Only a few people in this world have ever accomplished something that no one else has ever done before. And while Darlene May, the women's basketball coach at California Polytechnic, Pomona, bears little resemblance to Mme. Curie, Amelia Earhart, or Geraldine Ferraro, she has still managed to get herself caught up in the pages of history. While the chief ingredient in this story could easily be coach May's 13-year, .800-plus winning percentage, framed by three NCAA national Division II titles for the Broncos in the past five years, the immediate focus is actually on her satellite career as one of the country's top referees.
During the 1977 World University Games in Bulgaria, she became the first woman to officiate a men's basketball game (between France and Italy) in international competition.
Since then, she has had many important assignments, including working two women's games in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, plus the 1986 Goodwill Games in the Soviet Union. One of her Olympic assignments was the women's bronze medal game between Canada and China. In every instance, the other referee was a man.
Asked to recall the World University game she worked, May replied, ``When I came out on the floor with the other official, I was aware that most of the players had stopped their warm-ups and were looking at me. The impression I got was, `They're not actually going to let a woman work this game, are they?'
``But there wasn't time to be nervous, and anyway, I had a lot of experience going for me,'' Darlene continued. ``The only thing I really didn't want to do was make the ball toss between the centers that would start the game.
``The point is, I wasn't used to working with players that tall and I was a little concerned about my accuracy. But when the other referee insisted that I put the ball in play, I went along with it. His decision, I'm sure, was based on the European attitude of always being polite to women.''
May, who is also a former three-time women's fast-pitch softball All-American, said that it was not a difficult game to call. For one thing, the game was not played in the tournament's main arena, where the big crowds were, but in smaller quarters. For another, these were skilled athletes very intent on what they were doing. They weren't there to roughhouse, but to play to their capabilities.
``Even at the beginning, when I whistled a foul right away, I never got the feeling that I was being tested,'' May told me. ``Overall they argued on only three or four calls. Actually I'd worked women's games in the States when one coach or the other was up and off the bench on almost every call, and I'm not exaggerating.''
As a coach, May is a highly organized boss, who pushes herself and pushes her players. By the time she has finished with her Cal Poly training camp each fall, her players are in shape to play the season or run marathons.
``But she is also extremely fair,'' explained Brent Shyer, Cal Poly's sports information director. ``To me, she has the same feeling for her players as a lioness has for her cubs. She also likes to schedule as many Division I teams as she can, because it's part of her philosophy that you don't learn nearly as much unless you play the best.''
Darlene's teams have enjoyed great success against big-time competition, going 59-24 in the last six seasons years versus Division I opponents. In addition, Cal Poly has lost only three games in the California College Athletic Association over the same period, while winning six consecutive league titles.
Even though May is aware that nobody wins them all, she was disappointed and upset when Cal Poly's defending national champions lost the 1983 Division II title to Virginia Union. What she saw was a team riddled by infighting and jealousy that forgot its mission and gave its ``almost.''
Darlene handled the situation by telling three of her undergraduate starters, including the 1983 Division II Player of the Year, plus a fourth team member, not to come back the following season.
``I knew that with the attitude those players had that we weren't going to win with them next year anyway,'' May said. ``It was better to make the move right away than let a thing like that simmer over the summer. Instead, we were now able to start fresh.''
Since then, Cal Poly has won two more national championships and four more league titles. The current squad, 22-2 as of this writing, has been rated the No. 1 team in Division II for the past 14 weeks.
All-American recognition also seems assured for two of Cal Poly's starters, forward Debra Larsen and guard Michelle McCoy, who was so honored a year ago. Larsen is also the defending Division II champion in the heptathlon, the seven-event women's counterpart to the men's decathlon.