The athletic department is dedicating the year to celebrating the 50th anniversary of women in sports here at Belmont. Being a female athlete at Belmont, the relevance that this year holds does not escape me.
Last week, the very first women’s basketball team ever at Belmont reunited in honor of the 50th anniversary. I was able to meet the women who paved the way for women like me to fulfill their dreams of playing Division I basketball. I watched as they all saw each other after years of being apart. They hugged, they laughed, they shared memories as though it all happened yesterday. All of this after 50 years! I can only hope that I have the same experience with my teammates 50 years after we graduate.
While being the first women’s basketball program puts things into perspective by itself, hearing the challenges that they faced during the inaugural seasons turned out to be even more humbling.
This first team had no money. They travelled to games in a van with bologna sandwiches as pre-game meals. They were the bottom of the totem pole in athletics which means that they practiced only after everyone else was done in the gym. Scholarships were nonexistent, they were simply playing basketball because they loved it.
Talk about love for the game.
They also had love for Betty Wiseman, the woman who courageously approached Herbert Gabhart back in the 60s about starting a women’s basketball team. Wiseman then went on to coach the team for 16 seasons. Betty has played a huge role in my growth as a student athlete here at Belmont. It was Betty who lead our team on a mission trip to Rio de Janeiro two years ago — a trip where our lives were changed forever.
This first team was brought together during the 60s — the racially charged 60s. Mattie Spicer Yokley and Alfreta Johnson were the two African-Americans on the team at the time — the first African-Americans in Belmont’s women’s basketball history.
This brought on its own set of challenges. In one instance, both Johnson and Yokley were denied service at a restaurant on their way to play in Mississippi. These two were playing basketball on a team that was not appreciated, offered no scholarship, and had little money for travel and on top of all of that, they dealt with the burden of racism. Yet, in the midst of all of this, they continued to play and continued to love the game. Yokley and Johnson’s story spoke to me not just as an African- American basketball player, but as an African-American woman.
It became clear to me that I was taking this game for granted. For my entire life, I have played basketball for two reasons: it was fun and I was good at it. That’s basically it. After spending time with the first team, I realized that basketball has given me so much more than a good time over the years.
Basketball brings people together in a way that allows women to see each other after 50 years and pick up right where they left off. Basketball builds character — the kind of character that lead Betty Wiseman to point her finger in the face of the manager who wouldn’t serve Johnson and Yokley and say “this is wrong,” and take the whole team back to the van without paying. Basketball also builds confidence — the same confidence that allowed Wiseman — a 24-year-old woman in the 60s — to walk into the office of Herbert Gabhart and ask to start a women’s basketball team.
I owe so much to those women who played on that first team. They accomplished so much with so little and are so proud to have been a part of this Belmont team. As a player on the women’s basketball team, I have a responsibility to never take for granted the opportunity that they made possible, and also to make them proud of the program they built 50 years ago. When you see the women’s basketball team play, they are standing on the shoulders of the women before them; the one’s who paved the way for us to do what we love at a place that we love.
This article was written by Paris Lawson. Photo courtesy of Belmont Women’s Basketball.