Looking Forward, Looking Back

Guest blog post by Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, authors of Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball

Aari McDonald stares out of her WNBA draft photo, arms folded, biceps sculpted, looking ahead. On April 15, when the draft kicks off the WNBA’s silver anniversary season, McDonald will go high. She has just come off a stellar NCAA tournament, where she led third-seeded Arizona to the championship game – a heartstopping contest with Stanford that was watched by more than 4 million viewers and decided by a single point.

Women’s basketball has come a long way from the days when players donned long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, when men were barred from watching, and when observers waxed enthusiastic over the thrills of a “snappy” game that ended with a score of 2 to 1.

As the sport pauses for a moment between the drama of the Final Four and the opening tosses of the WNBA, we suggest taking time to explore the lives of the women who built the game to where it is today – women such as Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, longtime Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, Tennessee phenomenon Pat Summitt, and star-players-turned-star-coaches Anne Donovan and Dawn Staley and. Their many stories offer inspiring portraits of human determination. They also sketch out a roadmap for creating social change – the kind of transformation our nation needs so much today.

Of course, we think Shattering the Glass would be a great place to start.

On the eve of the 2021 Final Four, Vivian Stringer sent a brief note to coaches Dawn Staley and Adia Barnes. It was the first time that two Black head coaches had reached this pinnacle of their sport. Springer was overjoyed.

“Congratulations,” she wrote. “I am so proud of you both for representing Black Women! I dreamed of this day. I am filled with great pride & happiness. I salute you! Continue to inspire all young women!”

In 1966, when Stringer was a teenager, her high school had no basketball for girls. She was a stellar athlete, a sought-after teammate in the neighborhood boys’ pickup games. But the closest she could get to high school play was as a cheerleader. As a Black woman she faced hurdles even there – she was the first Black cheerleader at the predominantly white  school, and it took action by the local NAACP to get her on the squad. Once there, she took advantage of her position on the sidelines to scrutinize the games, whispering advice to her male friends as they moved on and off the court.  

Half a Shoestring

In 1971, when Stringer got her first coaching job at historically black Cheney State University, she ran her program on less than half a shoestring. She spent her own money on recruiting and drove her players to their games in an old prison bus. When she approached an intersection, she later explained, she would “slow down but not enough to stop because we weren’t sure we were going to start again, so my assistant would crane her neck out the window and yell, ‘Vivian, keep going, no one’s coming.’”

She drove on. Others did as well. This year’s NCAA tournament showcased how far the sport has come – nationally televised games packed with talent, drama and great play, heightened by the resolve to speak out against injustice.

Men as well as women have contributed to this growth, including Harley Redin, who coached the legendary Flying Queens from Wayland Baptist College; Leon Barmore, who

led his Louisiana Tech teams to 20 straight NCAA tournaments; and Geno Auriemma, who built a still-thriving dynasty at UConn. But the women stand out as pioneers.

Building a sport

They faced multiple barriers to participating in the sport they loved. They competed in dilapidated gyms, wore faded uniforms, and often endured criticism from neighbors and family members who thought sports were for boys. When Title IX forced colleges to start women’s teams, they built programs from scratch, often fighting each step of the way. They negotiated with administrators. They filed lawsuits. They dealt with an NCAA takeover of their once-independent programs. Over time, they helped change an American sporting culture that lionized male athletes and viewed women — especially those playing high-energy contact sports — with suspicion.

In the mid-1990s, many people thought the women’s game was on the verge of a breakthrough. With strong backing from USA Basketball, Tara VanDerveer coached an all-star U.S. women’s team to a resounding, high-profile Olympic training run and a gold medal in the 1996 Games. Out of that accomplishment came the WNBA and the American Basketball League, two newly organized professional leagues competing for players and attention.

Progress came slower than many had hoped. A decade later, when we were writing Shattering the Glass, plenty of questions remained. The ABL had faded quickly. The WNBA was finding it hard to expand its audience beyond a loyal group of hardcore supporters. The sport had yet to come to terms with its lesbian players, coaches and fans. As the women’s sport grew in prestige, men had begun to apply for and receive many of the scarce head college coaching positions. African American women made up a growing share of the game’s stars, but few were tapped for head coaching or top administrative jobs.

Recent Progress

But the game kept moving forward – pushed by the fortitude that comes with struggle. Since Shattering the Glass was published, issues of sexuality have largely fallen by the wayside, with teams and leagues actively marketing to the LGBTQ+ community. Players and coaches are out of the closet in significant numbers, among them such superstars as Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Audiences

have grown dramatically. The game has found ways to embrace working motherhood – Adia Barnes coached her team to the NCAA championship game while pumping breast milk at halftime for her 6-month-old daughter.

Advancement has also gone well beyond the court. When the Black Lives Matter movement took off this past summer, WNBA players stood at the forefront of professional athletes’ response – to the point where members of the Atlanta Dream endorsed Black minister Raphael Warnock in his Georgia Senate race against Kelly Loeffler, who was a part owner of the Dream and who had criticized Dream players for their Black Lives Matter activism (in part as a result of that player discontent, the Dream was sold in February to an investment group that includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery, the first retired player to own part of a team). When players and coaches discovered the dramatic differences between conditions at the men’s and women’s Final Four, they took to social media to spotlight the inequalities. National media took notice and called out the NCAA.

Passing the torch

Time moves on. Many of the game’s early stalwarts have passed the torch to others. Longtime LSU coach Sue Gunter died from lung disease in August 2005, and N.C. State coach Kay Yow succumbed to breast cancer in early 2009. Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt died in mid-2016, after a heartbreaking battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Anne Donovan, an early superstar who became the first female coach to win a WNBA title passed away in 2018, at the young age of 56.

But the rising generation has been well prepared to keep building the sport, setting lofty goals and helping each other reach them. In 1999, Purdue coach Carolyn Peck became the first Black head coach to win the NCAA women’s title. In 2015, she passed a piece of her championship net to Dawn Staley, who had coached the University of South Carolina to the first Final Four of her head coaching career. Staley’s Gamecocks took the crown in 2017, and she now plans to keep building the tradition by passing part of her 2017 net to Adia Barnes.

It has been a job well done. Back in December, Tara VanDerveer — who began her head coaching career at Idaho in 1978 — won her 1,099th game, passing Pat Summitt to reach the top of the all-time win list in Division I college women’s basketball. Vivian Stringer posted a congratulatory tweet:

“Congrats, Tara,” she wrote. “You are class, dignity and grace personified. I know Pat is smiling down looking over all of us. Enjoy this moment, you’ve earned it.”

So have they all.

Pamela Grundy is an independent scholar and author of the award-winning Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina (from the University of North Carolina Press).

Susan Shackelford has written about sports for the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer and now runs a freelance writing and editing business. Both authors live in Charlotte, North Carolina.