That Championship Season
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the next couple of decades, the road to full acceptance for the
women’s game would seem at times paved with speed bumps, but no
matter: The ultimate victory had been set in motion in Pauley Pavilion
1978, collegiate women’s basketball held a national championship
that was barely reported and rarely followed. The entire tournament
was an exhausting affair, with 16 teams competing over a single
weekend. “We played basketball day, night -- forever,” recalls Judith
Holland, at the time both president of the AIAW, the governing body
of women’s sports, and the women’s athletic director at UCLA.
years the tournament had been dominated by small colleges like Immaculata,
a Pennsylvania Catholic school whose entire student enrollment of
500 would fit into a UCLA lecture hall. Immaculata had won three
consecutive titles and its rival, Delta State of Cleveland, Mississippi,
won the next three in a row.
in 1978, the championship was scheduled to be played at Pauley,
a legendary hoops hotbed, not some backwater gym. Holland pushed
her colleagues to change the tournament format to a Final Four in
the style of men’s basketball.
basketball was starting to attract attention because of the presence
of Ann Meyers, the first woman to receive a full UCLA athletic scholarship.
Meyers had entered the university in fall 1974, the same season
her brother David led the men’s basketball team to its last title
under John Wooden. In her sophomore year, People magazine gave her
a two-page spread, suggesting that Meyers was the best female hoopster
in the world. By her senior year, she was named All-America four
times. Sports Illustrated dubbed her “the best UCLA basketball player
with a girl’s name since Gail Goodrich.”
focused and generous, Meyers was popular with fellow players and
the press. All the attention she got didn’t faze her teammates.
Asked by SI what it was like to labor under Meyers’ shadow, center
Heidi Nestor said, “Annie is such a completely unselfish player
that she casts no shadow.” She was the perfect poster girl for a
sport still struggling to capture a devoted following.