Early in the 1981-1982 college basketball season, my father began taking me to Oregon women’s basketball games. He was trying to find a way to encourage and inspire me.
A short time before that, one of my 14-year-old classmates had shot herself to death in a phone booth one night about a half mile from our school. To say that it rocked the student body, the city, and myself, is a grave understatement. I don’t know how my dad got the idea to attend Duck games, but he knew me well, and he must have known on some level that this would be the remedy.
Women’s basketball was still in its infancy, but in sport-crazy Eugene, it was already big time. The same kind of men’s hoops crowds that earned the name “deranged idiots” from sportscasters in the 1970’s showed up in the late 70’s-early 80’s to cheer on Bev Smith and Alison Lang – two Canadian ballers who came to the University and became superstars.
Lang was a tall, lanky center whose long arms would reach up and grab rebound after rebound. Smith was an electric forward who seemed to find endless ways to score. Both were a formidable duo for opponents, and in 1981-82, they set courts on fire.
Every home game in Mac Court that year was packed full of noisy fans, who had watched their team go 20-3 by the time the regular season ended. I hung on to every play, every post move by Lang and every slashing cut by Smith. In every game, they showed me what I’d always wanted to see: what a strong, athletic woman looked like. I was in ball player love.
Senior day for Smith was insane. Her teammates had all made banners with well wishes for her, which hung from the ceiling. Lang, a junior, signed hers “love, Big Al.” The crowd’s screams were at a fever pitch, and I remember looking around in wonder – and joy – at this spectacle. It was the first time I’d seen an arena go nuts for a woman.
The Ducks were selected as one of 32 teams to participate in the first NCAA Tournament for women that spring. Their first round game was at home, against Missouri, on Saturday, March 13, 1982.
The Tigers were seeded slightly higher, but everyone knew the game would be pretty even – and it was. Missouri barely pulled it out, 59-53. Smith was pictured in the paper the next morning on the bench, her head in her hands. And although I was sad the season was over, something had taken root within me.
That Sunday I went running. The same week, I started messing around with weights again, to get stronger. I watched the Tournament all the way to the end, and sat hypnotized during the Championship game as this woman with the long braid for Louisiana Tech led the charge in dismantling Cheyney State, 76-62.
And so, the hoopaholism began. (As did my own personal athleticism, which continues to this day). The basketball addiction has never stopped.
Before he passed, I was happy to tell my dad what a difference he made in my life, and thanked him for taking me to those games. I have thanked Bev Smith. And whenever I get a chance, I tell the parents of girls to take their daughter to a game. You never know the impact it might have…..or the writing careers it might create.
So here’s to (at least) another 37 years of hoopaholism. Looking forward to seeing what the game will look like in 2056.