By Cat Ariail
Throughout this season, the NBA commentariat has sought to find the best historical comparison for the league’s newly-minted, unanimous MVP, Steph Curry. While many see Curry’s game as the evolutionary combination of Pete Maravich and Steve Nash, former NBA greats Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have expressed their lack of astonishment, comparing Curry to obscure players and dismissing his success as the product the “softer” rules and defenders of the modern NBA. However, in the effort to construct Curry’s basketball genealogy, a significant population of players have not been considered – female basketball players.
Last year on The Grantland Basketball Hour, host Bill Simmons asked Diana Tarausi to tell him and co-host Jalen Rose why Curry has the greatest WNBA-style game. Tarausi responded, “He’s got the best WNBA highlights of all time. Below the rim, reverse lay-ups, step-back threes.” Tarausi continued, “As a fellow step-back three-er, you’re like, you know what, that needs a little more respect in the world.” Rose then asked Taurasi if fundamentals have re-emerged as valued skills, to which she enthusiastically agreed. “Done. I think that power game is dead and gone,” Tarausi asserted, suggesting that the number of skilled players in the league no longer makes relying on athleticism and physicality a winning strategy.
The trio did not explicitly state that the style of the modern NBA is becoming more like women’s basketball, but their conversation implied as much. The subtext of their discussion assumed that basketball premised on fundamentals and skill traditionally has characterized women’s basketball, while the men’s game has emphasized power and athleticism. The tone of their conversation suggests this shift represents a positive development. Thus, turning to women’s basketball history may reveal a better basketball ancestor for Steph Curry. More importantly, recognizing the similarities between Steph Curry and his basketball godmother can expose more ways in which the modern NBA privileges a less masculine styles of play that, in turn, can contribute to greater gender inclusivity and valuation in basketball culture. However, in spite of the promise of Taurasi, Simmons, and Rose’s conversation, the critiques levied at Curry reveal that basketball debates continue to rely on and reproduce retrogressive gender presumptions.
On January 13, 1980, the Iowa Cornet’s “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin scored 54 points versus the Minnesota Fillies, a new scoring record for the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL). Playing thirty-eight minutes, Bolin hit 63% of her field goals (22 of 35) and converted 10 of 11 foul shots. Highlights of her baskets confirm the appropriateness of her nickname. Bolin possessed a quick-release jumper that allowed her to shoot over often bigger defenders, a strategy that resembles that of Steph Curry (coincidentally, Bolin also sported a number 30 jersey). She also scored many of these buckets by pulling up after a single quick-dribble move. This tendency reflects the tradition of women’s basketball.
When Senda Berenson organized the National Women’s Basketball Committee in 1899, she established the rule preferences that would govern women’s basketball for much of the twentieth-century. As described by historian Susan Cahn in Coming on Strong, “The three-court, six player ‘girls’ rules’ sanctioned by Berenson’s committee divided the floor into front-, center-, and backcourt regions, with players designated as forwards, centers, or guards correspondingly and confined to their section of the court. The rules allowed players to dribble one time (later three bounces were allowed) and prohibited physical contact and any effort to hinder the shooter,” (86). Cahn further chronicles the debates between physical educators, like Berenson, and male Amateur Athletic Union leaders about women’s basketball rules, highlighting the gendered implications manifested in rules and styles of play.
Despite prevailing concerns for gender distinction, women’s rules gradually crept toward standard five-on-five rules. Various localities, however, continued to play by different rules. Iowa, the native state of of Molly Bolin, preserved a brand of women’s basketball most true to Berenson’s original vision. Bolin starred at Monrovia High School, where she frequently posted absurd scoring numbers. According to Sports Illustrated’s Roy Johnson, Bolin “accidentally” scored 50 points in her first high school game, a tally that presaged her five 70-plus point outbursts and 83 point career-high. Yet, Johnson believed “Iowa’s antiquated girl’s game” represented an obstacle that prevented Bolin and other Iowa girls from receiving college scholarships or pursuing a professional career. The difficulties Bolin faced before landing in the WBL in 1978 confirm Johnson’s assertion. However, her performance in the WBL, as well as in the Ladies Professional Basketball Association (LPBA) and Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA), suggest Iowa’s outmoded rules actually may have advantaged Bolin.
In her Journal of American History article “From Amazons to Glamazons: The Rise and Fall of North Carolina Women’s Basketball, 1920-1960,” historian Pamela Grundy describes how Nancy Boulware, a basketball player at North Carolina’ Lincolnton High in the early 1950s, negotiated restrictive rules. Grundy writes, “[S]he did not dwell on the implications of female weakness [the rules] contained. Rather she described the skills she used to get around such limitations, focusing with particular pride on the heightened awareness a limited dribble forced her to develop,” (142). Boulware told Grundy, “You could dribble, at first at least, only one time. So you had to really cover a lot of court with that one dribble. And you had to know who you were going to pass it to, or where each other was. Because there was no such thing as running towards the goal and shooting a goal – you couldn’t do that,” (142). Bolin’s record 54 point scoring outburst for the Cornets, as well as her 32.8 points per game scoring average during the 1979-1980 WBL season, indicate that the constrained rules of Iowa girls’ basketball provided her with a similarly acute awareness, as well as strategic benefits.
With Iowa’s two-dribble limit preventing her from driving the the basket, Bolin was forced to develop a consistent jumper in order to score the basketball, as her size would have prevented her from scoring effectively in the post. Iowa’s dribble restriction also likely encouraged Bolin to learn to quickly pass or, more often than not, shoot the ball. In the more expansive rules of the WBL, Bolin’s sharp shot combined with her tendency to shoot quickly proved advantageous, seemingly catching opponents who were accustomed to unrestricted dribbling rules off guard. Thus, while women’s basketball rules were designed to inhibit women, they contributed to Molly Bolin developing a more technical, precise skill set.
Despite Bolin’s talent, mismanagement by the team’s owners resulted in the Cornets folding. Bolin took her talents to the newly-founded LPBA’s Southern California Breeze. When the LPBA collapsed after a month of operation, Bolin returned to the WBL, joining the San Francisco Pioneers in January 1981. The Pioneers were coached by former NBA player Dean Meminger, who soon helped Bolin expand her game. According to SI’s Johnson, “Under Meminger’s tutelage, Bolin is unveiling some smooth new moves that are worth the price of admission. She sets up at the top of the key and, as the rest of the Pioneers clear out, throws in a few theatrics – a head and shoulder fake or two. Then, with her defender off balance, she can easily fire her trademark bombs. And when the opponents apply full-court pressure, Bolin is often called upon to weave the ball upcourt, a move most Iowa girls only dream of.”
The new freedoms unleashed by Meminger, combined with her strong fundamental foundation, allowed Bolin to develop into a basketball threat seemingly at odds with her bouncy blonde curls and feminine features. In her previous stops, Bolin’s attractiveness had been used in marketing promotions. During her brief stint with the Southern California Breeze, she donned a swimsuit for a beach photo shoot. Bolin insisted the potentially exploitative elements of these efforts did not bother her and, most importantly, asserted that her on-court abilities suggested she warranted such extra attention.
Like their predecessors, the Pioneers featured Bolin in promotional materials, yet the team also committed to utilizing her more effectively on the court. Greg Williams, coach of the Dallas Diamonds, recognized Bolin’s evolving skill set, telling Johnson, “Last year I think she was the most improved player in the league. She could go left and was playing some D that most people overlooked. Now what Dean’s done with her is amazing. She’s a player much of the league could learn from.” Reflecting on her own improvement, Bolin declared, “All I know is that I’m scoring the same points with 10 fewer shots a game and half the effort,” a simultaneous and significant increase in usage and efficiency worthy of the envy of many of today’s NBA players. Meminger added, “Molly doesn’t have the type of body, the physical attributes to out-talent people. But she’s got the smarts to know that with a little hard work, she’ll be around as long as there’s a league to play in.”
Unfortunately, the WBL folded after the 1981 season, forcing Bolin and other women’s basketball players to assume a peripatetic lifestyle in order continue to play the game. In contrast to the perennially precarious state of 1980s women’s professional basketball, today’s NBA is ascendant, with Steph Curry embodying the league’s current success and bright future. Whereas women’s basketball history has been characterized by constraints, be it constrained rules or opportunities, the NBA seemingly symbolizes the opposite. Yet, success through constraints describes Curry, as well as the league’s best teams.
The son of an NBA player who had access to league arenas at a young age, Curry enjoyed privileges foreign to Bolin, most women’s basketball players, and most of his fellow NBA stars. Yet, such exclusive access may have endowed him better with knowledge of the constraints he would encounter if he wanted to play the game at a high level. Due to his slight stature and lack of overwhelming athleticism, Curry relentlessly refined his shot and handle, two skills that can transcend size. According to a 2015 ESPN The Magazine cover story, Curry developed his skills on the worn dirt court and rotting rim at his grandparent’s house in the Virginia foothills. As described by writer David Fleming, “The soft wings of the backboard had more give than a fence gate. The thick still rim offered no absolution; only shots placed perfectly in the middle of the cylinder passed through.”
Fleming suggests that by “shooting on the perpetually muddy court, Stephen learned there was only one sure way to keep the ball safe, clean and in the same area code: Make every shot.” According to Curry, “That connection to perfection comes from my grandad and his hoop. It was ‘make it or chase it’ out there, and if you missed, it was terrible. So you didn’t miss. That instills something in you as a shooter without you even knowing it.” Somewhat contradictorily, Curry’s youthful willingness to hone his game on a surface vastly different from finely-grained floors of NBA arenas may have contributed to his ability to stun opponents and delight fans with his enviable handle and shot. This scenario recalls the advantageous impact Iowa basketball provided for Bolin.
The offensive system implemented by Steve Kerr further unleashed Curry’s ability, replacing Mark Jackson’s traditional, isolation-dependent offense in favor of one that features quick ball movement and frequent pick-and-rolls. Just as Dean Meminger better utilized Bolin’s talents, Kerr has allowed Curry to flourish. His increased offensive responsibility also has not prevented the improvement of his offensive efficiency. Yet, Kerr has not removed all constraints on Curry and his squad; the Warriors instead epitomize the best of the modern NBA’s reliance on system basketball. By combining specific styles of play with certain line-ups, Kerr imposes artificial constraints that lead to significant advantages for the Warriors. Their so-called “Line-Up of Death,” which features the 6’8 Draymond Green at center, exemplifies the ways the Warriors have used constraints to create greater possibilities. The 2013 and 2014 versions of the San Antonio Spurs similarly demonstrated the possibilities constraints can mobilize. Although not restricting the autonomy of players nearly as much as the old rules of women’s basketball, Gregg Popovich limited isolation heavy offensive sets in favor of constant ball movement that produced a quick, egalitarian, as well as successful and appealing, offensive system.
Of course, raw talent still matters. Curry’s preternaturally fast release and uncanny hand-eye coordination have provided him with rare advantages. Similarly,the combination of strength and skill possessed by the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard has encouraged Popovich to give the rising star permission to abandon offensive sets and take advantage of his individual abilities when the opportunity arises. Curry and Leonard highlight how the best teams of the modern NBA do not simply design offenses around a player’s raw ability but rather implement strategies that most effectively utilize his best skills. For women’s basketball players who the lack the size, speed, and strength of their male counterparts, a men’s game that favors fundamentals and tactics in this manner presents a useable model, allowing women’s teams to experiment with the offensive systems displayed by NBA. Or, maybe men’s game, by imposing constraints on raw athleticism, has moved toward the women’s game. Whereas the individuality of hero-ball presumably represents the epitome masculine basketball, team-centric, space-and-pace offenses privileges more gender neutral strategies and skills.
Regardless of the origins and reasons, this shift in NBA playing style can contribute to a positive re-thinking of gender and basketball. Comparing male and female players remains a futile and useless exercise. But, iterations of men’s and women’s basketball that feature similar styles of play and emphasize similar skills sets can foster more appreciation of the women’s game. For instance, Diana Taurusi may drain a step-back Steph Curry-like three, Maya Moore may demonstrate the offensive ingenuity of James Harden, or Candace Parker may exhibit the versatility of Kevin Durant. A recognition of shared skills and styles of WNBA and NBA stars can encourage more respect for female players by demonstrating that they possess the abilities currently valued in the NBA. The inclusion of Becky Hammon, Nancy Lieberman, and Natalie Nakase on coaching and development staffs can further contribute to a widespread realization of the similarities between the men’s and women’s games, as well as the equal knowledge of players of both genders.
Yet, criticisms of Curry’s game and the changing NBA he embodies expose the gender ideologies that continue to mediate how basketball is understood. The slighting of Curry’s game by Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, and other NBA veterans reveal unstated presumptions about gendered styles of play, as they argue increased physicality, a masculine tactic, easily would disrupt Curry. Witnessing the game they helped define change in unimagined ways, old guard NBA players resort to such gendered critiques to delegitimize Curry. Mainstream basketball media arguments about analytics also rely on gendered ideologies. While scholar Yago Colas insightfully has analyzed the racial implications of this debate, the often-unrecognized gendered assumptions of these conversations deserves similar critical analysis.
Charles Barkley’s 2015 rant against analytics concisely captures both the racialized and gendered character of debates about the place of analytic thinking in the modern NBA. On TNT’s Inside the NBA, Barkley argued, “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent. Because they had not talent to be able to play, so smart guys wanted to fit in, so they made up a term called analytics. Analytics don’t work.” He continued, “All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They’re a bunch of guys who ain’t never played the game, they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”
Barkley denigrates the athletic abilities of analytics proponents to delegitimize their authority, with his distinction between those that played them game and those who “ain’t never played the game” implying a racial difference. His false dichotomization between majority black analytics-defying players and primarily white analytics-endorsing non-players also contains assumptions about the masculinity of these respective groups; those who “ain’t never played the game” presumably were not man enough to make it on the court. He further delegitimizes analytic thinking by more directly insulting the masculinity of analytics enthusiasts, suggesting they “never got the girls in high school.” Barkley also repeatedly refers to analytic thinkers as “smart” not as a compliment but as an another masculine insult, relying on and reinforcing the association between intellectualism and effeminacy.
While the NBA’s inclusion female referees, coaches, and broadcasters, as well as the #LeanInTogether initiative promoting gender equity, create the perception that the league stands as an exemplar of gender inclusivity, Barkley’s comments, along with the complaints of other former players, reveal the persistence of deeply entrenched, retrogressive gender assumptions that still determine how different basketball players, styles of play, and schools of thought are talked about and, in turn, valued. A recognition of the commonality between men’s and women’s styles of play likely will not eliminate such assumptions. But visual evidence of the similarities between the men’s and women’s game hopefully can help erode residual gendered beliefs and, in turn, move basketball another step toward becoming a sport that truly appreciates players of all genders equally. Although we may never refer to the NBA’s back-to-back MVP as the “Male Machine Gun Molly,” hopefully comments like those of Diana Taurasi at least can become commonplace compliments that elevate the status of both male and female players.
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 email@example.com.