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That Championship Season

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Spring 1998
That Championship Season
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Over 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 that night.

Before 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.

For 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.

But 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.

Women’s 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.”

Hardworking, 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.

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