Escaping from Roble
Stanford Women's Basketball Then and Now

© Mariah Burton Nelson, 1998

"I was hoping you could help build the program." -- Stanford Dean Fred Hargadon

The phone rang. It was Fred Hargadon, Dean of Admissions. It was April 1974 and I had not yet accepted Stanford's invitation to attend. I was an athlete, having played five different sports in high school and having led the Phoenix Dusters, a women's amateur basketball team, to the Arizona State Championship. Though I had always wanted to go to Stanford, Cornell offered a much better athletic program for women in those days, so I was taking my time making up my mind.

"I understand you're six-two," Dean Hargadon said. "I'm six-four myself. It would be nice to have some more tall people on campus."

I laughed, charmed. Both of my parents are tall. Lacking any particular ethnic identity of our own, my mother had always taught us to think of ourselves as a Tall family, to have Tall Pride, to say Tall is Beautiful. So Fred's entreaty amused me; he was telling me that at Stanford, I would feel at home.

Nevertheless I complained, "Stanford doesn't offer a very strong program for female athletes. You don't have varsity volleyball or lacrosse, and the basketball team plays in Roble Gym. They don't even wear real uniforms."

"You're right," he said. "I was hoping you could help build the program."

My first two years at Stanford, our basketball coach was a kind, devoted, unpaid graduate student named Gay Coburn. Our seasons consisted of eleven, then thirteen games. For uniforms, we wore white t-shirts (draped with dreaded red "pinnies" for away games) and red shorts. For warmups, we wore hooded red Stanford sweatshirts we bought with our own money in the bookstore. We bought our own high-tops and taped our own ankles. We played and practiced in Roble -- which, as I recall, is so claustrophobic that our 20 or so fans sat on a single bench between the sideline and the wall. None of us received an athletic scholarship.

I was miserable. Often accompanied by two teammates (Sonia Jarvis and Stephanie Erickson), I spent all my free time in athletic director Dick DiBiaso's office, demanding equal treatment with the men. I'd drop by unannounced, insist on meeting with him, then remind him that Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions, had passed in 1972. I was angry. I was persistent. I was, I'm sure, a pain in the neck. But wasn't I supposed to help build the program?

Finally, toward the end of my sophomore year, we were allowed to play three games in Maples Pavilion. In my junior year, we moved permanently into Maples, with room for 7,500 fans. We received uniforms, a trainer, and access to the weight room. And Dick DiBiaso presented us with our first two full-time coaches. Head coach Dotty McCrea had been the assistant to Cathy Rush at three-time national champion Immaculata College. Dotty's assistant, Sue Rojcewicz, came to Stanford directly from the 1976 Olympics, where she had helped the United States win a silver medal.

Under the guidance of our experienced new coaches, we grew stronger, faster, more skillful, more confident. The Stanford Daily began to pay attention. KZSU started broadcasting home games. Dotty and Sue began recruiting in earnest, and in my senior year acquired Stanford's first female basketball player on scholarship, Kathy Murphy. We played nineteen games my junior year, twenty-nine the next. We played in the first round of the national championship, losing respectably to the eventual national champion, UCLA. I was a team captain; I was the leading scorer; I was the leading rebounder. I was in heaven.

It wasn't perfect and it wasn't equitable, yet. We traveled by bus, and only within California and Nevada. We only won about half of our games. The San Francisco Chronicle ignored us. Our fans were few; maybe three hundred tops.

Nevertheless, after graduation I played for pro teams in France and the United States, and those final two years at Stanford still stand out as the zenith of my career. Dotty and Sue were my best coaches ever; my teammates were my best teammates ever; Maples Pavilion was paradise. As Dean Hargadon had implied I would, I felt at home, and I never regretted accepting his offer to attend Stanford.

Nowadays, all the Stanford basketball players--men and women--receive full scholarships. The women have two game uniforms, multiple practice uniforms, and all the free Nike sneakers they can wear out. High school players are recruited not in one jovial phone call from the Dean of Admissions but in a multi-year process involving videotapes, home visits, campus visits, all-star camps, NCAA regulations, and two full-time assistants whose primary job is to entice three or four of the nation's best players to attend Stanford each year.

The women's team now plays regular-season games all over the country. It has traveled to Italy, China, France, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Korea, Japan, and numerous other countries. All games are televised locally, and dozens have been televised by ESPN and CBS. They average more than 5200 fans per game and sometimes sell out Maples Pavilion -- an arena that seems small now, compared to those on other college campuses.

Tara VanDerveer, the head coach since Dotty and Sue left in 1985, has developed such celebrated players as Kristin Folkl, Jamila Wideman, Molly Goodenbour, Kate Paye, and Val Whiting. In 1990 and 1992, Stanford won the national championship. In 1996, VanDerveer coached the American Olympic team, including Stanford stars Jennifer Azzi and Katy Steding, to a gold medal. Fifteen Stanford graduates are currently playing in the pros.

At the Final Four this year in Kansas City I ran into Kate Starbird, one of Stanford's greatest players ever, now sponsored by Nike and playing for the Seattle Reign of the American Basketball League. She was born in 1975, when I was still sweating and swearing in Roble Gym.

I introduced myself and shamelessly informed her that, twenty years after my graduation, one of my Stanford rebounding records remains unbroken (most rebounds in a single game: 20). She was kind enough to act impressed.

I handed her my business card. Her agent, standing nearby, handed me Kate's.

"How was your experience at Stanford?" I asked.

"Fantastic," she replied.

Her tone was matter-of-fact, as if she couldn't imagine a time when playing basketball at Stanford was not fantastic. I was tempted to tell her about the bad old days of white t-shirts and red shorts, but resisted.

"Glad to hear it," I said instead.

The fact that the Stanford program is now fantastic probably has more to do with the inexorable forces of Title IX than the persistent harassment of one athletic director by one angry young feminist and her teammates. Nevertheless, I take pride in the accomplishments of Starbird, Wideman, Azzi, and all the others. I saved my old red sweatshirt and wear it, grinning like a fool, when I watch Tara's team on television. I like to think I helped build the program.

Mariah (Maggie) Burton Nelson has written six books about women and sports, most notably The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football.