“What happens when you fly over Los Angeles?” the stewardess asked me. Yeah, me, I thought, attempting to come up with a winning reply. “You land, I hope,” I said, lamely, not being quite that slick yet and never to see her smiling face again as I was getting ready in 1978 to begin another adventure this University of Maryland junior could barely believe.
“You see L.A.,” she said, scurrying to finish her tasks before we indeed descended upon the land of glitz and glamour and the campus of UCLA, where this lone traveler was heading after March break to catch up with the women’s basketball team that represented my college as it played in the AIAW Final Four.
What luck I had. After transfering to the huge university in College Park, Md., from the tiny state school in upstate New York to receive my bachelor’s degree in journalism, I’d already forged my way into the mid-circle of students at the Diamondback, the independent campus daily that ran from advertising dollars.
In the fall, I’d covered the men’s soccer team as my beat, traveling with them down through the other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They were a mid-league squad, but I learned lots as they won some and lost some.
After that season, I was given the women’s basketball team as my beat. And that was worth a hot damn. Led by star guard Tara Heiss and directed sharp coach Chris Weller, the Terrapins won loads. The women were smart and talented and played with great chemistry. Senior captain Jane Zivalich and freshmen Kris Kirchner and Betsy Bailey meshed, and the two power forward Debbies, Stuart and Stewart, owned the rebounding game. Zivalich told me that Weller had them sharpen their games by scrimmaging against the best men’s instramural teams on campus, and the women would beat these former high school stars regularly. Heiss and Kirchner would later make the 1980 U.S. Olympic team — the one that didn’t play in the Olympics because of the American boycott.
They were fun to watch, too, and big crowds started to come to Cole Field House to cheer them on. Weller
They came in second during the ACC regular season title at 5-1, but won the ACC Tournament on the campus of North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C. I was piling up clips, experience and killer road trips.
The won in the early rounds of the AIAW Tournament. (That’s the national association that governed women’s major college sports before the NCAA took over both genders.) The Regionals were in Cleveland, Miss. I went to the banks for the first time, and with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on my mind, took off my shoes and socks and stuck my feet in the Mighty Mississippi. On the basketball court, the Terrapins defeated The Lady Vols of Tenneesee, coached by a woman who’d become a legend, Pat Summitt, and then Valdosta State of Georgia to qualify for the Final Four.
I went home for Spring Break and broke the news to my parents that it was going to be a short one.
It was a 20-year-old’s California dream.
Once I landed and found the hotel the Diamondback’s business department had put me up in — the head staffer ther was a hired professional, but the rest of that staff was students training for the real world on the business and adversting side, much as we were on the journalism end — I found Diamondback photographer Michael Oakes and Dave Lilling of campus radio station WMUC, and off we went to the beach.
Two of the reporters covering the team for the Baltimore Sun, Kent Baker and Bill Free, found out where we were staying and came over from their hotel. That was another perk about working on the Diamondbck that helped my career after graduation. I was better with journalists than with steweardesses, thankfully. I became a pro at networking by covering the Terp teams side by side with veteran reporters at the Sun and the Washington Post. Baker and Free and we student journalists enjoyed the sun and had a beer by the pool, talking about the upcoming tournament.
We went to the campus of UCLA with them, too, walking around the outside of the famous Pauley Pavilion. I tried to look through the doors to see the championship banners won by the Bruins men’s teams coached by the legendary John Wooden. I got goosebumps.
The Terrapins did their job in the national semifinals, defeating Wayland Baptist. Yes, there were a lot of interesting squads from little schools playing great basketball those days. UCLA, playing on its home court, beat one of those in the othe semifinal. Led by star Ann Meyers, sister of men’s star David Meyer, the Lady Bruins beat Montclair State of New Jersey and the biggest scorer in the sport that year, hot shooting Carol Blazejowski.
I could stay two more days in the sun.
Alas, the home team, with a full Pauley Pavilion crowd behind it, beat the Terps 90-74 in the championship game. Maryland finished the season 27-4.
I interviewed the sad players and coach, taking the Maryland angle for the Maryland campus daily. Tara Heiss told me, “We sure picked a bad time to play bad.” Dave Kindred, sports columnist for the Washington Post, was talking to the UCLA players in their locker room, and missed Heiss. He asked me if I had talked to Heiss and caught what she had said. I told him.
When I returned home to the apartment at the (P)Residential Park complex I shared with Twenty and Aggo, they pulled out a cake tin stowed away on top of the kitchen for months. In the beginning of the season, they’d asked me how I thought this women’s team I’d been assigned to cover would do. I wrote my prediction on a piece of paper and stuck it inside a cake tin, empty because we’d just polished off a tasty one sent down in the mail by Twenty’s mother Ida Mae.
On the paper it said, “Lose to UCLA in the national championship game.” The location of the Final Four had been set at least a year
In advance, you see. I had done my homework.
The next school year, I got a part-time job working in the sports department of the Washington Post, beginning by answering phones and taking down high school box scores. When he came into the office, Dave Kindred knew who I was. I advanced to working three or four weekly shifts as a copy aide and reporting and writing high school games and an occasional feature. The week before graduation, I was interviewed for the sports editor’s job at The Prince George’s Journal in suburban Maryland. My first day on the job was the day after graduation in May 1979.
Have you followed women’s basketball, and if so, which team is your favorite, and why? Have you ever taken a fantastic trip tied to work, and if so, where did you go and what did you do? Did you ever network with experienced people in your field when you were young and see it pay off sooner or later, and if so, who and how?