Given the opportunity, she got game too

The first time I watched a girls basketball game, I tried to keep my yap shut.

It was sometime after Thanksgiving in 1976 in Hartford City, Indiana, where I was helping the News-Times sports editor cover a game that neither of us wanted to attend.

No one on the court seemed to know what they were doing. A dribble would go awry, and 10 girls would race after the ball. At one point, I turned to my colleague and whispered that there had been more jump balls than points scored.

To be kind, girls didn’t know the game very well because we hadn’t let them play. At South Bend LaSalle, where I had graduated four years earlier, no girls played organized basketball. All we had for them was an athletic club that offered volleyball, swimming, modern dance, tennis and, maybe, softball.

No one I knew watched these intramural events.

I graduated from LaSalle in June 1972, the month when the federal Title IX rules went into effect. Just 37 words in length, Title IX opened doors for girls and women to participate equally in any education program or activity offered to male students.

No longer would a female have to sue the IHSAA in the state Supreme Court, like Johnell Haas of Riley High did in 1971, to play on her school’s all-male golf team. If they didn’t comply, high schools and colleges would lose federal funding, so they scrambled to put together varsity programs that were roughly equivalent to what the boys enjoyed.

Basketball would be among those sports, and Title IX drew a lot of snickers at first. Particularly in the Hoosier state, male fans were basketball snobs. For generations, townspeople had packed local gyms on Friday nights and watched their neighborhood boys become heroes. 

No girl could run, pass, shoot and rebound the way those boys did.

During my four years at Notre Dame, I never attended a women’s sporting event. Notre Dame had just begun admitting women in the fall of 1972, adding 100 or so more each academic year. The first two varsity sports there for women – tennis and fencing – were introduced in 1976. There weren’t enough female athletes on campus yet to be competitive in major team sports. 

Women’s basketball was an experiment for the 1976-77 season when my friend Fred decided it was time to go to an N.D. game against Saint Mary’s. Fred was the sports editor at the college paper, The Observer, and he had a reputation for being hard-to-please.

“With the exception of the cheerleaders from St. Mary’s, everything about Saturday’s game was bad,” he wrote. “If you get the impression that women’s basketball and I don’t agree, you’re right. Somehow basketball that features more jump balls than points doesn’t appeal to me.”

Fred had seen exactly what I had seen, but he had written what I had whispered.

He also wrote this: “If you saw Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team beat St. Mary’s last Saturday, you know just how many blunders are possible in a single basketball game. In fact, things got so bad that statisticians lost track of the number of turnovers. When asked how many turnovers there had been, one observer replied, ‘I really don’t know. I lost count at 999,999.999’.”

For several days afterward, the Observer received dozens of complaints, basically that Fred had been too harsh in his words. This was a program in its infancy. Pick on someone your own size.

One of the Notre Dame players, Carol Lally, put it this way: “I don’t want to waste my time writing you a letter. I’d rather settle the matter where it counts. How about a basketball game someday? I’ll spot you 6 points.”

Fred, who didn’t take her up on the challenge, had a nice career as a newspaper editor in upstate New York. Carol became a world-renowned ocular oncologist and co-author of six textbooks on ophthalmology. Obviously, their disagreement in December 1976 didn’t scar either of them for life.

And just as the architects of Title IX had hoped, women’s basketball really became better with age. 

One of my favorite moments in the past few years was a chance to interview Arike Ogunbuwale in 2018, four months after she led Notre Dame to a national championship. She hit last-second game-winning shots in both the semi-final and final games. No player – not Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or Steph Curry – had ever done that in the NCAA tournament.

She gave an awesome interview, sincere in her recognition that she hit those final shots only because the quirks of fate and the hard work of coaches and teammates put the ball in her hands.

I nearly dropped my pen. I can’t think of an athlete who has impressed me more.

My wife and I have had season tickets for Notre Dame women’s basketball for several years. As a spectator, I prefer certain aspects of the women’s game over the men’s. The women’s game moves at a pace I can absorb. I can recognize the defenses and can sense the strategies. They don’t just drive, leap and dunk.

Women don’t have to run, pass, shoot and rebound like the men do to keep my attention. The men’s game is intimidating, while the women’s stars are closer to my height, more like me. Under the right circumstances, I might actually win a jump ball.

Whoa, there. I’m not saying I could crash their game. It’s their time to play, not mine, and Arike would have to spot me a lot more than six points.