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 in that post–World War II era taught young women skills like typing and shorthand, also fielded teams, going by such names as the Stenos and the Secretaries.
The stars on the best teams were essentially semiprofessionals. They received weekly paychecks for working a few hours a day at the reception desk or stamping letters in the mailroom. But their real jobs were to play basketball most of the year. Because the AAU had no rules whatsoever regarding age or eligibility, they could play for as long as their teams wanted them. Several AAU stars were in their late twenties and early thirties, married with children. Some of them would smoke cigarettes during time-outs and gather at the hotel bar after games to down highballs. On occasion, they’d be recruited away by other teams whose owners promised them higher-paying jobs.
And at the end of every season, AAU officials invited the best of the teams to the AAU women’s national basketball championship tournament in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was the country’s biggest sporting event for women: up to four thousand spectators would pack into the city auditorium to watch what one sportswriter described as “the most heated competition” between the teams. (By contrast, Phillip K. Wrigley’s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which lasted from 1943 to 1954 and was later made famous by the movie A League of Their Own, was a limited affair, consisting of no more than eleven squads, which played in small Midwestern cities.) The AAU tournament always began with a formal opening ceremony, and between games there was a free-throw contest and even a beauty contest for the players, with judges picking a “queen” and a court of “princesses.” (The queen would be photographed in her uniform, holding a scepter and wearing a crown and a fur-lined cape.) At the end of the tournament, the top players of the week were named “All-Americans” and the winning team given a giant trophy.
One reason the AAU women’s teams were so popular was that there was only a smattering of intercollegiate women’s sports during that era. Some colleges scheduled “play days” for their coed club teams, allowing them to use the school’s gym or ball fields. But not only did the players on the club teams have to pay for their own uniforms, they also had to schedule their own games and find their own volunteer coaches. The vast majority of college administrators, who saw sports as an exclusively male arena, simply refused to spend any portion of their athletic budgets on women.
Still, the members of the Wayland Girls Basket-ball Club kept pestering Redin about playing more games. The daughters of Panhandle farmers, machinists, water salesmen, and railroad workers, the young women had been playing basketball since they were little girls, practicing old-fashioned set shots at wire rims nailed to tree trunks in their backyards. They had played in high school, according to rules that placed six girls from each team on the court—three on the offensive half and three on the defensive half. In their small towns, which often couldn’t afford the cost of fielding football teams, their games at six on Friday nights drew just as many spectators as the boys’ games at eight. The players had earned mentions in their towns’ weekly newspapers and had received trophies at the annual spring sports banquets held in their high school cafeterias.
“I said to them, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t coach girls here at Wayland,’ ” Redin recalled.
In fact, it was hard to imagine a school less likely to promote women’s sports than tiny Wayland Baptist, which at the time consisted of a few red-brick buildings spread out over half a dozen acres of very flat land. According to its mission statement, Wayland was devoted to sending its students into the world “sustained by the highest moral principles, and undergirded by an ever increasing spiritual strength.” Students took classes in both the Old and New Testament, they attended chapel services every Wednesday morning, and they were told they must follow a code of conduct that prohibited such secular delights as smoking, drinking, gambling, and dancing.
The school’s administrators were especially adamant that Wayland’s coeds present themselves as portraits of Christian purity. Whenever a young woman left her dorm room, she could wear only dresses or skirts, never shorts or pants. Nor could she leave her dorm with her hair in rollers, except for meals on Saturdays, and then the rollers had to be covered by a scarf. The “Wayland lasses,” as they were called in the local newspaper, were encouraged to participate in the Young Women’s Auxiliary of the college’s Ministerial Alliance so that they could meet and perhaps eventually marry the male students who were studying to become pastors or church choir directors.
But in the fall of 1947, one year after he was first approached by the Girls Basket-ball Club, Redin walked over to Wayland’s administration building to meet the school’s new president, James Wilburn Marshall, a zealous former Baptist youth pastor who liked to tell people that he had “great ideas” for using Wayland to win new converts to Christ. One of his great ideas was to send Wayland students to Mexico for the summer to work as missionaries. He also had begun a program to recruit international students, some from as far away as Africa, to come to Wayland to study the Bible and experience firsthand the joys of living the Baptist life in the Panhandle. During their meeting, Redin updated Marshall on the school’s athletic programs, and then he happened to mention that the members of the Girls Basket-ball Club wanted to play some AAU teams.
Marshall’s face lit up. “Now, that’s a great idea!” he said. “A team of Christian coed basketball players taking on the AAU!” Marshall began talking about the players’ passing out New Testaments before games and giving their testimonies at halftime or to church youth groups after games. Even better, he said, they could persuade other young women to come to Wayland, thus boosting enrollment!
Marshall asked the astonished Redin if he would coach the team. Redin replied that he was newly married and didn’t think his wife would be happy with his spending so much time with coeds. “And if the truth be known, I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach a bunch of girls,” he told me. “They made me a little nervous, with all their emotions and what have you. I was used to Marines.”
Undeterred, Marshall persuaded a local cotton mill, the Harvest Queen Mill and Elevator, to pay for the players’ uniforms in return for having the mill’s name stitched onto the jerseys, and so the team became the Queens. He then persuaded the only other Wayland staffer with an athletic background, Sam Allen, who worked in the school’s public relations department, to become the women’s coach.
Described by a newspaper reporter as “a bespectacled, professorial-looking person,” Allen had been a high hurdler at a college in Oklahoma, but he knew next to nothing about basketball. His goal in life was to become a singing evangelist. “Whenever there was a time-out, Sam would lead the team in prayer, and that was about it,” said Redin, who would find himself sitting in the stands at every home game, watching the women play, shaking his head.
Nor was Allen adept at implementing the AAU rules for women’s basketball, which at the time also required six players per side—in this case, two players on the offensive half of the court, two on the defensive half, and two “rovers,” who were allowed to roam the entire court. If a player touched the ball, she could make only three dribbles before she had to shoot or pass.
Because Redin began taking Allen aside after practice to suggest offenses and defenses he should be running, the Queens improved enough to be invited to the AAU’s national tournament in St. Joseph, starting in 1949. But they would invariably be beaten by one of the AAU powerhouses, like the Hanes Hosiery Girls. Nevertheless, Marshall remained so devoted to the team that he paid a visit to one of Plainview’s most prominent citizens, Claude Hutcherson, a 43-year-old cotton farmer and rancher who owned Hutcherson Air Service, which transported passengers and cargo throughout the Southwest. Marshall asked Hutcherson, a Wayland alumnus and stalwart member of the First Baptist Church, if he would fly the Queens to their away games so that the players wouldn’t be exhausted from all-night automobile trips.
Hutcherson was a flamboyant former amateur boxer who drove a four-door Cadillac, often wore red bow ties with his suits, and lived with his wife, Wilda, and their two children in a house that had a backyard swimming pool and a trampoline, which were rarities in Plainview at the time. “When Claude did something, he liked doing it in a big way,” said Wilda, who is now 91 years old and still living in Plainview. “And I think Dr. Marshall got him so inspired that he decided to do something really big with the Queens.”
Soon Hutcherson, two of his pilots, and the former bomber pilot Redin were ferrying the renamed Hutcherson Flying Queens across the South and the Midwest and as far west as Denver on gleaming white four-seater Beechcraft Bonanzas. Hutcherson bought the players traveling outfits—blue poodle skirts, white blouses, sweaters with the Wayland logo, and loafers and bobby socks—and for the away games themselves, he got them shiny blue-and-gold uniforms. He occasionally went so far as to have Amarillo’s finest hairdresser, Marie Cooper, come to Plainview to style the players’ hair before big games. “Claude told me he wanted all the Queens to possess the three B’s: brains, ball handling, and beauty,” said Redin. “He was a very smart man. He knew the prettier the girls looked, the more attention they’d get, which meant more publicity for Hutcherson Air Service.”
Marshall did one other thing to improve the fortunes of the basketball team. Redin had told him that the only way the Flying Queens could beat the good AAU teams would be to actively recruit the best high school players they could find, many of whom came from poorer families that could not afford Wayland’s $800-a-year costs. Marshall promptly announced that those girls who were selected to be on the team during spring tryouts would receive free tuition, room, and board. Just like that, Wayland became one of the first universities, if not the first, in the United States to offer full basketball scholarships to women. The Flying Queens were about to make their mark.
A DOZEN HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS arrived at the tryouts for the 1952–1953 team. They came with their parents, who sat in the stands, the fathers anxiously clutching their cowboy hats and the mothers holding a change of clothes for their daughters to wear on the drive back home. Redin sat next to Allen to help pick the scholarship players. “I know the Pioneers were getting a little irritated at me for spending so much time with the Queens, but I just couldn’t darn help myself,” Redin said. “Something about that team just got under my skin.”
Onto the court stepped Lometa Odom, a five-foot-ten, 210-pound farmer’s daughter from the town of Dimmitt. In her senior year she had averaged 41 points per game for the Dimmitt High Bobbies. “My daddy was determined to get me and my two sisters to college, but we didn’t have much money, and I figured at least one of us would end up driving a tractor on Daddy’s farm,” recalled Lometa, who is now 79 years old and a resident of an assisted-living center in Amarillo, where she rides her motorized scooter from her room to the cafeteria three times a day for meals. “So here was my chance. I was so nervous I could barely dribble the ball.”
But during her tryout, she whipped around on the other players defending her, holding the ball high over her head, and made jump shot after jump shot.
“Good Lord,” said Redin.
“The Lord is good,” replied Allen.
When Wayland later sent Lometa a letter awarding her a scholarship, she and her parents hugged one another and tried not to cry. (“We were farm people,” she said. “We weren’t supposed to cry.”) She would join Ruth and Ruby Cannon, twin sisters with great hook shots from the unincorporated community of Cotton Center. And rounding out the team was another set of twins, Faye and Raye Wilson, who came from Duncanville, just south of Dallas.
Compared with the other Queens, Faye and Raye were chic city girls, having spent their Saturdays going to movies at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas and wandering through Neiman Marcus, covetously touching the clothes. Faye, who had a job lined up after high school as a secretary for an insurance company in Dallas, initially did not go to Wayland with Raye. “Up there, you couldn’t dance and you couldn’t go out with boys who did,” she said. “But I decided I’d better not leave my sister alone to fend for herself among all those country girls.”
The new group of Flying Queens was nearly unstoppable, going all the way to the finals of the AAU national tournament before losing to the Hanes Hosiery Girls. Afterward, Allen decided the time had come for him to move on and pursue his career as a singing evangelist and perhaps get a job with one of the young preachers, like Billy Graham, who were traveling the country conducting big tent revivals. He was replaced by Caddo Matthews, who had previously coached high school girls’ basketball teams in West Texas. Also an ordained minister, Matthews drove every Sunday morning to Matador, eighty miles from Plainview, to preach at a Baptist church. “We figured he was a good fit for the Queens,” said Redin. “Besides, these girls were so good that all he had to do was just get them out on the court.”
On November 7, 1953, the Flying Queens played their first game of the 1953–1954 season, romping past the Dowell Dolls, an Amarillo team made up mostly of waitresses, sponsored by the owner of a steak restaurant on Route 66. In the following weeks, they knocked off every other team they faced. By February 1954, when they met the Hanes Hosiery Girls for a two-game series, the Flying Queens were 23-0. Hanes had been the AAU national champions for the past three years, largely because of the dead-eye shooting of their eight-time All-American, Lurlyne Greer. “She was as tough as they come,” said Faye. “I’ll never forget walking past Lurlyne’s hotel room and seeing her lying on her bed, smoking a cigarette with an ashtray on her chest. I thought, ‘No way are we going to beat her.’ ”
But the Flying Queens double-teamed Lurlyne. Usually it was Faye standing in front of Lurlyne and Raye standing right behind her, constantly waving their arms. Meanwhile, Lometa hit layup after layup, and when she wasn’t shooting, she’d dump the ball off to Ruth, who’d do her hook shot, or she’d fire a pass to Rita Alexander, a petite freshman from Loco, Oklahoma. Rita was a gifted outside shooter who began her shot with the ball at her hip and let it go when it got to her shoulders because she wasn’t strong enough to execute the newfangled over-the-head jump shot.
The Flying Queens won the first game against Hanes Hosiery 45–38 and the second game 54–49. A few weeks later, at the St. Joseph tournament, the Flying Queens waltzed into the finals against the Kansas City Dons, and in the last seconds, Faye made two free throws to give Wayland a 39–38 victory. The AAU world was stunned by what the fresh-faced Baptist college coeds in their pretty uniforms had pulled off. “Texas Lasses Triumph!” was the headline in one newspaper. “Queens Take the Throne” was the headline in another.
When the Flying Queens returned to Plainview on Hutcherson’s Beechcraft Bonanzas, townspeople and fellow students were waiting for them at the airport, cheering and holding banners. Hutcherson arranged for the Flying Queens to ride in convertibles through downtown and around the Wayland campus in a victory parade. Ironically, the one person who was not there to celebrate was Marshall, the man who had started it all. In a move that had surprised just about everyone in Plainview, he had resigned from Wayland and moved to Brazil, because he believed God had given him another great idea—to spread the message of Christ to the Amazonian natives.
“All I could imagine was old Dr. Marshall down there in the jungle, getting a postcard from someone telling him about the Queens’ victory,” said Redin. “I bet he stood up and shouted in front of all those Indians, ‘It’s a miracle! An absolute miracle!’ ”
ACTUALLY, NOT EVERYONE WAS THRILLED about the Flying Queens’ championship. Some of Wayland’s more devout ministerial students believed that the women players were not being properly submissive, as the Apostle Paul had commanded them to be. “They went to chapel and prayed for us every day,” said Raye. “They thought we were more tempted to commit a sin because we wore shorts.”
On occasion, Wayland’s night watchman, a World War II veteran, would be waiting for the Flying Queens after practice to tell them they were turning their backs on their God-given feminine responsibilities. “He would say that we were ruining our lives playing so much basketball, that we were destroying our physical health and wouldn’t be able to have children,” said Pat Smith Williams, who played for the Flying Queens before becoming the team’s student manager. “We’d cut across the grass just to miss him.”
The fact was, there were a few Flying Queens who weren’t exactly model Baptists. They secretly played canasta or dominoes in their rooms, for instance. “One night I blocked my dorm room door with the bed and taught some of the other girls how to dance,” said Lometa. “My daddy had taught me to dance, and I couldn’t see my daddy teaching me to do anything that was wrong. Of course, we had to dance barefoot and play the music real low so no one else would hear us.” Stories even spread that a couple of Flying Queens liked to sneak out of their dorm after curfew, shimmying down a tree so they could live it up at Eddie’s drive-in restaurant on Fifth Street, where a hamburger and Cherry Coke sold for 40 cents.
According to one rumor that made the rounds, Faye had been seen heading off with a boyfriend to an Amarillo honky-tonk, where she supposedly drank a beer, smoked a cigarette, and danced to western swing music. When that story got to the new president of the university, Albert Hope Owen, he brought Faye into his office to confront her. Owen was a stern former pastor of the First Baptist Church who had once informed his congregation that they shouldn’t join the local YMCA because it allowed square dancing. “I told him it was all a giant lie and that I had never been to Amarillo,” Faye said while we sat one evening in her tastefully appointed North Dallas mansion. “But Dr. Owen was so mad at me, yelling and screaming, trying to get me to confess, that I thought he was going to hit me. I’m telling you, that man was a religious fanatic.”
Faye did admit that one rumor about her was true: she sneaked into the office of one of the college’s professors and stole the final exam for a Bible class that she was failing. She showed the test to other Flying Queens who were also struggling in the class. “I’m sure if we had all flunked the test, Dr. Owen would have put us on academic probation and shut the team down,” she said. “So even if my actions were wrong, my intent was good. Besides, I was always talking to the Bible professor after class, flirting with him a little bit, so I’m not sure he would have minded what I did.”
The Flying Queens remained unbeaten the next season, and in the final round of the national AAU tournament, they defeated one of the Midwest’s AAU dynasties, the Omaha Commercial Extension Comets, 30–21. Once again, cheering fans greeted the team at the Plainview airport. When the players held up the championship trophy, people noticed that a piece of tape had been placed on it to cover up the name Anheuser-Busch, one of the tournament’s sponsors. “Dr. Owen’s wife had put the tape there,” recalled Hutcherson’s son Mike. “She didn’t want anyone to think that Wayland approved of beer.”
At that point, the Flying Queens had won 52 straight games and two AAU titles. It should have been a moment of glory for Caddo Matthews. But within days of the championship game, he resigned and left Plainview without even saying goodbye to his team. Apparently Owen, for reasons of his own, had come to the conclusion that Matthews had been carrying on an inappropriate relationship with one of the players (Matthews and the player are no longer alive). He then firmly suggested to Redin that he should take over the Flying Queens.
Redin said he’d do it only if he could continue coaching the Pioneers. “If you were a young college coach wanting to gain a reputation, you coached men, plain and simple,” Redin told me. “I sure as heck didn’t want to be known as that man who only coached girls.”
But Redin also didn’t want to be known as the coach who blew the Flying Queens’ two-year winning streak. When the players arrived on campus in late August 1955, he had them practicing two hours a day, teaching them the same fast-break offense he used with the men and installing a full-court-press defense. He laid out vitamins for the players to take before each practice. After reading what were then the most up-to-date studies on nutrition, Redin had the Flying Queens eat a pregame meal exactly four hours before tip-off that consisted of a steak, toast and honey, a baked potato, and a salad. “Discipline and determination!” Redin told the Flying Queens during practices. “That’s the way to win!” Then he’d blow his whistle and make the women run wind sprints up and down the court.
Redin did hold on to some old-fashioned ideas about the nature of women and what they could and could not do. He let the Flying Queens know that if they got married, they would have to quit the team, because he didn’t think it was appropriate for them to go on road trips without their husbands.
As a result, a few of the Flying Queens quit to get married, because they either felt their ultimate role was that of a wife or were worried that their boyfriends would get impatient and move on to someone else. But when Lometa’s boyfriend from Dimmitt, Eloy Powell, who was working for his father as a contract hauler, got down on his knee and gave her an engagement ring, she told him in no uncertain terms that they’d have to wait. A few weeks later, after visiting Lometa at Wayland, Eloy was driving back home and slowed as he went over the train tracks in Farwell. “He didn’t see a train coming,” Lometa told me, speaking in her room at the assisted-living center. “It got him broadside and killed him on the spot.” After a long pause, she lifted herself from the easy chair in her room, slowly walked over to a lockbox next to her bed, opened it, and pulled out the engagement ring.
“I thought I’d never get over it, losing him,” she said. “Some days I just wanted to go back to the farm. But I stayed. I knew I couldn’t let the Flying Queens or my daddy down.”
UNDER REDIN, THE FLYING QUEENS remained unbeaten during the 1955–1956 season, and in the AAU finals they met another of the country’s best teams, Nashville Business College. NBC’s owner, H. O. Balls, was a gruff Nashville entrepreneur who had formed the team in the thirties. He was so obsessed with winning the national championship that he once hired an AAU star who had just retired from a team in Atlanta and flew her to the St. Joseph tournament in time to play for NBC.
Balls had his players practice two hours every morning at the YMCA gym before they went to secretarial courses or to jobs in the college’s print shop or mailroom. With NBC’s coach, John Head, he scoured the South in search of top players, and in 1955 he was convinced he had found the best woman in the game: Nera White, a six-foot-one rover from middle Tennessee who was so wildly talented that she could snatch a rebound at the defensive end of the court, trigger a fast break, catch up with the play before it reached the other end, take the ball at the free-throw line, and either make a layup or pull back and hit a jump shot. Nera was so competitive that when one young AAU official called several questionable fouls on her, she told him to meet her outside after the game. Because Nera wasn’t a particularly pretty woman and because she had an unusually deep voice, one coach at an AAU tournament, knowing he didn’t have any player who could defend her, demanded that she undergo a physical examination to prove that she was not a man (his request was denied). Balls was certain Nera would lead NBC past Wayland.
To motivate the Flying Queens for the championship game against NBC, Hutcherson used extra planes to fly Plainview fans to St. Joseph, and he hired a group of St. Joseph nightclub musicians to serve as Wayland’s pep band. (They were asked to avoid songs that mentioned sex, divorce, alcohol, and cigarettes.) The game stayed close through the fourth quarter, but Nera got into foul trouble, and once again Faye made critical last-minute free throws. When the final buzzer sounded, Wayland was ahead 39–33. It was the team’s third AAU title and seventy-fifth straight victory without a defeat.
Wayland began to get national media coverage. Many of the stories—written, of course, by male sportswriters who knew nothing about women’s sports—were blatantly condescending. “Pert Lasses Dig That Round Ball” was the headline above the Houston Chronicle’s article. “Girls in a Hurry!” was Parade magazine’s headline. A writer for Sports Illustrated primed his story on the Flying Queens with the line “If Wayland’s basketball court boasted a marquee it would just have read, like Minsky’s: ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ ”
But in Texas and other states, female high school basketball players who wanted to go to college were inspired by the articles they read. More than sixty young women arrived in Plainview that spring and summer to try out for the Flying Queens. One teenager, Patsy Neal, drove 1,300 miles with her parents from Elberton, Georgia. “When we crossed the Texas line, I kept looking for Indians,” said Patsy. “And when we got to West Texas, it was dark, and we kept hearing these strange, scary groaning sounds outside our car windows. We didn’t realize until the sun came up that we had been listening to oil well pumps going up and down.”
The 1956–1957 Queens had the seemingly impossible task of replacing Lometa, the Cannons, and the Wilsons, all of whom had graduated. Rita Alexander, the great outside shooter, was still on the team. Wayland’s opponents tried to double-team her, and one coach ordered a player to carry on a form of trash talk, fifties-style, while she followed Rita around the court. “She said things like ‘Hey, do you know what bad thing your mother did last week?’ ” Rita said. “ ‘Your mother is bad!’ ”
Redin came up with new strategies of his own to help the Flying Queens keep winning. Before the season began, he suggested that some of the players enroll in a grueling Marine Corps training program held for both sexes every summer in Lubbock. (“I thought they could use a little toughening up,” Redin told me.) During a Flying Queens trip to Nashville, when Redin discovered that the Harlem Globetrotters were staying at their hotel (on a segregated floor), he persuaded Globetrotters Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum to take the Flying Queens into a ballroom and teach them to be better ball handlers. Soon the Flying Queens were putting on their own pregame shows of fancy dribbling, behind-the-back passing, and trick shots, all done to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Although he did not realize it, Redin was creating the modern women’s basketball game. In fact, after the Flying Queens put together another undefeated season and won a fourth consecutive AAU title, he suggested at a meeting of AAU coaches that the women begin playing a full-court, five-person game, just like the men. He also did something his friends thought he’d never do: he gave up his duties as the coach of Wayland’s men’s team. “I guess I was ready to admit that coaching the girls was just as much fun as coaching the boys,” he said with a shrug. “I told you they got under my skin.”
For the 1957–1958 season, NBC had added new players, one of whom was Joan Crawford, a small-town Arkansas high school star who had tried out at Wayland. Depending on who’s telling the story, she either was rejected because her grades weren’t good enough or got a better offer from Balls. Whatever the reason, Joan, like Nera, had no love for the Flying Queens. “It was a great rivalry, like the Celtics versus the Lakers or the Yankees versus the Brooklyn Dodgers,” said Joan, who now lives in an apartment in Tulsa with her two small dogs. “We lived for our games against Wayland.”
The two teams met during the regular season at the Texas Tech field house in Lubbock, playing before six thousand fans prior to the Tech-Arkansas men’s game—maybe the biggest crowd ever to see a women’s basketball game in that day and age. Using new offensive plays cooked up by Redin, the Flying Queens easily won. A few weeks later, they met again in the semifinals of the AAU tournament, and the game was close the entire way. Nera was red-hot, hitting almost every shot she attempted. To calm himself down, an anxious Redin began humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the same song he had hummed during his World War II bombing missions.
Nera scored ten points in the final eight minutes of play, and with ninety seconds left in the game, NBC had an insurmountable eight-point lead. Redin called a time-out and gazed at the stricken faces of the players huddled around him. “He said to us, ‘Girls, I want you to go back on the court and lose with the same kind of class that you’ve had for the last four years while you’ve been winning,’ ” said Patsy.
Afterward Head, euphoric and smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves, told a reporter that NBC’s win was “the greatest victory that’s ever been.” The team went on to win the AAU championship, and this time around, it was Nashville’s citizens who welcomed the new champs home with a fifty-car motorcade of open convertibles.
Back in Plainview, students wept. A Baptist preacher who happened to be visiting the campus the day after the game noticed so many people crying that he thought someone important, maybe President Eisenhower himself, had died. Nevertheless, what the Flying Queens had accomplished was almost beyond belief. Over the course of four and a half years, they had won 131 straight games, the longest streak in sports history—a streak, the New York Times would later write, “that began early in the first term of the Eisenhower administration, remained aloft as McDonald’s golden arches first appeared along with Dear Abby and Frisbees, then fell from orbit two months after Sputnik.” Perhaps most amazing, said Cookie Barron, who played for the Queens starting in 1956, “was that through the streak, we had girls who got sick or got hurt, who got married and left the team. And, of course, we all had to graduate and get replaced. Yet somehow, we kept winning. Seriously, how do you explain it?”
THE NEXT YEAR, THE FLYING QUEENS finished the regular season with only one loss, and at the AAU tournament, they beat NBC in the finals. One year later, in the 1960 finals, NBC beat Wayland, and in the 1961 finals, Wayland beat NBC. The rivalry was indeed just like the Yankees and the Dodgers. But during that 1961 championship run, Wayland’s president, the good Dr. Owen, did something that no one could have predicted. He recommended that the entire women’s basketball program be disbanded.
Owen told his hand-picked board of trustees that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the organization that gave Wayland its accreditation, had examined the school’s budget and found that the college was spending too much money on scholarships and not enough on academic programs. The scholarships had to be cut, and Owen certainly wasn’t going to do away with any of those given to the ministerial students or to the high academic achievers or even to the male basketball players. The trustees unanimously agreed.
To this day, rumors circulate about the real reason Owen proposed shutting down the Flying Queens. Perhaps he felt pressure from other college presidents from his conference who didn’t want to start their own women’s basketball programs. Or perhaps he had heard more stories about Flying Queens who were supposedly smoking or drinking or having sex, and he felt he’d better kill the program before a scandal erupted.
Or perhaps Owen got wind of another campus rumor, that a couple of the young women on the team had been showing romantic affection toward each other—conduct that no Baptist leader in that era could tolerate. “Just the fact that we liked playing basketball made some people think that we were different,” one former player told me. “I’ll never forget one night in St. Joseph when we were walking back to our hotel, some boys drove by and shouted, ‘It’s the Wayland Baptist Queers!’ It chilled me to the bone.”
A writer for the UPI wire service published a story that compared Wayland’s dropping the Flying Queens to “Notre Dame dropping football, Kentucky giving up basketball, and Southern California dropping track and field.” Redin and Hutcherson, meanwhile, weren’t about to allow the team they loved to be sent packing. They met with Plainview businessmen and members of the chamber of commerce, gave speeches about what the Flying Queens had done for Plainview, and persuaded them to join a booster group that would underwrite the $13,300 required each year for the women’s scholarships and expenses. The funds were presented to the college in March 1961, and Owen and his trustees had no choice but to vote to reverse their decision.
The Wayland-NBC rivalry continued, the two teams meeting in the AAU finals every year of the sixties except three. To keep his best players, Redin finally gave up his no-marriage rule—“I saw the light,” he told me—and in 1967 he recruited his first black player, Mary Williams, from the Panhandle town of Tulia. But starting in 1962, NBC won every final, sometimes by large margins. Balls had loaded up his team with as many veteran players as he could find, and Redin’s young teams simply couldn’t keep up. “We looked like a bunch of very young kids out there compared to those grown women,” said Betty Courtney, who played for the Flying Queens from 1965 to 1968.
What brought the NBC dynasty to a close was the rule change that Redin had long been advocating. After the 1969 season, the AAU decided to end the six-woman game and go with a five-woman, full-court game. Declaring that the five-woman game would ruin women’s basketball, Balls, who was then in his eighties, abruptly shut down his NBC team. Nera White, who had been named an AAU All-American for an astonishing fifteen years, worked for a while in NBC’s print shop before returning to live in seclusion on her family’s Tennessee farm. Joan Crawford, a thirteen-time All-American, worked for a dozen years in NBC’s mailroom before leaving. “When Mr. Balls died, his nephew stored the trophies in an attic,” Joan said. “We were completely forgotten, like all the teams from that time.”
With NBC out of the picture, the Flying Queens won the 1970 and 1971 AAU championships. Then, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law an educational bill that included a section called Title IX, which banned universities from discriminating based on gender. Soon, women’s intercollegiate sports programs were taking off around the country. Redin retired in 1973, and a few years later, Hutcherson died from injuries sustained in a fall at his home. Although the Flying Queens, playing in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, remained nationally ranked in the late seventies, it was clear that they were not going to be able to compete for much longer against the major universities, which had big budgets and national recruiting programs. In 1979 the University of Texas Lady Longhorns, coached by Jody Conradt, beat Wayland for the first time, and Wayland was never able to beat them again. Like NBC, the Flying Queens soon faded into obscurity.
TODAY, THE FLYING QUEENS PLAY other small college teams, most of them from Texas and Oklahoma, and they tend to lose as many games as they win. Redin, whose first wife died of cancer, still comes to every home game with Wilda, Hutcherson’s widow, whom he married in 1987. “We were good friends for years, and of course we loved our Flying Queens,” Redin told me. “And, well, it just made sense for us to be together.”
He and half a dozen other Plainview old-timers meet for coffee almost every morning downtown at the Broadway Brew and swap stories. One morning, I listened to them talk about those days from 1953 to 1957. “Everybody talks about John Wooden [the UCLA men’s coach whose team won 88 straight games in the sixties], but they should be talking about you,” one of the men said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Redin, tapping his cane on the floor.
Of the 30 women who played for Wayland during the streak years, 23 are alive. Most of them live alone. “On a good day, my big trip is to the pharmacy to get my prescriptions,” said Rita, who met her late husband in South America when he was a young diplomat and she was traveling with a team of U.S. players to compete in an international tournament. After her fiancé Eloy’s death at the train tracks, Lometa never married. Instead, she spent her adult life coaching elementary and high school girls’ basketball teams in small West Texas towns. “Once you lose your heart to someone, it never feels the same with anyone else,” she told me. I asked her if, all these years later, she wished she had quit the team so she and Eloy could have had a wedding day. As she thought about what to say, Lometa looked around her room. She glanced at an autographed basketball resting on top of a wardrobe, the room’s only memento from her days on the court. “You know, I was just a farm girl,” she said. “And because of the Queens, I got to do things that no other farm girls got to do. So how do you beat that?”
Like Lometa, several other Flying Queens went into coaching or teaching. Judy Bugher, who played for Wayland during the last years of the streak, coached the women’s team at Oklahoma State from 1977 to 1983, starting at a paltry $12,000 a year, and later retired to take over her family’s ranch. Patsy coached for even less money at a college in Utah. In 1975 she co-wrote a textbook, Coaching Girls and Women: Psychological Perspectives, some of which was devoted to fighting what she described as “the false stereotypes that were still getting attached back then to women athletes.”
After coaching junior high teams in Texas, Cookie moved to Jefferson County, Colorado, and eventually became the associate director of athletics for all the county’s public schools—one of the first women in the state to land such a position. “When I announced that the high school girls were going to get to use the gym as much as the boys, one of the boys’ coaches said, ‘I’ll quit if that happens,’ ” Cookie recounted. “I said, ‘Go right ahead.’ ”
For many years she has lived with her former Flying Queens teammate Kaye Garms, who worked as a referee for women’s NCAA games and is now the Western Athletic Conference’s supervisor of officials for women’s basketball games. They attend the Mile High Church of Spiritual Living, which, according to Cookie, “accepts all faiths, all religions, and all walks of life.” They also play golf, climb Colorado mountains, and have a basketball hoop attached to their garage. “Of course, because we’ve had knee replacements and shoulder surgeries, we have to keep pushing in the foul line closer and closer,” said Kaye. “But one way or another we’ll never give up our love for the game.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about the surviving Flying Queens is their anonymity. Many of their friends and neighbors have no idea what they once accomplished. “I’d be at these luncheons at the country club for the Dallas symphony or Dallas ballet and I’d mention that I used to be on a famous women’s basketball team, and all the other ladies would chew their food and stare at me and say, ‘Oh, honey, how interesting,’ ” said Faye, who returned to Dallas after graduating and went to work for Continental Airlines as a flight attendant. (Raye moved to El Paso and also became a flight attendant for Continental.) “Even my sweet husband, Oliver [whom she met at a Texas-Oklahoma football game in the sixties when he was beginning his business career], kept thinking basketball was just a little hobby that Raye and I once liked to do.”
Then last year, the Flying Queens who put together the winning streak learned that the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, in Knoxville, Tennessee, planned to create a special display in their honor, naming them “Trailblazers of the Game.” Hall of fame officials decided to make the announcement about the display at the Baylor-Kentucky game, and Redin, Wilda, and all the surviving Flying Queens were asked to be there.
Many of the women had not seen one another in decades. At a pregame reception, they shared hugs and chatted about their health. Almost everyone complained that they had lost a couple of inches in height now that they were getting stooped with age. They looked at photographs of themselves in old scrapbooks. “Were we really able to do all those things?” Rita asked.
“I’m not sure I can jump in the air anymore,” Patsy said with a laugh.
After photos were taken, the women headed to Baylor’s arena. As Cookie predicted, the announcement came over the public address system during the first time-out. “Ladies and gentlemen, we ask that you direct your attention to the north end of the arena, where we have the great honor of introducing you to Coach Harley Redin and members of the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens from the 1950’s.”
“I’m not sure anyone is listening,” said Mona Poff Biscoe as fans chewed on their popcorn, checked their cellphones, and talked to people beside them. “I don’t know if they can hear what the announcer is saying.”
“Over the course of five years,” the announcer continued, “these women played in one hundred and thirty-one games without a loss.” He paused. “That’s one hundred and thirty-one games without a loss,” the announcer repeated. He paused again before declaring, “And four consecutive national championships!”
The crowd, which knew how lucky the Lady Bears had been to put together their forty-game winning streak, turned and looked at Redin and the women as they rose from their chairs. A couple of the Lady Bears, including Brittney Griner, also turned and looked. At first, the applause was polite, but within seconds, the arena was a cascade of noise, with people standing up and cheering.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Mona as the cheers got louder. “Oh, my goodness. Who would have imagined?”
A couple of weeks later, the Lady Bears were beaten by Stanford, and their streak was over. I called Redin in Plainview. “You know, don’t you, that no one is ever going to come close to your record,” I said.
“Oh, now, come on, it could happen one of these days,” Redin said. He then let out a growly chuckle. “Maybe it would require a miracle, but miracles do happen.” He chuckled again.
“Believe me, I know.”