KNOXVILLE, TN- “Honor the Past. Celebrate the Present. Promote the Future.”
That is the mission of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Located minutes away from the University of Tennessee, home of the Lady Vols and the legendary Pat Summit, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is nestled amongst impeccably kept greenery and beneath the warm, summer, Tennessee sunshine. Yet, the beauty of the grounds and of the building itself is nothing compared to what is held inside.
Behind the doors of the Hall of Fame lies the heart of women’s basketball- the history of the game and of the fight for equality in sports, as well as the stories of the heroes who devoted their lives to laying the groundwork on which their daughters, grand-daughters, teammates, and friends could build a community of strong, determined, and talented women and men who share the love of a beautiful game and the belief that the game should be accessible to all.
Today, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame stands as a reminder of women’s basketball’s journey from humble beginnings as a club sport into a globally recognized organization of equally capable athletes. It serves as a beacon of hope and encouragement to young women everywhere who dream of being stronger, smarter, and better than they were yesterday.
Since 1999, the WBHOF has honored players, coaches, contributors, and officials who have shaped the history of women’s basketball. Tomorrow night, on June 10, 2017, the Hall of Fame will induct their 2017 Class, marking 157 inductees.
Christine Grant is amongst the 6 members of the Class of 2017 inductees. Grant was the first women’s director at the University of Iowa, and in 1992, she was named the National Administrator of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. A founding member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, Grant played a significant role in the fight for equality within athletics.
“I should go back to 1972, when Title IX was passed, and there were no intercollegiate opportunities for women,” she began when asked to reflect on her feelings on being inducted. “Looking back, the at time it seemed to move like molasses, but knowing how society moves so slowly, it’s actually been fast. It’s been a fast transition from nothing to what we have today.
“This whole building [the WBHOF] reflects what we have today. Back in 1972, society was actively discouraging talented young women from going near sports. It permeated the entire society. Now, we have changed the thinking of a society in a relatively short period of time.”
Grant mentioned her trip to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, describing how she was unable to get a ticket to the sold-out Women’s Soccer game.
“That was when it struck me,” she said, “what we had done with society. We had changed it from having a really negative attitude towards women in sports to a really positive one. It was emotional.”
A pioneer of promoting women’s basketball on Iowa’s campus specifically, Christine remembered the biggest game of her career.
“We really, really promoted the game, Iowa vs. Ohio State. It was a Sunday. Our arena holds 15,500. We were to start at one o’clock. By eleven o’clock the arena was filled, and by one o’clock, there were 22,157 in our arena, and I got a letter of reprimand from the university for having broken the fire code, which I deserved,” she said with a laugh. “And I framed it.”
The impact that women like Catherine Grant had on the game of basketball paved the way for ladies like Sheryl Swoopes, another 2017 inductee, to succeed in a what had previously been a male-dominated sport. Swoopes helped guide the USA Basketball team to gold medals in 1996, 2000, and 2004, and won a bronze medal in the 1994 World Championships.
She was the first player signed to the WNBA in 1997 and led the Houston Comets to the first four consecutive WNBA Championships. Additionally, Swoopes was named the WNBA MVP in 2000, named to the WNBA All-Star team six times, and was the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year three times. Even as a world-renowned player, Sheryl was eager to learn even more about the game that she said, “changed her life.”
“There is a lot of history to learn about the game,” Swoopes began, “how it started, and all of the different rules you know, what women could and couldn’t do. It’s actually kind of sad, but when I see the evolution of the game and see how much the game has changed and how much the game has grown, it just really makes me take my hat off to all of those women that came before us.”
Not only does the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame serve to pay respect and gratitude to those who brought the game to new heights, but it also helps to remind young women of their capability and potential to continue to grow the game of women’s basketball. 2017 Inductee, Kara Wolters, shared her advice for young ladies looking to be the next women’s basketball trailblazers.
“Honestly, the best advice that I could give a young person is to believe in yourself, to work hard, and to dream big. I had so many doubters and nonbelievers in my life that my message to young people is just to believe in yourself and stay away from negativity.”
She attributed her personal successes, from guiding the USA Basketball team to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games to holding the rebounding and shots blocked records at the University of Connecticut, to staying away from doubters and negativity and to working hard on achieving her own personal best.
“I was the last in the sprints. I was the worst at pushups, and now I have a gold medal. If you keep working at it and working to get better and play to your own personal strengths, it will be okay,” she encouraged not only her own daughters, but youth across the country as well. “If I could get that point across to kids, then I think the light will go on for what it takes to be successful.”
Wolters is not the only inductee who offered advice to the younger generations. In fact, fellow inductee Rick Insell has devoted his career to coaching young ladies in the state of Tennessee. With over 40 years of coaching experience, Insell has more than 1,000 victories between both Shelbyville Central High School and Middle Tennessee State University.
He holds Tennessee state records for consecutive wins with 110 and consecutive State Championships with four. In 1989 and 1991, he was named the USA Today National High School Coach of the Year. His advice, much like Kara Wolters, encourages young women to persevere and dream big.
“Follow your dreams,’ he said. “You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing, or you need to do something else. Find out what your passion is, and go make a career out of it.”
It was no doubt his passion for the game and for making a difference in the lives of students that secured his spot in the WBHOF. “It’s unbelievable,” he said about his induction. “15 or 20 years down the road, whether I’m here or not, I’ll have grandkids and great-grandkids who will be able to come here and see my name and say, ‘Hey, there’s Coach.’”
A legacy is something that all six of the 2017 inductees will leave, and something that many have already gone. For instance, Louise O’Neal is a living legend at the University of Southern Connecticut. She revolutionized the women’s basketball program there, elevating it from a club sport in the 1960’s to a varsity sport in the 1970’s.
In 1988, she was deservingly inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 2001, she was inducted into the Southern Connecticut Hall of Fame. In 2011, O’Neal was given the NACWAA Lifetime Achievement Award. She continues to instill her love and appreciation for the game into everyone she meets.
“I never cared whether or not women’s basketball looked like the men’s, “ she said. “I wanted to do better than them—not in the sense that we were bigger or stronger, but that we were smarter and more beautiful to watch in terms of our play. The game was beautiful.”
An appreciation for the game and a belief that it has the ability to change lives are the golden threads that tie all six inductees together. All six, as well as the people they have already impacted and will continue to impact, are joined together by a common goal: to “Honor the past. Celebrate the present. Promote the future.”
They make up a community of movers and shakers and dreamers and doers. 2017 WBHOF Inductee, 1996 Olympic Games officiate, Coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officials for six different conferences and 2012 Georgia Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Sally Bell, said that this community that she has found has been her favorite part of her basketball journey.
“The people I have refereed with are my basketball family. All of the athletes and coaches are my extended family. I will never, ever be able to tell you how much they mean to me.”
Likewise, fans of the game and believers in the sport will never be able to express their gratitude for the contributions of the six 2017 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Inductees. Tomorrow night, these six extraordinary people will join the best of the best in women’s basketball and will take their places in history as those who have defined the game that has, and will continue, to inspire thousands.