Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Let's Hear it for Women's Basketball!
September 10, 1999
"Pardon me while I loosen my corset. . . If a girl is going to narrate
the history of women's basketball and all of its frail Victorian
lace-clad horrors, she's got to be able to breathe." So wrote Sally
Jenkins in Conde Nast "Women's Sports and Fitness."
My friend the philosopher tends to roll her eyes when I talk about
women's basketball, and since it's one of my favorite subjects she rolls
them a lot.
The Women's National Basketball Association has just finished its third
season, with Houston doing a three-peat. For those of us who never get
to see an actual game, TV has brought three games a week during the
regular season, and all of the playoffs, semi-finals and finals. And I
have been in the proverbial hog heaven watching when I wasn't pacing
around trying to help them.
Social change takes a very long time. From 1892 when Senda Berenson
adapted for women James Naismith's new game of basketball -- to last
week's wild games between the Houston Comets and the New York Liberty
for the WNBA championship took over 100 years.
Berenson's rules used a three court game with six players. The only
body parts that could be exposed were hands, necks and heads. Floor
length dresses made pivoting a bit difficult and broken bones were not
uncommon. But the women loved it and the game caught on quickly. The
first women's intercollegiate game in 1896 was between Stanford and
Cal. Stanford won 2 to 1. Too bad they couldn't have made a video of
The effort to keep women out of organized sports has been a combination
of cultural and financial, undoubtedly a lot of both. After all, when
basketball was born the phrase "gender equity" didn't exist. We weren't
even allowed to vote, let alone sweat. The one handed shot was
considered the most ladylike. For the southern girls at Sophie Newcomb
College in New Orleans, the two handed throw was a foul, "because it
caused the shoulder to forwardly incline with a subsequent flattening of
After a long dry spell Title IX came along in 1972 and schools and
colleges started - very gradually - offering sports programs to girls
and women. Women athletes were still second class citizens, but they
began to acquire athletic skills in large numbers.
And then - aha! The U. S. women's basketball team won the Olympic gold
in Atlanta in 1996 with big TV coverage. That got their attention and
the guys' decided to cash in on women's basketball. NBA approved the
Women's National Basketball Association.
The professional sports world runs on money, and the NBA has spent it a
lot of it on WNBA. So long as women's sports continue to earn money,
they will probably continue to do it. But they are doing it by the
men's rules. They haven't let the women very far into coaching or
management. The first year of play there was only one male coach. By
season's end this year there were only four women coaches out of 12 and
one of them has not had her contract renewed yet. As the men are
taking over the coaching, subtle changes are taking place in the game.
And they are not good for women's sports.
The guys haven't figured it out yet that female athletes, while equally
skilled and driven are not identical to male athletes. Sure, male
coaches have had more experience, but not in coaching women. Tony
DiCicco, who successfully coached the American Gold Cup Soccer team and
should know, says there is a distinct difference between coaching men's
teams and women's teams.
There are top quality female coaches available. They should have a
chance to grow and develop in professional sports. They will coach the
women to play like the team players that women are.
It would be a tragedy to see women's basketball run and played like
men's basketball. It's a different game The skills are different and
certainly the size is different. I will just have to hope they don't
start slipping male ringers on the teams.
But I don't want to hear any more talk about women's lack of upper body
strength after watching 5'8" 161# Theresa Weatherspoon's terrific
running 52-footer from beyond center court which lofted into the basket,
won the game at the buzzer and sent Houston into a 24 hour depression.
From corsets and long skirts to black sports bras and free flowing WMBA
uniforms -- women's pro basketball is a work in progress, I hope as a