In the 1970s, an overhaul in federal law called Title IX created an opening for a group of young women who were hungry to play organized sports, and it taught them lessons that went far beyond offense and defense.
The 1978-79 Niles West High School girls basketball team was just the third team to capture the girls state championship, a concept only then in its infancy.
That team is the subject of the new book “State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation,” written by a member of that championship team, Melissa Isaacson. A longtime sportswriter who’s worked for ESPN and the Chicago Tribune, she’s also a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Below, an excerpt from “State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation.”
Being a 15-year-old in the summer of 1977 meant I could work as an assistant counselor at Lincolnwood Recreation Day Camp, but I couldn’t be paid. It meant I had friends who could drive, but no one had cars. It meant that it was going to be a long summer, and it meant that with Connie seemingly a million miles away in Morton Grove and Shirley in New Jersey visiting her relatives, there was no one to play basketball with every day as I had planned.
Apparently, Shirley was not much happier. In her latest letter, she described in painful detail how her family’s car broke down on the way to New Jersey. But if that was supposed to cheer me up, it did not. Her next paragraph detailed the “mansion” she was staying in with four floors and 10 bedrooms and a backyard 10 times the size of hers. But she did say she was bored stiff and had no friends, so that made me feel a little better.
Shirley never talked too much about these trips east she made every summer, seemingly against her will. The mansion was her grandfather’s house; her mother’s father was an importer of children’s clothing. The community in which she was ensconced was basically the entire Sephardic Jewish population of Brooklyn. They came to Deal, New Jersey, every summer, a tight-knit group that looked after one another and cared about each other, a group where the women cooked and shared recipes, got their nails done, and shopped for shoes while their husbands provided for all their basic needs and much more. Mostly, their income came from importing and exporting, and mostly, like Shirley’s grandfather, it was in the garment business.
It was a world where the husbands made exotic buying trips to Hong Kong while their daughters had great figures and wore high heels to the pool and did not go to college for, surely, they would just get married anyway. And it was a place where Shirley’s parents hoped Shirley and her older sister, Denise, eventually would find a suitable (read: rich) husband.
Shirley knew all about her parents’ intentions, but while the other girls in New Jersey were busy applying makeup and talking about which shoes to buy, she worked as a cook’s helper at a summer camp, played one-on-one whenever she could get up a game, and worried that the rest of us were working harder than she was.
“I swear I’m all excited for b-ball already,” she wrote to me in August. “Maybe it’s because I haven’t played too much. I played a boy (15 yrs. old and good) and I beat him but it was close and I should have wiped him. But nevertheless, I AM HUNGRY.”
We were hungry, too. Well, some of us, anyway. Connie and I were signed up for Niles West’s two-week basketball camp, but we were a little concerned that Diana and Bridget were not. What we didn’t know was that Diana was doing missionary work for the Mormon Church with her family that summer and that Bridget’s parents told her they couldn’t afford to send her to camp.
Mrs. Mulder, wanting to spend more time with her family, handed over the basketball camp reins to Mr. Schnurr and made periodic visits. Connie and I could have stayed there all day instead of the couple of hours we had each morning, savoring the time we had with Mr. Schnurr. Besides, any extra time in the gym was still considered a treat, and despite our best intentions, it was pretty much the only time we ever got to play together that summer.
I rode my bike the five miles from my house to Niles West, then went back to work at Proesel Park for my assistant counselor duties. After basketball camp ended, both of us went back to work full-time—me as a counselor and Connie, who had turned 16 in January, as a waitress at a restaurant in Morton Grove. With Connie not having a driver’s license and with both of us working, we may as well have been on separate coasts.
And so we had to be content to give each other daily phone reports on our progress. Connie worked the playground and Morton Grove Community Center hard, while I shot on our backyard hoop and picked up games with male camp counselors whenever I could, which frankly did not do me a lot of good unless I could find miniature camp counselors. In between, I set up folding chairs in the backyard, as I had done since I was eight, and tried to work on dribbling with my nondominant hand. I was a good ball handler, could dribble through most any press, and was great at dribbling through my legs, which would work out wonderfully if that opportunity ever presented itself in a game and Mrs. Mulder would not promptly remove me from the team for trying it. But I was still weak going to my left side, and any defender who had any head at all could exploit that, as my brothers had been telling me for years.
Peggy had something to work toward as well, and suddenly the body to work with. After spending the last part of the season on the varsity roster for practice purposes, she was now 5-10 and among the tallest girls we had coming back next season. Her mom, noticing the newfound enthusiasm in her daughter and looking for something to keep her busy, took note of an advertisement for Badger-Sloan basketball camp in the church bulletin.
Ed Badger was the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and former Bulls great Jerry Sloan was doing part-time work as a scout and struggling to find a niche after his career was ended prematurely by a knee injury the season before. Their camp was in Angel Guardian Gym, where the Bulls practiced on the city’s North Side, and it took Peggy, her mother, and Peg’s friend Holly Andersen, an incoming Niles West freshman, three bus transfers to get there from Morton Grove.
Charming but run-down, Angel Guardian was once the site of one of the largest orphanages in Chicago. To Peggy, it may as well have been Chicago Stadium, and she trembled in Sloan’s presence the first time they met. One of the most intense competitors in the history of the game and a future Hall of Fame coach, Sloan, unbeknownst to most, had grown up in a tiny southern Illinois town where he played on a grade-school team with three girls, and he now had a soft spot for female athletes. Sloan felt bad because the girls were the best players on their team but had to settle for becoming cheerleaders and pom-pom girls when they got to high school.
Peggy and her mother walked into the gym and found Sloan.
“All I have is $20 with me,” Peg’s mom told him while Peggy cowered by her side, “but I get paid next week. Is there any way I can pay you in installments?”
Sloan looked down at Peggy, eyes narrowed. “Do you want to play ball?” he asked. Peggy felt as though Sloan could see right through her. Since she had made JV last year, she knew her game was improving, but she also knew she needed to work harder if she wanted to make varsity next season.
“Very much,” she stammered.
“Well then, forget the money,” he said. “Get out there.”
But Peggy’s mom had another small problem. “I don’t get off work until five,” she told Sloan. “Can she sit in the gym for an hour until I pick her up?”
Peggy flushed. How much more could her mother embarrass her? “Don’t worry,” said Sloan, “I’ll take her home.”
That day, Peggy and Holly rode home in Sloan’s Lincoln Town Car, and Peggy thought it was a limousine. By the end of the summer, she had met his wife, shot hoops with his kids in their driveway in suburban Northbrook, about 20 minutes from Peg’s house, and for all intents and purposes, found herself another family.
I loved Jerry Sloan. So did my mom. We were Bulls fans, of course, as most Chicagoans were, and you could not help but admire Sloan’s aggressive style of play. We also thought he was adorable. But mostly, Sloan was the guy no player wanted to have guard him, and no one dove for loose balls or took charges like Sloan did. That was the way he played, and it was the way he expected those whom he coached to play, whether they were men or teenage girls. I had been to Angel Guardian Gym to watch the Bulls and Sloan practice while he was still playing, but I had no idea he had a girls’ camp or maybe I would have signed up, too. It was Peggy’s secret. And Jerry was Peg’s new hero.
But Peg had a few other secrets.
She lived on the second story of a four-family two-flat in Morton Grove with her mother and two brothers, Al and Michael. Her mom worked as a secretary and didn’t own a car. That much I knew. A lot of other things, I did not. When Peg’s freshman English teacher, Mr. DuBois, joked one day to the class, “You know you’re old when you start reading the obituaries,” Peggy grimaced.
She had been scanning the obits since she had learned to read at age six. Every day she looked for her father’s name, praying that he had died.
If anyone ever asked, she would tell them her father was dead. She considered her stepfather, Ted Japely, to be her father anyway, so she figured she was only half-lying—Ted had died of leukemia when Peggy was six. Her biological father, Al King, had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. The day she was born, Peggy’s mother, Mary, called him at a bar to tell him she was going into labor. He told her he didn’t have time to go to any hospital.
One day when Peggy was seven or eight, her father dressed up as a priest and showed up at St. Monica’s, the Catholic school Peggy and her brother Al attended in Chicago.
“It’s Al King—it’s Al King!” Peggy screamed to her brother. “He’s here.”
They didn’t call him “Dad” but “Al King” because he was like a character to them. A monster. Peggy’s brother Al asked the nuns if he and his sister could go inside and practice their handwriting, and once inside, Peggy told her teacher, “That’s my father out there.”
“Yes, that’s right, that’s Father King,” the nun replied.
“No, no, that’s Al King,” Peggy said frantically. “Call my mother at work.”
After that, Mary made sure that Peggy and her brother stayed at the convent after school every day until she could pick them up, which only enhanced their reputation as outsiders. Once, in second grade, Peggy was with some girls in the neighborhood when she saw her father sprinting past, four cops in full pursuit.
“Isn’t that your dad?” the girls asked as she shrunk in embarrassment.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Peggy as the police tackled him to the ground and threw him into the paddy wagon.
He had been stalking the family ever since Mary took her kids and fled when Peggy was a toddler. For four or five years, until the family moved temporarily to Colorado, where Mary would meet Ted Japely, Al King would regularly track them down, often breaking in windows and beating in doors in the middle of the night. Once, in a drunken rage, he lined up the whole family against a wall, waved a gun in their faces, and told them he was Hitler, they were dirty kikes, and he was going to kill them all.
Often, they would manage to call the police, and eventually her mother filed a restraining order. But Al King’s brother was a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, and as fast as Mary had him hauled in, his brother would get him out. Not surprisingly, Peggy did not mention any of this to the kids at school.
Wow, Dean Turry had a hairy back.
He was a good-looking guy, Jerry Turry, Niles West’s dean of the senior and sophomore classes. Even at 30-whatever-he-was, we could see that, and a good number of the cute junior and senior girls would flirt with him, thinking no one could tell. But he did have a slightly receding hairline and, in school, he wore clothes. So it was no small shock when a few of us wandered into the Boys’ Gym one morning and saw him on the basketball court playing a full-court game with some other male coaches, guidance counselors, and teachers, his shirt off and his hairiness very apparent.
Any trauma at seeing our dean half-naked and hairy, however, was quickly overshadowed by another emotion: intense jealousy. Why can’t we do that? And how can we do that? The answer, after considerable pleading, was that we could, just as long as we were out of the gym by the time the men showed up to start their game.
At 6:30 a.m.
No problem, we figured. If we got to school by five, we could get in some decent scrimmage time. We had worried about getting in enough practice. Granted, the school year had just started and basketball tryouts were still a couple months away. But the girls’ season had been moved up again, this time to coincide with the boys’ season, and our first game was December 14. In other words, time was a-wastin’.
The best part about the 1977–78 Niles West girls’ basketball season was that after playing a 12-game regular-season schedule the last two years, we now had 21 games before regionals. And included in those games were two tournaments. It would be the first time a Niles West girls’ basketball team had ever played in a regular-season tournament, which would, by every measure, tell us the kind of team we were as well as the kind of team we were capable of becoming.
After school, the gym was booked. Shirley, Connie, and some of the other girls had volleyball practice, and it was vital to us that, once again, we established ourselves as the imaginary title-holders of the hardest-working team in the state.
The next day, Shirley’s Gremlin came rumbling up the street at 4:30 a.m., and my father almost had a heart attack. “You’re going to wake up the entire neighborhood,” he said, frantically shushing me as if I could somehow silence Shirley’s nonexistent muffler from our kitchen. I shrugged, kissed him goodbye, and bounded for the car.
“Shirley, we have to do something!” I screamed. The noise from inside the car was just as intense as from the outside. “And why don’t you have any heat in this car?”
It was fall in Chicago, which would qualify as winter in most places, and I could see my breath. Shirley assured me that from then on, she would cut off the engine and coast into my driveway. And as for the other problem, I might want to consider layering.
Shirley was the one who first suggested we begin working out in the middle of the night, and she never got an argument, her upbeat mood giving every scrimmage a festive feel. “Good morning, sunshine,” Connie chirped at her while the rest of us shuffled into the gym, still rubbing our eyes and clearing our throats and generally gathering our wits about us.
The first few days, our early sessions consisted of two-on-twos and maybe three-on-threes, the attendance less than stellar. We put the word out—phrased more as a threat—that everyone had better show up. We wanted to play full-court. Soon, sophomores like Tina Conti and Lynn Carlsen and other girls who desperately wanted to make varsity started coming. Shirley, Connie, and I were regulars. So were Barb and Peggy, Judy and Karen, Bridget, Diana, and another senior, Jo Vollmann.
It was basketball for the sheer joy of it. And yet we were deadly serious about why we were there. This was preparation for the state championship, and no one had better have any doubt about that. Connie and I, the most enthusiastic about self-inflicted torture, decided that when we were kicked off the floor by the men at 6:30, we would run. Specifically, we would run up and down the circular staircase leading up to the gym balcony. It was about 20 steps up and then 20 steps down the other side, and around and around we went, counting as we completed each circuit like a regiment of Marine recruits. First, 10 trips sounded about right, then 20 and then 30 and then 40 until the freshmen and sophomores and those who didn’t have the stomach or the mentality for it fell off.
Connie was manic, with the endurance of marathon runner Jim Fixx, and it would invariably be she who would urge us to do 10 more, then 10 more, singing out cheers as we ran. And then we would drag ourselves to the locker room and get ready for school, running to our first classes with still-flushed faces and damp hair, satisfied that for one more day, we were still the most dedicated team in Illinois.
Some days, Shirley and I would swing by and pick up Connie and Peggy on our way to school in the morning. On other days, Tina’s father, who worked the night shift at the family’s bread company, would pick up the entire Lincolnwood contingent—me, Shirley, and Barb—and take us to Niles West. Connie would sometimes be able to get the family station wagon as long as she returned it before school, and there were as many adventures with that car as Shirley had with the Gremlin.
Connie made it for days on one headlight until a patrolman stopped her one morning after she rolled through a stop sign. “I’m sorry, officer,” she told him. “I’m on my way to basketball practice.” So impressed and probably more than a little shocked was he at the sight of a cute, blonde teenage girl going to play basketball at four thirty in the morning that he let her off with a warning and a smile.
So intent was Peggy on getting to our morning session when Connie was unable to drive her one morning, that her mother rode up Marmora Avenue in the snow with Peggy on the handlebars of her bike.
At some point it entered our minds that maybe we should challenge the male teachers to play, thus extending our own practice period. But they immediately nixed that idea, and considering their game was a combination of basketball and the movie Ben-Hur, it was clear we would be taking our lives into our hands. Theirs was not a sport we recognized.
It was all at once a wonderful and yet still strangely confusing time to be a girl growing up in our country. During that 1977–78 school year, 65,000 people marched in Washington, DC, in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. An Ohio court ruled that girls could play on Little League baseball teams. The first female general in the Marine Corps, Margaret A. Brewer, was appointed. And at the University of Chicago, the first female president of a coed university, Hanna H. Gray, was inaugurated. A lawsuit by Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke was also resolved by US District Court Judge Constance Baker Motley, who ruled that Major League Baseball teams could not keep a female sportswriter out of the clubhouse following a game.
At the same time, shows such as Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels, and Laverne & Shirley ruled the airwaves, pretty much reinforcing the idea, for three nights a week anyway, that dumb, beautiful, or preferably both was what America still wanted a woman to be.
When Bridget noticed one day with pride how strong her legs had become and pointed this out to her mother, her mom responded in horror, “You look like a boy.” And Shirley’s mother, while outwardly supportive of her youngest daughter’s athletic endeavors, also harbored concerns that all of that exercise was making Shirley bigger all over and was perhaps the reason she didn’t have a boyfriend.
Reprinted with permission from State: A Team, a Triumph, a Transformation by Melissa Isaacson, August 2019, Midway Books.