Prep Basketball

End of gender discrimination in sports led to great things

Melissa Isaacson's new book is on her team that navigated early years of Title IX ... and won

North Polk vs. Waukon in an Iowa high school girls' state basketball tournament game in March. (The Gazette)
North Polk vs. Waukon in an Iowa high school girls' state basketball tournament game in March. (The Gazette)
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It’s so taken for granted now. Title IX is a civil rights law that mandates gender equity to American schools that receive federal financial aid.

But it was less than a half-century ago when Title IX became law, and many of the pioneers of women’s athletics in America walk among us with great stories to tell.

One is Melissa Isaacson, a former sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune and ESPN, and a current faculty member of Northwestern University’s esteemed Medill School of Journalism. She is a University of Iowa graduate, and was an assistant sports editor at the Daily Iowan

Isaacson has a new book out called “State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation.” It’s about being part of a girls’ basketball team at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., in the 1970s that from being a new program when she was an underclassman to winning the state championship in her senior year. It’s a terrific book, one that should resonate with a lot of people.

On one level it’s a personal story, of an insecure high school girl who was like millions of high school kids before and after her, shy, a bit goofy, and quite passionate about something or things.

In Isaacson’s case, that was basketball. It was trying to excel at the game and wanting so much to be part of a championship team, and also learning what it was like to be part of a team and the highs and lows that can come with that.

Being able to play high school basketball, Isaacson said, “completely changed lives.

“We’re cynical as journalists,” she said. “We’re taught to eschew clichés, kind of roll our eyes. But when you think about girls of my generation, they had no access to ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team.’

“For us, the clichés about goal setting and teamwork and motivation opened up a world for us that we had never experienced. Until girls of the ‘70s had grown up, you didn’t see many women executives. Although, you still don’t see enough.”

Arlene Mulder, Isaacson’s first coach at Niles West, went on to be a widely respected five-term mayor of Arlington Heights, Ill. Most of Isaacson’s teammates went on to be successful and impactful adults. Opportunity for youth combined with help from the right adult or two can be eternally powerful things.

The book was 15 years in the making. It began, Isaacson said, as just a story about a championship team to get on paper for her teammates and family members. It evolved, she said, “as something I wanted to share with more people. I like to think it resonates outside of the Niles West community and Chicago and Illinois, because in many ways it’s a universal story, and not just for women.”

For one thing, upon interviewing the adult versions of her high school friends Isaacson learned many of them dealt with serious issues at home as kids that they kept to themselves.

“We all think our stuff is stuff nobody probably is interested to know,” said Isaacson, “whether it’s parents divorcing or fighting, alcoholic parents, a death in the family. We can feel very much alone.

“For me as an adult finding out all those things, in a weird way it gave me a warm feeling knowing basketball was incredible therapy for us, a way to get through tough times.”

In Isaacson’s first season of girls’ basketball, her team was really good but couldn’t get anyone interested in it. But by the time it reached the 1979 state tourney it won in Champaign, it had loads of fans following it downstate. The championship game was televised on Chicago superstation WGN.

That in itself makes for a really good story. But no matter your age or background, I’d be surprised if you read this book and don’t feel connections. Which makes it a really fine book.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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