By Greg Johnson
Pioneers who helped build women’s basketball through their accomplishments on and off the court will be honored during halftime of the Women’s Final Four championship game in New Orleans Tuesday night.
Among the honorees are administrators who took the game to new heights under the auspices of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which governed women’s collegiate sports before the NCAA began sponsoring championships in 1981-82.
Anucha Browne, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships, believes the names of the honorees will resonate with people familiar with the sport. Browne also said a city like New Orleans, which is known for its celebratory nature, is the appropriate place to commemorate their accomplishments.
“This is the perfect time to celebrate the players, coaches and administrators from the AIAW who helped establish the foundation for collegiate women’s basketball,” Browne said. “Their achievements at that time were remarkable and opened the door to what we have to today, with the Women’s Final Four growing into the marquee women’s sporting event in America.”
Among the honorees is former Iowa women’s athletics director and longtime women’s sports advocate Christine Grant. She was a founding member of the AIAW and testified before Congress several times on behalf of gender equity.
“It is wonderful that some of the AIAW women are being honored,” Grant said. “But I would like to emphasize that we are there to represent all of the people who worked in the AIAW in the 1970s. Everybody together created this revolution in women’s sports.”
Judy Sweet, former athletics director at UC San Diego who was the first female president of the NCAA when that role was a membership position, said it’s critical for today’s participants in women’s sports to learn how the past struggles translated into growth of the games.
“Sometimes that piece of history gets lost,” Sweet said. “It is important for us to make sure people realize the impact that the AIAW had in helping women’s athletics get to the competitive level that it is today.”
Sonja Hogg, who as an innovative head coach built Louisiana Tech into a national power, said she remembers how players like Nancy Lieberman at Old Dominion and UCLA’s Denise Curry Ann Meyers Drysdale helped influence the growth of the game. Hogg said recognizing their accomplishments will resonate with fans and players alike.
“A lot of those players could be described as once-in-a-lifetime players in their day,” Hogg said. “There were some fabulous players. Now, you have exciting players who are bigger, stronger and faster. You don’t come across (Baylor center) Brittney Griner but once in a lifetime.”
Meyers Drysdale, a vice president of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, remembers playing before crowds of 10,000 when she helped lead UCLA to the AIAW national title in 1978. It was a huge step for women’s basketball, she said. Now, she is impressed by the type of event the Women’s Final Four has become.
“There’s a big-time feel to it with the way it is promoted,” said Meyers Drysdale, who in years past worked on the ESPN broadcast crew. “It is simply a big event.”
Meyers Drysdale also is glad to see players from her era receive the recognition for their accomplishments. While both Griner and Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne surpassed the 3,000-point mark in their careers, Meyers Drysdale said players from the AIAW era who accomplished the same feat should be honored as well.
“You have to acknowledge what the athletes did back then,” Meyers Drysdale said. “Carol Blazejowski averaged more than 30 points a game without a three-point line. She may have averaged more than 50 points if there were a line then. That was the kind of player she was. She was a phenomenal scorer.”