‘If Not for Them’: Brenda VanLengen’s Journey to Document Women’s Basketball

Sportscaster Brenda VanLengen is producing a series on women’s basketball and women’s empowerment: “I see this an opportunity for me to say thank you to all of those who came before me, so those going forward know on whose shoulders we stand.”

Sportscaster Brenda VanLengen interviews University of Connecticut women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma. (Courtesy)

While Brenda VanLengen was growing up in a small town in Nebraska, Title IX passed in 1972. She credits that piece of legislation with the shape of her life.

She was only 7 years old then, and her local high school didn’t have girls’ basketball. By the time she was 10, however, the school had added the sport that would become central for VanLengen.

“I’m so fortunate that [Title IX] happened when it did,” she told Ms. Without it, she explained, “I wouldn’t have the life that I do or the career that I do.”

VanLengen is a TV sports analyst and play-by-play announcer for college women’s sports. She has called women’s basketball games on various networks such as ESPN, SEC Network and the Big Ten Network for 27 years.

Following college, VanLengen spent a few years coaching women’s basketball, and in 1995, she started to call a few games a year for Nebraska Public Television. Her big break came when she went to watch a Kansas-Kansas State women’s basketball game. One of the announcers for the Fox Sports broadcast didn’t show up, and so she was asked to step in and do the national media broadcast. So, on about 20 minutes’ notice, she made her full-game national TV debut.

She’s been calling games ever since.

She’s now also embarked on a new venture producing a docuseries about the women who grew the sport of women’s basketball before Title IX, If Not for Them.

VanLengen said she realized that many of the pioneers in college women’s basketball were retiring, and the death of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit spurred her to start collecting as many stories of these players and coaches as she could. With this year marking 50th anniversary of Title IX, she started by focusing on the women who played and coached in the ’70s and fought the early battles for Title IX—but, she said, they told her that the women in the ’50s and ’60s really were the ones who laid the foundation for today’s game.

In the 1950s and ’60s, pockets of the country did provide opportunities for girls and women to play basketball. Those women who did have the chance to play, to compete, and to understand the value of sports for women were the ones who, when the NCAA wasn’t interested in women’s basketball in the late ’60s, developed their own organization, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Before AIAW, women competed in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) programs. Today, many people have never heard of some of the best teams of that era—like the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens, Nashville Business College or Iowa Wesleyan. VanLengen notes, however, that many of these teams were all white, and so she is also purposefully seeking out women of color who often played at Historically Black Colleges and Universities or in city programs.

Marian Washington, who played at West Chester State University, became the first Black woman to coach at a predominantly white institution, leading the University of Kansas women’s basketball team to 11 NCAA tournament appearances and two Sweet 16 games across her 31 seasons there. She was also one of the first two black women to represent the USA in an international basketball competition.

VanLengen started by focusing on the women who played and coached in the ’70s and fought the early battles for Title IX—but they told her that the women in the ’50s and ’60s really were the ones who laid the foundation for today’s game.

Marian Washington was the first Black woman to coach women’s basketball at a predominantly white institution, the University of Kansas. (If Not for Them)

VanLengen said there are a number of stories that have not been told that will be told in this docuseries. She hopes viewers will learn names and accomplishments and make connections to current day people.

What created success in places like Wayland Baptist, Nashville Business College, and Iowa Wesleyan, VanLengen said, is a champion—“someone in those communities that cared, someone that made things happen.”

Wayland Baptist and Iowa Wesleyan were the first two colleges to offer women’s basketball scholarships. For Wayland, a businessman with a fleet of airplanes and his wife began to fly the team across the country and provide other essentials to play.

“They set a blueprint,” VanLengen said, that if you invest in women, if you support them, they can thrive.” Players from Iowa Wesleyan “piled into a station wagon” and drove across the country to play, not without a little envy of Wayland. The success of these schools, VanLengen notes, raised awareness that “women can play basketball.”

The Flying Queens, VanLengen said, “were a show.” They wore satiny uniforms and flew around in airplanes. In warm-ups, they did ball handling routines that often intimidated the other team. They learned these routines when they were once snowed in the same hotel with the Harlem Globetrotters. Their coach asked if the Globetrotters would teach them some ball handling tricks. So they got together in a ballroom and learned the routines from the Globetrotters.

Wayland Baptist University’s women’s basketball team became known as the “Flying Queens” after a local businessman started using his planes to fly the team around the country so they could face the best teams. (Courtesy)

Without giving away too much of the story, VanLengen points out how young women in the early 60s went to watch these teams or even play on them at AAU championships and were inspired to go onto their own successful careers in coaching women’s basketball. Then their players went on to be successful coaches. “It’s the old ‘If you see it, you can be it,’” VanLengen explains.

In the early 20th century, VanLengen points out, physical education teachers themselves discouraged women’s competition, thinking it was not good for their reproductive capacity or their femininity. Not until the teams of the ’50s and ’60s pushed against that belief was there a sense that women could actually play ball. High schools and colleges didn’t have a lot of organized team sports in most places, and it took the AAU success to challenge assumptions that women couldn’t compete.

Early on, women’s basketball was played with six players, three on each end of the court, because of fears that women weren’t physically capable of running up and down the court. AAU played a modified version of that by the 50s, with two rovers who played full court while the others stayed on their half. “I guess they thought at least a couple of women could run up and down the full court,” VanLengen laughed. Finally, in 1969-70, women’s college basketball went to 5-on-5.

VanLengen shares this story to sum up. Lucille Kyvallos, who is celebrating her 90th birthday this summer, was an outstanding athlete in her own right who said her talents were wasted because so little opportunity was given to women athletes. Kyvallos eventually coached at West Chester State in the mid 1960s, going 52-7. She then coached at New York’s Queens College which, under Coach Kyvallos, hosted the 1973 AIAW National Championship. Queens finished second against defending national champion Immaculata University. Since the game was in New York, it created a buzz in the New York area media, and, two years later, Queens played Immaculata in the first women’s college game in Madison Square Garden before a crowd of nearly 12,000.

Lucille Kyvallos coached the women’s basketball at New York’s Queens College which competed against Immaculata University in 1975 in the first women’s college game played in Madison Square Garden. (If Not for Them)

“Think about the time,” VanLengen said. “It was the ’70s. Billie Jean King had just beaten Bobby Riggs. It was the feminist movement. It was the time when women’s rights were being celebrated and fought for, and as Immaculata and Queens College went out on the court in Madison Square Garden, Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman, Hear Me Roar’ was playing.”

She concluded, “It was a real jumping off point for women’s basketball in conjunction with the Women’s Movement. And it came about because of Lucille Kyvallos, somebody who said her talents were wasted.”

“There are so many stories,” VanLengen said. She hopes her effort to capture these stories across the country will inspire each campus to look at its own history and tell those stories so the efforts of these women are not lost.

Gail Marquis played for coach Lucille Kyvallos on the Queens College women’s basketball team. She went on to play on the U.S. national team that won silver in the 1976 Olympics. (If Not for Them)

VanLengen is still looking for investors to complete the project. A grassroots fundraising campaign has already supported filming a number of interviews with former players and coaches. VanLengen hopes to produce 10 episodes, and, while she’s made a lot of progress with grassroots funding, she’s hoping to find donors or companies that want to amplify and illuminate these stories. The stories, VanLengen said, are about women’s basketball on one level, but they are also about women’s empowerment generally.

“Because I’ve had the career that I’ve had, I feel a sense of obligation and just gratitude for what I’ve been able to do. I see this an opportunity for me to say thank you to all of those who came before me and to help preserve and to share their stories so those going forward know on whose shoulders we stand.”

You can contact VanLengen through the ifnotforthem.com website or by emailing her at ifnotforthem@gmail.com.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.