Don’t Know Much About History…AAU’s Last Champions – May 2005

1970-79: Flashback

1970: Northeastern University coach Jeanne Rowlands organizes and hosts the National Invitational Tournament, the last played by six-player rules. Cal State-Fullerton defeats West Chester State.
1971: Rules: Five-player, full-court game and 30-second clock become official under AAU/DGWS rules (not Iowa or Oklahoma)
Title IX is signed.
1972: Pennsylvania’s Immacualta wins the first of three AIAW championships in a row.
1973: Amateur Basketball Association of the United States (ABAUSA) is formed, replacing the AAU as national governing body.
1974: Colleges start offering scholarships to female athletes.
1975: A game between University of Maryland and Immaculata is televised on a major television network, giving women’s basketball its first national television exposure.
1976: Mel Greenberg from the Philadelphia Inquirer compiles and releases the first women’s basketball Top 20 national poll.
1977: All states but New York have restored sanctioned state tournaments. Before 1973, only 8 states had high school basketball tournaments for girls.
1978: First “Final Four” for women held at UCLA’s Pauley Pavillion. Ann Meyers helps UCLA defeat Maryland before a record crowd of 9,351. Third place goes to Montclair State, fourth to Wayland Baptist.
Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State named as inaugural recipient of Wade Trophy.
1979: Led by Nancy Lieberman, Old Dominion University defeats Louisiana Tech for the AIAW title.

First, I’ll fess up: I’m a bit of a women’s basketball history geek, as anyone who may have glanced at my timeline (http://history.womensbasketballonline.com) may have guessed. Well, maybe I’m more than just a “bit” of a geek, but I’m not going to say obsessed and you can’t make me.

In my defense, if you want someone to blame for this story, look no further than Annie Meyers. See, there I was, proudly sharing with her the fruits of my labors, the list of AAU All-Americans from 1929 on forward, when she asks, “Where are my teams?”

“Umm…. Ummm,” I stammer.

Turns out Meyers had played for Anna’s Bananas, an AAU team based in California. Coached by her sister Patty and stocked with college players from the Los Angeles area, the Bananas won the AAU Senior Women’s Championships in 1977, ’78 and ’79, the last championships for which AAU named All-Americans. (Kodak first sponsored their All-American team in 1975)

“That was a group of women that got together, practiced one week before the championship and they won three national championships in a row,” recalled Patty Meyers. “That’s how extremely fabulous they were. They were a very unique group of women.”

Unfortunately, the records I had from the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame had ended in 1976. Oooops.

Needless to say, I got busy hunting down the missing names, only to discover that my job was going to be made much easier by Robert W. Ikard. A surgeon and women’s basketball enthusiast, he recently published “Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball.” It’s a wonderfully detailed account of those vital years in women’s basketball when AAU was made up of teams sponsored by companies like Cook’s Goldbumes and teaching colleges like the perennial powerhouse Nashville Business College (NBC). Stars like Nera White and Hazel Walker, extraordinary coaches like John Head and Harley Redin as well as important contributors such as Claude Hutcherson and H.O. Balls all get their just due. But much to my surprise, when I reached the Appendix listing the All-Americans, I read the following: “I stopped with 1969 because of the increasing irrelevance of AAU women’s basketball after that date.”

How could you not acknowledge players (all who have played for USA Basketball) like Ellen Mosher, Colleen Bowser, Monica Havelka, Carol Blazejowski or, not to put too fine a point on it, Ann Meyers?

“And so the Californians continue to feel slighted,” responded Meyers with a laugh.

Granted, several factors had conspired to weaken AAU. In 1969, the first National Invitational Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament was held, the first time women competed in a national tournament without AAU teams. That same year, NBC withdrew from competition (their sponsor Herman Balls rejected the notion of the five-player game). Business sponsorship was down; there was a struggle for control of senior women’s basketball between AAU and ABUSA (later USA Basketball), a growing emphasis on high school and younger players, and an imminent administrative vacuum.

“Back in the 60’s and 70’s AAU was the biggest thing to play because it was organized and because it was where the best players played,” explained Steve Kavalovski, who runs the high profile AAU program Southern California Women’s Basketball Club. In 1976, he had just started his first 18-and-under AAU team. “At the time, [the senior women’s program] was run by older women who’d been doing it for 30 years. In the next couple of years, most of those people who’d been running it had died. Everybody was already paying attention to the youth and not to the older people.”

The Shift
Not surprisingly, the players of that era cared more about playing than the ins and outs of any power shifts. “If anyone’s telling you they were aware, they’re not telling you the truth,” said Nancy Lieberman, who competed with the AAU team the New York Chuckles in 1978. “It was basketball, and that’s what made it so pure. We didn’t know the politics, the dynamics. We didn’t know about Title IX, we didn’t know about AIAW. All we knew about was basketball. It was competitive. It was pure. People didn’t complain about playing time. Nobody was trying to get a commercial. Everybody was paid the same thing: nothing.”

Carol Blazejowski, who played for the Allentown Crestettes, concurred. “I had just graduated from college (Montclair State), and I was playing in as many games as I could to stay in shape for the ’80 Olympics. It was just ‘get in the game.’ Once you graduated from college, where were you going to play? Hooking up with an AAU team was the ‘bridge,’ if you will. Either into extinction or, if you were pretty good, it was a holding place until the Olympics or USA Basketball geared up.”

In the years between ’69 and ’77, the Flying Queens from Wayland Baptist College (TX) and Missouri’s Raytown Piperettes were the powerhouses. But, as California basketball began to emerge, Anamill (later National General West) rose in the AAU ranks and so Kavalovski put in, and won, a bid to host the Senior Championship at Cypress College in 1977. The crowds were not huge, he recalls, “but the competition was excellent. At the time the college players could play because it still was AIAW and they didn’t have any restrictions.” California teams placed in the top four spots. But about that time, a young player named Cheryl Miller came to Kavalovski’s attention. Not surprisingly, he turned his focus to the younger teams, and so the tournament moved to Allentown, PA for its final two years.

The Glamour
Playing in AAU and competing in tournaments in the 70’s was a bare bones experience. “I got a uniform. Period,” said Blazejowski. “We never got mileage. We never got lunch. You played all day. Then you’d drive home, and then if you had a game in the morning, you get in the car and go right back out there. I believe they were double elimination,” said Blazejowski of the Pennsylvania tournament. “You were playing, players were sitting, resting, getting a hamburger, coming back and playing again. It was just like, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ (The classic movie about marathon dancing during the Great Depression.)

While the ’77 tourney was in their backyard, the Californians had a to meet serious expenses if they wanted to go to Pennsylvania and defend their title in ’78. “A lot of us had to go round to different business people we know and say, “Hey, can you donate $100 for a trip that’s going to cost us a total of $5000 for the hotel, plane fare, rental car and food?’ Which was a huge amount of money.” The team slept two to four to a room and crammed themselves into rental cars, which got the attention of the local constabulary. “Patty got stopped because we had like three people in the trunk,” recalled Meyers, grinning at the memory.

The Crowds
“Cypress was pretty packed. But Allentown was packed to the gills,” remembered Patty Meyers. Her sister Ann, though, wondered if they were there for another reason, namely their bright yellow uniforms. “When we ordered them, they were designed like a sports bra — it scooped in on your shoulders,” explained Meyers. “When they arrived, we had one medium top and bottom and the rest were small. Now, you’re talking about we had some good-sized ladies on our team. Believe me, we complained. ‘We can’t wear these!’ We were trying to stretch theses things out hoping we weren’t going to tear them. It was like, ‘Oh, maaaaaaan.’ But what were you going to do? We didn’t have any money. We were on a budget. This is what we ordered, this is what they sent and this is what we had to fit in to. And,” she added with a grin, “we were the team from California. You don’t think people came out to see us play?”

“Anna’s Bananas,” deadpanned Lieberman. “The team with a-peel.”

The Coach
As a coach, Patty Meyers was known as a master motivator. “She got us mad,” Meyers says of her sister. “It wasn’t so much the other team we got mad at… we just took it out on them.” Blazejowski remembers her Crestettes being the victims of the Banana’s ‘transference’ in 1979. “We were a bunch of misfits,” she explained. “Clearly they had practiced and they had nice uniforms. We were bunch of hodge-podge stiffs from top to bottom. Our players. Our uniforms. Everything. At half time, we were winning. I remember we never thought we could beat this team. So we were in our locker room – it’s a boiler room – and we hear Patty on the other side of the wall screaming at her team, ‘How can you let his bunch of misfits even BE in this game!?” And, you know, by now, one person’s got her ear on the wall. Then our whole team has their ears to the wall, listening to what they’re saying about us. And we were giggling. She was just ripping their heads off because of their poor performance. Eventually, they won, but Annie and I share that story to this day and laugh about it.”

The Payoff
“I think the biggest thing is we got the respect [from the fans],” said Ann Meyers. “Yeah, we could play the game. We played as hard as the guys. That’s the thing, when people try and compare it to the guys… we have as much passion and work ethic as a male does. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in sports. In Allentown families would sponsor a team,” she added. “They had us over for dinner one or two nights. These families and these little kids got to know these young girls – which we were, young women – who were just doing something which they loved to do.”

“It was the best and nobody knew about it,” mused Lorie Lindahl, Meyers’ assistant coach. “I guess just in those circles, we knew what was going on. Just like in the X Games or whatever. You just know you’re the best of the best in the nation and you’re a pretty happy camper about it.” “Those were some of the best days of my life,” reflected Blazejowski, currently Vice-President and General Manager of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. “All you did was play hoops and have a lot of laughs. It was just fun. You didn’t have dime to your name, but the friendships that you had, the camaraderie and community…that was a big deal. I see a lot of the girls that played on that NY Chuckles team,” she added. “They’re some of my season ticket holders.”

The Legacy
“The thing about Wayland Baptist and that group,” reflected Patty Meyers, a veteran of late 60’s and early 70’s AAU, “they were getting an education for free. Which was the precursor of scholarships for women: Title IX. Basically, what it boiled down to, when I went to college I got my books free and food. So I was almost close to that. And Annie got the big surprise. The big prize. (In 1974, Meyers was the first woman to receive full athletic scholarship from UCLA) And I couldn’t be happier for her. They all worked hard for what they got.”

Ann Meyers recognizes that the players of the day weren’t doing it for the “history of the game,” but the importance of remembering and honoring those teams and players is simple: “It was a matter of respect for our game,” stated Meyers. “Here’s a guy who writes about the AAU and feels that the 70’s is insignificant. What is that? What about the women after? The women of the 50’s and 60’s who played their hearts out to keep the door open for the women of the 70’s and 80’s. For this guy to feel those years weren’t important…that’s too bad. That’s really sad.”

Not that Mr. Ikard has the last word on the subject.

“I think we’re seeing more women’s basketball books because of the successes of the college and pro game,” said Pam Grundy, whose new book on women’s basketball history, “Shattering the Glass,” is due out soon. “Once a sport becomes widely popular, fans and participants become interested in its roots. Publishers then become interested in publishing books about those roots, because there’s an audience for them.” Grundy and her co-author didn’t have any outside encouragement to do their book but, she said, “we felt strongly that this was a story that cried out to be told, and that there were plenty of people who wanted to hear it. I guess we’ll find out now if that was true.”

“It’s clear, though, that many other parts of the story are waiting to be told,” Grundy continued. “We hope that “Shattering the Glass” will be a spur to other writers who will want to know more about some of the subjects we could only mention in passing, and who will research them further.

Hmmm… sounds like something the WBCA (or perhaps their supporting sponsors) might want to get involved in.

Oh, in case you were wondering:

1977 AAU Women’s All-America Basketball Team
Ann Meyers – Anna’s Bananas
Monica Havelka – Anna’s Bananas
Beth Moore – Anna’s Bananas
Mavis Washington – Adidas, (CA)
Ellen Mosher – Adidas, (CA)
Sheila Adams – Adidas, (CA)
Anita Ortega – Sharman Shooters, Long Beach CA
Kim Maddox – Sharman Shooters, Long Beach CA
Sister Green – Darlington, S.C.
Pearl Moore – Darlington, S.C.
Sue Rojecwicz – Allentown Crestettes
Grace Johnson – New York Planters

1978 AAU Women’s All-America Basketball Team
Monica Havelka – Anna’s Bananas
Brenda Martin – Anna’s Bananas
Ann Meyers – Anna’s Bananas
Carol Blazejowski – Allentown Crestettes
Doris Draving – Allentown Crestettes
Sheila Patterson – Sophisticated Ladies, Washington, D.C
Angie Scott – Sophisticated Ladies, Washington, D.C
Sybil Blaylock – Darlington, S.C.
Pearl Moore – Darlington, S.C.
Grace Johnson – New York Planters
Althea Gwyn – New York State Park
Mary Carney – Detroit Cobras

1979 AAU Women’s All-America Basketball Team
Lynne Smith – Anna’s Bananas
Kim Bueltel – Anna’s Bananas
Monica Havelka – Anna’s Bananas
Anne Meyers – Anna’s Bananas
Carol Blazejowski – Allentown Crestettes
Tara Heiss- Allentown Crestettes
Carolyn Blaylock – Blazers
Debbie Dejarnette – Okie Oilers
Faye Miles – New York Chuckles
Carney Allen – New York Chuckles
Edna Allen – New York Chuckles

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