Duke University Alumni Magazine


By Georgann Eubanks

A soaring season: Duke center Michelle VanGorp fires a deuce
Photo: Bruce Feeley

he bands are already trading fight songs. The sell-out crowd of more than 17,000 is pouring in, the air is electric with anticipation. You are warming up. The cut, shoot, and rebound drill is crisp, but you can tell that both teams are more than a little nervous.

It is the biggest day of your life so far--a day that will either haunt you or thrill you every time you think of it for the rest of your life. It may never get any better than this. You've dreamed of it for years. The NCAA championship game. You can't believe it's finally here.

You're trying not to think about the national television audience, though you will learn later that ESPN recorded its biggest cable rating in the network's four-year history of broadcasting this event.

Focus and execution. That's what your mind should be on. Forget the the class work you are going to have to make up next week.

Most likely you haven't begun yet to realize how much you'll have to struggle to remain as fit as you are today, how you'll probably put on a pound every year or so, how your hair will go gray, how you may try to tell your kids or your friends in later years just what this day, this whole experience, was like, back when you were twenty-one years old, with the best hopes and good wishes of an entire university behind you.

The game begins in ten minutes. And in a couple of hours it will be over.

No matter what, you will never be the same.

'm sitting at one of the press tables in the San Jose Arena, watching Duke center Michelle VanGorp run the pregame drills, trying to imagine what she is thinking and feeling--wondering if she knows what she represents to those of us in the stands who have just crossed the continent to witness Duke's first appearance in the NCAA Women's Final Four. The record book I picked up in the press room earlier only provides statistics back to 1975-76, four years after Duke's Woman's College merged with Trinity College to become co-educational, four years after the institution of Title IX--federal legislation that was meant to guarantee gender equity in educational programs, including sports--and the same year women's basketball was first declared an Olympic sport. It was also my senior year at Duke. I didn't even know we had a women's basketball team.

In that first year of Duke women's basketball, Coach Emma Jean Howard and her squad recorded a perfect losing season of 0-14. Joining in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time the following season, the Duke women won a total of only three games over the next two years. By 1978-79, Coach Debbie Leonard's squad managed a break-even record of 11-11 and finally reached beyond the .500 mark by a single game the next year, finishing at 14-13.

But Duke's extraordinary climb to national prominence in women's basketball from such humble beginnings is not just a story about coming from behind in the rankings to build a winning program. It's about a century-long revolution in sports and a cultural sea change, culminating in Title IX in 1972. Those of us who remember the passage of Title IX came to San Jose to celebrate the changes and to remember another time when women could not so readily find athletic success in the context of their college careers--either as players or spectators.

Record year: fifteen ACC wins, a second straight ACC championship, and a repeat of ACC Coach of the Year honors for coach Gail Goestenkors
Photo: Bruce Feely

Women's basketball teams came into being before the turn of the twentieth century, just after the game's invention by James Naismith in 1891. However, prevailing medical beliefs suggested that women were unsuited to jumping and running, that such activity would develop unsightly muscles and a competitive spirit that were not only improper, but might pose a hazard to childbearing. Accordingly, a coach at Smith College modified the women's rules, adding a sixth player, dividing the court into three parts, and confining players from running the full length of the court. The women's rules prohibited blocking and tying up the ball and only allowed two dribbles before passing. Getting the ball down court under these restrictions was more of an assembly-line effort than any feat of athleticism.

In 1926, at the first national basketball tournament for women sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the women's court was divided into two halves. Now, up to three dribbles were permitted. Incredibly enough, those same rules were the ones we followed in Atlanta more than forty years later in church-league play, since we had no girls' basketball team at my public high school. It was tantamount to a revolution in 1970 when the roving forward was introduced, and one player could actually cross the half court line. Several of us in San Jose talked and laughed about that transition game.

In the 1930s, women's basketball teams--segregated into white and African-American leagues--were organized from industry, business schools, and some colleges and grew in popularity. By the war years of the Forties, women's basketball had become a crucial outlet for women working in the defense industry. The games played by professional barnstorming teams drew record crowds in local communities in much the same way women's baseball became popular entertainment, as portrayed in the film A League of Their Own.

The All American Redheads, the Atlanta Blues, Hanes Hosiery from North Carolina, and most notably, Hazel Walker's Arkansas Travelers, would hit the road and play a game--and sometimes two--every night for six months at a stretch. They challenged local men's teams and independent clubs, winning some 85 percent of their games. Their showmanship and antics were every bit as deft as the Harlem Globetrotters.

In the 1997 public television documentary Women's Basketball: The Road to Respect, which recounts this history for the first time, one player for the Arkansas Travelers, Francis "Goose" Garroute, explains that, back then, there was a bad thought in people's minds about women athletes. And people thought women traveling together were trash, that we would be a bunch of rough-looking women. There was a stigma attached to women's basketball. The players proved, though, that you can be a lady, look like a lady, and still play ball.

Photo: Bruce Feely

Although women's basketball was finally introduced in the Pan American games in 1951 and several four-year colleges joined the AAU during that decade, most of the great industrial teams of the war years were dissolving. An argument was heating up in the AAU about whether women should be allowed to play full-court ball with five instead of six players in order to compete internationally.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina legislature had a better idea. In 1953, they outlawed the girls' state basketball tournament for white high schools--a move that had already been made in several other states, as early as 1932 in Kentucky. Championships everywhere were threatened by a new wave of concern that high-level competition was dangerous to the physical and psychological welfare of females. Perhaps in reaction to this concern, the AAU tournament not only crowned a national championship team, but also selected a beauty queen from the ranks of tournament players.

Despite this climate, women's basketball continued to thrive in some regions throughout the 1960s. The Iowa Girls State Tournament in 1968 drew more fans than the boys' state tournament, largely due to the reputation of standout player Denise Long, who had scored 111 points in a single game during the regular season. After her team won the Iowa championship, Long was drafted by the Golden State Warriors to play in the NBA. The NBA, however, quickly nullified the offer.

The National Women's Invitational Tournament replaced the AAU tournament in 1969, but it would take a decade after the introduction of Title IX for the first NCAA Women's Final Four to be introduced in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1982. By comparison, the first men's Final Four championship was held in Evanston, Illinois, in 1939. Fifty-five-hundred fans witnessed that final game. By contrast, 9,500 fans attended the first NCAA-sanctioned women's championship. Only two years ago, the largest crowd ever to attend a women's championship game was recorded in Charlotte--23,291 fans showed up. That same year, for the men's final, 19,229 fans came to the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Admittedly it was an unusually low attendance for the men that year, but women's basketball had finally arrived.

Besides all the middle-aged women who had come to San Jose, the number of girls brought to the tournament festivities by their parents was striking. On the day before tournament play began, bus loads of kids--Girl Scout troops, YWCA teams, and grade-school groups--lined up in the arena for player autographs in designated thirty-minute intervals. The Duke women's victory over top-ranked Tennessee in the regional finals had wowed the crowd, and the simultaneous hope of a championship finish for the Duke men's team was also a factor in the frenzy to reach the Duke players. The stigma of being a woman athlete is diminishing.

Finally, though, the cultural sea change was nowhere more evident than at Hoop City, an NCAA-sponsored exhibition concurrent with the tournament in the San Jose Convention Center. Here, young fans could run lay-ups on a motion-sensitive floor and measure their "hang time" in the air. Another booth offered girls the chance to slam-dunk the ball in hoops of various heights. Practice at free throws, three pointers, and more opportunities for player autographs kept the crowds moving. A Kodak booth offered to put any girl's photo on a take-home cover of Sports Illustrated by means of digital photography. Seated in a mock studio made to look like ESPN Sports Center, pairs of would-be sportscasters could read from pre-written cue cards on camera and take home a videotape of their tournament predictions. It was as if every fantasy a sports-minded girl ever had was served up to encourage a future generation of women who might have no clue that parity between men and women's basketball has been so long and hard in coming.

Duke standouts Michelle VanGorp, Nicole Erickson, Peppi Brown, and Lauren Rice all got their start in grade school on mixed- league teams composed mostly of boys. Their mothers signed them up; their mothers who were most likely in college at the advent of Title IX. These young women not only "raised the bar" for the Duke women's basketball program, as Coach Gail Goestenkoers told the Cameron crowd that welcomed both Duke teams home from their respective Final Four appearances, but also the Duke women (and their mothers and fathers) have contributed toward a new age in which women's basketball is more healthy, the talent pool larger than ever.

"I wish I could roll back the clock and be thirty again so I could coach twenty-five more years," Leon Barmore told the press in San Jose. Barmore is the Louisiana Tech coach who lost to Purdue in the semi-final game that followed Duke's semi-final victory over Georgia. "Because the next ten, fifteen, twenty years --it will be unbelievable what you're going to see with women's basketball. Girls on all these teams, they are tying their shoes on tight and saying, I can whip you, and they believe that. That's good for the game."

Eubanks '76 is assistant director for continuing education and summer programs at Duke.


Photo: Donna Campbell

The last home game of the season and every newspaper and magazine is in town. USA Today, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune--they're all there. Duke is facing Clemson in Cameron and every reporter knows how it will end: Duke by a lot. Still, every reporter wanted in on this story. In the press room before the game, we ate sugar cookies and joked about how lucky we were to be in Durham. We even congratulated each other for getting our editors to spring for the trip.

And the Devils did not let us down. They won by thirty-three points and looked happy, relaxed, and even welcoming as we jammed their locker room after the game. The players sat and smiled as a mess of reporters jumbled into the small space, stood four and five deep around each one of them, and then jostled to get tape recorders and microphones through the crowd. When the media does this in NBA locker rooms, the players put up with it because they have to; the league will fine them if they don't. In Durham, the Devils looked like they liked us, like they were even enjoying the whole thing.

Trajan Langdon answered a dozen questions about the stitches in his lip, two dozen about leaving Cameron for the last time, and still took more. Reporters asked the same things over and over, and the shooter from Alaska never said no. Across the room, Will Avery

sat shirtless in a corner and addressed every topic from fast breaks to fast food. When a reporter from Cleveland asked what he and Elton Brand liked to cook, Avery thought a second, said, "Hamburger Helper," and told a story about the oven mitts Elton's mom sent. In another corner, Corey Magette talked casually about his monster dunk and the disciplined program he was proud to be a part of. "Can you believe he's only nineteen?" a cameraman said as he left the room.

Photo: Donna Campbell

This year, for the first time, the women's team joined the party. And like the men, they left reporters shaking their heads. First the women knocked down Tennessee to become giant-killers, which is a story everyone always loves, and then they entertained the national media as if they'd done it all their lives. Senior center Michelle VanGorp was quick-witted, honest, and fun. She never gave a one-word answer, never ducked a question, and never said, "We're just taking it one game at a time" or any other clichŽ. Sophomore guard Georgia Schweitzer holds all-everything player Chamique Holdsclaw to eight points and says, "I just tried to stay between her and the basket." C'mon, where's the ego we're used to?

And Coach Gail Goestenkors was patient and sincere and almost confusing to sportswriters, who don't see many coaches like her. We're more familiar with guys like Bobby Knight, who say things like, "We all learned to write in third grade. Some of us went on to better things." Coach G thanked us for coming. Is there any doubt we would like her?

By that last weekend in March, when madness was running full tilt and fans with painted faces were getting crazier by the day, members of the media couldn't join in. At this point, the press has to stay clear. There are stories to file and editors to please. A surprising number of basketball writers are ACC grads, and even they will admit, you can root for your team, but on deadline, you root for your story. In the post-game frenzy, every reporter has a job to do. And at that moment, every reporter hopes for a coach who speaks candidly and for players who forgo one-word answers to give a little more. By the last weekend in March, every reporter knew where to find what they needed. And maybe that's why the pregame hype in St. Pete had more than a subtle tint, a faint shade of blue--a true blue. And maybe that's why in San Jose, the coverage split straight down the middle, even though Duke looked overmatched on the floor.

In the end, when it turned out that the Devils were out-matched on both coasts, the media stayed with them. In newspapers outside of Durham, columnists wrote what every Duke fan was feeling: that it was the wrong ending to a season where everything went right. The women's team lost seven players to graduation. The men's team lost one that way, three to the NBA and one to transfer. It may be a long time before Duke goes on another run like this year, and it could be even longer before both basketball teams reach the championship game. But the media will stick around.

Coach G pushed the women's team into the spotlight and, as Coach K can tell her, there's no going back. Reporters know a good thing when they have one.

--Jody Berger '88 is a
reporter for ESPN Magazine.

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