JIM THIELMAN: Women’s basketball — An Overnight Sensation, Decades In The Making

A few days back, a Washington Post story on my laptop told of young fans roaming the mean streets of Albany, N.Y., after the NCAA women’s basketball semifinals.

The Post quoted a smug fan lamenting to her pals that “everyone’s jumping on our … bandwagon.”

A thought balloon popped over my head that Alexander the Great started out in Macedonia and conquered most of the known world at the same age this fan was mulling where to spend her gap year.

The story went on: “I’m glad more people like women’s basketball, because they used to s— on it,” she said, climbing up the street but looking back to the not-so-distant past.

Actually, the story goes back a good half-century and the narrative is not that tidy. It’s taken a long time for women’s basketball to reach this point, and much as you might not want to hear this, plenty of credit is due to men. Well, certain men. Not ALL men.

I was a sportswriter back in ’93 when twin eighth-grade Minnesota girls were changing the not long ago waltz-paced game of girls basketball. Their arcing darts from the corner telegraphed where the women’s game, complete with crushing contact, was headed.

The twins sparked a column by me, a noted visionary, that asked, “Where do these twins go after college?” Women’s pro basketball leagues had failed. Twice.

I talked with a former high school and college star for that piece. She told how she had rejected a contract from the Women’s Pro Basketball League after college because she felt the league had no future. She was right. It lasted three years.

Instead of the WPBL, she went into coaching high school basketball. She recalled her own coach telling her team 15 years earlier “you’re going to be the ones who will change things.”

“It hasn’t happened,” she noted then. “For some reason, most of the few of us who were in coaching fell by the wayside.”

The was because women who had families were expected to raise them. Helen Gurly Brown’s Cosmopolitan magazine articles rolled the old snake eyes when it came down to raising a family or coaching the full-court press.

So high school coaching fell to men, and a few driven women who were as invested in cajoling, screaming and teaching. Those coaches left behind  a trail of well-deserved acclaim.

Myron Glass was one. He was the first person I knew who had a videotape recorder. A Sony Betamax cost a couple grand then.

He had coached boys in football, basketball, track and cross country, but his dedication to coaching girls over a four-decade career translated into a 719-143 record with eight Minnesota state girls basketball titles in eight tries.

It earned him a story in the Minneapolis newspaper when he died at 78 in 2022.

It was also men who covered these sporting events because that’s who wrote sports. Granted, rare was the sports editor who embraced women’s sports decades ago, and any assignment to cover it went to low man on the bean bag.

It never occurred that the low man was me in 1975. I was sent to Jamestown, N.D., to cover the state girls basketball tournament.

I was in college, working part-time at The Forum sports department and just happy to get off the night sports desk. I was always in sports to cover baseball and make no claim to being a pioneering women’s sports journalist.

But a couple of writers I later worked with made names in their orbits by covering girls high school basketball because like all good sportswriters they knew sportswriting isn’t about sports, it’s about people.

That column about the hoops-dreaming eighth-grade twins stirred up a few hornets, and a female coach blamed me and my kind — space alien murderers from Area 51 — for not giving enough “press” to the girls game.

I told her, “Look at your crowds. It’s dads and boyfriends. Even the moms of your players don’t come to watch.

“Once you have enough women who played this game, you’ll have fans, and then newspapers will have to change.”

Well, no one ever confused my diplomatic skills with Jimmy Carter’s, but here we are, a few chapters further along and seven of the college game’s 10 winningest coaches are women.

They’re just some of the hundreds of coaches who giddy-upped this bandwagon since Title IX came along in 1972.

Don’t you kids forget that on your gap year there in Macedonia.

One thought on “JIM THIELMAN: Women’s basketball — An Overnight Sensation, Decades In The Making”

  • kevinw111657 April 6, 2024 at 4:30 pm

    According to Forbes, Iowa’s matchup with UConn averaged more viewers (14.2 million) than last year’s World Series—which averaged 9.1 million viewers a game—and the average for the 2023 NBA Finals, which drew an average 11.6 million a game.

    Are women’s hoops the new national pastime?


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