Springfield, Mass. — The conversation was about basketball and Bertha Teague's niche in the sport. The next question, however, caught the peppy 79-year-old a bit off guard.
``Are you a feminist?''
The new member of the Basketball Hall of Fame thought for a moment, then replied, ``I think so. But I don't really know what you mean by that.
``If you're asking whether I think girls should look like girls but play like boys, the answer is yes.''
That hardly sounds like Gloria Steinem speaking, so the reporter went right to the point.
``Are you active in the women's rights movement?''
``If I were anymore liberated I'd be digging ditches, and I'm not going to do that,'' the retired coaching great laughed delightfully.
Teague's perspective may in some ways be as old-fashioned as her first name, yet as her presence at the basketball shrine testified this week, she never let gender stand in her way.
Neither did Margaret Wade or the late Senda Berenson Abbott, who joined her in making history as the hall's first female enshrinees. Wade coached at Delta State University, where the Lady Statesmen won three consecutive national championships beginning in 1975. Abbott, a physical education instructor at Smith College at the turn of the century, is regarded as the ``Mother of Women's Basketball.''
As a pioneer in the sport, Abbott should have been a charter inductee in 1959. That she wasn't can be chalked up to the chauvinistic impulses of the electors, who chose to honor 148 men players, coaches, referees, contributors, and teams before breaking the ranks.
The pressure to include women in the hall has mounted in recent years, with the Springfield chapter of the National Organization for Women lobbying strongly in their behalf. Another factor coaxing on this inevitable day was the shrine's move into new $11.3 million quarters, largely paid for by the state. The change has encouraged a fresh outlook.
Still, Wade wasn't taking anything for granted earlier this year when word came of her selection. Having been told she had narrowly missed in several previous years, she read her Mail-a-gram half expecting the words ``not elected'' to appear.
But instead, it confirmed that she had arrived, with Teague, Abbott, and four men -- Al Cervi, an outstanding pro player and coach in the 1940s and '50s; Nate Thurmond, a top NBA center during the '60s and '70s; the late Harold Anderson, Thurmond's coach at Bowling Green University; and Marv Harshman, who just retired after a 40 year coaching career which concluded at the University of Washington.
Wade and Teague, of course, had their credentials in order too. Both chalked up incredible high school coaching records in states where girls' basketball has long been popular, Wade in Mississippi and Teague in Oklahoma.
Margaret, a native of McCool, Miss., racked up a 453-89 record coaching teams in the towns of Marietta, Belden, and Cleveland, where in 1973 she took over the reins of the revived women's team at Delta State, her alma mater. Wade had captained the college's last team in 1933, before the sport was dropped for 40 years
``Good grief, I was 62 when I started at State,'' she said as if the thought now suddenly surprised her. The college job, however, never burdened her. She knew where all the good high school players were in the area and managed to get a fair number.
``I personally think college coaching is easier than high school coaching,'' she observed. ``In college you do more counseling than teaching, that is, if you get good players, and mine were. Many of their daddies were coaches.
``All I had to do was put them together. I was working on the chemistry. I've often said I did as much coaching in my office as on the court.''
One of her greatest finds was Lusia Harris, the 6 ft. 3 in. center who was the key player on the three championship teams.
The community fell head over heels for the team, including one local auto dealer who presented Wade with a green and white Cadillac after the team's first title. She got a new one on a trade-in each of the next three years, prompting her to note with characteristic humor, ``The fourth one they gave me for not winning.''
Unlike Wade, Teague never played basketball. She quickly became a keen student of the game, though, when a group of high school girls in Cairo, Okla., asked her to teach it to them. At the time she was a first grade instructor with a design and art degree.
Her natural affinity for coaching soon led her husband, Jess, a school superintendant, to hire her to head up the girls program in 1927 at Byng High School in Ada, Okla. During the next 42 years her teams compiled a 1,152-115 record and won eight state championships playing the old-style, six-player women's game that is still used in Oklahoma and Iowa.
She insisted her players memorize their assignments before each game. And at the start of the season she would tape the word ``STATE'' on the locker room mirror, where she knew her well-groomed charges, dubbed the Byng Beauties by reporters, would be sure to see the goal established for them.