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Monday, March 26, 2012
Fruit punch, basketball and a desire to improve

By Bonnie D. Ford

My recollections of the single season I played college basketball are both vivid and sketchy, but one sensory memory always shoulders its way to the front: The mingled aromas of Bengay ointment, fruit punch and store-bought cookies in the room where we hosted a reception for the opposing team after home games.

I've told the quaint tale so often over the years that it has taken on a gauzy, fictional aura. Did we really do that? Make nice after getting clobbered, as we did routinely? This wasn't the Roaring '20s. It was the winter of 1978 in Oberlin, Ohio.

I felt a disconnect at those gatherings. Shaking hands after a game was one thing. Entertaining the opponent struck me as incongruous, as if the outcome wasn't supposed to bother us, as if it didn't matter.

Most of us on the team were young teenagers the year Title IX was passed, seemingly a prime age to be among the first to benefit from it. But even in a time of rapid social change, the legislation took effect in a culture that wasn't prepared. It wasn't as if a switch flipped and lights went on in gyms all over America and a new breed of gurus blew their whistles and started running drills that made us better. Being a female athlete in the 1970s meant getting a lot of mixed messages. It meant progress and dysfunction marching in tandem. And sometimes, it meant sipping punch when you wanted to punch the wall.

I observed most of the 1978 season from the bench, so I recently called the two players I most admired on the team to ask what they remembered. I hadn't talked to either in more than 30 years. Frieda Reichsman was nimble and strong and aggressive. I liked to watch her drive the lane, her wide, expressive eyes hard and focused. Kathy Crowe Podmaniczky was our best shooter, lean, purposeful and fearless. When she spoke, we all listened. Frieda and Kathy were simultaneously businesslike and passionate on the court. That mindset is expected now, but at 19 years old, I'd never been around women who cared the way they did.

Both women remember the punch and cookies ritual. We're all a little fuzzy on whether the other team was there every time. "I don't associate a negative feeling with that," Frieda told me. "Maybe I've repressed it. I just thought that's what you did."

She paused. "But I hated losing. I remember being so frustrated. I came away from Oberlin never having had the experience of making a play work on the court."

Kathy listed other things that disturbed her more than the postgame refreshments. Her first two years, the women's basketball team practiced in the old gym rather than the state-of-the-art, new building, which had been initially designed and constructed without a women's locker room. The women got less meal money than the men. The coaches -- most of them trained at a time when participation, not competition, was the guiding ethic -- did their best, but "mostly we relied on each other's instincts and athleticism," Kathy said.

"Going through those years," she added, "it was like we didn't exist."

Like most female athletes our age, Frieda and Kathy have interesting backstories. Frieda, now a molecular biologist, "lived, breathed and drank" basketball and honed her skills playing pickup with the boys. There was no girls' team at her small, private high school in Brooklyn until she was a senior. The boys' varsity coach approached her once and gave her a few shooting pointers. Only at her graduation ceremony did she learn that administrators had quietly discussed, then shelved, the idea of putting her on the boys' JV team to test New York state law.

Kathy, now a software engineer, played middle school basketball in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., in a getup that was one step removed from bloomers. "You could have put me in a clown suit and I would have done it," she said. She got positive feedback from P.E. teachers, and when she began asking where she might find a college program, one suggested she write the sports editor of The New York Times, which she did. The late Jim Roach was the one who told her about Oberlin.

The small liberal arts college was an interesting place to be an athlete. Radical athletic director Jack Scott, a polarizing figure who pushed for gender equity, had left by the time I was an incoming freshman in 1975, but our football team made Sports Illustrated for winning two games with a 16-man roster. Our track coach was 1968 Olympic 200-meter champion Tommie Smith, who was later controversially denied tenure. Our men's basketball team won the 1976 Ohio Athletic Conference championship, led by a bulky center named James "Satch" Sullinger, father of J.J. and Jared.

That same OAC, established in 1902, didn't allow women to compete under its auspices until 1974, and wouldn't sanction a full slate of women's sports for another 10 years. Oberlin's cross country coach, Dick Michaels, became a hero to the women on his co-ed team, first for encouraging them to run on an exhibition basis at meets and then for refusing to back down in a 1973 confrontation when a rival coach threatened to pull his team from a meet if the "girls" raced.

One of those runners, Lisa Matovcik, paid tribute to that stand in a speech at Michaels' retirement dinner in 2006. "How different the world would have looked watching from the sidelines rather than racing with my team," she said. "Coach Michaels didn't need to read any clinical studies proving that girls and women who participate in sports have higher levels of confidence, stronger self-images, and a better understanding of teamwork than those who do not. [Such studies] hadn't been written yet. He just knew the fundamental principles of fairness and had the courage to do the right thing when life gave him a defining moment."

The Oberlin women's basketball teams of my era didn't play under a league umbrella, but instead toiled through hodge-podge schedules made up of some comparable schools (Kenyon College) and some we probably had no business sharing a court with (Cleveland State). When I went looking for the trail we left behind, I found more cobwebs than statistics.

With help from Mike Mancini, Oberlin's current assistant AD for athletic communications, and a search of opposing teams' websites, I determined that we won two of the 18 games we played that 1978 season, but I couldn't locate all the scores. My name was absent from the list of all-time letter-winners, even though I've kept the certificate bearing the school's red-rimmed, gold "O" tucked in a photo album for the past 34 years to prove I hadn't dreamed the whole thing. The haphazardness of the archives underlined Kathy's sense that what we did hadn't really counted.

Before I went out for the team in my junior year, my organized sports experience amounted to a summer with a neighborhood swim club and a winter of high school basketball in France, where my family was living at the time (and where girls' sports were even more marginalized than in the United States). I'd never received any formal coaching. I wanted to play; there just weren't very many options.

Frankly, I probably wouldn't have made the cut in a more discerning era. I was (and am) short, slow, flat-footed and unable to jump over a folded napkin. My only redeeming quality was a desire to improve. So I laced up my white Converse low-tops and tried to do what everyone else did during two-a-days in January. The journal I kept at the time is filled with row after row of younger, much neater handwriting chronicling my swollen knees, bruises and blisters.

I dutifully recorded instructions for offensive sets and tried to make sense of the team dynamic, both of which were confusing at best. I also noted my pleasure when Frieda or Kathy offered a compliment or a tip. The very few official minutes I played were anxiety-wracked. I was sure I would make a fool of myself. But I walked away from that season feeling a little tougher for having survived it.

I didn't dwell on how much more I would have enjoyed playing if there had been decent youth programs to ground me in X's and O's and W's and L's, or an established system in college to slide into. It was only after years of watching from press row as women's sports grew into something solid and empowering that I realized what I might have missed.

Although I may have been the most na´ve person on my team, we were all flying semi-blind. We had no frame of reference to understand why there were times when things clicked on the floor and times when we weren't able to execute. The gaps wouldn't be completely filled in for another generation. That was hard to accept for my more talented teammates who had hoped to find out what it was like to compete at a higher level. But change had to start somewhere, and we happened to be on square one.

"There was nothing ahead of us," Kathy told me. "It was all happening where we were. It took an extraordinary effort to be involved. It would have been easy to quit." All I can say is that she hid any such thoughts back then. I envied players like her and Frieda for their skills, their brass, their competitive conviction. I'm glad I had a chance to play with them.

That was the point of Title IX in the first place, even if it didn't take root and flower quite in time for us.