Hoop Queens

How a tiny Baptist school in the Panhandle created the most dominant team in the history of women’s college basketball.

In November, at Baylor University’s Ferrell Center, the Lady Bears jogged onto the court to take on the visiting University of Kentucky Wildcats in a basketball game that would be televised across the country on ESPN2. More than 8,500 Baylor fans stood and roared for a group of young women who hadn’t lost a game the previous season, who had won the NCAA Tournament, and who, by almost all accounts, were likely to go unbeaten for another season. 

No one seemed to notice a 93-year-old man and seventeen ladies in their mid- to late seventies carefully making their way toward their seats. A few of the women paused before heading up the stairs, and a few others held on to a handrail to keep their balance, gingerly taking one step at a time. The man used a cane. “Now, everybody, we’ve got to look good,” said one of the women, Faye Wilson Gould, who had been a well-known Dallas socialite during the years her husband was alive. With one hand she fluffed up the back of her white hair. “They might turn the television cameras our way.”

“Actually, I think they’re only going to mention us during the first time-out,” replied Cookie Barron, a retired school administrator who lives in Lakewood, Colorado, a Denver suburb. 

“The first time-out?” said Rita Alexander Colman, the widow of a diplomat. “How in the world are they going to talk about us in just one time-out?”

The crowd let out another roar as Brittney Griner, Baylor’s six-foot-eight-inch star, dunked the basketball during a warm-up drill. Seconds later, another Baylor player fired a behind-the-back bounce pass to a teammate, who passed it to another, who made a reverse layup, not even looking at the basket. 

“My goodness, they’re tall. And fast!” exclaimed Patsy Neal, a former college instructor who lives in eastern Tennessee.

“A lot taller and faster than we were,” said Judy Bugher, who runs a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.

The man, whose name was Harley Redin, turned and grinned at the women. “Now, come on, girls, you knew how to move in your day. Of course, I had to stay on you to keep moving.”

“Oh, Harley, you know you loved us,” said Faye’s identical twin sister, Raye Wilson Ayers, a Houston widow whose husband had been an oil company executive. She too plumped up her white hair. “You know you loved coaching us more than you did the boys.”

The buzzer sounded to signal the beginning of the game, and the women sat up a little straighter in their chairs, waiting for the moment when they would be introduced to the crowd. A couple of them pulled out tissues to wipe their noses or dab the edges of their mouths.

“We look like a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes,” said Mona Poff Biscoe, a retired teacher, her eyes blinking behind her thick glasses.

She glanced around the arena as the Baylor band played the school’s fight song and cheerleaders did backflips across the floor. “Just a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes,” she said again, smiling softly, her eyes still scanning the crowd. “Do you really think, after all this time, that anyone here will care at all about what we once did?”

SIXTY-SIX YEARS EARLIER, in the fall of 1946, Harley Redin was the sole staffer of the physical education department at Wayland Baptist College, a school of just six hundred students located in the windswept Panhandle town of Plainview. He was 29 years old, a West Texas native who, after playing basketball for his high school and junior college teams, had joined the Marine Corps and flown more than fifty bomber missions over the South Pacific during World War II.

Every morning, Coach Redin arrived early to attend to such things as sweeping the gym floor. During the day he taught PE classes, and late in the afternoon he coached the Pioneers, the men’s basketball team. He was a tough, no-nonsense coach who wore a whistle around his neck. People thought he looked like Tyrone Power, the swashbuckling star of The Mark of Zorro. “Discipline and determination!” Redin told the Pioneers. “That’s the way to win!” Then he’d blow his whistle and make his players run wind sprints up and down the court.

One day after practice, Redin noticed a group of coeds standing by the gym door. They were members of the Wayland Girls Basket-ball Club, which played a handful of games each year against nearby high schools and junior colleges. A young woman swallowed nervously and told Redin that the Girls Basket-ball Club would like more practice time at the gym. They also wanted to play more games against better opponents.

And who, exactly, would you want to play? Redin asked.

Well, said the young woman, maybe you could help us schedule games against some of those AAU teams.

Redin stared at the group, not sure how to respond. “I finally said, ‘Girls, this is Wayland Baptist,’ ” he told me. “ ‘We don’t really play AAU teams at Wayland Baptist.’ ”

In the forties there were at least a hundred women’s basketball teams, scattered throughout the United States, that belonged to the Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body for amateur sports. Sponsored by businesses whose owners saw a chance to get some free publicity and win over new customers, the AAU teams went by such colorful names as the Hanes Hosiery Girls, the Arkansas Motor Coaches, the Rocky Mountain Girls, the Atlanta Tomboys, the Pine-Sol Queens, and the Snow White Launderettes. The owner of the Hanes Hosiery Girls was so convinced his team could build a loyal base of female fans (who, in turn, would buy Hanes nylon hose) that he had the team regularly tour the South, taking on any other women’s team it could find, and he even constructed a two-thousand-seat gym at the company’s headquarters, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where visitors could come see the Girls play. Several business colleges, which

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