount St. Mary, a liberal arts school in Newburgh, NY. That’s where she was headed until March 15 of her senior year when her family’s row house burned to the ground.

“It was the Ides of March. I was the oldest of five and I made the decision that afternoon to stay home,” she recalled. She  had cancelled an interview with Immaculata after Mount St. Mary accepted her, so she borrowed a suit and some shoes, rescheduled the interview, and started commuting that September. With Shank leading the way, the Mackies won their first eight games in Rush’s first season. But Shank broke her collarbone in an auto accident while rushing to get to a game. She was out for the rest of the season and the team went 2-2 over the last four games.

That inauspicious start actually bode well for the 1971-72 season. With Shank back at full strength, the Mackies went undefeated in the regular season and discovered that they were eligible for post-season play.  Before 1969, there was no postseason in women’s basketball. By the end of the 1960s, 80% of colleges had women’s basketball programs, but the NCAA still wasn’t much interested in supporting them. So the Association of Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW), a governing body that formed in the mid-1960s, decided to organize its own postseason tournaments. The first basketball tournament was a single elimination, invitational affair, held at West Chester State College and played by six-player rules. West Chester State, coached by Carol Eckard, won that tournament and was runner-up in 1970 and 1971.

onesheet  In 1972, the AIAW decided to expand the tournament by holding regional    qualifying tournaments like the men’s tournament did.  Rush’s Mackies won their first three games, but then were trounced by West Chester State, 70-38.

The team initially believed that its season was over, but by virtue of their undefeated season, they were seeded 15th out of 16 teams anyway, one of six teams nationally that actually lost a game in the regional qualifiers. It is the stuff of legend now (thanks to the 2011 movie “Mighty Macs”), how the team spent the next several days selling toothbrushes and otherwise beating the bushes to find the money to send them to Illinois. When it came time to board their plane, they’d only raised $2,500, enough for Rush and 8 of her 11 players to fly standby, sleep four to a room, and spend $7 a day for meals.

As they winged their way west, Immaculata’s players had no great expectations. They were relaxed and just happy to be on a road trip. And what a road trip it was. They started out by beating  South Dakota State 60-47. The next day, they narrowly defeated Indiana State 49-47 — and then later that day, they defeated the  top seed and defending champion Mississippi State College for Women, in another squeaker, 46-43, to reach the final. In that semifinal game, the Mackies were down by 14 at the half, thinking their run was about to come to an end. “We were  a little down in the locker room when Maureen Stulman jumped up and said, ‘Hey, you know what? All we need is seven baskets,’ ” recalled Shank 43 years later. “And sure enough, we went out and that’s what we did.”

Another moment of doubt crept in when they saw West Chester State’s name on the top line of the bracket across from theirs for the final game. Rush, though, viewed the rematch as a chance to change strategies and take West Chester by surprise. She made a bold move by starting 5-10 freshman Rene Muth (Portland).  Muth teamed up with Shank to keep all but one of West Chester’s players from reaching double figures. With Shank scoring 26 — five of them in the closing minutes — and Muth and Stuhlman adding 10 apiece– the Mackies won the rematch and the national championship, 52-48.

Rush had been relaying results back to Sister Mary of Lourdes throughout the three-day tournament. When she heard the news that they had won the championship, Sister Mary of Lourdes was in the middle of a meeting of alumnae. She got several donors to underwrite first-class tickets home for the team, where 500 fans were waiting for them at the airport.

“The reception was something that I will never, ever forget in my whole life,” Rush said during a reunion of the team before the movie came out. “When we got off the plane and saw family, friends, all the Immaculata family, we all cried. At that point, it became bigger than it had [been] after the game…..It was the first time it struck me that my little low-key job was not going to be a low-key job anymore.”

The reception shouldn’t have been a surprise to Rush. The Mighty  Macs — as they were nicknamed by a local newspaper reporter in the next-day story about their big win —  always had an ardent cheering section. They were Sister Mary of Lourdes’ colleagues, the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who taught the students and lived on campus. Players recalled how they would look up into the stands (the team played many of its home games away from home because their gym had no bleachers) to find a sea of blue and white-robed sisters clutching their rosary beads and mouthing the words to the Hail Mary when the opposing team started to make a run. After they lost to West Chester State that year by 32, Rene Muth’s mother and father, who owned a hardware store, brought a  supply of metal buckets and  dowels and handed them out to the fans. From that point on, other fans brought their own buckets to bang on and dubbed themselves the “bucket brigade.”
The Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women decided to make the next-year’s 1973 national tournament — held at Queens College — a four-day affair, betting that Queens and Immaculata would make it to the late rounds of the tournament and draw enough interest to pay expenses. They guessed right.  With Shank now a junior, Muth a sophomore, and a flashy but steady freshman point guard named Marianne Crawford (Stanley) leading the way, the Mighty Macs were 24-0 going into the tournament. Queens, coached by Lucille Kyvallos and led by 5 foot 11 freshman Gail Marquis, were hardly slouches. They easily made it into the finals and another rematch with the Mighty Macs, who had defeated Southern Connecticut State College on Shank’s last-second tip-in of a Crawford miss.

Some 3000 fans packed the Queens College gym for the championship. Reporters from the New York Times, Newsday, and Sports Illustrated were there to cover the event. Shank, who scored 104 points in four tournament games, led Immaculata to a 59–52 victory, which was actually a 59-37 blowout until Rush cleared the bench with a couple of minutes to go. A week later, Shank was dubbed the “Bill Walton of  women’s basketball” by Sports Illustrated. That article, by a pioneer in women’s sportswriting, Jane Gross, was 0ne of the first — if not the first — to feature a female basketball player in the pages of the magazine. Readers found out that Shank and her teammates celebrated with Cold Duck champagne after the championship game, that she worked at Rush’s basketball camp in the summertime, and that she announced her engagement (to her high school sweetheart Ken Grentz) during a huddle in a midseason game.

The Mighty Macs went on to win a third national title in 1974, even after suffering a midseason loss to Queens in a game that would have extended their win streak — over two seasons — to 36 games. The team was heart sick at losing to their nemesis — on Ash Wednesday no less — but many viewed it as a divine intervention, meant to keep them pointed humbly in the right direction. “That game helped us to remember that some of God’s greatest gifts are his refusals,” Shank told the school’s magazine, the Immaculatan. To their surprise, the players returned to campus past midnight that night to find lights blazing in the rotunda of the main hall and 500 students chanting “Once more in ’74!” There had never been an impromptu pep rally after a win — and the show of support carried over to the national tournament 25 days later (on Easter weekend) as the Mighty Macs survived a two-point game with William Penn College in the semifinals to win their third national title in a row against Mississippi State College, 68-53.

Those who follow the women’s college game today would be surprised to find schools such as the University of Connecticut and Tennessee absent from the list of tournament contenders in the mid-1970s. But in the pre-Title IX era, college athletic departments typically spent only about 1% of their budget on women’s sports. Without athletic scholarships and recruiting budgets, any college coach had an equal chance of developing a winning team simply by finding the right combination of players. Once Title IX began being enforced in 1974, — and UCLA offered the country’s first full scholarship to a woman (Ann Meyers) — the handwriting was on the wall for schools such as Queens, West Chester State, and Immaculata.

The tiny Catholic school continued to play on the big stage for a few more years and, still the darlings of the media, recorded some auspicious firsts.  On February 22, 1975, 12,000 people saw Immaculata defeat Queens, 65–61 in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game ever at Madison Square Garden. The event was such a success that the college officials continued to schedule games in large arenas. That year, the Eastman Kodak company began sponsoring an All-America team, chosen by coaches from around the country. The fact that Kodak, a major US corporation, spent $3000 to lend its name to the women’s game spurred other companies, such as Avon, New Balance, and Adidas, to ride the wave of growing popularity of women’s sports. The 1974–75 college season also saw women’s basketball garner its first national exposure on a major television network. On January 27, 1975, a game between the University of Maryland and Immaculata was televised. The 1975 AIAW championship between Delta State and Immaculata (won by Delta State, 90–81) also was televised nationally, though on a delayed basis.

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L-R Marianne Crawford Stanley, Theresa Shank Grentz, and Rene Muth Portland at the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

Immaculata’s Mighty Macs were runners-up in the ’75 and ’76 national tournaments.  In her spare time, Cathy Rush led the U.S. Pan American team to a gold medal in 1975 (with Ann Meyers, Pat Summitt, and Lusia Harris on ther squad). In the fall, she went to the administration asking for money to recruit players in an effort to stave off mediocrity, but the school refused to turn away from its primary mission of developing hearts and minds, as opposed to bodies.

“Title IX really did in Immaculata because we didn’t have men,” said Grentz on the eve of the team’s HOF induction. “And that’s ironic, isn’t it?”

Rush decided to retire from coaching in 1977 to raise her family and run the highly successful summer camp program that featured basketball skills for both boys and girls she’d started with her husband in the early ’70s.  Grentz, Portland, and Stanley went on to become successful Division I college coaches, amassing close to 2,000 wins and three national championships (One for Grentz at Rutgers, two for Stanley at Old Dominion University). Grentz coached the U.S. Women’s Olympic team to a bronze medal in 1988 and now runs an elite training school for high school athletes, while Stanley is still coaching in the WNBA.

“It was the end for us, but it was the beginning for someone else and that’s what life is all about,” Grentz said. “You have your time and you have your moment, and you have to write your signature on your work…..looking back, I like to think that’s what we did.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Cheryl Miller doing in a place like this? Learning a lesson that even legends have to learn

CHERYL MILLER USCAbout 45 minutes north of Oklahoma City lies the campus of Langston University. It’s a small, traditionally black college in a town of fewer than 2,000 residents — and women’s basketball legend Cheryl Miller admits she had to Google the place when athletic director Mike Garrett called her up and asked if she might be interested in coaching there. What Miller’s search found was that Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes graduated from Langston, and that the Langston Lady Lyons are a very good team in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. (The NAIA is a community of smaller colleges and universities and was the first collegiate association to invite historically black institutions into membership.)

Miller, who is a member of pretty much every basketball hall of fame you can think of,  parted ways last year with the Turner Network and her 14-year job as a sideline reporter with the NBA on TNT. She was looking to get back into coaching — she’d coached at USC for two years and in the WNBA for four more — but she’d been out of the game for almost 15 years and no one was knocking down her door to hire her. Some speculated that athletic directors were remembering the  flamboyant showboat from her college days and wondering if her charismatic personality would intimidate young athletes — and potential recruits.  But low and behold, Garrett  was her boss when she coached at USC in the mid-1990s. Now the athletic director at Langston, he was looking for a women’s basketball coach. She came for a visit, he offered her the job, and she decided Langston was where she belonged. Garrett thinks Miller’s personality is exactly what Langston needs to to “take the program to the next level. And Miller says “this is where I need to be right now.”

Still, Langston Oklahoma must seem a million miles away from Riverside, California, where Miller grew up and began to create the legend that surrounds her name.

Cheryl Miller, whose college years at USC ran from 1980 to 1984 — and who led the US women to victory at the 1984 Olympic Games in LA — played on the cusp of the modern era in women’s basketball. In the years before ESPN became the flagship for televising women’s sports, women’s college games were rarely on TV. Yet Miller managed to grab the headlines and become the most visible symbol of the modern era of women’s basketball not only because of her prowess on the court, but also because of her outsized personality. She was to women’s basketball in the 1980s what Magic Johnson was to the NBA: the embodiment of basketball as “showtime.’

“One thing Cheryl had besides the skills and athleticism was showmanship,” Linda Sharp, Miller’s coach at USC told ESPN in 2014. “She stepped on the court and just did her thing. She had character; she entertained. She’s still that way.”

“I played to the crowds. I was an entertainer,” Miller told me in a 1995 interview. “As long as you have passionate players who capture the attention of the audience, that’s all women’s basketball needs.”

Many people didn’t agree. One coach called Miller a “typical hot dog” after one game in which she continually wagged her finger, blew kisses to the crowd, and did cheerleader-type leaps after her baskets. But Nancy Lieberman came to Miller’s defense. “The flamboyance is her bread-and-butter,” said Lieberman. “I think Cheryl is the best thing that could’ve happened to the game.”

While her personality drew attention, Miller’s fame would have lasted for the cliched 15 minutes if she didn’t have game. She led USC to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983-84, and was a three-time Naismith Award winner — a distinction no other college female can claim (as of 2014).  In 1986, Sports Illustrated named her the best male or female player in college basketball. She scored 3,018 points for a 23.6 career scoring average, and she averaged 20.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.3 blocks in 16 NCAA Tournament games. She was a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player and still holds the tournament records for field-goal percentage (79.4, 121-for-245) and most free throws made (91). She also was the driving force behind the US Olympic team’s big win at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

“Cheryl came to college as sound as any player I’ve ever coached,” said Sharp. “I first saw her play in seventh grade, and I knew she was going to be great.”

Even after her playing career ended, Miller’s swagger created headlines. She stirred controversy in 1994 when she was hired to coach her alma mater after Marianne Stanley parted ways with USC because of a salary dispute.  Stanley, who played on two national championship teams at Immaculata College in the 1970s and guided Old Dominion University to three national championships in the early 1980s, had sued USC for $8 million in back wages and benefits after she was denied a salary increase equal to that of the men’s coach.

After Stanley was let go, the members of her team — including star player, Lisa Leslie, held a press conference and threatened to transfer. They hoped that the coaching community would align themselves with Stanley so that the position would remain vacant and the university would have to reconsider. When Miller was announced as Stanley’s replacement, the players felt betrayed. “I remember the meeting when Cheryl was introduced as our head coach,” recalled Lisa Leslie in her 2008 memoir, Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You. “Several of us were sad and crying. I was stunned.”

The administration likely believed that their most illustrious alumna was the only person who could step in and be accepted by the players and staff. Miller told the USC players that she had taken the job out of a sense of loyalty to the school and that if they couldn’t accept her, they were free to leave. But her decision angered some of her female colleagues, who felt she had betrayed the cause of pay equity. What made the coaches even angrier was the fact that Stanley was having trouble finding another job. She ran into the same “glass wall” that other female coaches have after they complain too loudly or are dismissed from a coaching job for not winning enough. “I applied for close to 100 jobs and had one interview,”  Stanley told me in a 1997 interview. “My lawsuit was a lightening rod.”

Players also questioned Miller’s credentials and her coaching methods. Leslie, who was going into her senior year, found herself staying after practice to break down drills with the younger players because her teammates were having trouble understanding Miller’s systems and directions. “We could see and feel her passion, but there were times when we couldn’t understand her terminology,” recalled Leslie. “And if we were not on the same page with our coach, USC basketball had little chance for success.”

In her two years at USC, Miller did prove she could coach, leading USC to a 44-14 record and the NCAA tournament both years. Leslie came to appreciate Miller’s competitiveness, but she always wondered whether they could have won it all had Stanley still been at the helm. “I truly believe that played a huge role in our not winning a national championship,” Leslie said in 2008.

Miller only coached the Women of Troy for two years. The spotlight lured her into broadcasting and a job broadcasting NBA games for with Turner Sports. The “hot dog” of women’s basketball proved to be as comfortable with the microphone in her hands as she had been performing on the court or answering questions after a game.

She was coaxed back into coaching, though, when the WNBA was formed in 1996. Needing a marquee name to help generate interest in the new league, the Phoenix Mercury named her its first head coach. It was a move that generated lots of ticket sales but also produced success on the court. Miller took the Mercury to the playoffs in three of her four seasons – including one trip to the finals in 1998. Miller was a lively, animated, trash-talking coach, pegged with more technical fouls than most of her colleagues in the fledgling league. She also took to the floor and showed her dance moves with the Mercury’s dance team from time to time – to the delight of the Phoenix fans.

In 2000, Miller shifted gears again and joined the NBA on TNT broadcast team where she showcased her interviewing and commentary skills for a national audience for the next 13 years. It’s a role she relished all the more because her brother Reggie, who joined her as a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, was also a member of the NBA on TNT team.

Now, the woman who played to the crowd all those years will be lucky if  the stands are half-filled for the Lady Lions’ games. Miller says she views it as a challenge to take a school and a team that is considered small by the outside world and build it into a national power. “We may be small, but we have big time potential,” she said. “And that’s what drove me.”

Langston has 10 players returning from a team that was 20-13 and lost in the first round of the NAIA Division I tournament to the eventual champion, Oklahoma City. If Miller can take the Lady Lions all the way, perhaps her stay on this small stage will be a short one. Perhaps she’ll break through that glass wall and find — at the age of 50 — that the road back to a big time coaching job is open again.

“I have my goals as a head coach and I certainly won’t leave” before they’re accomplished, she told a reporter for her hometown paper in Riverside, California. “But it wouldn’t be truthful to say that if another Division I (program) came calling I wouldn’t look at the situation. Everybody’s realistic when it comes to those things.”

But whether it becomes a stepping stone to a bigger stage, Miller will likely be learning a lesson this year about re-inventing herself in the face of changing times and expectations. It’s a lesson that even legends sometimes have to learn.

 

 

 

There can only be one team that was the first

ps.pjkvcpoi.170x170-75The 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic team, which won the silver medal, will be honored at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Induction weekend June 14 as “Trailblazers of the Game.” They were the first group of women to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games, the first time women were allowed to compete in basketball. The women who made that team were the best of the best and their accomplishment set the stage for an incredible run of success for the U.S. women on the international stage.

The U.S. men had begun playing at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, but it wasn’t until after the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich that the overwhelmingly male International Olympic Organizing Committee deemed women basketball players fit to play in the Olympic Games.

For almost 40 years, American women had hoped against hope for a chance to play basketball on the biggest stage of all: the Olympic Games. The best female basketball players in the world did compete against each other, but such contests as the Pan Am Games and the World Games garnered little of the publicity and attention that the Olympics did.

As the women’s movement gathered steam in the ’70s, the male establishment felt pressure to abandon the notion that women couldn’t compete in strenuous sports (though women wouldn’t be allowed to run marathons until 1984). Much of the pressure actually came from behind the Iron Curtain, where such countries as the Soviet Union and East Germany were churning out women athletes in record numbers (with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, it would later be learned).

At 24 years old, Pat Head, the new coach at the University of Tennessee, was one of the oldest women vying for a spot on the 1976 Olympic team. She had plenty of competition. When the United States Olympic Committee held tryouts for the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team in the summer of 1975, 1,000 of the best high school, college, and post-college players

showed up. ImageHead was in college when the announcement came that women’s basketball would be added to the Summer Games in 1976. She planned to spend a full year training for the Olympic tryouts after she graduated from UT-Martin in June, 1974. But in a game in January, she was hit behind the knee and crumpled to the floor. Doctors said she’d torn her anterior cruciate ligament and her meniscus so severely that there was little chance she’d ever play basketball again. Obviously, they didn’t know Pat Head (who would go on to coach Tennessee to eight national championships as Pat Summitt) or her father.

According to her 2013 memoir, “Sum it Up,” Summitt’s father drove her all the way to Nashville to see the best orthopedic surgeon in the state. The 12-inch scar, from her thigh to the top of her calf, attested to the complexity of ACL surgery back then. Summitt rehabbed her knee for the rest of 1974 but it was still stiff and sore a year later. She made the roster of the U.S. team for the Pan Am Games in early 1975, but she sat the bench throughout the tournament, slowed by her loss of mobility and the 20 pounds she’d gained since the surgery.

“I hardly played, unless it was a twenty-point blowout,” Summitt told Sally Jenkins, the co-author of her 2013 memoir. “I joked that I played end, guard, and tackle: sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water bottles, and tackled anyone who came in there who wasn’t supposed to be there.”

By the time the Olympic tryouts were held in June, 1975, Summitt had lost 27 pounds She had worked out five or six hours a day, determined to be in the best shape of her life. She may still have been the oldest and least mobile of the 24 women who made the first cut and assembled in Warrensburg, Missouri for the final tryouts. But she was able to endure the workouts that Coach Billie Jean Moore put the players through for those five grueling weeks.

“She was so strong that you couldn’t get around her to follow your shot,” said Cindy Brogden, who also made the team and was Summitt’s roommate in Montreal. “She was the most aggressive person I ever met on a basketball court.

Billie Jean Moore, the coach of the first Olympic team, was a no-nonsense, defensive-minded tactician who had led Cal State Fullerton to an AIAW national championship in her first year as head coach in 1970. Sue Gunter, who had played with Nera White on the Nashville Business School teams, and was coaching at Stephen F. Austin at the time, was the assistant coach. Their goal was to choose the 12 players who had the best chance of upsetting the Soviet Union’s team and its legendary 7-2 center, Uljana Semjanova of Latvia. The Soviets hadn’t lost an international tournament game since 1958. The U.S. National Team had come within three points of them in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in 1974. But the Soviets came back and defeated the U.S. in the next game in California by 30 points.

Ann Meyers, who had been the only high school player on that U.S. National team, said the Soviet’s pride was hurt by the close game in New York, as well as the rudeness of some of the U.S. players (including her) who made fun of the size of Semjonova’s feet during a shared pre-game meal.

“That first game had motivated the Soviets to bury us,” recounted Meyers in her 2012 memoir, You Let Some Girl Beat You, “Jules’ (Juliene Simpson) and my behavior during the pregame meal put the nail in the coffin.”

By the 1976 tryout, Meyers was already an All-American from UCLA. She had sprained her ankle during the regional tryouts, but made it to the final round in Missouri on the strength of her resume. In her memoir, she recalled the five weeks in Missouri as a “sauna straight from the underworld.” The three-a-day workouts, seven days a week, always ended with a 30-minute session of lines, also known as suicide sprints, that left the players gasping for air or dry-heaving. The 12 players who survived, and would be heading to Canada, as the first-ever U.S. Olympic team were Meyers, Summitt, Brogden, Lusia Harris, Juliene Simpson, Nancy Dunkle, Charlotte Lewis, Trish Roberts, Sue Rojcewicz, Mary Anne O’Connor, Nancy Lieberman, and Gail Marquis.

Meyers and Summitt were by no means the only experienced players on the team. Lusia Harris, the 6-foot-3 center from Delta State, had also played in the 1975 Pan Am games. She had found international play to be rougher and more physical than college ball, but she was not the least intimidated. The hardest part for her was adjusting her game to the faster pace that Moore liked her teams to play. At Delta State, she usually pulled down the rebound and jogged upcourt, knowing her teammates wouldn’t put up a shot before she settled herself into the post.

The player attracting the most media attention was a 5-foot-10 redhead from Brooklyn, New York, named Nancy Lieberman. In 1975, Lieberman was a 17-year-old high school senior who developed her no-look passes and uncanny shooting eye on the playgrounds of the city. While she was a natural point guard because of her quickness and passing skills, Lieberman had a cockiness that made her believe she could throw elbows and get rebounds even against taller bigger opponents.

“You don’t find many guards who will rebound the way she does,” said Marianne Stanley, who recruited Lieberman out of high school in 1976 to play at Old Dominion. “I haven’t seen too many people who have her confidence. You can’t teach that… she probably came out of the womb swinging.”

While these 12 players were the U.S. Olympic team, they still had to make it into the Olympics. Because the U.S. National team had come in eighth in the most recent World Championships, it was not awarded one of the automatic berths. Canada, as host country, was assured a berth, as were the Soviet Union, Japan and Czechoslovakia, winners of gold, silver and bronze in the World Championships.

The U.S. would have to vie with nine other teams for the two remaining spots in the Olympics in a qualifying tournament in Hamilton, Ontario, just over the border near Niagara Falls. Meyers and Summitt recalled the dorms they lived in during that tournament as run-down and dismal. But at least the rooms were free. Since the U.S. women weren’t officially an Olympic participant, they had no budget — only a $500 limit on a credit card that had to last the length of the qualifier. The U.S. easily disposed of France and Mexico, but barely escaped with a win in a one-point game with Bulgaria, 76-75. Still, they’d made it to the Olympic Games and headed to Montreal on July 4, 1976, the country’s bicentennial.

Summitt remembers the Opening Ceremony as a blur of red, white, and blue. Just to be among the best athletes in the world, on the biggest stage was a dream come true. But there was basketball to play, and the U.S. team started off on the wrong foot with a loss to Japan, 84-71. Turnovers in this inaugural event did the U.S. in, but the team rebounded with a big win over Bulgaria, 95-79, the next day. Two days later, the U.S. beat host Canada, 95-79.

The much-anticipated game with the Soviet Union came next. Summitt was assigned the task of guarding Semjonova, who was a full 14 inches taller. “I came up to her armpit,” she recalled. The U.S. strategy was to try to get in Semjonova’s way and draw charges when she swung into the post with the ball. But Semjonova, who would become the first non-American inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, didn’t really have to throw her weight around to dominate play. In fact, she didn’t even need to jump. The Soviets scored the first 15 points of the game, as Semjonova scored 32 points in only 23 minutes of play. The Soviets won the game 112-77.

“By the end of the first quarter, Semjonova had already connected on 15 straight layups without her size 18 feet ever leaving the ground,” recalled Meyers.

The New York Times broke down the Soviets’ strategy in the next day’s paper, in what came off as a mocking attitude towards both teams: “Miss Semjonova simply stationed herself like a pillar under the basket…and grabbed rebounds as if she were picking cherries in the Ukraine. Then, as her teammates worked the ball down the court, she would lumber behind them…and tower beneath her own basket for an almost certain score. The United States players, scrappy but less practiced than their foes, leaped about her like puppies yelping for their lunchtime snack.”

Because the Olympics was a round-robin tournament, the U.S. team still had a chance for the silver medal if it could win its last game against Czechoslovakia. That game wasn’t as lopsided as the final score would indicate. Tied 37-37 at the half, the U.S. broke it open in the second half and won, 83-67. Harris, no doubt relieved to be rid of the towering presence of Semjonova, led all scorers with 17 points, as she did most nights, while Dunkle added 14, and Roberts, Rojcewicz, and Simpson each scored 10 points.

Moore took the team out to celebrate that night. She told the players to relish their roles as pioneers. “There will be many more teams that follow you,” she told them. “But there will only be one team that was the first.”

A good showing against UConn

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Jennifer Hamson racking up one of her 141 blocks this year. Brigham Young University photo by Jonathan Hardy

Brigham Young University gave the Lady Huskies a run for their money in the first half of their Sweet Sixteen match-up Saturday. But when UConn’s Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis came to life in the second half, beating BYU’s 6-7 shot-blocker Jennifer Hamson down the floor, the rout was on.

Still, Hamson, a senior who also excels at volleyball, saw her stock rise during BYU’s NCAA tournament run. In fact, ESPN commentator Kara Lawson suggested that Hamson might have propelled herself into the first round of the WNBA draft with her performances.

The good showing started in the tournament’s first round, when the Lady Cougars, seeded 12th, upset fifth-ranked North Carolina State. Hamson’s near triple double (12 points, 19 rebounds, and nine blocks), paced BYU. She followed that up by leading Brigham Young to an upset of fourth-ranked Nebraska in the round of 32. The Lady Cougars built a double-digit lead and then hung on for an 80-76 win.

Hamson, who was playing with a dislocated finger suffered in the NC State Game, made a key layup and sank three free throws down the stretch. But it was her intimidating defense that made the difference — and it was her shot-blocking reputation (she led Division I in shot blocking with 141 blocks this season) that had UConn looking tentative in the first half of their Sweet Sixteen matchup.

The fact that the Huskies’ uber star, Breanna Stewart, finally got her game back by taking the ball inside (or by sitting in the paint to draw the defense to her while her supporting cast lit it up) doesn’t take away the Lady Cougars’ accomplishments. They were only the third 12th-seeded team in the history of the NCAA women’s tournament to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. And thus far, they hold the record for keeping UConn on the ropes for the longest stretch. (UConn was down 35-34 with 17:34 left — the latest it has trailed this season).

In a year when UConn has been so incredibly dominant, hanging with the big dogs for 23 minutes is a rare feat — and definitely something of which to take notice. And in a year when the WNBA draft is not studded with big stars like Britney Griner and Elena Della Donne, Hamson, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, could possibly find herself moving up the list and being snagged in the first round by a team in need of an inside presence.

That would present Hamson with a dilemma, though. In her first three years at BYU, she played volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter. This year, however, she red-shirted herself in volleyball so that she could concentrate on training for basketball as soon as she returned to school in the fall. While that tact certainly seems to have paid off, Hamson has another year of eligibility in volleyball and as recently as Febuary said she plans to honor her commitment to come back and play volleyball next fall. Will a WNBA team still draft her and attempt to change her mind, or  retain the rights to sign her for 2016? In a WNBA draft where the only legitimate centers are CT’s 6-5 Stephanie Dolson and Kentucky’s 6-3 DeNesha Stallworth, who wouldn’t take a chance on a 6-7 shot blocker? Especially one who has proven she can play with the NCAA’s big dogs.