The conversations were like old times for the Garner Rams girl’s basketball team of the ‘50s.
About eight of them – Barbara Kelly, Mary Lou Smith, Betty Jean Stevens Sorrell, Hazel Stevens Lee, Vivian Murray Collins, Margaret Rand Hilpert, Julia Sandy Church, Jean Cochrane Tonstall – got together and swapped old stories of times spent together on and off the court. They brought old photos and newspaper articles and showed them off. Many laughs were going around.
They took group photos, just no selfies.
“I feel like it was like we never left each other,” Julia Sandy Church, who played from 1953-1956, said. “That we just picked up where we left off.”
A few weeks ago, the teams of the ‘50s were inducted into the Trojan Hall of Fame. They are some of the pioneers for the girls who play today. When they called out their names, there was silence in the room, as if a sign of respect, they said.
“It was a big honor,” Betty Jean Stevens Sorrell, who played from 1950-53.
“I always knew I’d be famous but I never thought it would be for basketball,” Margaret Rand Hilpert, who played from 1955-58, joked. “But I’ll take it.”
Basketball was the only sport for girls in the ’50s. But the players on the team said they never had that mindset.
Mary Lou Smith, 80, who played from 1948-52, said she was taught that she could do anything the boys could do.
Barbara Kelly, who played from 1953-56, was one of the girls who wanted to play a different sport. She eventually set out to change the rules.
Some of the players still live in Garner, while others have moved elsewhere. Of the 144 players who played during those years, 25 have since died.
It started with an idea to have a reunion. Kelly led the efforts in trying to find all of the former players. She called a few people, who called a few people, who called a few of the past boy’s basketball players, who also helped call around.
After rounding up the most people they could find, they had a reunion.
Everyone loved to watch the girls play. Nearly every game was packed.
“We were the draw,” Kelly said. “We outdrew guys. We would fill the gymnasium, standing room only. And when the guys came on to play, everybody would leave,” she laughed.
“There would be a blue haze in the gymnasium (because) people smoked in the gyms,” Hilper added.
The game has changed over the years. The girls could only dribble once before passing the ball. Three guards would stand on one side of the floor and three forwards would stand on the other side for each team.
You couldn’t cross half court. Things were much different compared to today.
“We didn’t have trainers or doctors,” Kelly said. “We had managers. That’s about it. We didn’t have Gatorade. We had water.”
“We didn’t have weight training. If we did any weight training it was on the tobacco farms.”
Most of the girls on the team lived on farms in Garner. So when they were not in school or playing basketball they primed tobacco.
Garner was the best team in the county, winning four straight county championships from 1955-58.
“She and I played for fun,” Mary Lou Smith said, pointing at Betty Jean Stevens Sorrell. “They played to win,” she said joking.
Cary was their biggest rival. Each year it was the game they circled on their calendars.
“Cary always got everything and we were like the step-children,” Church said. “We just wanted to beat them.”
Hazel Stevens Lee, who played from 1953-1956, said one year they played Cary, Cary’s top scorer was on fire. James Stevens, her older brother, was Garner’s coach at the time.
Cary’s top scorer had 36 points in the first half.
James told Linda Stevens, Hazel’s younger sister, that he would put her on Cary’s best player, and if she held her to under 10 points, he would buy her a Cadillac. Lisa Stevens held her to eight points.
“She’s still waiting on that Cadillac,” she said. The women all laughed.
When they left, they hugged, and swapped contact information
For them, once a teammate, always a teammate.