REVISITING THE MOTHER OF WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

“I went down to the demonstration,
To get my fair share of abuse…”

From “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
On an October night in 1984, some 25 members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) took more than their fair share of abuse from male basketball fans as they demonstrated on behalf of equal rights regarding the Basketball Hall of Fame, a Springfield institution since 1968. They wanted the world to know that basketball’s Valhalla really was nothing more than a male-only club which completely ignored the women’s game.
At the time, the Springfield Civic Center was hosting the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz in an NBA exhibition played for the benefit of the Hall of Fame. Two hours before the doors opened, NOW members and sympathizers gathered outside the arena’s main entrance.

One of them carried a sign which read, “Biggest shutout in basketball history, 143-0.” That said it all – 143 men elected to the Hall of Fame, and no women.

Abuse? One of the protesters was told, “Wear your bra tighter.” That remark was made by a male basketball fan to Dr. Mimi Murray of Springfield College, a nationally-respected coach and educator. Another heckler said, “Women can’t dribble.” Still another shouted, “Build your own Hall of Fame.”
Well, never underestimate the power of protest. Only five months after NOW’s demonstration, the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Honors Committee announced that Senda Berenson Abbott, Margaret Wade and Bertha Teague (TEEG) would be part of its Class of 1985.

Berenson Abbott of Smith College would go in as the duly recognized “mother of women’s basketball.” Wade was elected as a highly-successful coach at Delta State in Mississippi. Teague was recognized for her long and illustrious career as a high school coach in Byng, Okla.

There they were – the Basketball Hall of Fame’s first women. The election of Berenson Abbott was especially significant, because she had taught basketball to her phys-ed classes in January of 1892, less than a month after she visited James Naismith at the Springfield YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) to talk about the game he had just invented. In March of 1893, she organized and refereed the first public women’s basketball game. Then, for 20 years, she served as national editor of the women’s basketball rulebook.

The Hall of Fame began its elections in 1959. While other pioneers were recognized in the first and second elections, Berenson’s pioneering work went unnoticed for 26 years.

In late June of 1985, the Hall of Fame finally became what it had always claimed to be – a shrine for all of basketball – with the induction of its Class of 1985 at Chez Josef in Agawam. At last, the Hall of Fame had shed its “unisex” label.

Now, as women’s basketball celebrates the 30th anniversary of that breakthrough, it’s a proper time to remember the people who made it happen.

Foremost among them would be Agnes Stillman, a 1971 Smith College graduate. For her master’s thesis in physical education, she chose to tell the life story of Senda Berenson, and all that she had accomplished in her 20 years at Smith. When Stillman finished the thesis, she wondered . . . why isn’t Senda in the Basketball Hall of Fame?

So, Stillman began nominating her, but after four such attempts, she never did get a reply. Finally, in frustration, she wrote to The Sunday Republican, letting it be known that the Hall of Fame was ignoring her.
Meanwhile, a basketball dad named Ed Pomeroy was bombarding the Hall of Fame with letters demanding that the women’s game be recognized. He was inspired by his daughter, who had played at Chicopee High.
The Stillman and Pomeroy protests brought action from The Sunday Republican. Columnist Gerry Finn interviewed director Lee Williams about the Hall of Fame’s male-only aspect. In his response, Williams said, “If James Naismith is the father of basketball, then Senda Berenson is the mother of women’s basketball,” but he pointed out that he had no say with the Honors Committee.

After the Williams interview, this newspaper continued to press the issue, and caught the attention of NOW. Meanette Vermes, the local chapter president, pointed out that public funds were being used to build a new Hall of Fame on Columbus Avenue (the predecessor to the current facility), and that meant women had to be part of it. She and Maxine Garber organized the Civic Center protest.

On enshrinement night, the crowd applauding the election of women included Agnes Stillman and her family. As she told Yours Truly, “I am so glad. I thought it would never happen. Senda was such a great lady, my fear was that the memory of her eventually would fade, that the world would lose sight of what she had done.”

Well, thanks to her and advocates like her, Senda is well remembered now, and the Hall of Fame continues to honor women among its electees.
Since 1985, a total of 29 women and two women’s teams have been elected. Not a great number considering the scope of women’s basketball, but certainly better than that 143-0 “shutout” of 1984.

Postscript: Two years after her induction into the Springfield shrine, Senda Berenson Abbott was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knxoville, Tenn. In 2012, when the Smith College Athletic Hall of Fame was formed, she was part of the first class to be enshrined. In addition, the edge of Smith’s basketball floor bears an italic inscription in large letters, “Senda Berenson Court.”