“Mom, I want to play basketball,” I said as I watched the boys move up and down the court, dribbling around each other to get to the hoop. It was 1973, and I was seven.
My mom peered at me through the bottom of her glasses and explained, “They don’t have basketball for girls your age, Sonya.” I narrowed my eyes and huffed. She gave me an exaggerated wink and said, “That doesn’t mean you can’t play.”
Not long after, my dad installed a basketball hoop in our driveway. My brother and I tossed the basketball around with the kids in the neighborhood, and that was the beginning of my love affair with the game.
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972
Little did I know that just one year earlier, in 1972, Congress had enacted Title IX and gave me, and young women before me, more opportunities to play. Since Title IX, which bans sex discrimination and sexual harassment in federally subsidized educational programs, including athletics, opportunities in sports for girls have skyrocketed. In fact, in 1972, when I was six, just one in twenty-seven girls participated in high school sports; today, about two in five participants and the number of women playing in college continues to increase.
1976 Ann Meyer Received The First Woman’s College Basketball Scholarship
Though women played basketball for eight-four years, it wasn’t until 1976 that Ann Meyer received the first woman’s college basketball scholarship, leading the way for many other women like me. Because of Title IX, there are now more athletic scholarships and opportunities for women to participate in sports and learn from the game than ever before.
Women started playing basketball in 1892, a year after Dr. James Naismith invented it. Naismith created basketball to keep his students at Springfield College active during the cold winters. He attached a peach basket on the balcony at each end of the gymnasium and made a list of 13 rules. The game was a hit and spread across the country. Senda Beresen, a teacher at Smith College, an all-women school, taught her female students the game, but because the Victorian culture of the time stressed the frailty of women, Senda modified the rules. Still, women played, and by1895 were playing basketball in colleges around the country. However, they did play with a different set of rules than the men.
Zones Of Play
The most notable difference was the use of three separate zones of play. The court was divided into three sections, with two players assigned to each section. It was a two-on-two game with two forwards against two guards and with a jump center and side center in the middle area to handle the ball between the two scoring zones. This was done to eliminate roughness and to minimize the danger of overexertion. Not only did many people, including educators, believe that running the entire court was hard on a woman’s body, but they were also concerned that the physical activity was unhealthy, inappropriate, and unladylike.
Still, women kept playing.
And rules continued to change, but not always for the better. In 1910 dribbling was outlawed for women, though by 1913, one knee-high dribble was allowed. Women continued to play basketball, even though in 1914, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) took the position that women and girls should not play basketball in public. It was also the year that the American Olympic Committee declared its opposition to the participation of women in the Olympics competition.
Still, women kept playing.
In 1926 the AAU held the first national tournament for women’s basketball. They had six teams participating and used men’s rules. Still, with pressure from the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, the tournament was cancelled for the next couple of years. In 1929 AAU re-started the national tournament for women but oddly enough added a beauty contest as part of the event.
Still, women kept playing.
Many women who played in the AAU tournament were a part of the Women’s industrial league that sprang up throughout the United States. Industrial leagues consisted of teams that were sponsored by the companies the women worked for. Some companies began to recruit women right out of high school or college because a winning team was good publicity. Women from teams like the Golden Cyclones and All American Red Heads (who wore makeup and dyed their hair red) even became famous. Also, during this same timeframe, African American women played in the women’s division of the African American basketball league that featured local church and club teams. Most of these teams used men’s rules, but colleges continued to use women’s rules.
By 1938 women’s rules changed to use two zones instead of three. Two-zone basketball was a six-on-six game where each team has three offensive players and three defensive players on each half of the court.
Finally, in 1966, the year I was born, women were allowed unlimited dribbling again, and by 1970 the five-player full-court game was adopted.
In 1971 the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was formed, giving women the opportunity to compete in national championships and the next year, in 1972, Immaculata College won the first of three consecutive AIAW women’s national collegiate basketball championships. The movie Mighty Macs is inspired by the true story of Coach Cathy Rush and her teams legendary run for the first women’s basketball championship. Soon after in 1976, there was the first Olympic basketball tournament for women. The game was changing for girls and women across the country.
I started elementary school in the ’70s and was taught basketball using the two-zone rules. I even thought that everyone played the two-zone six-on-six half-court game until I went to a men’s basketball game. It was at that game that I realized I wanted to play basketball. The game looked so much more fun, running the full court and playing both offense and defense, and by the time I went to middle school, I got the chance.
I was lucky to have a coach who, just like my parents, believed that girls could do anything that boys could do. Our coach worked us hard, and I loved it. We lost just one game in three years. By the time I entered high school in the 80’s, I knew that I wanted to play basketball in college. And though I didn’t know they had only started giving women basketball scholarships a few years earlier, I was determined to get one.
In 1984 (the first year the USA women’s basketball team won Olympic gold), I received a scholarship to play basketball at Eastern Washington University. During my college career, we were a top team in our conference and played the University of Oregon in the 1987 NCAA Tournament. The first NCAA Women’s tournament was just six years earlier in 1981.
Even during my time in college, the women’s game continued to change. We switched to the smaller women’s ball and got a three-point line. Since middle school, I played fullcourt basketball, yet it took time for the fullcourt game to reach across the United States. When I graduated from college in 1988, several states were still playing women’s two-zone six-on-six basketball. And it wasn’t until 1995, when Oklahoma went to the full court five-on-five game, that girls all across America got to play real basketball.
These days, women can play professional basketball in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Still, many women’s leagues started up and folded over the years, beginning with the Women’s Professional Basketball League in 1978. After that came the Ladies Professional Basketball Association in 1980, the Women’s American Basketball Association in 1984 and the National Women’s Basketball Association in 1986. In college, my teammates and I heard rumor of a league starting up where the athletes would have to wear short shorts and tight tops. We thought that idea was awful, still we would have worn anything.We wanted to play. Next came the Liberty Basketball
In 1991, the Women’s Basketball Association in 1993, and the American Basketball League in 1995. Finally, in 1996, the NBA established the WNBA with eight teams, which continues to this day. It now has twelve teams and allows women to play at a higher level.
Much of this history is now preserved at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennesee. And though over the years there have been many changes for the good, women are still fighting for equality in the sport. As an athlete in the 80’s I played in some nice new stadiums but I also practiced and played in sketchy second-rate “women’s” gyms with dim lights and tattered bleacher seats and I changed in tiny locker rooms with rusted out lockers and no chalkboard for our coach to write on.
As a high school coach, I dealt with disparity as well. I worked as an assistant coach right after I graduated from college in 1988, but when I took over as head coach of a girl’s program in 2010, the inequality between the girls’ and boy’s teams became crystal clear. The girl’s locker room was filthy and was used for storage, there was $4.00 in our basketball account, and we had four uniforms. This was not the case for the men’s program.
Even at this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, we saw the disparity between the men’s and women’s programs when the women’s meals and workout facilities paled compared to the men’s. There is still a long way to go. But thanks to so many women over the years who have spoken up, things have changed for the better.If we all work to bring attention to further issues, we will continue improving and creating a better women’s game.
These days when I watch a girl’s game from the bleachers, I am often brought to tears. Not because I miss being on the court as a player or as a coach. But because of all the changes that I have seen happen in women’s basketball since I was first tossing a ball at a battered hoop in my driveway. And knowing that this game that I love will have more impact than ever before on the lives of young women. And they won’t have to hear, “They don’t have basketball for girls.”
Instead, they will hear, “Yes! Yes, you can play.”