Normally this time of year, my husband and I would be glued to the TV set during the weekend following women's basketball. We've been fans of the women's game since pro-legend and WBNA-coach Katie Smith was a freshman at Ohio State and the team made the NCAA Final (only to lose by two points to Sheryl Swoopes & Texas Tech).
My interest in women's basketball goes back even farther, though, because I grew up with stories about when my grandmother played basketball back in the 1920s.
My grandfather would usually bring it up, but sooner rather later he’d say something that wasn’t quite the way Grandma wanted it remembered, and she would take over. And no matter how many times we had heard the stories before, we never tired of hearing of them again – they were better than any fairy tale. I mean – come on – the girls' games more popular than boys?
Grandma says she that while she was a tom-boy growing up, she had never played basketball when try-outs for the girls’ basketball team were announced. The girls had been complaining because they didn’t have any team sports to play, and with the growing popularity of basketball, a girls team sounded like a good answer. One of the teachers agreed to be the coach and practice began.
With all that’s been written about team work, Grandma could explain it very simply - this was a group of young women who “clicked” – she said, from 5-foot Geraldine “Shortie” Chapman to the 6-foot Dorothy Mushrush – they just clicked. They learned how to play together and they learned how to win.
They won their first game, and then the next, and another. At the end of their first season, the Orrville High School girls' basketball team was 10-1 and the Wayne County Champions – and Grandma was the leading scorer.
Pretty soon, the girls’ game were so popular that on nights that the girls and boys teams played back-to-back, the boys had to play first. Otherwise, folks would come for the girls game and leave, and there would be no one left to watch the boys game. Seating became so hard to come by in this gym-where-there-was-supposed-to-be a swimming pool that fans started to show up hours ahead of time, with a sandwich in a sack, just to get a good seat. When the team played out of town, they were welcomed home at the train station and taken to the best restaurant in town for dinner. They even got fan mail.
And they kept winning. And Grandma kept scoring.
Not all of Grandma’s stories were about fun and games.
- The first year they practiced and played in second floor of City Hall, dodging columns as they moved around the court.
- If they had to go out of town for a game they usually rode the train and the inner-urban, and they’d all get motion-sick.
- And when they stayed out of town for a game, the accommodations weren’t always four-star. As a result, Grandma wasn’t allowed in the house when she got home until she took off her clothes and left them on the back porch with her bags – my great grandmother was worried that she would bring bedbugs home. Grandma said she had reason to worry.
- And like any student-athlete – Grandma had to figure out how to balance playing and practice with schoolwork and household responsibilities – which wasn’t always easy. In spite of the challenges – Grandma missed only one practice and played in every game in her three-year career.
By the time they were done, Grandma's team had posted a record of 42-9 with two county championships. In her three years of play, Grandma scored 732 points, more than half of the total points scored by her team and just six points less than their opponents scored against them. She averaged a 14.4 points per game with had a career high of 34 points in a single game – accomplishments that are respectable even today. In 1964, Grandma's hometown paper called her the greatest female athlete in the high school's history.
Grandma went on to play semi-professional basketball after high school and had the opportunity to travel with a professional team but her parents didn’t think it was appropriate for a single young woman. And while I know that my grandmother wouldn't trade anything for the life she lived, I also know that she wondered what it might have been like if she had been able to play professional ball.
Grandma lived to see the popularity of women’s sports in the US that exists today – from the Olympic teams that bring home the gold to the professional leagues to sold-out Women’s NCAA finals. But to anyone who thinks that this is a sign that girls sports have finally arrived, Grandma’s story is a gentle reminder that they have actually come full circle. The only question is what happens next.
There are two things that my Grandmother would want you to know about the picture I've included of of her.
The first: those are bloomers – they were always bloomers, they were never anything but bloomers, and no, they never played in skirts as a newspaper reporter once suggested.
The second thing is how much that Orville jersey meant to her. You see, the girls team didn't have uniforms when they started – they played in their own clothes. It wasn’t until they started winning that the school bought them jerseys to wear. Grandma told me that she could still remember how proud she was the first time she ran out onto the basketball court in her Orrville High School uniform.
I was lucky: I was in my 40s when my grandmother died, and she and my grandfather were a huge part of my life. It's been almost 20 years since her death but I think about her often this time of year. And I wish for the days when we listened to the stories about when grandma played basketball.