Women and hoops: an uneasy truce

Women can jump, shoot, and play. But fans still prefer the men.

There is no doubt that basketball played by accomplished women athletes is just as exciting as basketball played by accomplished male athletes.

Who could watch college and professional basketball star Diana Taurasi, for example, and not thrill to her athletic prowess?

But, as in many realms outside sports, women generally receive less adulation than men.

One book will not do much to alter that unfortunate situation. That said, anybody who reads "Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball" is quite likely to develop a more equitable sense of appreciation.

Pamela Grundy earned a PhD at the University of North Carolina while deciding to become a sports scholar. Susan Shackelford wrote about sports for the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer before becoming a freelance journalist.

Their collaboration is successful, building on previous scholarship, most notably that of Susan Cahn, author of the 1994 book "Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sports."

Grundy and Shackelford have not produced a clip-and-paste job based on the exploits of contemporary stars such as Taurasi. Instead, they have researched a comprehensive history presented chronologically.

The book opens with a section on the origins of women's basketball, from 1892 to 1920. Next comes "Grassroots Rise and Decline," covering the period from 1920 to 1960, in which high school girls began playing more basketball, more black players got into the game, national championships evolved, and the rules moved closer to the men's version of basketball.

The book's third section narrows the focus slightly to college basketball from 1960 to 1993, as federal laws and regulations force universities to treat women's and men's sports more equitably, at least on a strictly numeric basis.

The final section covers 1993 through 2004, as women's basketball at all levels reaches "the big time" - at least, compared to the past - partly through the influence of television.

Along with the recounting of all this history, the book is filled with poignant individual stories that leaven its sometimes academic tone.

The book begins, for example, with Mary Alyce Alexander shooting baskets in the backyard of her Charlotte, N.C., family home circa 1945, thanks to the backboard and hoop put up by her father.

The backyard "became a community center, packed with eager neighbors who played through the day and then, after Mrs. Alexander turned on the porch light, well into the night," the authors write.

Mary Alyce recalls that, "You just played till you dropped. Sometimes it might be two on three. It might be three on four or four on four. But everybody always played.... And when they left, I would start shooting."

Alexander wanted to play competitively in school, but faced the dual obstacles of being female and black. When she graduated from her all-black Charlotte high school, there was nowhere for her to play organized basketball or to put her talent on display.

"The boys who had flocked to her backyard and joined her on clandestine forays to the local college gym could take their shots at college varsities," the authors note. "But few schools fielded female teams. Although [Mary Alyce] excelled in class, her basketball career was over."

As is often the case in comprehensive history books, the characters in "Shattering the Glass" are numerous. They make brief appearances and then, for the most part, disappear.

Alexander, for instance, opens the book but then is mentioned only once more, on page 121.

Throughout the book, however, many other Alexander types are introduced. Women have struggled for equal opportunities in most sports, not just basketball. The reasons are numerous, obvious, and mostly misguided.

"The components of athletic success - discipline, determination, strength, stamina, assertiveness - have been cast as male, not female, birthrights," the authors say. "As a result, female athletes have found their efforts hemmed in by cautions and restrictions designed to 'protect' them from the strains of heated competition. Many have also faced questions about whether excelling at a 'masculine' activity somehow jeopardized their womanhood."

At the end of their study, Grundy and Shackelford stake out the only ground that makes sense for the future of women's basketball: cautious optimism.

"This long history offers an invigorating story of achievement to which countless individuals - women and men - have contributed," they note. "It also details the many challenges that remain."

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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