As a high school senior and newly minted member of a state championship basketball team 40 years ago, it all seemed pretty simple.
We would grow up and do whatever we wanted to do, accomplish whatever there was to accomplish. And with the same unadulterated optimism and confidence, there were no limits to the future we envisioned for women in sports.
Filled soccer stadiums cheering on women of incredible skill? Those same women inspiring legions of little girls and boys and possessing vast marketing potential?
Women coaches and general managers of professional teams, both men’s and women’s?
In 1979, we went from a handful of moms watching our games in the smaller and inferior “Girls’ Gym” of our suburban high school, to playing before standing room-only crowds in the “Boys’ Gym,” full-page photo spreads in the Chicago Tribune and feature stories by Johnny Morris, the former Bears receiver and the city’s most popular TV sports anchor.
Some 3,000 of our fans filled the lower bowl of the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall, then one of the most modern arenas in the country, to watch us beat Jackie Joyner’s East St. Louis team in the state final. And our games were broadcast nationally by the recently christened superstation, WGN-TV.
Over the next few years, our entire starting lineup was playing for Division I college teams. And within five years after our title, that same East St. Louis girl with the shy smile came back to lead her team to the state championship, followed a few years later by an Olympic silver medal in the heptathlon in Los Angeles – the first of a bucketful of gold medals.
Anything seemed possible for us. A women’s professional basketball league was formed. The first woman Supreme Court Justice was confirmed. The first woman astronaut was in space. Title IX and Roe v. Wade were old news.
And if you would have told us then that as we inched toward our 60th birthdays, the 2019 U.S. women’s World Cup champions, perhaps the best team ever assembled, would be serenaded with demands of equal pay for women?
We would have been devastated.
Many women, including me, were not surprised and even proud of the 2015 study commissioned by espnW.com and Ernst & Young which found that 80 percent of female Fortune 500 executives played competitive sports at one time in their lives.
But what Muffet McGraw, coach of the NCAA champion Notre Dame women’s basketball team, so passionately and eloquently pointed out last spring, was that less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That only 10 percent of the nation’s Division I college athletic directors are women.
“We don’t have enough female role models, we don’t have enough visible women leaders, we don’t have enough women in power,” McGraw said. “Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender rules are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. …
“And when these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to, to tell them that’s not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than in sports?”
In the mid- to late 1970s, the world opened up to my teammates and I through sports. Cliches about such things as teamwork and goal-setting were new and brilliant, beautiful poetry to us. Strategy taught us to be analytical and methodical. And the very nature of pushing ourselves in practice, showed us how to be tough, competitive and focused, all attributes previously only encouraged and lessons only accessible to boys.
Even as teenagers, we knew we had a considerable way to go as a gender. But it had been a decade since a cigarette company had come up with the slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” to ostensibly celebrate women’s progress throughout the 20th Century, and there was no reason in 1979 not to be optimistic about how far we had come.
Forty years later, I really have to wonder.
I’ll just say it. I’m not, um, a dog person so much.
I think some are cute. I can appreciate the love and companionship and amusement friends get from their dogs (we won’t address cats or other animals here because there is zero chance I will not offend). I take joy in seeing friends with their pets and am sad for them when they pass on to doggie heaven.
I mean, I’m not a psychopath.
We had a dog when I was growing up. Her name was Hondo and she comes to mind this week after the death of Boston Celtics’ great John Havlicek, whose nickname was “Hondo.”
With all due respect to the Hall of Famer, Hondo was a great dog name and Hondo was a great dog. I’m not altogether sure why my family chose Hondo as her name because we lived in the Chicago area and had our own NBA team whose players had their own nicknames like “Stormin’ Norman” Van Lier and “Chet the Jet” Walker. But the Celtics were popular, Havlicek was easy to like and we had an Uncle Norman, so that would have been weird.
Hondo was the perfect dog for a family with a mother who didn’t like messes, a father who didn’t like walking in the cold and a little sister who was afraid of dogs ever since I was sent to get my brother Richard from his best friend Andy’s house one day and their adult-sized Dalmatian leapt against their back fence so forcefully – and so LOUDLY – that it sent me screaming the full block back home.
I was a bit sensitive as a child.
The only other dog experience I had up until then was later relayed to me since I was a newborn at the time and could neither remember it nor probably focus on my mother’s face much less a strange dog. It was the family pet and apparently, Pepper snapped at me or at least looked at me suspiciously enough that my mother decided it had to be given away. This sent my sister screaming down the street as the new owners drove off, demanding to know why I couldn’t be given away instead of Pepper.
Poor Hondo arrived in this same home some eight years later. My mother wasn’t thrilled and agreed to keep her only after my brothers promised the dog, a sweet little mutt, would stay on the lower level of our bi-level house. In retaliation while we were out on her first Fourth of July, Hondo ran upstairs, into my parents’ bedroom and barfed into my mother’s knitting basket.
It would become a Fourth of July family tradition.
My father loved Hondo but didn’t understand dogs and in particular, their unique digestive systems. So, when he decided Hondo looked sick (not quite sure how he concluded this), he would treat her as he would one of us, by feeding her Campbells chicken noodle soup. Hondo responded as dogs do when adults feed them things that would probably be the equivalent of giving a human dog food, and we could only hope this did not happen on Fourth of July or my mother’s knitting basket would really be a mess.
Poor Hondo (which eventually became her name) was taught a series of tricks by my brothers and I. My brothers taught her to hold up her paw for a shake, roll over and fetch. I taught her to sing “Close to You” by the Carpenters.
In reality, I played a fourth-grade version of the song on piano while singing/screeching the chorus and Hondo would accompany me by howling as if in pain. I thought she was singing. In retrospect, pain probably was the right analogy to use.
Poor Hondo was very smart. She seemed to know my father didn’t like the cold, so before they left for college, my brothers trained her to run outside and do her business by herself, then run back. And she handled this really well, though my father thought she looked cold and bought her one of those dog sweaters that would rub her against the grain and I imagine felt like a human wearing burlap.
Not having a dog now isn’t directly related to all of this. I eventually figured out I was also allergic to Poor Hondo and my husband didn’t have a dog growing up. Our kids didn’t protest too much except for that brief period when Alec taped a picture of a dog onto the frame of his bunk bed along with a schedule of all the fun things he would do with the imaginary pet, which he also named, if he had one.
We’re pretty sure our son isn’t too badly damaged. We’re also reasonably sure he will one day own a couple pit bulls and ask us to dog-sit.
Before I begin, I want to come clean that I am fully cognizant of the fact that my last three blogs – four if you count this one – are about birthdays, anniversaries and death, which is not what I intended and should not be mistaken as my blog theme.
And so I promise to try to get back to other important matters like “The Bachelorette” (not watching this next one, I swear to God), the joys of spray fake butter and maybe even the NCAA Championships, men and women.
But in the meantime, I feel the need to pause and tell you about my mom today.
My mother Francine was sentimental and emotional and possessed many of the qualities that make a person a warm and loving human being. But about age, she was pretty clear.
Today, April 8, would have been her 93rd birthday if she had not passed away 12 years ago and that statement alone, not to mention the idea of wishing her a “Happy Birthday” in my blog or on Facebook, would have made her laugh and then promptly make fun of me.
“’Happy Birthday?’” she would undoubtedly say if somehow, we could be having this conversation. “I’m not happy and it’s not my birthday.”
“I know that,” I’d reply. “I said it would have been your 93rd birthday.”
“But I’m dead, so it’s not.”
“Fine, you’re not 93.”
She would not have loved the idea of 93 unless she was active and clear-minded and sadly, she had not fit that description for a very long time. My dad Herb, on the other hand, would have been very happy living to 110 and in whatever state was necessary to have him still be alive, because, well, he was very clear as well. Life, good. Death, bad.
This was a typical conversation in my house growing up:
“George Burns (or fill in any very old celebrity) died,” my mother would announce.
“Oh no, that’s terrible,” my father would say. “How did he die?”
“What do you mean, ‘How did he die?’ “my mother would reply. “The man was 100. He stopped living.”
I do not, however, want to leave the impression that this made her somehow uncaring. When she spoke of her four children – mostly if someone would ask who was her favorite — she would say that she loved us all in our own, very special way as the first child or oldest son and on down the line. But whenever she’d get one of us alone, she’d whisper “You’re really my favorite. Don’t tell the others.”
My mom was funny, and funny trumped all. And she never let the truth get in the way of a good story, like the one she often told about growing up with a pet goldfish, whose bowl sat on the kitchen windowsill of her family’s apartment until one day the fish, swimming round and round in the hot sun, suddenly leapt out of the bowl and “committed suicide.”
“What?” one of us would cry. “Committed suicide? It was a fish. How was that possible?”
“It was the Depression,” she’d shrug.
Our mother inherited her humor from her father Morris, who despite the fact that he was a house painter, was somehow able to leverage enough money in the 1920s to own a small apartment building. When the Depression hit, however, things quickly went south and my mother would tell the story of one deadbeat tenant leaving the building for another across the street.
“I gotta go,” the man pleaded. “The rent is lower over there.”
“How could it be any lower?” my grandfather said. “You’re not paying me anything.”
Morris had the humor gene. So did our mom. And so today, on what is most certainly not her 93rd birthday but rather a day, like so many others, in which I choose to think of her and laugh, I am pretty certain she is laughing as well.
“How could I be laughing?” says the voice in my head. “I’m dead.”
I remember my dad being depressed over a big birthday once, about time passing “too quickly,” about “being old.” And I remember, in my infinite wisdom, saying something like “But you’re just one day older than you were yesterday, so what’s the big deal?”
I was probably about 15, so smart and so smug.
I am recalling that conversation because 40 years ago today, my Niles West High School teammates and I won the Illinois state girls’ basketball championship. That’s 40 — or FORTY!!! — because it feels like it needs all CAPS and multiple exclamation marks.
But I won’t say that we’re old or that time has passed too quickly, even though it has. I won’t even say, as my father often did, that I don’t know where the time has gone, because I do. It has gone to college and marriage and childbirths and Little League games and concerts and plays and graduations and career and travel and heartache and happiness and everyday stuff. Bad TV and those first years of kid-pitch in early March alone took up about 20 years.
I do not feel as if it was just yesterday that we hoisted that trophy in Champaign’s Assembly Hall because we were teenagers and my parents were in the stands and I weighed around 98 pounds, and none of that feels like yesterday at all.
I had a voice in those interviews that sounded like a gerbil and though I still tend to be self-conscious on camera and I do a funny thing with my mouth sometimes, I believe I come off a bit more sophisticated now.
Because I have spent a good dozen years, off and on, writing a book about our experience, I’ll admit I am considerably closer to those days than my friends and former teammates are. So while they may have also had squeaky voices and came across as painfully self-conscious on camera, they don’t generally have to re-live it unless I am on the phone, demanding that they do.
So what’s the point, you’re surely asking?
I guess it’s that unlike my father, I am choosing not to be sad or spooked or weirded out by this milestone. Unless I have some wiseass kid standing in front of me, horrified that I can even recall something that happened 40 years ago, I am instead embracing it. Today, of all days, on an anniversary that should be celebrated, and in a year in which I am trying to get others to share this remarkable experience with me, I am loving it.
The photos in which I look like a 10-year-old boy. The memories of being so immature and at times thoughtless, it makes me wince. The knowledge that I should have had more fun in high school, maybe not been so afraid of boys and while I was having fun and flirting, maybe done some homework once in a while. All of that is going to have to be OK.
And it is going to have to be 40 years ago.
Because that’s what it was. And because the 70s were a big deal to have lived through. We were a part of history, that basketball team. Our high school was great and our teachers and classmates supportive, coming together and getting behind us in a way I wish there was more of today.
We were silly and childish. And we were strong and resilient. I can close my eyes and still remember much of it but I don’t have to relive it to appreciate it. And I don’t have to be horrified by the passage of time. Today, I am just going to let it be what it was. And wish everyone who was there with me, a Happy 40th!!!
My baby is 21 years old today. Excuse me while I let that sink in for a second. Alec is old enough to be considered an adult in every way except the rental car place. He can gamble in most states. Apply for a marriage license in Mississippi without parental consent. Adopt a child in the UK. Legally buy an ounce of marijuana in Colorado. Oh, and today he can finally drink alcohol. I have to remember to tell him.
More importantly, I am old enough to be the mother of now two grown-ups.
Kids have no idea that when they have birthdays, parents do too. It’s the anniversary of one of the most momentous occasions in our lives (unless you count winning a state championship, which I recently made the mistake of calling the highlight of my life in an interview and was immediately called out by my ever-vigilant daughter Amanda. “Really?” she said calmly. “So childbirth not so much, huh?”)
But on every birthday, and especially the biggies, mothers like me flash back to that childbirth, pausing just long enough to yell at our husband for taking a shower during advanced labor; picture our son’s cute, innocent little face before he decided shaving can be a nuisance; and recall once again that time in kindergarten orientation when he was asked to introduce himself and, following the teacher’s turn, announced, “Hello, my name is Mrs. Singer.”
Of course, the “r” in Mrs. Singer was pronounced like a “w,” so it was extra cute, which is always part of the oral recitation of the story.
The concept of this little boy now planning his life as an adult is staggering. But for anyone who has ever had a 21-year-old, it includes the knowledge that “adult” is a relative term, and that our interference/rights as parents will still occasionally be employed and maybe, if we’re lucky, even requested.
This is strange territory and in no way do I profess to have a single shred of insight, despite the presence of Amanda, who will be 24 this summer. While we do not want our kids to be living in our basements at 30, I am not afraid to say that the possibility of one or both living out-of-state one day makes me weepy, and makes my husband actually weep.
And so I pause on this occasion and can only hope what most parents do, that we did our jobs. That this boy who is now allowed to get married on his own in Mississippi, is prepared to take his place as a good citizen and one day, if he so chooses, as a great husband and a stupendous parent.
What I know is that there are some things where we just got lucky. We could not have dreamt that Alec would be as smart and passionate and kind as he is. Or that following his lead would work for us nearly without exception.
If it is now time to let go in some symbolic way, I am not ready. But I am proud. And filled with as much love as I was after Rick took a shower and drove too slowly to the hospital.
Happy Birthday, Alec.