Title IX’s impact has turned gray, and that’s a good thing thanks to the growth of women’s senior sports.
Take, for example, a seven-member Triangle women’s basketball team in the 50-54 age group at the National Senior Games. The Steel Cans – as in “still can” play – brought home a silver medal from the Olympics-styled event staged earlier this month in Minnesota.
“I fell in love with basketball again,” said Pam Leake, a University of North Carolina 1986 Kodak All-American pick. “I had no idea there was still a place for me to continue playing a game I love.”
The Steel Cans were high school players in the late 1970s and early 1980s, placing them on history’s arc among the first female athletes to benefit from the 1972 Title IX federal legislation mandating equal opportunities. The same was true of their college opportunities. And now they’re competing as AARP cards arrive in the mail.
“We all have a love for the game,” said Kathy Hains, a Clayton resident and Peace College basketball alum. “We like to stay active. We enjoy the camaraderie of playing basketball, but if we weren’t playing basketball, we’d be doing something else. It’s important to have an active lifestyle.”
Leake’s 22.4 points per game her All-American season still stands as a UNC record; she also played on the Tar Heels’ first ACC championship team in 1984. Her Triangle roots include leading Chapel Hill High to a N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state title as a junior in 1982.
But she hadn’t played competitive basketball since the early 1990s. That changed upon a chance meeting with a couple of Steel Cans. They invited her to join their fledging team, and they won the North Carolina Senior Games state title in October to quality for the National Senior Games.
Steel Cans teammate Debby Stroman played at Virginia and was a UNC assistant coach during Leake’s playing days. Now a doctorate professor at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, she also serves as the WCHL 97.9 FM Radio analyst for UNC women’s basketball games.
Who better to break down the team’s style of play to claim a silver medal?
“Three-on-three basketball is a fast-paced game of possessions to be successful,” Stroman said. “We didn’t have tall players – the knees of most players over 6-foot-2 are messed up – but we had capable shooters. Our go-to player was Pam Leake. Pam can play all three positions. We thought we would do a lot of pick-and-rolls, but we also did a lot of clearing out for isolation plays. Generally we had talent for passing and shooting.”
Leake learned the hard way senior competition may be slower but not necessarily softer. She and Stroman were the team’s leading scorers, but when Stroman was injured for the championship game, Below the Rim, the opponent from Colorado, focused its defense on Leake.
“I’m still hurting from them beating me up,” she said with a laugh.
All seven Steel Cans played college basketball. The others were LuAnn Underhill, Peace College and Appalachian State; Jackie Allison, North Carolina; Karen LaVert, Eastern Michigan; and Rita Roy, Mount Olive College.
Allison, a former teacher and coach at Ravenscroft and East Cary Middle School, is the senior pioneer at age 58 (you can play down an age group but not up). She played basketball and tennis at Kinston High in Title IX’s formative years. This was before women’s sports were an avenue to college.
Allison had already enrolled at North Carolina when she learned about tryouts for the first women’s basketball team in the 1974-75 school year. She finished a four-year letterman for the Tar Heels.
“There were no scholarships until they gave the first one my sophomore year,” Allison said. “But I remember practicing before big crowds some days. Fans waiting for tickets to the men’s games were allowed into (Carmichael Arena) while we practiced.”
Allison serves on the N.C. Senior Games Board of Directors and has joined her 82-year-old mother, Fran Allison, in senior competition. Fran won ribbons in track and field and tennis events at the National Senior Games.
North Carolina has the largest senior games program in the nation, according to NCSG associate director Lynn Harrell. There are 53 local games representing 100 counties prior to the state games. Not all states have local games prior to state finals.
In 1998, there were nine women’s basketball teams participating from ages 55 to 65 in the state finals. By 2014 there were 18 women’s teams from ages 50 to 75.
American television networks might only trumpet Title IX at high-profile events such as the U.S. women’s soccer team of 20-somethings winning the World Cup and generating ratings, but the nearly half-century old law now spans a broader age spectrum. The Steel Cans have been riding the arc from one side to the other.
“It was exciting to see women competing in older divisions,” said Stroman of basketball and other sports. “Older women used to gather to play bridge. It’s great to see that mind shift.”