May 31, 2023
If Not For Them showcases decades of women’s basketball history
'It didn't just happen that all of a sudden, girls could play in front of TV cameras and have 10 million people watch them in the final'
One conversation at a dinner table in Lubbock, Texas between Brenda VanLengen and Marsha Sharp in 2016 planted the seeds for what would become the documentary series If Not For Them. The pair met up shortly after Pat Summitt passed away and discussed that many coaching legends were in their retirement years, and some had already passed away.
VanLengen first thought a book might be the best way to share those stories, but busy schedules led to the idea being put on the shelf. When the COVID-19 pandemic left many people stuck at home, she learned about Zoom and realized she could begin collecting stories that may not have been heard in decades. What started as Zoom interviews focused on the 1970s ahead of the 50th anniversary of Title IX soon became professionally produced interviews of women who impacted women’s basketball over the course of decades.
As she was collecting her original Zoom interviews VanLengen found that the women that made a difference in the 1970s pointed her in the direction of the women of the 1950s and 1960s as they opened the doors and fought battles for them.
“That’s kind of what opened up my story arc, is finding the opportunity to find those women — if they’re still around — and talk to them about the opportunities they had in the 50s and the 60s. And then how they were positioned to be the leaders when we needed them the most when the NCAA wasn’t interested in women’s sports,” VanLengen told The Next. “What they did, how they did it, when Title IX was passed, what they did to battle, and that’s really what kind of outlined my idea.”
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Eventually, 10 interviews from Texas and a promo video to launch the website in August 2021 turned into more than 100 interviews with people from across the country. What came next was an hour-long sneak preview premiere in Dallas, Texas ahead of the 2023 Final Four in front of more than 200 people. Attendees had the chance to walk the red carpet as well as grab some snacks and a beverage before settling into the theatre.
Throughout the hour-long preview, after the initial popcorn crunching stopped, beverages were abandoned in cup holders as eyes were glued to the screen. Laughter erupted when called for, while in other moments an occasional head would nod in agreement. And for many moments in between, intent watching could be seen.
VanLengen described getting to watch people see the project for the first time as “amazing.”
“My vision has evolved and grown and really come together as I’ve interviewed all these 100+ women,” she said. “And so to be able to put the narrative together in a preview and to be able to show people the wide range of people that we’ve interviewed, the quality of the interviews, the archived footage and photographs that we have. … And everybody was just so grateful for what we’ve done in putting this together.”
The sneak preview includes portions of each of the ten episodes:
- Women’s Basketball Ready For Take-off
- Not For Everyone
- The Launching Pad
- We’ll do it Ourselves
- Title IX Tension in Texas
- The Heart in the Heartland
- West Coast Influence
- International Success — It Wasn’t Easy
- The Title IX Effect
- NCAA Takeover
The episodes cover decades of history, from discussions of the 1950s in the first episode to the NCAA’s takeover of the AIAW in 1982 and the lasting impact it had on the sport in the 10th.
“It’s the history,” former WBL player and president of Legends of the Ball Inc. Elizabeth
Galloway-Mcquitter told The Next after the premiere. “We know who came before us. And I think it’s important for everybody to know, every era and every contribution of every timeline. … Every era has their contribution that helped grow this game.”
VanLengen found that she had to adjust her story arc as she researched. “Ora Washington was a Black woman in Philadelphia in the 1930s and 40s, who was a star,” VanLengen said. “Big crowds came to watch the Philadelphia Tribune play basketball, and there was write-ups in the newspapers and she was an accomplished athlete in basketball and tennis as well.
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“And there’s Valerie Still, who is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at the University of Kentucky has done a lot of research on her own family and her personal history. But she’s also done a lot of research related to women’s basketball, particularly [involving] women of color. She reached out to me and we had some conversations that we want to make sure that this documentary series is inclusive of all those stories. And make sure that even though a big part of this story — of the women that had opportunities for national championships in the 50s and 60s, were in the AAU, but the AAU didn’t include women of color in most areas of the country. And so we want to make sure that all of the stories are told as we put this chronology together.”
VanLengen hopes that the docuseries is able to help people recognize the hard work and fight women put in in the past so the opportunities of today could exist.
“It didn’t just happen that all of a sudden, girls could play in front of TV cameras and have 10 million people watch them in the final. It didn’t just happen,” she said. “It took some people to fight some really hard battles to take advantage of opportunities to change social norms, to break down barriers, it took all of that, for us to even have what we do today. And I want people to know the history of when the NCAA took over, it wasn’t all — that also wasn’t solved and instantly successful. I mean, in some ways, we took a step back when women’s sports were taken over by the NCAA, we lost some momentum, we lost women leaders.”
Bessie Stockard, one of VanLengen’s favorite stories, captured the hearts of the audience during the sneak preview and the panel that followed. While she didn’t play basketball, she was a 12-time American Tennis Association national champion and played on the Virginia Slims Circuit with tennis greats, including Billie Jean King.
Eventually, Stockard went on to teach at Federal City College where she also coached basketball, volleyball, tennis and later cheerleading. Though she wasn’t paid for the first four years of coaching, once she was, it only further incentivized her to succeed.
“I felt if they rewarded me with paying me some money to do what I wanted to do and liked to do, then I should try to do my best to reward them,” she said during the panel discussion after the premiere.
Federal City College had 17 buildings around Washington, D.C. but no athletic facilities for the teams to practice or play in. The lack of facilities created some difficulties in scheduling for Stockard. “Some coaches would not play me because we played all my games in high schools,” she said. “I’ve been to every high school in Washington D.C., from 8-10 o’clock at night. I played at the University of Maryland, I played [at] Georgetown, I played at George Washington. … So I thank the coaches that gave me the opportunity to let those young ladies see facilities at other universities and get a chance to experience what the other schools were doing.”
Despite not having a home gym to practice in, Federal City College took reigning AIAW champions Delta State to overtime in the first round of the 1975 AIAW National Large College Basketball Championship.
Former Texas head coach Jody Conradt, former Louisiana Tech and Baylor head coach Sonja Hogg, former Texas Tech head coach Marsha Sharp and former Kansas head coach Marian E. Washington also shared their experiences as a part of the panel discussion. Conradt and Washington both took time to thank their former players that were in attendance including former WBL players Retha Swindell, who was the first Black women’s basketball player at Texas, and Adrian Mitchell-Newell, who shared how grateful she was to Washington after the premiere. “I love her, she changed my life,” Mitchell-Newell told The Next. “I was one of her first scholarships. And if not for her, I wouldn’t be who I [am] today.”
The premiere also gave the attendees the chance to see people they hadn’t seen in years or decades. Former Tennessee and WBL player and Division I and ABL coach Trish Roberts used to work at Marian E. Washington’s basketball camps during the summer.
“When she saw me she was just really excited,” Roberts told The Next. “And it goes [for] a lot of these coaches here when they see their older players or they see somebody that they played against and they know were good players, they get excited about it because they know that they not only are trailblazers, but we’re trailblazers as well.”
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Even the trailblazers learned new things from the documentary, including former Iowa high school basketball legend and WBL star Molly (Bolin) Kazmer. One of the most notable things she learned was the University of Texas’ pioneering influence.
“We learn a lot too because there’s just all these stories that you’re hearing for the first time,” she told The Next. “And that’s what’s so amazing. What [VanLengen] did is that she went out to so many different areas and people and coaches and pulled it all together in one place.”
Mitchell-Newell added, “I was excited to see all the history that was given and how much I didn’t know. And I was really moved by the AIAW movement because it’s something that I think about all the time because even now when I go to my school at the University of Kansas even though my name is up in the rafters I’m not in the Hall of Fame. And the reason that I’m not in the Hall of Fame is because all the NCAA [players] are in the Hall of Fame, but AIAW girls are not.”
She is most excited to see the full episode on the AIAW-NCAA transition. The sneak preview touched on the positives and negatives of the decision to leave the AIAW and if that decision should have been made.
“It was an economic decision, mostly that they thought they were going to get things that never did come to pass,” Mitchell-Newell said. “So just seeing the whole history and how people were feeling and the famous coaches, what they had to go through. So I’m looking forward to seeing all of that and where we are today.”
Though the sneak preview was full of excitement for the future and the full docuseries, there were also pauses for moments of reflection. Pat Summitt, whose passing was one event that spurred VanLengen’s creation of the docuseries, and others, including Billie Moore and Luisa Harris who were interviewed before their passing, were missed.
Roberts’ favorite part of the documentary was seeing the older coaches that she looked up to when she played basketball.
“I was telling Jody Conradt just now it’s times like this that I get really sad because my coach Pat Summitt is not here. I know that if she was here, she would have been right here on stage with everybody else,” Roberts said. “And Billie Moore, my Olympic coach. I am so glad that [VanLengen] got a chance to interview Billie before she died.”
If Not For Them is currently in its final phase of fundraising. It’s important to VanLengen to maintain ownership of the project and hopes the project can be distributed for educational purposes and eventually donated to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
After many years of hearing people tell her people aren’t interested in girls’ and women’s sports, VanLengen wants to educate people on the sport’s history and what it took to get to where we are today.
“I just always think it’s good for us to know where we came from, what battles had to be fought, and then to use that inspiration, use that knowledge, to continue to build things in a more positive way going into the future,” VanLengen said. “And I think we can learn a lot from those courageous and brave women and the men that supported them in those early years. I think we can learn a lot from them about how we can continue to provide opportunities going forward.”