Remembering the 1983 Women of Troy

By Cat Ariail

Tomorrow night, the University of Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson will attempt to make college basketball history. With a victory over Syracuse, Stewart and Jefferson will become the first athletes to complete a national championship grand slam, winning a title each of their four years (when UCLA won ten of twelve men’s college basketball titles beginning in the mid-1960s, freshman eligibility restrictions prevented athletes from competing for four consecutive championships). This feat would best the three national titles won by former UConn great Diana Taurasi and the University of Tennessee legend Chamique Holdsclaw. While persistent sexism in college sport and its coverage has prevented UConn from receiving recognition commensurate with their greatness, the potential historical significance of their feat has at least been recognized. In 1983, sports media resisted recognizing of the historical significance of that season’s national champion. The reasons the 1983 national champions have not received their due persists, however, continuing to limit the critical appreciation of women’s college basketball’s greatest players and teams.

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“Finally women’s basketball has a genuine championship game.”[1]This proclamation expressed the sentiments of many who witnessed the 1983 NCAA women’s national championship game. In a down-to-the-wire thriller, the University of Southern California bested Louisiana Tech University by two points, overcoming an eleven point half-time deficit to defeat the two-time defending national champions. In his recap of the game, Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan declared, “The game was maybe a minute and a half old when I knew I was going to like it.” Continuing, he compared the 1983 title game to a women’s game he watched ten years prior. Referring to the 1973 match-up as “Neanderthal,” Ryan effusively praised the “competitiveness, finesse…[and] drama” displayed by USC and Tech, recalling “daring” and “clutch” jump shots, “aggressive rebounding,” and “intelligent floor leadership.” [2] Coverage of the game in other national publications echoed Ryan’s commentary. The 1983 NCAA national championship game announced a new era of competitive women’s basketball.

The game’s significance extended beyond the high-level of play. While they engaged in a close match-up on the court, USC and Tech represented complete opposites in all other respects. The 1981 and 1982 national champions, Louisiana Tech embodied the legacy of women’s basketball. Located in Ruston, Louisiana, Tech fostered a team and fan culture that recalled those of Amateur Athletic Union teams in the mid-twentieth century, with a devoted fan base eagerly supporting a team composed of young women from similar small, southern and Midwestern towns.  The team’s emphasis on “ladylike” behavior further reveals their adherence to the traditions of women’s basketball. In fact, Louisiana Tech employed co-head coaches specifically to ensure that players maintained appropriate comportment. While Leon Barmore aimed to cultivate on-court success, Sonja Hogg attended to developing a team of “ladylike role models.”[3] According to point guard Kim Mulkey, “We always have to look like ladies. Sometimes it’s a pain, but if you want to be a national champion, you have to look like one.”[4] The team’s nickname, the Lady Techsters, further epitomizes their feminine values. When establishing the team in 1974 Hogg refused to use the school’s nickname, the Bulldogs, “because a lady dog is a bitch.”[5]

1982_Louisiana_Tech_women's_basketball_team

The 1982 National Champion Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters (Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org).

In contrast to the Lady Techsters, USC anticipated a new brand of women’s basketball. The prodigiously talented freshman Cheryl Miller exemplified the style of the Women of Troy. Recruited by more than 250 colleges, Miller displayed athleticism never before seen in the women’s game. As a high school star in Riverside, California, she once scored one-hundred five points in a single game. She also successfully executed a break-away dunk, becoming the first female to do so in a sanctioned game.[6] Miller brought this swagger and confidence to USC, declaring, “The Women of Troy want to own L.A.”[7] By teaming with the talented yet fashionable forwards Pam and Paula McGee  and feisty and fiery guards Cynthia Cooper and Rhonda Windham, Miller put USC in the ranks of Hollywood’s sporting elite. While their counterparts in Ruston may have idolized Anita Bryant, the Lady Trojans enjoyed the company of Lakers’ superstar Magic Johnson.[8] Pam McGee recognized, “We get a lot of criticism for being Hollywood’s Team,” yet she insisted, “USC has taught us that we can hold our own with anyone, at any level, on or off the court. And that we belong.”[9] The idea of proving they “belonged” proved especially significant, for USC became the first all-black starting five to participate in a women’s college basketball national championship game.

Yet, this milestone was not celebrated in sports media’s coverage of the team. Such racial milestones had occupied a central place in the narratives of men’s basketball. In 1966, Texas Western’s all-black starting five defeated Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, the bastion of white male college basketball, in a game that augured a significant racial shift in the men’s game. Only four years prior to the USC-Tech national championship match-up, the 1979 men’s college basketball national championship featured the much-heralded contest between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, a rivalry explicitly imbued with larger, racialized meanings about the sport’s culture.

The USC-Tech championship seemed ripe for similar racial readings.  While Louisiana Tech was not lily-white, the team was majority white, as were most teams in women’s college basketball in this era. Tech also played a regimented, organized game, a style of play consistent with women’s college basketball’s slow but steady transition away from half-court, six-versus-six rules to full-court five-on-five play. Furthermore, although women’s college basketball had been integrated since the early 1970s, with the number of African American players progressively increasing, the sport had yet to have a genuine African American star, much less an entire team that displayed skills attributable to the traditions of black basketball. However, realizing  the precarious status of women’s college basketball in early 1980s U.S. sport culture explains the elision of USC’s racial significance. Reflecting the prevailing social and political prerogatives of the Reagan era, media narratives about Miller and USC projected a colorblind, classless, and universalized culture of women’s basketball that silenced their racial significance.

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Cheryl Miller (Photo courtesy of wbhof.com).

In early 1982, the New York Times introduced Cheryl Miller to nation. Quoting former UCLA women’s coach Judy Holland, the article began, “‘You know what Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) did for men’s basketball? Well, that’s what Cheryl Miller is going to do for women’s basketball.’”[10] Holland’s declaration succinctly expresses the high expectations for Miller. But more critically, the Times article established the parameters that defined Miller in the press. Along with her “above the rim” style of play that would “revolutionize women’s basketball,” the Times emphasized her family background.[11] Although she rejected the trappings of stereotypical girlhood in favor of basketball at a young age, Miller received integral support from her family, as they ensured she balanced basketball with other interests. In particular, the Times highlighted her desire to major in telecommunications in college in order to pursue a broadcasting career. Yet, Miller also did not hesitate to announce her intention to participate in the 1984 Olympic Games, an ambitious goal for any other high school basketball star.[12] Through the remainder of her high school career and collegiate recruitment, subsequent national coverage of Miller reinforced this depiction, with descriptions of confident, dominant athleticism intertwining with evidence of constant familial support and educational focus to compose an idealized but universalized image of Miller. She was a simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary young woman, a combination of characteristics that made her the ideal prospective icon for women’s college basketball.

Her on- and off-court persona, however, would evolve beyond the boundaries of this amenable and uncontroversial construction of Miller. After leading USC to back-to-back national titles in her freshman and sophomore seasons and winning most every national award along the way, Miller became more than an athlete. “It is quite possible that,” in the estimation of Sport’s Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick, “Cheryl Miller has become less a phenomenon on a basketball court…than off one.”[13] Describing her “chameleonlike” personality that allowed her to adapt effortlessly to any situation, Kirkpatrick highlighted Miller’s participation in a Senate hearing, the offers she received for modeling and show-business opportunities, and her ability to secure extra biscuits at the local Pop-eyes. She even displayed her dunking ability at the 1984 Grammy Awards, with this and other exploits leading national publications to similarly portray her as an all-round entertainer. Anticipating her post-collegiate possibilities, Kirkpatrick surmised, “[T]he future options include everything from a wild-card spot in the next NBA draft to expatriation in European leagues to a fresh start in a broadcasting career.” Nonetheless, he declared, “Miller will be a star.”[14]

Along with these off-court adventures, Miller’s on-court persona also had expanded. As described by Kirkpatrick, “As a woman, but not necessarily a lady, of Troy, Miller has…pointed in enemy faces and at scoreboards, blown kisses to crowds and opponents, executed arched-back cheerleader leaps after baskets, drop-kicked the ball and climbed on the rims.”[15] Unsurprisingly, backlash against Miller began to accumulate. Her so-called “antics” offended women’s basketball traditionalists who dismissed her popularity as the byproduct of fortunate timing. In responding to such criticisms, Miller projected confidence, refusing to abide by the “feminine bargain” and displaying the antithesis of “apologetic behavior.” “Listen, I have never been an act,” she asserted. “I don’t call myself a revolutionary either. I do think I’m a trendsetter. I relate to Elvis Presley. Way back he was misunderstood, too. But, he was The King…He’s still The King.”[16] In the words of Kirkpatrick, “Miller dared not only to be great and different. She also dared to be fun.”[17]

a-miller

Cheryl Miller (Photo courtesy of usctrojans.com).

Although “different” and “fun” compared to the established culture of women’s basketball, Miller’s athletic persona proved similar to that of black male athletes from earlier generations. Her outsized personality and talent, which included an unprecedented rebounding prowess, the ability to play all five positions, incessant full-court pressure, exaggerative and excitable celebrations, and an Afro hairstyle, recalled that of Muhammad Ali and other black male athletes who led the “revolt of the black athlete” in the late 1960s. Her combination of swagger and skill also resembled the strategic playfulness executed by a range of successful black male athletes, from Ali’s effusive taunts and rope-a-dope tactics to the crowd-pleasing, confident stunting that Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers used to gain psychological advantages over opponents. Cheryl Miller was a black female athlete who played like a black athlete. But for women’s basketball, she was “different” and “fun.”

Her status as a racial pioneer, however, remained unexplored. Although he praised Miller for infusing the women’s game with excitement, Kirkpatrick also curtailed her revolutionary potential, circumscribing her swagger in a way that subtly divorced her assertive, athletic style from its racialized legacy. He noted that, growing up, “she had few friends of her own race.”[18] And, according to one of her college friends, “Cheryl didn’t learn to be black until halfway through her freshman year,” as her “Little House on the Prairie wardrobe” required rectifying by her teammates.[19] While her athletic persona reflected a black sporting traditions, Kirkpatrick effectively deracinates her by emphasizing her middle America-esque stable and conservative family background. Additionally, characterizing Miller as “different” also implied a certain image of a “normal” women’s college basketball player – a white averagely athletic but appropriately feminine young women. The press depiction of Miller thus preserved the colorblind and universalized aesthetic of women’s college basketball.

The coverage, or lack thereof, of Miller’s USC teammates further reveals the conservative ethos of the sport. To a much lesser degree than Miller, Pam and Paula McGee also garnered national notoriety, with media coverage emphasizing their athletic finesse and fashionable femininity. In particular, the twins enjoyed significant coverage in the black press, with Jet magazine covering the McGees more often than Miller. While the black press possibly sought to rectify some of absences produced by the national press’s focus on Miller, this coverage choice also reflects a desire to associate black female athleticism with femininity. Thus, the black media did not challenge the dominant narrative of women’s basketball in their coverage of the McGees.

McGee-Sisters-thumb-280x383-15416

The McGee Twins (Photo courtesy of usctrojans.com).

Arriving in Los Angeles by way of a working-class upbringing in Flint, Michigan, the McGees did not enjoy the privileged childhood of Miller; most notably, the twins’ father died in a drowning accident a few years before their basketball talents fully emerged. Even though the twins’ experiences seemed suited for an inspiring narrative of athletic triumph in spite tragedy, they most often received media attention for being attractive young women who just happened to play basketball.A 1981 profile in Jet described the McGees as “honey-toned cuties,” asking them about their ideal male suitors.[20] Likewise, Sports Illustrated’s Roger Jackson referred to them as “6’3’’ Ebony Bookends” who were “stylish, elegant and free of the self-consciousness that causes many tall women to slouch.”[21] The sisters themselves advocated these same ideas. According to Pam, the twins believed that “just because you play basketball, a man’s sport, it doesn’t mean you have to lose your feminine ways.”[22] In the words of Paula, “I think that being a woman is something to be enjoyed. When I’m not playing, it’s time to be a lady.”[23] Basketball served as a temporary adventure for the twins, as both harbored ambitious educational and career goals. By emphasizing their modern, urbane femininity, narratives of the McGees elided the importance of the intertwined racial and socioeconomic challenges they faced. Like Miller, the twins possessed a combination of traits and circumstances that allowed them to be portrayed in a manner deemed suitable to the perceived commercial demands of women’s college basketball.

Cynthia Cooper

Cynthia Cooper (Photo courtesy of usctrojans.com).

In contrast, USC’s starting guards Cynthia Cooper and Rhonda Windham, products of inner city Los Angeles and New York, failed to conform to the sanitized and circumscribed imagery the sport desired to project. In particular, Cooper experienced an exceedingly difficult childhood, growing up as one of eight children to a single mom in the projects of Watts. Basketball served as her lone outlet, as she learned the game by playing with boys on the courts in Compton. Cooper also struggled in school, barely making the grades to gain acceptance to USC and missing a season due to academic ineligibility. She never received her degree from USC, forcing her to rely solely on basketball for future opportunities. The manner in which Cooper’s academic struggles intersected with her basketball career reveals that race and class did impact women’s basketball in complicated ways. In her 1999 autobiography, Cooper portrayed herself as a perennial underdog, with the themes of being poor, black, and, therefore excluded pervading her interpretation of her basketball experiences.[24] Her basketball talent and educational struggles inextricably were intertwined in her childhood of racialized poverty, a story too fraught for women’s college basketball in the early 1980s.

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As the first all-black starting five to win a national championship, the 1983 Women of Troy particularly illuminate the often-ignored salience of racial identity, and its intersection with class status and gender expectations, in women’s college basketball. The failure to appreciate the racial significance of these female athletes also exemplifies the silence about blackness in coverage of women’s sport. Even as African American women have increased their presence in women’s college basketball since Miller and USC conquered the sport in the early 1980s, these women are often recognized as female athletes who happen to be black rather than black female athletes. Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Chamique Holdsclaw, Maya Moore, and Britney Griner’s contributions to women’s college basketball primarily have been understood through the lens of gender not race.

The unappreciated significance of blackness in women’s college basketball is mirrored by the continued power of whiteness. In Shattering the Glass, Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford argue that the white suburban image of UConn’s 1995 national championship team contributed to their popularity, as well as the public’s more amenable attitude toward the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, the ABL, and the WNBA. Whiteness attains this currency, as Breanna Stewart, like Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, and Ellena Delle Donne before her, epitomizes the normative female basketball player. Grundy and Shackelford’s assertion, in context with the forgotten racial legacy of USC’s 1983 squad, captures how race has determined what achievements are worthy of historical significance in women’s college basketball.

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UConn celebrates winning the 2014 National Championship (Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org).

If Stewart, Jefferson, and their teammates top their slew records and achievements with a fourth-straight national title, recognizing the historical importance of UConn will be easy. Yet, as the 1983 USC Women of Troy reveal, fully appreciating the significance of the UConn women’s basketball requires more than just statical evidence. As the latest iteration of the team that most preserves women’s college basketball colorblind and universalized imagery, UConn presents an opportunity to break the silence the continues to surround the operation of racial dynamics in women’s college basketball.

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

Notes:


[1] Keith Price quoted in Craig Neff, “Welcome to Miller Time,” Sports Illustrated, April 11, 1983.
[2] Bob Ryan, “Women’s Basketball Has Come A Long Way, Baby,” Boston Globe, April 5, 1983.
[3] Alexander Wolff, “Technically, Still Knockouts,” Sports Illustrated, February 28, 1983.
[4] Kim Mulkey quoted in Wolff.
[5] Sonja Hogg quoted in Wolff.
[6] Phil Elderkin, “USC’s Cheryl Miller living up to high school rave notices so far,” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 1982.
[7] Cheryl Miller quoted in Jill Leiber, “Stars of Stage, Screen and Court,” Sports Illustrated, April 9, 1984.
[8] Wolff. Leiber.
[9] Pam McGee quoted in Leiber.
[10] Judy Holland quoted in Gordon S. White, “Schoolgirl Is Reaching Heights,” New York Times, February 3, 1982, B5.
[11 ]Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Curry Kirkpatrick, “Lights! Camera! Cheryl!!,” Sports Illustrated, November 20, 1985.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Cheryl Miller quoted in Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Bob Lucas, “6-Foot-3 Twins Tower In Talent For USC Cagers,” Jet 60.8, May 7, 1981, 28-31.
[21] Roger Jackson, “She May Well Be The Best Ever,” Sports Illustrated, November 29, 1982.
[22] Pam McGee quoted in Ibid.
[23] Paula McGee quoted in Ibid.
[24] Cynthia Cooper, She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1999).

One thought on “Remembering the 1983 Women of Troy

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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