Get our free newsletter
The women on Queens College’s basketball team knew Jennifer Mitchell could make it rain. Mitchell, like most of the players on the college squad from the New York borough, was a product of the city’s gritty blacktop courts. She was the type of athlete who turned ordinary pickup games into Jordanesque assaults that neighborhood girls would recount for months. But, unfortunately for Queens College, Mitchell had shown up at the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament playing for the other team.
Mitchell’s team, the Federal City College Pantherettes, had come to the 1975 tournament with its best team ever and held dreams of being the first black college team to claim a national championship. Those dreams ended on a traveling call with 17 seconds left in overtime in the opening round against Delta State University. For the entire off-season, the Pantherettes would have the bad taste of a two-point loss lingering on their palates.
But the Pantherettes were intent on not returning home to D.C. empty-handed. Stuck in the losers’ bracket after the loss to Delta State, the Pantherettes dished out payback to Utah State University by a 55-point margin. Queens College, which had had a tough opening-round loss to California State University, Fullerton, was the team the Pantherettes badly wanted to beat, if only for bragging rights. New Yorkers Mitchell and fellow Pantherette Albrette “Gigi” Ransom had both spurned Queens to play for Federal City. Queens was determined to make Mitchell and Ransom see the error of their ways.
The first half of the game was competitive, but as the second half wore on, the Pantherettes got into foul trouble. Coach Bessie Stockard’s entire starting front court had fouled out, leaving her with little option but to go with fleetness and the long bombs to make up for lack of height and rebounding.
Mitchell was one of the women on the benchshe was good enough to start, but a breathing disorder meant that she could not go the distance.
“If I started her, I’d have to give up minutes at the end of the game,” recalls Stockard of her secret weapon on the bench. “I chose to give up minutes at the beginning of the game.” It was a smart choice. With the game in the balance and most of her post scorers fouled out, Stockard called Mitchell’s number. “I said, ‘Jennifer, it’s in your hands,’” says Stockard. “She said, ‘Aw, coach, you worry too much.’”
Mitchell entered the game and immediately began surpassing her moniker, “Jump-Shot Jenny,” as she riddled Queens College with a torrent of jumpers and drives to the hole. “We had no height,” says Ransom. “[Team member] Kathy McDougal came up with some key rebounds, but Jennifer just took over.” Mitchell brought the Pantherettes back and pushed the game into one overtime, and then into a second. As the game wore on, Queens College began to catch on and started sending two and three players at Mitchell. But it was all for naught. “When they doubled and tripled her, the girl would go up like she was shooting a jumper,” says Stockard. “Then she’d see who was open, and she’d dish it off.”
When it all ended, Mitchell had come off the bench to account for nearly one-third of the Pantherettes’ offense. She scored 30 points that nightbreathing disorder and alland led the Pantherettes to a 99-97 double-overtime victory. “It was just a one-woman show,” says Stockard. “Jennifer saved that game for us.” The Pantherettes, ranked to go the distance in the tournament, had to settle for the consolation bracket. But they did not go home as losersfar from it.
It was the kind of amazing, heart-stopping performance that generally leads to sonnets on the sports pages. But there would be only a brief game summary and a box score to commemorate Mitchell’s mammoth effort. Despite Federal City’s having put together a nationally recognized program in 1975, Washington was too busy fawning over the Hoyas and Bullets to give any sort of play to a bunch of young women playing what everybody thought of as a man’s game.
During the mid-’70s, Federal City College, the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) forerunner, had a whole team of women basketball players who were capable of saving a game. Unlike the rightly maligned Mystics, who served as lunch meat for the rest of the women’s pro league in their inaugural season last year, the ’74-’75 Federal City team entered the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, featuring three future pro players and a free-throw champion. The team’s front line averaged 6 feet tall, towering over most competition. But, largely because of the suffix at the end of the Pantherette’s name, they never enjoyed the attention that was their due. The team battled through zero administrative support, sexism, and racism to be perhaps one of the best collegiate basketball teams in the nation. Unfortunately for the Pantherettes, most of the world was looking the other way.
In the early ’70s, women’s basketball was considered a novelty act. The NCAA deemed the sport so unworthy of attention that it didn’t even recognize it. Regulation of women’s basketball fell to the venerable Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the younger AIAW. The AAU had been holding a national tournament for women’s basketball since the early ’20s; the AIAW began its tournament in the ’70s. Both leagues picked all-star teams, and both bestowed all-American status on their players. Yet despite having two well-organized associations, women’s collegiate basketball was still treated like a stepchild of the men’s game. “We were just considered an intercollegiate association, where women enjoyed themselves,” says then-coach Stockard.
Prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972, most women’s collegiate programs enjoyed only minimal financial support from their universities. And even after 1972, many members of the AIAW didn’t even give out scholarships to women players. While the boys enjoyed a tuition-free existence and shiny facilities, women athletes everywhere had to come up with tuition and scramble for access to a gym just to practice.
The lack of funding for women’s pursuits had the strange effect of evening out the odds. While powerhouse programs at places like Notre Dame, Penn State, and Kentucky dominated the men’s game, these colleges were often no more than patsies for the smaller schools in the realm of women’s athletics. Widespread discriminatory practices leveled the playing field.
In fact, small programs dominated women’s basketball. In the AAU, where both amateur and collegiate teams competed, the tournament champions had names like the Galveston Anicos and the Little Rock Flyers. In the AIAW, the teams to beat were tiny schools like Delta State and Immaculataa Catholic college that on a good day could count only 600 students on its campus.
But at least a school like Immaculata had a campus to call its own. Federal City, with no real campus, much less a gymnasium, managed to enter the ’74-’75 season ranked No. 1 in the nation by several intercollegiate polls. The hype never showed up in the press: News clippings from that season reveal that Federal City’s Pantherettes were viewed as a sideshow to the men’s game. With the exception of a few tiny game summaries and an occasional feature article, the Pantherettes’ games were covered only after they reached the finals.
The Pantherettes faced the triple threat of their gender, their race, and their affiliation with an unknown school. Even as small colleges dominated women’s basketball, most of them were predominantly white. “Women’s basketball for blacks just wasn’t heard of or thought of,” says Helen Jones, a shooting guard for the Pantherettes’ ’74-’75 team. “It just wasn’t important.”
When Stockard began the basketball program in the ’69-’70 season, the only support she got from Federal City was permission to use the college’s name and mascot. The scant backing wasn’t simply the product of bias. Federal City had begun as an alternative to the District of Columbia Teachers College: In 1968, the feds had decided that District residents deserved to pursue degrees beyond teaching and created Federal City, but that’s where the commitment ended. The school had no main campus; it was little more than a smattering of buildings across the city. With an indifferent federal patron and no list of alumni to stuff its coffers, it was pretty much on its own. And under those limiting circumstances, women’s buckets was way down on the list of priorities.
Originally, Stockard wasn’t even hired to coach women’s basketball, but for the more traditional job of leading the cheerleaders and majorettes. In the fall of 1969, a couple of students approached Stockard about forming a women’s basketball team. She liked the idea and wrote up a short proposal for the school’s president. School officials agreed to grant Stockard a women’s team in name only. There would be no pay for the coach and no scholarships for the players.
In fact, Stockard had none of the essentials that sports teams are built from. She had only a few women who wanted to play and no game uniforms or practice sweats for them to wear. Without a home court, there was a very short list of opponents who were willing to play the ragtag team Stockard was pulling together. Short of warm bodies, Stockard made the rounds to different classes at Federal City, recruiting players. Once she had enough to field a team, Stockard coaxed some professional contacts at the University of Maryland into donating gray T-shirts and sweats. The players bought their own shorts and sneakers while Stockard’s friends donated money to buy numbers to put on the back of the T-shirts.
Having scrapped together the semblance of a team, Stockard began contacting District public schools to see who would be willing to lend a gym to her team. The team ended up rotating throughout the season to different gyms across the city. “I’d have to call the school offices to see which ones were available for practice,” recalls Stockard. “I don’t think there’s a high school in this city where we didn’t practice.” Each day, Stockard’s players would meet at a predetermined point, and she’d inform them of where they were practicing.
Because the burgeoning squad was sharing gyms with high school teams, they often didn’t get to practice until the evening and often didn’t head home until far into the night. “We didn’t practice any day before 6,” says Stockard. The late practices would be tough enough on any ordinary college student, but many of Federal City’s students were adults with jobs and families. Playing a team sport was a reach to begin with for many of the women, but arriving home at 9 or 10 at night and still having to study proved too much for some of Stockard’s players. Many quit the team just to remain in school and make grades.
Those who managed to stay on, however, were die-hard ballers. “It didn’t stop us,” says Stockard of not having a gym. “We didn’t care where we practiced as long as we practiced. And we didn’t care where we played, as long as we played. I used to tell them that wherever we played, the basket is the same.” Which was a good thingin their first season, the Pantherettes couldn’t attract much collegiate competition because many colleges balked at the idea of playing against a team that used a high school gym for its games.
The absence of collegiate opponents meant the Pantherettes played mostly amateur-league teams. They managed to post a 12-6 record that year, good enough to garner an invite to the AAU national tournament. They managed to raise enough money to make the trip to New Mexico for the tournament, where they were promptly defeated in the first round. But the season was an excellent showing for a team that, by today’s standards, shouldn’t have existed.
From those excruciatingly humble beginnings, Stockard had established Federal City as a legitimate and nationally respected program by 1973, playing mostly AIAW teams. In 1973, the team began getting recognition from its schoolStockard was finally given a salary. But it wasn’t until 1975 that the team itself received funding.
By then, the college was investing in a proven winner. The Pantherettes had strong rebounders in 5-foot-8 Sharon Marshall and 5-foot-10 Shirley Gordon. They had accurate shooting in Audrey Boone (sister of NBA star Ron Boone). Federal City was well on its way to becoming the predominant regional powerhouse. “It was the best team in the area,” says Wanda Oates, who officiated several of Federal City’s games. “They were always more than competitive with the big white schools.”
The school facilities hadn’t been upgradedthey still practiced and played in a high school gym (McKinley Senior High)but Federal City was now turning most local colleges into roadkill. In the wake of Title IX, it was inconceivable that a school of Federal City’s size and budget could easily best schools like Maryland, Georgetown, or even Howard. Yet because so little attention was given to women’s programs at the schools, Federal City used them for floor mats.
The fix had gone in slowly, beginning in 1971, when Stockard began laying the foundations for her ’74-’75 team with an impressive array of recruits. Stockard never had a recruiting budget that allowed her to scour the nation in search of prospects; she leaned heavily on the District’s home-grown talent to build her powerhouse. Both Gordon and Marshall, the Pantherettes’ first real star players, were products of the District.
Stockard’s first local recruit for her ’74-’75 team was Michelle E. McKenzie. In 1971, when Stockard stumbled upon her, McKenzie wasn’t exactly making her way down the collegiate route. McKenzie was a well-rounded athlete starring in softball and basketball at McKinley Senior High School. Yet despite stellar junior and senior years playing basketball, she was walking down the wrong road. Her mother, who at the time was battling alcoholism, had kicked her out of the house after an argument. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” says McKenzie. “I was just kind of lost.” Stockard found McKenzie living with her sister, who was well immersed in the local drug scene. McKenzie knew little about Federal City’s basketball program, but Stockard coaxed her into joining the team with a promise of traveling with a collegiate power and financial aid for school.
As the Pantherettes’ reputation grew, so did Stockard’s recruiting reach. While still not able to fly out to Los Angeles to sweet-talk a player into coming to Federal City, Stockard had built up a national web of contactsmostly high school coaches and friendswho watched out for possible recruits. “I’d call college friends and ask them if they knew any girls who wanted to leave home and come to the nation’s capital,” says Stockard.
Marshall and Gordon were set to finish school after the ’72-’73 season, and Stockard needed an infusion of height. Two years after she recruited 6-footer McKenzie to play, Stockard added to her front court by recruiting Ransom and Sheila Patterson. By 1973, the Pantherettes’ reputation had reached New York, where Ransom was a budding star in the high schools and on the AAU summer- league teams. Ransom had grown up playing ball in the projects of East Harlem. After some years of watching her older brother execute a mean crossover, she had tried her hand at the game when a few local women pulled her aside and offered to teach her. “They took me on the court when I was 12,” recalls Ransom, “and they kicked my butt.” The women Ransom played with weren’t carefree high-schoolers trying to kill time, but older career women with kids and jobs. They played on the court for fun or in the summer leagues to stay in shape.
After two years of high school ball and traveling with AAU teams, Ransom was considered a legitimate collegiate recruit. She was high on the list of local basketball power Queens College but decided she had to get out of New York. Ransom had first heard of the Pantherettes through someone who ran one of the local basketball leagues. She’d also traveled to D.C. for a few games. But Ransom knew someone in Norfolk State University’s (a primarily black public college in Virginia) administration and was headed there instead.
Then she traveled out to New Mexico in 1973 for the AAU national tournament and saw the Pantherettes. It wasn’t the on-the-court performance that struck Ransom but the demeanor and the mystique that Stockard had cultivated among her players. The all-black team’s profile caught Ransom’s eye. “In those days, there still were some stereotypes that existed,” recalls Ransom. “Federal City had the dresses, and they were uniformed. They went and ate together, and they were polite. I was just impressed.” By the time the ’73-’74 season rolled around, Ransom was a freshman member of the Pantherettes.
Stockard now had an intimidating front-court, in 6-foot McKenzie, 5-foot-10 Ransom, 5-foot-11 Jennifer White, and 6-foot Janice Fuller. Stockard finished her front court off with Patterson. At 6-foot-3, the Dayton native was gold for any women’s basketball coach. In high school, Patterson had averaged a stunning 25 points and 25 rebounds per game. But in Patterson’s first season, ’73-’74, she didn’t even start.
The team didn’t have the outside shooting to keep opponents from focusing on the Pantherettes’ inside game. In 1973, Stockard also added some outside shooting by recruiting Helen Jones, a shooting ace from Stockard’s hometown, Nashville. Jones joined the team for the ’73-’74 season. “I played all the sports I could play and survive,” say Jones, who ran track, swam, and played volleyball, basketball, and tennis at varying times. Stockard had heard about Jones because Jones was taking piano lessons from Stockard’s sister. Jones did not follow AIAW basketball and had not heard of the Pantherettes, but Stockard still managed to sway her. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Jones. “But [Stockard] told me they could get me some financial aid. I didn’t think I was coming until the day I left.”
Stockard finished off her juggernaut by making one final steal from New York in the form of Mitchell. Raised in Long Island (which most basketball fanatics recognize as the old stomping ground of Julius Erving), Mitchell would come down to Harlem to play AAU basketball with some of the best talent in the nation. Listed at 5-foot-6, Mitchell wasn’t the most intimidating of players, height-wise. But she possessed one of the wickedest jump shots in all of New York. After watching her play a few games with the Pantherettes, Washington Post sportswriter Leonard Shapiro noted that she “might be the purest jump-shooter in the country.” Like Ransom, Mitchell was doggedly pursued by Queens College, which assumed it had a monopoly on all marquee talent in New York. But at the urging of Ransom and with some convincing from Stockard, Mitchell choose the Pantherettes.
Before the Pantherettes even took the court for the ’74-’75 season, they took two major losses. In a precursor of things to come in women’s basketball, Jennifer White and Janice Fuller left Federal City and bolted for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, leaving the Pantherettes with a diminished front court. Given Mitchell’s respiratory problems, the Pantherettes were faced with the loss of two key rebounders and having their most dangerous scorer restricted to the bench.
Even with those handicaps, Stockard still had an arsenal that stacked up well when compared with other national powers. In Ransom, McKenzie, and Patterson, Stockard had three players who stood at 5-foot-10, 6 feet, and 6-foot-3, respectively. McKenzie sported a wicked hook shot, Ransom’s leaping ability made her a presence on the boards, and Patterson was dangerous if only standing in front of the basket with her hands up. All three players would eventually play pro ball in the first women’s league, the Women’s Basketball Professional League (WBL). In addition, Stockard had another 6-footer in Kathy McDougal, coming off the bench.
In the back court, Stockard had Mitchell off the bench and Jones, who would capture the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Sports Association for Women’s (MISAW) free-throw title that year. There were also Carolyn Montgomery and Sandralyn Thomas, who were more than capable of running the point. At any given point, the Pantherettes had at least four players who could take over a game. Their basketball ability was unquestioned, but more than talent and technical acumen, the team possessed a mystique that Stockard had been cultivating since the women’s program’s inception. That juju may have been as important as any specific athletic talents the players possessed.
While it would seem mundane in the context of collegiate athletics today, a nationally ranked basketball team from a black college was an anomaly two decades ago. In fact, with the exception of New York’s Queens College, Federal City was the only all-black women’s team that was viewed as a national power. The Pantherettes brazenly reveled in their conspicuousness. They purchased off-court uniforms that they wore when traveling to away games: Each Pantherette sported a black dress and a black turtleneck covered by a yellow vest.
In addition, most of Federal City’s players had long, well-groomed Afros. When it was time for the national anthem, the players lined up according to height. Matching her team’s attention-grabbing ability was Stockard, a flamboyant coach renowned for her snazzy dressing and her wide-brimmed hats. The Pantherettes understood total sports marketing long before the concept even had a name.
But it wasn’t all flash. Stockard was a stickler for proper manners and femininity among her team. “Bessie Stockard didn’t want us coming across as hoodlums and thugs,” says McKenzie.
“When you’re off the court, you act like ladies,” Stockard says of the Pantherettes. “But on the court, it’s something else.”
Something else indeed. Stockard’s team wore the Du Boisian veil with a feminist twist. On court, the Pantherettes turned any gym into the basketball equivalent of a Clarksdale juke joint. While most teams brought brass bands and cheerleaders, Federal City had a male groupie who played the Ohio Players’ “Fire” on a boombox. Pantherette fans would dance and sway to the music while the Pantherettes boogied, clapped, and stomped on the gym floor.
Once the game started, Federal City baffled and outran their opponents at every inbound of the ball. The Pantherettes played a high-octane, fast-breaking style of offense and a pressing, up-tempo style of defensethere was nothing ladylike in their approach. In the midst of all the running and gunning, the Pantherettes talked buckets of trash that only further frustrated opponents. “When they aren’t talking to each other, they’re talking to their opponents, saying things like, ‘You can’t check me, I’m too good,’” Stockard told a reporter after one game. Undoubtedly, the Pantherettes said a lot more than that. “Trash talking? Dirty looks? It was a given,” says Jones. “But Immaculata taught their players to pull our jerseys so we’d get the foul.”
Opposing teams spent the first five minutes of the game trying to overcome the culture shock of having to face a team of smack-talking, mostly inner-city black girls. “Those white girls weren’t ready for that kind of stuff,” says referee Oates. Even amidst the showboating and trash-talking, Stockard still cracked a whip over her team, making sure the fundamentals were firmly in place. “I can recall one game,” says McKenzie, “when I did something fancy-schmancy, a cute pass or something, and she [Stockard] called timeout and said, ‘We don’t do that.’”
After an away game, the Pantherettes would shower, dress, and put on their black and yellow uniforms. As they headed for the bus, it was all smiles and polite talk with opposing team members.
There were situations that the Pantherettes’ charm and decorum couldn’t defuse. Because of D.C.’s location, many of the games were played in the middle of redneck central. And many folks didn’t take kindly to a group of uppity, mouthy black girls coming into town and methodically laying into the backside of the local white college.
On their way to the hole, the Pantherettes had to do some pick-and-rolls around various racist incidents. While most players never experienced blatantly racist attitudes, they got their share of covert Sambo-isms. Ransom recalls how the parents of opposing players would approach her after the game, congratulating her and attributing the Pantherettes’ victories to innate physical ability, not an understanding of the game. “We got our taste of racism,” says McKenzie. “We played some of our games in Boston, and we never felt accepted.”
For her part, Stockard says she often found herself on the wrong end of a resentful official’s whistle and consequently had to recruit Oates, the only licensed black referee in the area, to officiate many of her games. “She got burned a lot,” recalls Oates. “I was the only nationally licensed black basketball official, and she wanted a black official to give her a fair shake.” Even that attempt to even things came with complications. In one instance, Oates was not allowed to officiate a Pantherette game for fear that she would give the team too fair a shake. “They assumed that because I’m black, I’m going to be for the black team,” recalls Oates. “I just wanted a fair game.”
But the race knife cut both ways, and the Pantherettes gave as well as they got. During the ’74-’75 MISAW tournament, the Pantherettes played the best teams in the area, all of whom were white. The Pantherettes destroyed the competition, smashing each opponent by an astonishing average of 60 points. While the Pantherettes posted 80-plus points in each game, they never gave up more than 30 in any game.
It would be simplistic and an overstatement to say these victories were motivated principally by race. Indeed, the Pantherettes routinely ran over the Lady Bison and enjoyed a rivalry with Queens College’s predominantly black team. Yet Pantherette players admit that the team took a measure of satisfaction in blowing large, well-funded white schools out of the gymnasium.
Ransom and others on the team suggest that the team had to overcome dirty officiating to stick it to the competition. “One thing about us was that we were on a mission, especially in light of the racism that existed,” says Ransom. “We practiced to be 10 or 15 points better than the white teams, so we could win by one or two points.”
The Pantherettes piled up a 19-3 record in that fateful ’74-’75 seasonall three of the losses occured during exhibition play. One loss came while the team played the Australian All-Star squad and another against Cathay Life, a team from China. The third loss came in a tournament game against Southern Connecticut State University. The Pantherettes would later avenge that loss in a 69-64 victory.
The ’74-’75 season was historic for women’s basketball because for the first time in history a women’s gamea contest between Immaculata and Marylandwas broadcast that year. The Pantherettes never made it to TV. But they did the next best thing by defeating both Maryland and defending national champion Immaculata that year. The Pantherettes closed out the regular season with a nine-win game streak, during which they averaged 80 points per game while holding the opposition to an average 48 points a game. After sweeping the local MISAW tournament and finishing second in the regionals, the Pantherettes were selected for the final ordeal for women’s collegiate basketballthe AIAW nationals.
Among women’s basketball aficionados at the time, it was generally believed that the championship competition was between two teams, Federal City and Delta State. Immaculata had been sullied by a regular-season loss to the Pantherettes, and most picked it for finishing No. 3. Stockard, never one to mince words, was sure she had a better squad than Immaculata’s. “I predicted we [would] beat them by 10 points; we should have beat them by 20, but we missed too many layups,” said Stockard.
The Pantherettes were, at worst, favorites for the runner-up spot.
Yet for some inexplicable reason the Pantherettes, a team that had soundly defeated the defending national champions, swept the MISAW with impunity and finished second in the regional, was seeded 15th out of 16 teams. Both Southern Connecticut and Immaculata, teams that had split games with the Pantherettes, enjoyed higher seedings that allowed them to move into the semifinals. Schools like Boise State and Kansas State were dismantled by 30-point margins in the first round. But no first-round game was tighter than the 2-point victory Delta State eked out over Federal City. In fact, no game in the entire tournament was tighter, until the Pantherettes managed their 2-point thriller over Queens College.
Some players privately say they believe that the AIAW officials were taking a first-round best shot in Delta State in hopes of preventing a black AIAW champion. The seeding of the Pantherettesone of only two black teams in the tournamentwas, at best, a mysterious coincidence. At worst, it smacked of something far uglierthe type of affair that makes conspiracy theorists out of otherwise rational men.
By the time the Pantherettes met up with Wayland Baptist University, they had already played an overtime game and a double-overtime game only a couple of hours earlier. They pushed Wayland Baptist into overtime also, but it was the Pantherettes’ fourth game in three days and their third overtime game. Stockard says her players were so tired she refused to let them sit during timeouts, for fear that the fatigue would set in even faster. The Pantherettes bowed out in overtime to Wayland Baptist in a 57-46 loss.
It was a sad end to a stunning season for the Pantherettes. Perhaps more important, it was the beginning of the end of the domination that small colleges enjoyed over bigger schools. Title IX had passed three years earlier, and while it would force all schools to upgrade their women’s programs, it also meant that smaller schools like Federal City could no longer effectively compete for top-notch players.
Before Title IX, “the colleges weren’t really giving athletic scholarships,” says Oates. “But [what happened at Federal City] is not gonna happen again. The small schools simply can’t compete.” Indeed, within three years of the Pantherettes’ magical season, UCLA would become the first large women’s school to claim an AIAW championship. Old Dominion University would claim the championship the next two years, after which the giant universities never looked back.
Despite its marginalization by the sports world, women’s basketball before the 1980s was as egalitarian a sport as you’ll ever see. Unlike the men’s league, the relatively low-budget AIAW established a parity between big schools and small schools. In the men’s game, you could pick a pool of champions simply by looking at a university’s sports budget. Schools like UDC would never contend in Division I, largely because of economics. The AIAW also had the advantage of being primarily coached by women, who were paid very little compared with their male counterparts; they were there because of a love for women’s basketball and nothing more.
When Title IX finally began taking full effect in the early ’80s, female collegiate athletes gained many of the perks that men had always enjoyed. The legislative act sought to prevent the men’s teams from flying first class to tournaments while female athletes took the bus or flew standby. It was a noble and worthy goal, and Title IX has succeeded in elevating women’s athletics from outcast to stepchild status. But the NCAA’s response to Title IX essentially forced female athletes to trade self-determination for inclusion.
The first casualty of Title IX was parity, as big colleges poured more resources into women’s athletics. The small colleges were simply outspent. Schools like Federal City, Queens, Immaculata, and Delta State ruled the ’70s. During the ’80s, schools like the University of Texas, the University of Tennessee, and Old Dominion University dominated. Immaculata, AIAW champ thrice over, is now a Division III basketball team.
The second casualty was the women’s league. Instead of pouring funds into the AIAW, the NCAA decided to flex its financial muscle and effectively run the AIAW out of business. The NCAA began holding its own Division I tournament for women’s basketball in 1982. Teams were faced with a choicejoin the well-endowed NCAA as second-class citizens or continue eking out an existence in the self-determining AIAW. “Schools were forced to decide which tournament to attend,” writes C. L. Jones in her article “Title IXTwenty-Five Years of Struggle.” Jones pointed out that “the NCAA with its deep pockets was able to provide more incentives.” The AIAW went head to head with the NCAA tournament for precisely one year, in 1982. After that, the association never held a tournament again.
The loss of the league also meant that control over the job market for female coaches slipped away. As the NCAA vacuumed up women’s teams, job opportunities quickly dwindled. Before Title IX, 90 percent of women’s intercollegiate sports teams were coached by women. By 1990, only 47 percent of women’s-team coaching jobs were held by women. Predictably, the number of women officiating games also plunged. “As soon as the door opened, they brought in the men,” says Ransom. “What happened was that they saw an opportunity for a job, not to be part of history.”
Federal City never had a team again like its ’74-’75 Pantherettes. There were no more trips to the AIAW nationals, even as the program’s budget was amped up. The following year, Patterson went on a torrent, averaging 20-plus points per game in both rebounding and scoring. But Stockard had bumped heads with the administration and had a serious personality conflict with the incoming athletic director before the ’76-’77 season. Oates was brought in to coach the team, but several of the players left out of pure loyalty to Stockard. Patterson stayed for a time, but left in mid-season.
Other players, like Jones, Ransom, and McKenzie never finished their degrees at Federal City. Injuries ended some of their seasons, and the cruel realities of life also began setting in. Ransom and McKenzie were invited to try out for the first women’s basketball Olympic team. Later, McKenzie, Ransom, and Patterson joined the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League.
There is an urge to pity the Pantherettes since they never got the attention that they rightly deserved. “I lost a taste for women’s basketball because we just weren’t getting our due,” says Jones. With the exception of a grab bag of injuries that linger in painful ways two decades later, the Pantherettes don’t have much to show for their contributions.
But the players take satisfaction in their unacknowledged chapter in women’s basketball history. Ransom is conscious of the fact that women players before her sacrificed even more, and if there’s anybody deserving of recognition, she says it’s these players. “I got a chance to play in the first women’s pro league,” says Ransom. “There were women before me. I look to the small-black-college players that laid the foundation. If anyone missed out, it was them.”CP