It’d be hard for high-school students today to imagine an IHSA sports scene without both boys’ and girls’ basketball.
Without state championships for competitors of both genders.
Melissa Isaacson is among those who vividly recalls those days.
Formerly a sports writer for the Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com and currently a lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Isaacson was at Niles West High School when Title IX gave her and other girls the same opportunity as their male counterparts.
The federal law ensures that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in ... any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
That meant the start of IHSA-sanctioned girls’ basketball games in 1973. And the establishment of a state tournament in 1977.
“We did, in our own little teenage way, know what we were doing was really, really special,” said Isaacson, a 1979 Niles West graduate. “I don’t know that we felt like girls before us were cheated or denied opportunities. We just felt lucky.”
The result was a story Isaacson eventually realized she had to share, spurred on by Wolves star Connie Erickson at their 25th high school reunion.
She’s doing so in the form of “State,” a book due for release on Tuesday.
“None of us had any reference into being a jock, into having all the qualities that athletes have that helped kind of lift us above some of the problems we were all having — normal teenage stuff and serious teenage stuff,” Isaacson said. “All of this gave us this incredible reference point and these lessons from sports that we never, and our older sisters and cousins never, had access to.”
Isaacson was among Niles West’s first girls’ basketball players, and the school quickly assembled a talented squad.
Under coach Arlene Mulder, the Wolves won 37 total games and sectional titles in 1977 and 1978.
One year later, under coach Gene Earl, Niles West topped the entire state with a 28-1 ledger, defeating future Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and East St. Louis 63-47 at Assembly Hall in Champaign to take home the 1979 state championship.
But there’s more to “State” than Niles West’s rapid rise to the top of IHSA girls’ basketball.
There were team members feeling “saved” by the sport because of difficult home lives.
There was the challenge of getting some coaches to respect the idea of equal chances for boys’ and girls’ sports, as well as the battle to get fan support behind a new cause.
And there was learning the finer points of the game, advancing from the stage of “a lot of falling down in the first few years of girls’ basketball.”
“We were just incredibly, incredibly hungry and appreciative of the opportunity,” Isaacson said. “Just being able to practice was surreal. Being in the gym every day, it was never, ‘Oh, no, we have to practice.’ It was, ‘Yay, we get to practice.’”
Isaacson’s story offers a stark contrast between girls’ basketball of the late-1970s and the sport today.
No girls’ basketball shoes, for example, were available. Just boys’ footwear.
“They were giant, wide, big boys’ shoes that half of us couldn’t fit in,” Isaacson said. “I’d wear three pairs of socks to fit into those shoes. All that stuff made that experience as cool as it was.”
No weight training existed, something that “was absolutely verboten for girls,” according to Isaacson.
No ladder was in place for the athletes to climb atop when it came time to cut down the nets in celebratory fashion, as is shown on the book’s cover following a 1977 regional title triumph.
And when a ladder was produced, Isaacson recalls Mulder expressing fear over her pupils getting into trouble.
Then there’s Niles West’s authority figures.
Well after graduating, Isaacson learned that Mulder, who “had little knowledge of basketball before she took the job,” would secretly meet with Niles West boys’ basketball coach Billy Schnurr to receive pointers she then could pass on to her athletes.
Isaacson also discovered that principal Nicholas Mannos, who had daughters of his own, frequently would pitch the idea of state events for girls as an IHSA board of directors member.
“I found the adults in our life were doing all these things that made it possible for us to win,” Isaacson said, “based on setting aside their own egos.”
In Isaacson’s eyes, the eventual state championship victory 40 years ago was about more than the Niles West girls proving they had what it took to climb the proverbial mountain.
“I can’t even describe the celebration and emotion of representing your school,” Isaacson said. “We may as well have had ‘USA Olympic team’ across our chest. That’s how we felt, because the idea of having a girl represent the school and win something, and having people cheer for us and getting a trophy, was just all crazy.”