Title I


By Paul Feinberg '85, Photos by Coral von Zumwalt

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Members of UCLA's champion 1978 women's basketball team recall what basketball was like then, and how the game has changed.

(Left to right) Denise Curry, Coach Billie Moore, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Anita Ortega.

UCLA’s storied basketball history has included many national championships. But only three of the title teams featured three eventual members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Can you name them?

Two easily come to mind: Jamaal (aka Keith) Wilkes ’74, Bill Walton ’74 and Coach John Wooden brought home the season’s big trophy in both 1972 and 1973.

The third?

In 1977, freshman Denise Curry and new UCLA head coach Billie Moore arrived in Westwood to team with senior superstar Ann Meyers. The trio of future Hall of Famers led the Bruins to their first and only national title in women’s basketball. The current 2017 campaign marks the 40th anniversary of that special season.

A Different World

The landscape for women’s basketball — and women’s athletics in general — four decades ago is barely recognizable when compared to today. Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits exclusion from participation in educational programs and activities on the basis of sex, passed in 1972, creating new opportunities for young women that their contemporary counterparts now take for granted.

Today’s path from high school hardwood to college court is more or less the same for girls as for boys, mostly comprising youth leagues, club teams and high school ball. Players with enough talent, skill and drive get noticed somewhere along the line, and eventually a college coach offers up a scholarship. Not so in the 1970s.

Consider Anita Ortega ’82, who earned all-league honors as a starter alongside Meyers and Curry on the 1978 squad. As a kid, she dreamed of attending UCLA and, though she starred on the court for Los Angeles High School, Ortega received athletic scholarship offers only from schools out of state. She earned her way to Westwood in the classroom, receiving a partial academic scholarship. After she walked on to the team her first year, she received an athletic scholarship for subsequent seasons.

“Somehow, I became aware that UCLA was having tryouts for the basketball team, and I said, ‘I’m gonna go for it,’” Ortega says. She credits Judith Holland, then a UCLA athletics director and early Title IX proponent, who believed participating in athletics would expand horizons for young women. “The mentality back then was that if you gave a girl an athletic scholarship, she would be corrupted,” Ortega says. “Dr. Holland believed that athletics would pave their way as women in society. [And] that’s exactly what it did.”

Anita Ortega (right) and Ann Meyers Drysdale shoot hoops on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Court at the new Mo Ostin Basketball Center.

Meyers ’79, known as Ann Meyers Drysdale since her 1986 marriage to Dodgers Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, is considered by many the greatest women’s player of all time. She actually earned a spot on the USA Basketball Women’s National Team before she had a single college scholarship offer.

“I had no idea where I was going to college,” Meyers Drysdale says. “I didn’t know there were scholarships out there.” She chose UCLA when her brother David ’80 (who himself won two titles playing for Wooden) brought UCLA women’s coach Kenny Washington ’67 home to ask her if she wanted to be a Bruin. “That one weekend when my brother and Kenny Washington came over — that was my recruiting.”

The Wooden connection was meaningful to Curry ’82, as well. She played in the camp Wooden and Bill Sharman ran together, along with then-UCLA women’s head coach Ellen Mosher. Curry was also recruited by Moore — who had coached the USA Basketball Women’s National Team to a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics — to play at Fullerton.

“I was 13 years old when Title IX passed; there weren’t athletic scholarships when I started playing [in high school]. Had I not received a full ride, I would not have been able to come to UCLA,” Curry says. Ironically, Moore replaced Mosher at UCLA and ended up coaching Curry for her entire UCLA career.

Better Than Advertised

Going into the 1977-1978 season, the Bruins knew they were good, but with a new coach calling the shots, the team wasn’t necessarily thinking “national championship.”

Anita Ortega.

“The biggest challenge for a coach is to try to identify what each player’s strengths are, and to find ways and opportunities to put them at their strengths,” Moore says, recalling that the style of play she coached differed from her predecessor’s. “The thing that always impressed me is how open and willing each player was to buy in, and how it became so much more important for us to do everything as a team. That was primary from the first day of practice all the way through the championship.”

“I couldn’t have done the things I did without the teammates I had,” Meyers Drysdale says. “Anita Ortega was a gifted athlete and had all the moves. My nickname for her was Juice — she had as many moves as O.J. Dianne Frierson was a heck of a basketball player from Tennessee ... she was the shooter. Curry could beat you in a lot of different ways, she could put the ball on the floor, but she could certainly hit the outside shot. Heidi Nestor, she was tough. Denise Corlett '81 was so smart, and Beth Moore was a heck of a point guard. And Billie, she knew how to use them.”

Curry returned the compliment. “Everybody knew who Annie was,” Curry says of Meyers Drysdale’s reputation as one of the sport’s true stars. “But she was a really, really good teammate. She didn’t care who scored, she just cared that we were successful as a team. Annie was a really great leader, just selfless. I feel privileged to have played with her.”

The 1978 Bruins’ final record was 27-3. All three losses occurred on the team’s first-ever East Coast road swing: Delta State (at Madison Square Garden), Maryland and North Carolina State. The latter loss hit Meyers Drysdale particularly hard; her brother David had played on the UCLA men’s team that lost to the Wolfpack in the 1974 Final Four, and the fans rode her mercilessly. The team returned to Westwood 6-3. They wouldn’t lose again.

Denise Curry.

UCLA’s closest call came against Long Beach State in the West Regional. With UCLA trailing by two with five seconds left and the 49ers in possession, Ortega stole the ball and tied the game with a layup as time expired. The Bruins won in overtime. Meyers Drysdale recalls that the team was forced to fly to Palo Alto the day of the game instead of going up the night before, which would be unheard of today.

“I was the captain, I had gone to all the players and said, ‘Don’t you think we ought to be flying up the day before and get our rest and then play the next day?’ They all agreed with me, and so I presented it to Billie,” Meyers Drysdale says. “And Billie said, ‘No.’ So I wasn’t a happy camper. But again, when you’re a player, you don’t understand all the financial things that are going on.”

Today, Moore recognizes that the support for women’s basketball in the ’70s might not have been ideal, but at the time it wasn’t something she wanted to make a big deal about: “One of the things that’s important to remember is that UCLA was on an equal playing field with everyone else.”

The Final Four was held in Pauley Pavilion. Curry says she’ll never forget how the crowd stood and erupted when the team descended onto the Pauley floor and crossed to their locker room. The Bruins’ semifinal game against Montclair State featured the game’s two best players: Meyers Drysdale and the nation’s leading scorer, Carol Blazejowski. “Blaze was a special player,” says Meyers Drysdale. “We held her to 40 points, but nobody else scored in double figures, and we ended up winning by 12 or 15.” (The score was actually 85-77.) That set up a chance to avenge the regular season loss to Maryland and play for the title.

In the final, Ortega scored a game-high 23 and Meyers Drysdale filled the box score with a 20-10-9-8 line as the Bruins topped the Terps, 90-74, for the AIAW national title. You read that right — the only women’s basketball national title in the school’s history was not sanctioned by the NCAA, nor is it included in the school’s 113 NCAA championships. (At press time, UCLA is tied with Stanford for the most NCAA titles.) After all this time, this distinction still rankles Curry.

“People say UCLA hasn’t won an NCAA title in women’s basketball,” Curry says. “No, it’s not an NCAA title, but we certainly have won a national title. And a lot of people think if it wasn’t the NCAA, it didn’t count, or it’s not the same. That’s something that bothers me a little bit, because a national championship is a national championship, period.”

Anne Meyers Drysdale on the court named after her.

Coach Billie Moore.

Change Is Slow — But Steady

Meanwhile, men’s athletics were not immune to the impact of Title IX, either. In order to become compliant with the law (which requires that opportunities for women and men must reflect the demographics of the overall student body), UCLA eliminated several men’s teams — including swimming, rowing and gymnastics, a team that had won multiple national championships and featured Olympians such as Peter Vidmar ’83, Tim Daggett ’86 and Mitch Gaylord.

“There are people who still refer to it as the demise of men’s collegiate sports. They blame Title IX for a lot of men’s sports getting eliminated. To me, that really is like, wow,” Curry says. “It was OK for over half the population to not have opportunities, and nobody cared about that for the longest time. And here we are 45 years later, and everybody still isn’t in compliance.”

Kathleen Salvaty became the UC Systemwide Title IX Coordinator early last year, after a two-year stint as UCLA’s Title IX coordinator. The good news is that athletic compliance is not her primary concern. The bad news is that more serious issues occupy her time.

“We certainly are cognizant that Title IX still encompasses gender equity in athletics, but there is no question that how we see Title IX in 2017 is quite different than how we saw it even 10 years ago,” Salvaty says. “In 2011, the Obama Administration Office for Civil Rights sent guidance to the colleges and universities and reminded them that Title IX prohibits sex discrimination, and that includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, and you colleges and universities have an obligation to do something about it. This is what we expect of you.”

“It’s not a suggestion, it’s legislation,” Curry says of Title IX. “It’s done tremendous things. But we’re still not where we should be.”